2022 NBA Free-Agency Predictions for Every Team
Can you imagine entering 2022 NBA free agency without a fresh batch of predictions for every single team?
Yeah, I can't, either.
All hell is already breaking loose courtesy of the Association's relentless rumor mill. That gives us a leg up when trying to parse the fog swirling within our crystal ball.
By now, we have a feel for the directions in which many squads are headed. Certain transactions seem like done deals, even though players and teams would never, ever, ever, have contact prior to the official start of free agency on June 30 at 6 p.m. ET.
Predictions for each franchise will strive to be as realistic as possible without diving too far into the mundane. Yours truly wants to look back at this project without entirely despising myself or cringing at how many guesstimates I got wrong but also knowing I took some chances.
Straight free-agency signings will not be the only transactions eligible for inclusion. That would get real boring, real fast. Extensions and trades will be fair game for variety's sake. So, too, will non-moves. And in situations where the obvious cannot be avoided, unique spins on old tropes and details will be included to keep things fresh.
Prediction: The Atlanta Hawks will make at least one blockbuster trade during free agency.
Those Dejounte Murray-to-the-Hawks rumblings are crescendoing to a miniature roar.
On the latest episode of the Please Don't Aggregate This podcast, Jake Fischer said he's been told "Atlanta feels they're close to getting a deal done," and the deal will not include John Collins (4:03 mark).
This lines up with reporting from WSB-TV's Zach Klein, who tweeted that "many believe Hawks on verge of trading for San Antonio's All-Star guard Dejounte Murray. However, it's looking like John Collins is not part of deal. Would be Gallo & multiple 1st round picks. Spurs prepping for future & '23 draft."
Shipping out Murray and cannonballing fully into a rebuild would be out of character for the Spurs. Then again, sending Derrick White to Boston at the trade deadline was also out of character for them. They may, in fact, be prepping a designed demolition to improve their chances of drafting a tentpole star.
Regardless, even if the Hawks don't bag Murray, another blockbuster is in their future. A source close to Collins told The Athletic's Chris Kirschner the big man is "done in Atlanta." That echoes the predraft rumor mill, which portrayed Collins as a goner.
Landing Murray wouldn't change things—though, a potential core of him, Collins, Trae Young, Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter really gives the Hawks something. (I refuse to believe getting Murray wouldn't include dealing Onyeka Okongwu or Collins).
Murray is yet another ball-handler who will contribute to maintaining Collins' specialty role. It's clear Collins wants responsibility Atlanta has no intention of giving him. A divorce seems inevitable.
Prediction: The Boston Celtics will spend their entire mid-level exception and use one of their larger traded player exceptions.
Keeping a team together gets expensive. The Celtics have to start thinking about Jaylen Brown's next deal; he's extension-eligible, just like Grant Williams. Marcus Smart's new four-year contract kicks in next season. Assuming they fully guarantee Al Horford's contract as expected, they'll have a payroll north of $155 million, comfortably above the $150 million luxury-tax line.
That shouldn't prohibit the Celtics from continuing to spend. They just finished two victories shy of an NBA friggin' championship. Nobody cares about your payroll. Keep getting good players when your window is this open.
Maybe this is wishful thinking. Boston's Derrick White trade leaves me with a warm and fuzzy feeling that maybe it's not.
It helps that the Celtics have more tools at their disposal than most taxed-out franchises. In addition to the $6.4 million mini mid-level, they have two sizable trade exceptions: A $17.1 million TPE that expires on July 18 (Evan Fournier), and a $6.9 million TPE (Juan Hernangomez).
At least two of these tools should be used to reel in another ball-handling game manager and overall depth. The Celtics are so close that even upgrading the eighth and ninth spots in their rotation could put them over the top.
Prediction: Kyrie Irving trade rumors calm down...for now.
Kyrie Irving apparently fancies himself a thought leader for...picking up a $36.6 million player option rather than signing with the Los Angeles Lakers for the $6.4 million mini mid-level exception. Sure.
Opting into the final year of his deal doesn't quite guarantee he'll begin next season with the Brooklyn Nets. They can still trade him. He just won't get a new deal in the process. His next team would, however, have his Bird rights and be able to max him out in 2023.
Brooklyn can't afford to go that route right now. Punting on Kyrie pretty clearly means losing Kevin Durant, and this team can still rain hell on the league if Irving, KD and Ben Simmons are all healthy.
Fast forward to midseason, and who knows? If the Nets aren't playing up to snuff, maybe they revisit everything. Or perhaps Kyrie is both completely available and having a career year, and he seizes the opportunity to demand a trade amid a friendlier market of outside interest.
Anything is possible for these dramatic, highly combustible Nets. But Kyrie's exit no longer appears imminent. Just don't ask me to predict the same
five minutes from now through February.
