It took 17 months and a pandemic, but the nuttiest part of the NBA calendar is finally back: Free Agency!
This offseason is stacking up to be especially wild despite the lack of superstar talent on the market. The NBA is completely drunk on transactions at the moment, and this absurdity will only amplify the moment free agency begins. We could also see some good players sign for much less than they’d typically fetch given all the financial flux in the league. These factors, combined with the fact that the 2021 title race is as wide-open as ever, only add to the intrigue of an already-crazy time in the NBA.
Much like last year’s edition, these predictions are based on team fit, cap space gymnastics, reports, and gut feel. Here’s my best guess on how NBA’s silly season will play out:
Anthony Davis: Los Angeles Lakers
I mean, Anthony Davis is technically a free agent after opting out of his player option for the 2020-2021 season. But common sense and verified sources say that he’s re-signing with the Lakers.
Sham’s report, however, didn’t specify the length of AD’s extension — a detail that matters a lot more than you think. My feel is that he’ll sign a 1+1 contract (one guaranteed year plus a player option for 2022) for two reasons:
- He’s a 27-year-old superstar reaching his prime, so a short deal gives Davis all the flexibility and maximizes his potential earnings. And even if, god forbid, AD suffers a catastrophic injury, Kevin Durant’s max contract post-Achilles tear showed that mega-stars like AD will always secure the bag.
- The contract of a certain teammate that is well-known for moving teams can end in 2021. (And no, I am not talking about Process-legend Javale McGee). The possibility of LeBron James leaving — crazier things have happened, by the way — should scare off AD from signing a deal longer than a year.
Of course, these are questions that Rob Pelinka will have to face well into the future. For now, Laker fans should savor the return of the (likely) MVP favorite next season.
Fred VanVleet: Toronto Raptors
There’s a reason why “Why Team X Should Target Fred VanVleet” articles seem to pop up everywhere. He’s everything you’d want from a modern point guard: a great shooter, playmaker, and defender that can create for himself and co-exist with another ball-dominant star.
For up-and-coming teams with young scoring stars (think Dallas or Atlanta), VanVleet would fit nicely as a table setter and secondary playmaker. And even for teams that are going nowhere — the artists formerly known as the Knicks and Pistons say hello — having a stable Veteran Presence™ could help guide these franchises back into relevance.
But I find it hard to imagine VanVleet leaving Toronto — the team that discovered and helped turn him into a one of the best point guards in the league. There are only a couple teams that can outright swallow the $20 million-ish contract that he will command in free agency, and the common denominator is that, to put it bluntly, they are all terrible. Raptors are, in fact, not terrible. It also helps that VanVleet and Toronto’s other building block, Pascal Siakam, are both entering their prime at 26 years old, meaning that their timelines are aligned should VanVleet sign for long-term.
So unless a good team clears space and makes a monster offer for VanVleet — again, something that is very much possible — the best non-AD free agent will most likely stay up north.
Goran Dragic: Miami Heat
The resurgence of Goran Dragic was a big reason for Miami’s surprise finals run, which is what makes the mutual interest between the Heat and Dragic unsurprising.
A small problem: Dragic is pretty old with a myriad of injury issues, so he will probably prefer the security of a long-term contract. The Heat, meanwhile, are one of the many teams preserving their cap space for the star-studded 2021 free agent class.
Is Dragic good enough to compromise some of Miami’s long-term flexibility? Not really. And it’s not like Dragic will have a choice. For as good as Dragic is — he played like an All-Star in the Bubble — it’s simply hard to find a market for a 34-year point guard coming off a major foot injury. A one year, big money deal seems to be the forgone outcome for both sides.
Montrezl Harrell: Los Angeles Clippers
Montrezl Harrell is in a tricky situation. Just a couple months ago he seemed like one of the premier 2021 free agents, but a disappointing postseason showcased his limitations on both ends. Is it worth paying big money to someone who can’t even close meaningful playoff games?
Unfortunately, I don’t think the Clippers have a choice. Even if they let Harrell walk, they don’t have sufficient means to replace the scoring and energy he brings off the bench. And with the free agencies of both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George looming, they don’t have the luxury to downgrade this roster even by the slightest bit.
