NBA Teams That Will Define the 2020 Offseason
Want to know which NBA teams you should keep the closest eye on this offseason?
If you answered yes, you've come to the right place. If you answered no, it's actually Opposite Day, and you're now contractually obligated to journey down this rabbit hole with the rest of us.
Teams have been separated into tiers to delineate how much of an impact they'll have on offseason shenanigans:
- Max-Space Buyers: Squads with max room that have the competitive windows to use it.
- Wild-Card Spenders: Teams with max or near-max space that don't have a clear long-term blueprint in place.
- Teams Approaching a Crossroads: Those faced with the decision of whether to enter a rebuild or give their current core more time to marinate.
- Potential Blockbuster-Trade Hunters: Buyers without cap space that are most likely to be in the market for a major shakeup or upgrade.
- The Anything-Can-Happeners: Playoff squads staring down an offseason that could unfold in a bunch of different ways.
Certain teams can fall under more than one umbrella. They've been sorted into the subsection that best fits their situation.
Some squads left out of this exercise could technically belong to one of these categories. Their exclusion is not meant to imply inaction or anything else. This is merely a look at which teams are most likely to make decisions that shape the trade and free-agency markets.
No team is projected to have more cap space than the Hawks. (The New York Knicks can get there if they ditch most of their non-guarantees.) They were still comfortably above the $45 million marker after the Clint Capela trade. That number will shrink if the cap drops below the forecasted $115 million, but Atlanta isn't in danger of slipping beneath the max-money tier.
We'll have to wait and see how much that matters. General manager Travis Schlenk has thus far taken more conservative approaches in free agency. The Hawks have focused on remaining lean in the long term while absorbing unwanted money attached to draft picks.
Acquiring Capela suggests the emphasis will shift. It kind of has to. This year's salary-dumping market shouldn't be all that robust, and Atlanta is entering pounce-now territory with John Collins extension-eligible and Trae Young brushing up against the All-NBA discussion.
But finding someone to spend on will be difficult. Anthony Davis (player option) and Brandon Ingram (restricted) are the only max-contract givens, and they're staying put. The Hawks can throw some money at the next tier of free agents—Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted), Gordon Hayward (player option), Marcus Morris Sr., Fred VanVleet—but also shouldn't be getting into non-superstars for too much money.
Free agents are bound to get squeezed by the field. Atlanta has leverage over any player looking to secure a long-term bag. Whether it actually makes that sort of win-now investment will say a great deal about the team's internal view of itself.
The Heat are in a different league than the Hawks. Theirs isn't a dilemma of nabbing free agents. They should be at the top of every biggish name's list. They play in a desirable market, will have access to more than $30 million if the salary cap holds and are already competing near the tippy-top of the Eastern Conference.
Deciding how—or if—to spend the slush fund is Miami's larger issue. Doling out multiyear contracts would compromise cap space in 2021. Team president Pat Riley has been eyeing that free-agency class for a while.
Maneuvering to get Jimmy Butler last summer doesn't appear to have changed anything. The Heat inked Andre Iguodala to an extension with a team option for 2021-22, and their pursuit of Danilo Gallinari fell apart at the trade deadline, presumably because he wasn't willing to sign a deal under similar terms.
Even the most meticulously laid plans can shift. Butler is a win-now cornerstone, and Bam Adebayo has already made the leap. Miami may have no choice but to accelerate its spending, in which case marquee free agents like Gallinari, Morris, VanVleet et al. should be on the radar.
More trade possibilities also open up if the Heat aren't saving their powder. They could be more inclined to cobble together Godfather offers for Bradley Beal or Jrue Holiday or extra-open to taking on Chris Paul.
Counting on them to make some type of big move is the best bet. The 2021 free-agency class won't be nearly as sexy if Giannis Antetokounmpo signs a supermax extension this summer, and the front office has already shown, time (last summer) and time again (at the trade deadline), that it'll figure out a way to shed money and enter the running for splashy additions.
Are the Pistons rebuilding? Is that what the Andre Drummond selloff foretells? Or did they just not want to pay his next contract or $28.8 million player option?
And if that's the case, what happens now? Do they shore up the team around a potentially healthy Blake Griffin and angle for an immediate return to the playoffs? Rebuild anyway? Get lost in a half-measure between the two scenarios that fast tracks them for more of the same?
Detroit's optionality is both a blessing and a curse—but mostly a blessing.
Only Atlanta and New York should have more cap space. The Pistons are, as of now, looking at more than $30 million in wiggle room if they renounce all of their own free agents except for Christian Wood (Early Bird). They'll have more cash at their disposal if Tony Snell declines his $12.2 million player option. (PSA: As of next season, they will no longer be paying Josh Smith.)
Funneling that money into a higher-end point guard (Fred VanVleet, Fred VanVleet, Fred VanVleet) or playmaking wing (Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari) would position Detroit to climb the Eastern Conference ladder.
Party-crashing the top four is out of the question unless Griffin recovers from his left knee injury and regains his 2017-18 form, but the Pistons have actual depth if they run it back with Snell, Wood, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk, Derrick Rose and this year's draft pick.
Second-tier free agents better hope that's the plan. Many of them will lose leverage if one of the five or six squads with access to max money decides to sit out the market and uses the flexibility to sponge up whatever bad pacts might be available (Nicolas Batum?).