Prediction: Miles Bridges signs an offer sheet with another team, and the Charlotte Hornets match it.
Slim pickings await free agents hoping to leverage their own teams into larger offers. Roughly a half-dozen squads are slated to have significantly more than max space, and one of them, though we won't mention any names, is embroiled in an inexplicable all-out pursuit of Jalen Brunson.
Bet on the ever cost-conscious Hornets trying to use this to their advantage.
They've already, on some level, begun a disinformation campaign by leaking that they need to potentially dump Gordon Hayward's salary to afford Bridges' next deal. (They don't.) Letting Bridges set his own market rather than negotiating against themselves is the natural next step.
Yes, there is some risk inherent to that approach. Maybe the Detroit Pistons or Orlando Magic or San Antonio Spurs sign him to a max offer sheet with the sole intention of inflating Charlotte's payroll. Or perhaps Bridges inks a shorter-term agreement that gets him back to free agency sooner.
The Hornets can—and seem like a franchise that will—stomach that risk. Either way, Bridges is going to cost them a boatload after they failed to extend him last fall. Having him sign an offer sheet gives them cover if it's later deemed an overpay, since they can't not match.
Best-case scenario for the Hornets, the market is cooler on him than initially thought. That might not make Charlotte a friend of Klutch Sports, but friendship has seldom got in the way of Michael Jordan's wallet.
Prediction: Zach LaVine signs a five-year max with a player option.
Sources told Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer that Zach LaVine is "expected" to re-sign with the Chicago Bulls in free agency. Given the accuracy with which Fischer reported on the 2021 offseason, this prediction is about as spicy as an ice-cold glass of water.
Still, there is some mystery caked into the details.
Will LaVine put pen to paper on a full five-year max that pays him around $212.3 million? Will he go the four-year, $167 million route? Will he structure his contract to include a player option, perhaps so that he can hit the market again in 2025-26 when money from the NBA's next TV deal projects to bump up the salary cap?
The latter scenario is eminently plausible. LaVine is entering his age-27 season. A three-plus-one puts him back on the market when the TV money forecasts to hit, at which time he'll only be entering his age-30 campaign.
I'm predicting the full five-year boat anyway. LaVine doesn't have the cleanest bill of health—he had surgery on his left knee this past May—so securing long-term money makes the most sense. Besides, he has the leverage to get a player option, and a four-plus-one still gets him back into free agency during his prime.
Prediction: Collin Sexton (restricted) returns on a three- or four-year contract that pays him less than $18 million annually.
Some viewed the Caris LeVert trade as proof the Cavaliers would move on from Sexton. Not me.
LeVert is only under contract for another year, and Cleveland can't just let Sexton walk without compensation. Sign-and-trade scenarios could be in play, but they're also complex thanks to both Base Year Compensation and a market light on big spenders prowling for combo guards.
Consensus is also just too low on Sexton. Maybe he never injects more consistency into his on-ball defense, and perhaps he already peaked as a playmaker. Still, this is someone who averaged over 24 points and four assists in 2020-21 while downing 37.8 percent of his threes and 50.1 percent of his twos, all without absolutely cannibalizing offensive possessions. That's legit.
Coming off a torn left meniscus will restrict Sexton's overall market, as will a limited cap-space field. That should give Cleveland the leverage to sign him for less than $18 million. It can figure out the Sexton-LeVert-Darius Garland situation later.
And for Sexton, angling for a three-year deal or three-plus-one framework gives him time to enhance his value in advance of the TV-money market—without actually putting a dent in his longer-term security.
Prediction: It will take a five-year max to re-sign Jalen Brunson. If he leaves, the Dallas Mavericks will trade for Devonte' Graham or Mike Conley or sign Dennis Schroder.
Brunson no longer sounds like a lock to stick in Dallas. On the contrary, the Mavericks don't even seem like a viable option anymore.
Sources told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes Tuesday that the Knicks brokered a salary dump with the Pistons so they could offer Brunson a four-year, $110 million deal. From what Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN are hearing, that's about as much as the Mavs are willing to offer over five years.
It turns out the Dallas really should've signed Brunson to that four-year, $56 millionish extension when they had the chance, huh? That lack of extension could still have him peeved and determined to go elsewhere. Or maybe he wants to pull a Jerami Grant and leave a great team for a crappy one on which he can be The Guy.
Whatever Brunson's reasoning, Dallas can try leveling the field by offering a fifth year in line with the Knicks' best per-year overture. Something like five years for $120 to 125 million is a lot to pay a non-star, but the Mavs don't have the financial flexibility to replace their second-best player.
In the event Brunson just wants out or Dallas won't match New York's interest, it's on to Plan Bs. The Mavs don't have the assets to party crash the hypothetical Dejounte Murray or even D'Angelo Russell sweepstakes, but other contingencies like Conley or Graham shouldn't cost much beyond salary-matching anchors. Dennis Schroder might also prove gettable for the mini mid-level exception...again.
