Predicting Top 2020 NBA Free Agents Who Will Jump Ship
The busiest NBA offseason in recent memory has finally quieted down. The daily number of transactions is no longer impossible to keep up with, and now we have time to examine rosters with reasonable certainty that nothing major will change before the start of the season in October.
But as we've seen these past few months and years, the rate of player movement is such that many high-profile players will likely switch teams again next summer.
The superstar cohort seems to be relatively settled, and the 2020 free-agent class is widely considered to be far weaker than this summer's legendary collection of All-Stars. But you can't rule anything out in the Player Empowerment Era.
Let's predict next summer's top candidates to switch teams.
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
Man, it's been a sad 12 months for DeMar DeRozan. Just over a year ago, the four-time All-Star was unceremoniously dumped by the Toronto Raptors in exchange for a moody and injury-prone Kawhi Leonard. And while DeRozan is still universally celebrated up North, we all know how the past season unfolded in Toronto, and few Raptors fans would trade a championship with Leonard for more second-round exits with DeRozan, even considering Kawhi's eventual departure.
History may repeat itself this year for Compton's Finest. Lost alongside the low-profile nature of the Spurs' 2018-19 season is the fact that DeRozan improved in many statistical categories. However, one area where he regressed was three-point shooting, a skill he has eschewed in favor of Kobe Bryant-like mid-range mastery. That fact, combined with his awkward fit next to the young Spurs core—most of whom are guards—makes DeRozan a likely candidate to depart next summer.
The main complication in this scenario is a $27.7 million player option that he will likely pick up, but a star-hungry team like the Knicks, Lakers or Timberwolves might be willing to pay such a hefty price in a trade for the two-time All-NBA guard.
Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
This one is easy. After opting into a $19.2 million player option this summer, Dragic heads into the final year of his contract with the Heat, and his exit is as certain as a bad Knicks free-agent signing.
For one, Miami started Justise Winslow at point guard last season when Dragic was hurt, and he excelled in the Dragon's stead, posting career bests in usage rate, assists per game and field-goal percentage.
Additionally, as the Heat's salary cap clears, Pat Riley will want to chase stars to slot alongside Jimmy Butler. Rumors abound that Miami is so invested in trading for Bradley Beal that the front office has even considered taking on John Wall's mammoth supermax contract to facilitate a Beal deal.
All that information makes a Dragic departure a near-fait accompli. And that's not even considering how he was already nearly traded to the Mavericks this summer, a team that would still be a perfect fit for him. The Mavs lack a primary ball-handling point guard, and Dragic's friend and mentee Luka Doncic is poised to take over the NBA in due time.
Simply put: It would be far more surprising if Dragic begins the 2020-21 season in Miami than not.
Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Due to the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors’ 2019 title already seems like one of the greatest one-hit wonders in recent sports history. Considering the sheer number of expiring contracts on Toronto’s roster, head honcho Masai Ujiri has the potential to blow up the entire roster a year after winning a championship, 1997 Florida Marlins-style.
Ujiri has supposedly wanted to start a rebuild in Toronto since taking the job, and many of his actions support those rumors, including attempting to deal Kyle Lowry. Lowry, as well as veteran big men Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, are all unrestricted free agents after next season and are much too old for the Pascal Siakam/OG Anunoby/Fred VanVleet young core that Ujiri may want to build around for the next few years.
Plus, despite their advancing ages, Gasol, Ibaka and Lowry are smart two-way players who can help contending teams that are willing to sell future assets for immediate impact.
It’s not often that a title-winning team looks completely different just one year after victory—even in the NBA—but Kawhi Leonard’s departure has closed the Raptors’ title window. They can fully accept that by letting their war horse veterans go compete for another championship somewhere else.
Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
Theoretically, Eric Gordon's role on the Houston Rockets has not changed much this summer. He will still be a secondary playmaker and third offensive option who can play well off James Harden and make threes at an above-average clip.
Harden and Paul combined to average 36.9 shot attempts per game last season, while Harden and Westbrook combined for 44.7 shots a game. Gordon himself averaged 13.8 shots per game, and while those extra eight attempts by Westbrook (assuming he doesn't cut back, which seems unlikely given his history) will not solely come at Gordon's expense, he will certainly get fewer opportunities alongside the former MVP than he did with Paul.
Gordon has had the best years of his career in Houston, overcoming the injury bug and proving a worthy contributor to a highly competitive team, all while making just $52.9 million over four years. He's still only 30 years old, and another team could both feature him prominently in its offense and pay him handsomely.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
We are at the possible beginning of the end of an era in Golden State. Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala have departed, Klay Thompson is likely out for much of 2019-20 and D'Angelo Russell is replacing him (for some reason). Stephen Curry is the same as he ever was, but the smothering defense that Toronto played in the Finals when Durant and Thompson were sitting out could resemble the primary defensive look against him next year.
All this is to say, barring an unbelievable turn of events (which, to be fair, is possible with the Warriors), Golden State's reign of terror over the NBA is done, and in due time, several remaining stalwarts may depart.
Curry seems to be a Warriors lifer, and Klay just re-upped for five more years. But Draymond Green has been far cagier about his long-term plans. He signed with Klutch Sports Group, Rich Paul's agency, in March, and ESPN's Chris Haynes has reported that Draymond will not take a pay cut on his next contract.