Harrell choosing the Clippers is a whole question altogether. But there doesn’t seem to be many realistic teams that could offer Harrell a starting spot. Toronto seems like a sneaky fun option, but they’re probably saving their cap space for 2021, just like Miami. There are also plenty of cheaper center options in the market that could chip away some of Harrell’s value. A return — albeit with mixed feelings from both sides — simply makes the most sense.
On The Move
Danilo Gallinari: Portland Trailblazers
Danilo Gallinari is a tough one to peg. He’s one of the few free agents that will definitely leave his incumbent team, and there doesn’t seem to be a team that’s both a clean fit and can realistically move pieces around to sign him.
Miami, who tried to trade for Gallo nine months ago, seems to be the favorite. But February was a lifetime ago. The Heat didn’t need Gallinari to make a run to the Finals, and they seemed better off anyways with the much more versatile Jae Crowder. Gallinari, meanwhile, underwhelmed in OKC’s seven-game series loss against Houston. And much like Dragic, it simply isn’t logical for the Heat to risk their long-term cap space when guys like Giannis and Kawhi can potentially take their talents to South Beach.
So…who else is left? There’s some Phoenix noise after the Chris Paul deal, but a DeAndre Ayton-Danilo Gallinari frontcourt isn’t exactly scaring anybody on defense. Ditto for Minnesota and Denver. This leaves me with my sneaky favorite pick that doesn’t seem to get mentioned: the Portland Trailblazers.
On paper, they don’t seem to have enough cap space to sign Gallo, but they can potentially free up enough room via trades to offer about $14-15 million annually. That might not seem exciting for Gallinari — he made $22 million last season, for context — but with all the financial uncertainty and potentially dry market, that’s probably a fair offer.
Portland also offers a chance to make some real postseason noise. The Robert Covington deal signaled that they are firmly in win-now mode. It makes sense: Damian Lillard is right smack at the middle of his prime. So are CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. And even if they use their cap space to sign Gallo, they still have plenty of means to add more talent.
A potential Dame-CJ-RoCo-Gallo-Nurkic starting five wouldn’t exactly make them title contenders. But if they fill out the rest of the roster and remain healthy, they could be pretty close.
Gordon Hayward: New York Knicks
After opting out of a $34 million (!!!) player option for next season, Gordon Hayward’s Celtics tenure could be coming to close. He might not be the All-Star-level player that he was back in his Utah, but Hayward is still a solid, above-average starting wing that thrives in a supporting role.
But does Hayward want to play that way? Maybe he has grown tired of being a fourth option in the Celtics — which is why the Knicks buzz makes sense. If he hops to New York, he will undoubtedly be the lead ball handler for a team with exactly zero competent playmakers. Maybe he also finds the RJ Barrett-Mitchell Robinson-Obi Toppin core exciting. But one thing is for sure: a Knicks deal would probably net Hayward a lot of money, which ultimately might be the reason that he would leave a perennial contender for, well, the most depressing team in the league.
Serge Ibaka: Los Angeles Lakers
Usually, Laker fans are delusional when it comes to free agency. I’m pretty sure every star player in existence has been photoshopped into a Lakers jersey. This year, Serge Ibaka seems to Lakers Twitter’s favorite free agent…but this time it actually makes sense! He’s a snug fit with AD in the frontcourt and looks to be attainable with their mid-level exception. If the Lakers walk away from this offseason with Ibaka, Dennis Schröder, and Wes Matthews, that would be one hell of a coup.
Davis Bertans: Phoenix Suns
Davis Bertans isn’t a household name, but he’s better than you think. He’s straight up one of the best shooters in the league; he can launch it off the catch, on the move, and also from the deeeeeeepest ranges possible. The spacing he’d provide would him a perfect fit on the Suns. He’d make a living from pick-and-pops with Chris Paul and playing off Devin Booker via pindowns and handoffs. His defense is a slight issue, but what he brings on offense would more than make up for it.
Christian Wood: New Orleans Pelicans
This probably won’t happen, but man I wish the Pelicans would make a move for Christian Wood. Wood is one of the most underrated free agents out there: he’s a 25-year-old big that can run the floor, shoot threes, and block shots. He put up monster numbers for Detroit after the All-Star break. His highlights are crazy. There’s probably too much overlap (and too little defense) between Wood and Zion Williamson for that frontcourt to work, but imagine the sheer havoc those two could wreak on the rim? Maybe the Pelicans should have kept him after all.