Prediction: Nikola Jokic signs supermax extension. And the Denver Nuggets will only spend the mid-level exception if they cut money elsewhere.
Jokic is eligible to sign a five-year, $253.8 million supermax extension this summer. Denver will assuredly offer it. And he sounds like someone who plans to sign it.
"If offer's on the table, of course I'm going accept it," he told reporters after the Nuggets were eliminated from the playoffs, perThe Denver Post's Mike Singer.
In the interest of not boring you to death, we have Prediction, Part 2.
Calvin Booth, the Nuggets' new lead basketball executive, has the green light to use the entire mini mid-level exception. Paint me skeptical. The Nuggets trimmed salary from their bottom line with the JaMychal Green and Monty Morris-Will Barton tradse and enter the summer juuust outside the tax. (Note: The Kentavious Caldwell-Pope acquisition was really smart, and they can withstand Morris' departure if Jamal Murray is healthy and Bones Hyland keeps killing it.)
To the credit of Nuggets governor Josh Kroenke, his franchise has only skimped on basketball execs, not usually talent. They can also look to trim money elsewhere or simply re-enter the tax and see how the season goes before trying to skirt it again. This is still a "I'll believe it when I see it" situation.
Prediction: The Detroit Pistons use cap space to inflate the value of at least one veteran free agent.
Taking on Kemba Walker, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel from the New York Knicks doesn't preclude the Pistons from making a ruckus in free agency. They will still have more than $20 million to spend if they renounce the rights to Marvin Bagley III.
The Athletic's James L. Edwards III previously reported Detroit is unlikely to throw that money at Miles Bridges or Deandre Ayton after heisting Jalen Duren as compensation for swallowing Kemba's contract. That sentiment rings even truer now that the Pistons don't have the cash flow to field over-the-top offers outside sign-and-trade scenarios.
Don't worry, though. Rumor has it other free agents exist.
The Pistons may be just as likely to take on unwanted money attached to more draft compensation, but this roster needs knockdown shooting so Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey have ample room to operate. Also, they have the runway to both juice up the price tag for a veteran free agent and lease out more cap space.
Names like Malik Monk, Gary Harris, Otto Porter Jr., T.J. Warren, Patty Mills (player option), all fit the bill. And while many of them may prefer playoff-bound landing spots, the Pistons can still afford to tender single-season windfalls that outstrip multiyear pacts from other suitors.
Golden State Warriors
Prediction: Two of Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. will re-sign with the Golden State Warriors.
Breaking up a good thing is hard to do. In the Warriors' case, it may be hard to keep together.
Every team has their luxury-tax limit. Already facing a $70-plus million tax bill before factoring in any new contracts andwith Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins both extension eligible, Golden State might have reached its own.
In the event team governor Joe Lacob, Peter Guber and Co. don't give a flying-you-know what about the money, well, the Warriors will still be hard-pressed to bring back all their free agents.
Looney should stay put. Golden State has his full Bird rights and can't be outbid for his services. The same goes GP2. The Warriors have his Early Bird rights and can give up to 105 percent of the league's average annual salary, which will be worth more than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($10.3 million).
Porter is a different story. He's a non-Bird free agent. The Warriors cannot offer him above their own mini MLE ($6.4 million). He should fetch more. That, in turn, renders him the natural odd man out. But I'll hedge my bets against surprises. Golden State will keep any two of Looney, GP2 and OPJ, just not all three.
Prediction: A John Wall buyout is the first of many roster consolidation moves by the Houston Rockets.
Negotiating Wall's departure—which included him giving back $6.5 million of his $47.3 millions salary, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon—is just the beginning for the Rockets.
They need to shed more bodies.
After drafting three rookies in the first round, Houston will now have 18 guaranteed salaries on their roster after picking up Jae'Sean Tate's team option. That's...too many.
Getting down to 15 players (or less) in time for the regular season could be a matter of waiving smaller deals. Jettisoning all four players the Rockets picked up in the Christian Wood trade—Sterling Brown, Trey Burke, Marquese Chriss, Boban Marjanovic—would cost around $12 million in dead money for the season. That total could also be waived and stretched over three years.
Trades are, of course, a distinct possibility. Plenty of teams should want Eric Gordon, though his $19.6 million salary could demand they take back multiple players unless a suitor is looking to dump a bigger-time deal. There could also be markets for Brown, Chriss, Boban, and David Nwaba ($5 million) that don't require Houston to take back anyone.
Moving Gordon is about as nuclear as the consolidation should get. The Rockets won't just unload Tate, Garrison Mathews, Josh Christopher or Kevin Porter Jr. for a roster spot—at least not without adequate draft equity.