With Curry, Thompson and Russell each owed over $100 million, signing Green to what would likely be a large deal would impose severe luxury-tax penalties on Golden State and make the Warriors one of the most expensive teams in NBA history. Franchise owner Joe Lacob has repeatedly stated that he has no problem paying the luxury tax, but when that bill is staring him in the face, he may have second thoughts.
Green may need to look elsewhere if his financial expectations remain so high.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
After the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Los Angeles Clippers have arguably the most complete roster in the NBA. However, after paying those two superstars, the Clippers now face the enduring quagmire of modern team building: To keep star players or attract new ones, they may have to jettison quality depth pieces in the process.
The Clippers have made their own luck in the recent past as guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams both re-signed for below-market contracts, but Montrezl Harrell is a different proposition entirely. The fifth-year big man finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season, and he's unstoppable in the pick-and-roll, finishing in the 88th percentile as a roll man in 2018-19.
Where the undersized big man was once merely an analytics darling, he became well-known this past year as an uber-efficient, energetic super-sub who helped lead a 31-point comeback on the road against a fully healthy Golden State Warriors team in the playoffs.
Harrell is a rising star and will likely get lucrative offers next offseason. If the Clippers can to convince him to return for a discount like they did with Beverley and Williams, then none of these questions matter. But this will be Harrell's first contract post-rookie scale, and he stands to make quite a bit more than L.A. can offer without going way over the salary cap (which is an option). And when you factor in the Clippers' likely plans to pursue the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the summer of 2021, giving Harrell close to a nine-figure deal over four years might not be in the cards for Lawrence Frank and Co.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
The case for Caris LeVert leaving Brooklyn is fairly similar to that of Harrell exiting Los Angeles. He, too, is a young rising star who played his best basketball last season, but he plays for a big-market team that just signed two perennial All-Stars and will be hungry for more star power in the ensuing years.
LeVert's track record of excellence is a bit shorter than Harrell's in that he has yet to put in a full season of high-level play. But the 24-year-old was tremendous in Brooklyn's postseason series against Philadelphia, averaging 21.0 points a game on 49.3 percent shooting and 46.2 percent from three-point range against elite defenders like Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons.
Brooklyn should want to keep LeVert. He's the perfect type of player for the modern NBA; he can create offense for himself and others, he shoots the ball well and he defends multiple positions at a high level.
However, a desperate or jealous team may offer LeVert more money than the Nets can afford without going over the cap—though the latter is possible. If another franchise swoops in, Brooklyn will either need to let him walk—losing a prized player and potentially irking Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the process—or match the offer and limit its financial flexibility in the years to come.
Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
It got lost among the heavy-metal-band level of noise this summer, but the Denver Nuggets picking up Paul Millsap’s $30 million player option was quietly a major transaction. While Millsap has been injured for a large part of his time in the Mile High City, he has nevertheless been a positive force when healthy and is one of the few plus defenders on the team, ranking fifth among power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season.
However, after 2019-20, Millsap will more than likely have served his purpose on the Nuggets roster. They won't likely be able to afford him, as they owe Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris almost a combined $400 million in the coming years, and he will also be 35 years old in February, making him out of sync with Denver’s long-term timeline.
On top of all that, the Nuggets just traded for big man Jerami Grant and also boast Michael Porter Jr., who can be a premier talent when healthy.
Both Grant and Porter are potential replacements for Millsap, who should sign with a team like the Portland Trail Blazers that both needs his skills and wants to contend immediately.
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Arvydas' son is a unique player in this iteration of the NBA. An efficiency machine and productive rebounder, Domantas Sabonis finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season and was a key reason that the Pacers remained competitive after Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury.
There are high stakes, though, for both Indiana and Sabonis as his restricted free agency draws closer.
Sabonis will be hungry to prove he is worthy of a high-level or max contract extension, and he may very well level up once again. However, the Pacers may not be in lockstep with their beloved bench star. Sabonis plays most of his minutes at the center position, and Indiana gave Myles Turner a $72 million extension through 2022-23 to be its long-term starting 5.
Will the Pacers want to pay Sabonis a similar or even larger amount to be Turner's backup, especially when they just drafted Georgian center Goga Bitadze in the first round? Young, rebuilding teams like the Cavaliers and Wizards or even the Toronto Raptors may welcome him as a full-time starter and attempt to build around his unorthodox skills.
Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers
In any dictionary, Hassan Whiteside in a Blazers jersey should be the accompanying picture of "stopgap." He is on the final year of an exorbitant $98.4 million deal signed during the infamous summer of 2016, and he would not be on Portland's roster if Jusuf Nurkic were healthy next season.
Nurkic is a far better player than Whiteside and has developed chemistry with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum that appears to transcend basketball. The Blazers also have a promising young big in Zach Collins who will be the likely starter at power forward but is more suited to be a center long-term.
In summary, there is no place for Whiteside in Portland after this season.
In fact, if Nurkic returns before season's end, Whiteside may get benched.
It's unclear who would want Whiteside in free agency next summer. He seems to be heading the way of Dwight Howard with a slew of well-documented maturity issues and refusal to adapt to the pace-and-space era, except that Whiteside never reached Howard's dominant heights.
There seems to be two paths forward for the big man: Either be satisfied with an Enes Kanter-type role as an offensive spark plug off the bench, or head to China and be immortalized.