Prediction: The Indiana Pacers will trade both Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner.
Only a fool would predict the relocation of Myles Turner, the three-time running winner of the NBA's imaginary 'Mentioned in Trade Rumors without Actually Getting Dealt' award.
Well, allow me to introduce myself...
Anyway, we basically know the Pacers are moving Malcolm Brogdon. They informed the rest of the league as much all the way back in April, according to Marc Stein. Indiana shouldn't expect a ransom for the three years and $67.6 million remaining on his contract, but there will be teams jilted by primary targets and exploring contingencies that register interest in hammering out a deal. (Special shout-out to Dallas and New York).
Turner is the far more valuable player and also the more complicated asset. Contract-year bigs don't typically solicit monster offers. The Pacers could try extending him or re-signing him next summer when he gets to free agency.
Then again, their actual plan is to completely reshape the roster. Ponying up long-term money at a star's rate for someone who turns 27 in March doesn't jibe with that vision.
Indiana hinted at a willingness to go scorched earth with the Domantas Sabonis-for-Tyrese Haliburton swap. That transition into a full-scale rebuild will continue this summer.
Prediction: Nicolas Batum and Amir Coffey (restricted) re-sign with the L.A. Clippers. Isaiah Hartenstein leaves.
This prediction is already aging well. I cobbled it together before the Clippers became the favorites to sign John Wall, who essentially gave back a mini mid-level exception's worth of money to Houston and now wishes to sign with L.A. for the—you guessed it—mini MLE, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon.
Paying Wall more than the minimum pretty much guarantees Hartenstein is out the door. (Ivica Zubac's extension may hint at the same.) The Clippers cannot offer him more than mini MLE, and even that didn't assure his return. He ranked among best passing and rim-protecting centers last season and has a nifty floater game, as I unpacked here.
Hartenstein could technically follow Batum's lead from last summer if his outside market tops out at the mini MLE. As Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus outlined, Hartenstein can re-sign for his non-Bird number with a player option and then get paid more with Early Bird rights in 2023.
Keeping Batum and Coffey is more straightforward. The Clippers have Early Bird rights on Batum, which allows them to pay him more than the non-taxpayer MLE. They have full Bird rights on Coffey, a sneaky impactful two-way wing who flashed everything from set shooting to secondary ball-handling and driving to four-position defense this past season.
Both Batum and Coffey become flight risks if the Clippers start caring about their tax bill. But team governor Steve Ballmer has a better spending track record than most, and even if he's reached his limit, L.A. is more likely to offload salary through Marcus Morris Sr. or Luke Kennard trades.
Los Angeles Lakers
Prediction: Malik Monk leaves while the Los Angeles Lakers prioritize 2023 flexibility.
This is a Kyrie Irving- and Russell Westbrook-free zone. You're welcome.
From Christmas onward, Monk averaged 16.2 points and 3.3 assists while downing 56.7 percent of his twos and 40.5 percent of his triples. He was among Los Angeles' few bright spots and is about to get paid like it.
Just not by the Lakers.
They cannot offer Monk more than the $6.4 million mini mid-level exception at the moment. That may not be a problem. Monk told The Athletic's Jovan Buha he'd consider taking that much to stay.
But it isn't yet clear whether they'll even offer it. The Lakers have more pressing needs to address—most notably wing defense and wing shooting. They may be more inclined to throw their mini MLE toward someone closer to that mold—particularly if Westbrook remains on the roster.
Los Angeles and Monk could hash out a wink-wink pact. A two-year deal at the minimum with a player option gets him back into free agency next summer, when the Lakers would have his Early Bird rights and the ability to offer him $10-plus million annually. But this presumes they're willing to make promises beyond 2022-23. They might not be.
Anthony Davis is, as of now, the only Lakers player under guaranteed contract for 2023-24. Los Angeles could be in position to have meaningful cap space depending on what happens with LeBron James' free agency and the salary in his next deal.
Bagging another big name while affording LeBron may be a pipe dream. But the Lakers are built on pipe dreams. (See: LeBron and Davis). Flexibility is something they, of all teams, can justify prioritizing.
Prediction: Tyus Jones re-signs with Memphis Grizzlies. Kyle Anderson leaves.
Memphis inevitably needs a higher-end offensive steward to pair with and play behind Ja Morant. In the meantime, Jones is a necessity—a meticulous game manager who can, functionally, be the adult in the room. He is now the only player in league history to post an assist rate above 25 with a turnover percentage below eight in the same season.
Anderson's return is much less of a sure thing.
Ziaire Williams wound up playing some important minutes and taking on tough defensive assignments down the stretch, and it seems like he's one "processes what's in front of him slightly quicker" jump away from entrenching himself as a go-to rotation staple. The Grizzlies also walked away from draft night with the 6'7" Jake LaRavia and 6'5" David Roddy and already have Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks.
This potentially doesn't matter. Anderson is more of a straight 4 than combo forward or wing these days. But even that utility is capped with Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tilman Sr. all in the fold.
To be clear: This isn't an issue of Anderson secretly sucking or the Grizzlies valuing him less. It's just more likely another team values him moving forward more than they do.
Prediction: Tyler Herro and the Miami Heat do not come to an extension agreement.
Tyler Herro fast-tracked himself to a lucrative payday this season. It isn't just the 20.7 points and 4.4 assists he averaged while shooting a career-high 39.9 percent from deep. Nor is it the Sixth Man of the Year hardware he now (deservedly) owns.
It's the extent to which he has become indispensable to Miami's half-court offense.
Jimmy Butler isn't a three-point sniper (until the playoffs). Bam Adebayo is probably too unselfish. Kyle Lowry is 36. Injuries limited the frequency with which the Heat could field their best lineup packages, but their half-court offensive rating placed in the 41st percentile with all three stars on the floor.
Miami's half-court efficiency improved by 2.5 points per 100 plays with Herro in the game—not surprising given how much time he spent going up against second units, but ultra-pivotal all the same, especially when neither Butler or Lowry has the most pristine health bill. Of note, there's no guarantee Victor Oladipo re-signs in free agency.
This reads like a preamble on why the Heat should extend Herro. But team president Pat Riley has always valued flexibility, and the 22-year-old becomes much harder to trade midseason if he signs a deal.
That's not to say sending Herro elsewhere is the plan. Knowing the Heat, though, it's on the table if it means nabbing another star. And beyond that, Herro is working off a season that emboldens him to ask for max money. Miami probably wants to see more—or, again, keep its options open—if that's his asking price.
Prediction: Pat Connaughton signs multiyear extension with the Milwaukee Bucks worth more than $10 million annually.
Pat Connaughton turned quite a few heads when he opted into the final year of his contract. He canned 64.3 percent of his twos and 39.5 percent of his threes while playing rock solid defense this past season, emerging as Milwaukee's second-most important wing, behind only Khris Middleton.
Hitting free agency surely would have culminated in a significant raise. The wing market is full of afterthoughts, and even getting the non-taxpayer mid-level exception amounts to a 180 percent increase over his $5.7 million salary in 2022-23.
On its face, then, Connaughton's decision doesn't really make sense.
Unless he and Milwaukee reach an extension.
The Bucks can sign Connaughton to a deal that kicks in during 2023-24 and starts him at 120 percent of the league's annual salary. If they go out the full four years, that should guarantee him around, if not more than, $60 million—assuming the league's average annual salary increases from last season's mark.
Prediction: Karl-Anthony Towns does not sign an extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Please do not interpret this as me crystal-balling a trade demand from Towns. He sounds like someone excited to be in Minnesota—and who will seriously consider signing the four-year supermax extension projected to be worth over $210 million for which he's eligible.
View this instead as me forecasting KAT will bet on himself.
If he makes an All-NBA team next season, he can sign the supermax on a five-year scale and guarantee himself significantly more long-term money—over $276 million, assuming the current 2024-25 cap projection holds at $136.7 million.
Towns may opt against rolling the dice. He isn't what you'd call injury-prone, but he missed substantial time in 2019-20 and 2020-21. The All-NBA ballot also only includes three spots for centers, although the league has previously warped positional eligibility so players like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic can technically get voted in as 4s.
Mostly, though, waiting afford Towns clarity—on Minnesota's future, yes, but also on how and when the NBA's money from a new TV deal eventually gets baked into the cap projections. Going on 27, he's young enough to wait and tailor his future around maximum earnings, even if there's a level of risk involved.
New Orleans Pelicans
Prediction: Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans agree on a five-year, Joel Embiid-type max extension.
Whimsical poachers may not believe Zion's long-term future lies in New Orleans. It does.
"I couldn't sign it fast enough," he said this past April when asked about inking a new deal with the Pelicans.
Spoken like someone who understands how well New Orleans has set itself up moving forward, as well as someone who knows he just missed an entire season and has played in only 85 games through is first three NBA campaigns.
The Pelicans likewise know exactly what he means to the franchise.
"It's not a big decision, it's a pretty easy decision," executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told The Ryen Russillo Podcast of offering Zion the max (via ESPN). "The kid's historically good when he plays. ... This is a max player, that's easy."
Zion is eligible for a five-year, $181.3 million max this summer. It sounds like he'll both get it and sign it. Similar to what the Philadelphia 76ers did with Joel Embiid's rookie extension, though, expect there to be games- and minutes-played benchmarks that determine guarantees and no player option on the fifth year.
New York Knicks
Prediction: It will take MORE than $25 million per year for the New York Knicks to pry Jalen Brunson out of Dallas.
Believe it or not, I was rolling with this prediction before Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported the Knicks were prepping a four-year, $110 million offer for Brunson. As you can believe, I'm feeling pretty good about it now.
The new question: Is New York willing to go even higher?
Brunson may be set on leaving Dallas. His father, Rick, is now on the Knicks' coaching staff. (He was on head coach Tom Thibodeau's assistant staff in Chicago and Minnesota, for what it's worth.) New York team president Leon Rose is his former agent. Almost every sign points to the Knicks.
But Mavs team governor Mark Cuban doesn't sound like someone who will let him walk without a fight. What if Dallas offers him a fifth year? Or a full four- or five-year max? And includes a player option at the end of whatever permutation it dangles?
That would be pretty Knicksian of the Mavs to travel such lengths for a non-star. But their cap sheet and limited draft-pick stash renders replacing his production a much larger headache.
This should be leverage enough for Brunson to get even more out of the Knicks. It may only be a little. But when you're chasing who was thought to be a $20 million-per-year player who's since become a $25 million-per-year player, even a little is actually a lot.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Prediction: The Oklahoma City Thunder sign zero free agents to guaranteed contracts.
This is at once "Well, duh" and "No way!" That is to say: This prediction befits the Thunder.
Oklahoma City will no longer be a cap-space squad when free agency begins, leaving the non-taxpayer mid-level exception as its best spending tool. And yet, team president Sam Presti ran out of roster spots to work with, like, years ago.
Various non-guarantees for Vit Krecjci, Theo Maledon, Aaron Wiggins and Kenrich Williams need to be hashed out at this writing. Lu Dort and Mike Muscala also have team options. Tack on Oklahoma City's three top-12 picks (Chet Holmgren, Ousmane Dieng and Jalen Willaims), and Presti already has 19 total names to monitor—not including Jaylin Williams, who the team selected at No. 34.
Trimming down the roster in time for the regular season will be a chore. Most of the Thunder's non-guarantees aren't totally dispensable, Dort's team option will get picked up (he could also get a new deal), and Muscala played well enough to stick around. Even if Oklahoma City makes some tough calls or waives expiring veterans like JaMychal Green and Derrick Favors, it still won't have the bandwidth to add more bodies to the equation.
Phrased another way: Bank on most of the Thunder's offseason activity taking place via the trade market.
Prediction: Mo Bamba (restricted) and Terrence Ross begin the season new teams. The Orlando Magic use cap space to take on unwanted money attached to assets.
Bamba's departure was written on the wall once the Magic won the draft lottery. Their frontline now includes Paolo Banchero, Wendell Carter Jr. and Jonathan Isaac. The latter hasn't played since the Disney Bubble and doesn't have a timetable for his return after having right hamstring surgery this past March, but the team expects him to be ready in time to start 2022-23, per the Orlando Sentinel's Khobi Price.
This isn't an unnavigable logjam—particularly when Isaac is such a question mark. Bamba is the second-purest 5 on the docket aside from WCJ, even though the two spent a truckload of minutes on the floor together last season. But this is more of a common-sense issue: Why would the Magic match—or be the bearer of—Bamba's best offer when he'd be the fourth-most important big on the roster?
Terrence Ross' departure feels similarly inevitable. He is entering the final year of his contract, and despite his down shooting season last year, he should appeal to contenders in the market for microwave scoring and perimeter marksmanship.
Orlando's cap space also opens up tantalizing trade possibilities. It will have more than $27 million in room if it renounces the rights to Bamba and Gary Harris and is one of the few teams that can swallow unwanted salary in lopsided deals. Given the dearth of young free agents worth massive contracts, the Magic seem like they'll be most active as a dumping ground.
Prediction: The Philadelphia 76ers offload enough salary to access the non-taxpayer mid-level exception.
Trading for De'Anthony Melton on draft night made the Sixers' path to accessing the non-taxpayer mid-level exception extremely difficult, verging on highly improbable.
They apparently don't care.
Rival teams have come to believe "the Sixers will successfully lure P.J. Tucker away from Miami in free agency with a three-year deal in the $30 million range," according to Marc Stein. That's non-taxpayer MLE money. Additional moves are on the horizon if Philly plans to spend that much money.
James Harden opting out of his contract and taking a discount is the most efficient path to the Sixers opening that flexibility. But that pay cut would have to be fairly huge if it's the only move—in excess of $10 million off his scheduled $47.4 million salary.
Offloading other money is possible, but the Sixers will be limited. They aren't willing to just dump Matisse Thybulle, for starters, according to Forbes' Bryan Toporek. And anyway, as Toporek also noted, even trading Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang without taking back any money would leave Philly inside $800,000 of the hard cap after giving out the non-taxpayer MLE. That's borderline unworkable wiggle room for an entire season.
Some combination of a Harden pay cut and offloading salary is a potential middle ground. But he was expected to exercise his player option and sign a shorter-term extension as of June 16, per Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer.
That leaves a Tobias Harris trade. The Sixers can move his $37.6 million for a much cheaper player or combination of players. Or maybe Harden's free agency changes course. Whatever happens, Philly will gain access to the bigger MLE. Finagling a splashier acquisition now and figuring out how to increase flexibility later is the Daryl Morey thing to do.
Prediction: Deandre Ayton (restricted) leaves the Phoenix Suns, most likely via sign-and-trade.
Enough has been written about Ayton leaving the Suns that it might seem fait accompli. Sources told The Athletic's John Hollinger it's "more likely than not" that the big man suits up for another team next season.
But the departure of quality restricted free agents is never a given. Incumbent teams have the right to match any offer sheet from outside admirers, and cooking up sign-and-trades is complex given the challenges presented by Base Year Compensation.
In Ayton's case, a max deal would have his acquiring team working under the constraints of his $30.5 million salary. But he would only count as half that in outgoing money for the Suns (sub-$15.3 million), allowing them to take back a maximum of just under $19.2 million.
Negotiating with cap-space squads makes it easier. Trades can always be expanded to include more players and third- and fourth-party facilitators to satisfy the math. The point is: Restricted free agents of Ayton's caliber aren't locks to leave. He either needs the Suns to let him walk for nothing—malpractice on their part—or work with them to find a new home.
Spotting sign-and-trade destinations is a little harder this side of the draft. The Pistons scooped up their big man of the future in Jalen Duren, and the Hornets, while neither flexible nor teeming with trade assets, selected Mark Williams at No. 15. Keep an eye on San Antonio and maybe Toronto, or brace for a suitor to come out of left field.
Or just generally prepare for Ayton to leave Phoenix—somehow, someway.
Portland Trail Blazers
Prediction: The Portland Trail Blazers create a human trade exception.
Acquiring Jerami Grant burned through the Blazers' largest trade exception—a move they shouldn't at all regret, but one that hinders their capacity to make others.
Portland is not currently outfitted with friendly salary-matching deals. Grant and Damian Lillard aren't going anywhere. The team's next-highest paid player is Josh Hart, at $12.9 million. After that, it's Justise Winslow, at $4.1 million.
Jusuf Nurkic (unrestricted) and Anfernee Simons (restricted) are on track to ink larger deals, but their new price points won't matter until they're trade-eligible next season. Ditto for whomever the Blazers sign with their non-taxpayer mid-level exception—a player who, like Nurk and Simons, they'll presumably plan to keep.
Offering or guaranteeing a contract with the intention to flip the person later can seem icky. It's also far from unprecedented. And the Blazers have a walking trade exception in Eric Bledsoe, who is on the books for $19.4 million but can be waived for $3.9 million until four days after the free-agency moratorium.
Guaranteeing that much money is steep and almost forces Portland to suss out larger trades they've loaded with other sweeteners. Re-signing Joe Ingles to a mid-end salary and looking to trade him when the right opportunity arrives is the cheaper course. Join me in predicting the Blazers to do one (guarantee Bledsoe) or the other (re-sign Ingles) to facilitate upgrades later.
Prediction: Richaun Holmes gets traded. Harrison Barnes does not.
Barnes found himself at the center of the predraft rumor mill when the Sacramento Kings reportedly had eyes for John Collins. That deal never materialized, and I'm thinking another one won't, either.
Sacramento shouldn't be in any rush to trade Barnes. He may be entering the final year of his contract, but as someone who's extremely plug-and-play at both ends, a team founded around De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis should be looking to extend him rather than move him.
Keegan Murray's arrival ever so slightly changes the calculus. But he and Barnes should be able to play together. They're certainly a cleaner fit than a Collins-Murray duo.
Speaking of which: The Kings' interest in Collins and Kevon Looney is weird. Playing Domantas Sabonis with either will be tough. The Collins-Sabonis frontcourt would be a defensive turnstile while the spacing for Sabonis-Looney minutes would be #notgreat.
Oh, yeah: Sacramento also has Holmes, who already looked out of place as a backup to Sabonis. If the Kings are really sniffing around other bigs, I'm just going to assume they intend to move him and his feathery push shot to a team in the market for an ultra-affordable starting center (three years, $36.2 million) who provides more defensive oomph than usually discussed.
San Antonio Spurs
Prediction: The San Antonio Spurs look to add a big(ish) name before—if not rather than—moving Dejounte Murray.
Murray trade rumors may be reaching fever pitch, but the Spurs are not beholden to any one direction. That's the luxury of having enough assets to be the buyer in a consolidation trade and the cap flexibility to sign just about anyone you want.
Many consider San Antonio a classic case of Stuck-in-the-Middle. Trading Murray is the vehicle through which it can torpedo its mediocre win-loss standing and start drafting in generational-talent territory.
But they could also look to keep building around their first time All-Star. They enter the summer with nearly $30 million projected cap space and the ability to dredge up more.
What if they go all-out for an Anfernee Simons pursuit in restricted free agency? He is both young (23) and capable of injecting much needed off-the-bounce shot-making into the offseason. Portland can match whatever offer he receives, but it has to become at least somewhat hesitant if San Antonio rolls out a max or near-max number.
Or what if the Spurs want to test the Deandre Ayton waters? It may take a sign-and-trade, but their cap space is still leverage—as is the deteriorating relationship between Ayton and the Suns.
I'm not saying San Antonio will double-down on its current core. But when the alternative is dealing Murray and virtually tanking or simply running in place during what could be head coach Gregg Popovich's last season, I'm not writing off the Spurs as buyers, either.
Prediction: At least one of Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet will sign an extension with the Toronto Raptors.
Extensions for cornerstone players are entering weird territory as everyone waits for the NBA's new TV deal and the impact it'll have on the salary cap. Any agreements that keep A-listers off the market for 2025-26 could become taboo.
The discussion is hazier for stars who may not be no-brainer maxes by that time, a la Siakam and VanVleet, both of whom are extension-eligible this offseason. (Siakam's eligibility won't kick in until October.) Offering them is a non-issue for the Raptors, who don't profile as a cap-space team anytime soon. Siakam is under contract through 2023-24, VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. have player options next summer, and they'll eventually have to pay Scottie Barnes.
Whether VanVleet or Siakam would accept deals is a separate matter.
VanVleet seems less likely to take one. A 20 percent raise on an extension is well below his would-be max. But he's also a smaller guard currently slated to hit free agency at age 29 or 30. Accepting an extension that pays him less than the max but still noticeably more than $25 million per year is not an egregious outcome.
Siakam's case should be less of an issue. He might want wait and see if he makes another All-NBA team or simply until he can extend on a deal with salary that goes further out, but a three-year extension that averages more than $40 million annually is tough to pass up, even with the promise of a TV-money infusion. Siakam isn't set for free agency until after his age-29 season, at which time teams could be more reluctant to pay him out into the distance.
Prediction: The Utah Jazz trade out of the luxury tax.
Forecasting a Jazz teardown has become cliche. It's also not a certainty.
A Donovan Mitchell trade is beyond unlikely given his age (25) and the three guaranteed years he has left on his contract (fourth year player option). Utah is open to moving Rudy Gobert but not prepared to deal him for a lackluster return, according to The Athletic's Tony Jones.
Running it back entirely is definitely not in the cards. This Jazz nucleus, while talented, has grown stale. They will make changes. But names like Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley and Royce O'Neale seem more likely to be shipped out than either of the team's stars.
If and when they do, expect the Jazz to skirt the tax in the process. They enter free agency inside $2 million of the luxury-tax line. They can always squeeze beneath it later, but the league is better set up to eat money over the offseason.
Heck, the Jazz needn't even jettison a rotation staple. Dumping Rudy Gay ($6.2 million) or Nickeil Alexander-Walker ($5 million) more than does the trick. But if they're looking to escape the tax while also spending part or all of the mid-level exception, they'll need to reroute one or more of their larger salaries.
Prediction: Bradley Beal ends our long, ill-advised speculative nightmare and re-signs with the Washington Wizards on a five-year max. The Wizards will also upgrade the starting point guard via trade rather than free agency.
Bradley Beal has said all along he wanted to remain with the Wizards. The hypothetical trades persisted anyway. Now, he'll put them to bed once and for all (or until next year).
According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Beal is expected to opt out of his contract and sign a five-year supermax deal worth $247.8 million to stick in Washington. John Wall received a player option on his own supermax, so go ahead and pencil one in for Beal, too.
And with Beal's return secured, the Wizards' search for a starting-caliber floor general must resume in earnest. Though they will have the non-taxpayer mid-level to spend, which is more than a good chunk of other teams, this year's point guard market is a wasteland.
Short of stealing Tyus Jones from Memphis, Washington is better off taking to the trade market. They aren't drowning in mid-end contracts to match salary, per se, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($14 million) and Kyle Kuzma ($13 million) are useful chips. They're also critical to the wing rotation, so the Wizards shouldn't be dangling them—let alone combining them—to take back questionable contracts like that of Malcolm Brogdon.
Other opportunities should arise. The Wizards might have the equity to crash the Dejounte Murray sweepstakes, insofar as they exist. They can also aim smaller and sniff around Devonte' Graham or Derrick Rose—players who can technically be acquired without touching KCP or Kuzma if they flesh out a step-ladder package around Ish Smith ($4.8 million) and Rui Hachimura ($6.3 million).