In the Pistons' case, between Kennard, Doumbouya and this year's pick, they should also have the juice to enter talks for Bradley Beal and Jrue Holiday if either is up for grabs.
New York Knicks
The Knicks' case should be more cut and dry. They can carve out varying levels of cap space—close to $60 million if they ditch most of their non-guarantees and depending on where they land in the draft—but they don't have the incumbent talent to justify backing up the Brink's truck for win-now players.
That's never stopped them before. They always seem out of touch with their place inside the league's hierarchy. The front office entered this season with playoff hopes...despite whiffing on the biggest free agents and assembling what was, clearly, an ill-fitting, lottery-bound roster.
New team president Leon Rose could have carte blanche to shift course. Perhaps he invests in the development of New York's youngsters and slow-plays the rebuild. Or maybe he follows the franchise's long-running theme of authoring flawed redirects.
Chris Paul, one of Rose's former clients, is apparently on the Knicks' radar, according to The Athletic's Frank Isola. They also showed interest in turning Julius Randle, Dennis Smith Jr. and a first-round pick into Malik Monk and Terry Rozier at the trade deadline, per SNY's Ian Begley. Meanwhile, sources told the New York Post's Marc Berman that the formerly Rose-led Creative Artists Agency wasn't happy when Frank Ntilikina gave them the boot.
These rumors don't prove anything about the Knicks' direction. And none of them are incredibly damaging in a vacuum.
New York shouldn't be giving up major value for the soon-to-be 35-year-old Paul or accelerating its timeline on his behalf, but bringing him in to rub off on the up-and-comers isn't the worst plan. The Knicks have no business unloading first-round picks for non-stars, but Rose is well within his rights to undo some of the acquisitions spearheaded by his predecessor, Steve Mills.
Ntilikina is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer cult hero among fans and shouldn't be dealt away for nothing or out of spite, but he hasn't progressed enough at the offensive end to guarantee himself a spot in the bigger picture.
What the Knicks will do is anyone's guess. Throw the bag at VanVleet, trade for overpriced veterans, sell off the young players except for RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, aim for an insta-turnaround, commit to another version of a rebuild—it's all in play. And really, they have the cap flexibility to do a little bit of everything, for better or worse.
Teams Approaching a Crossroads
San Antonio Spurs
"Nuclear" is not in the Spurs' everyday vocabulary. Kawhi Leonard forced them to light a stick of dynamite in 2018, but continuity has long been their schtick. Over the past two decades, they've planned for the next era without torpedoing the current one.
San Antonio's balancing act persists. It is also in jeopardy, as Pounding The Rock's Marilyn Dubinski wrote in December:
"Of course, the Spurs have technically been 'rebuilding' behind the scenes for several years now. The youth movement more or less began with the drafting of Dejounte Murray, who usurped Tony Parker's role and became an All-NBA defender in just his second season. Although his offensive game is a work in progress, it's coming along. Derrick White has shown he can be a steadying presence on both ends of court, whether he's starting or coming off the bench, and Lonnie Walker IV might be the most exciting young prospect Spurs fans have seen since the Big Three.
"Rookies Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson are currently developing in Austin but also fit nicely into future plans, as does Jakob Poeltl if the Spurs can retain him in restricted free agency this summer. Whether any of those players project to be actual 'franchise players' by the Spurs' definition remains to be seen, but the reality is none are likely the answer to this season's problems."
A natural reset point is on the horizon. LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan (2020-21 player option), Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are all scheduled to be off the books next summer. The Spurs can hold tight for the sake of head coach Gregg Popovich and then cannonball into a more wholesale overhaul in 2021.
This assumes DeRozan opts into his contract. A bare-bones market implies he will. Does San Antonio have the stones to let him walk for nothing? After treating him as the centerpiece in the Leonard trade?
On the flip side, do the Spurs have an out-of-character retool in them this summer? They're not getting prime value for Aldridge or DeRozan on the trade market, but they should be able to find takers if they want to speed up a potential rebuild, and keeping the band together in Pop's name rings hollow when they weren't on track to extend their 22-year playoff streak before the 2019-20 season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Or maybe the Spurs go in the opposite direction.
Dangling some combination of Murray, Walker, White, picks and expiring salary could get them into the conversation for whichever blockbuster names reach the auction block. They could also try to mine value from the overpriced-player market. Al Horford and Kevin Love are on high-risk contracts but should cost fewer assets than a Bradley Beal or Jrue Holiday—or even an Aaron Gordon.
Almost every offseason since the Spurs' 2013-14 title has felt like a pivotal one. This year is the same story. Except now, unlike all the previous times, they're not trying to preserve something. They either need to reinvent what's in place or tear it down.
Washington has some time to hammer out the details of its trajectory. Beal will still have a season and a half left on his deal at next year's trade deadline. A final verdict doesn't have to be rendered over the offseason.
But the Wizards cannot be sure if waiting will buy them any clarity. John Wall should be healthy to start next season, but he is working his way back from a torn left Achilles and has now missed at least half of Washington's games for three consecutive seasons. His return may not provide instant answers.
In some form or another, the Wizards will be tasked with making tough calls before knowing what version of Wall they'll have over the long haul. It isn't just about deciding whether to keep or trade Beal, either.
Davis Bertans is a free agent this summer and in line for a raise despite the cap-poor market. Washington's commitment to the Beal-Wall backcourt should impact whether the team targets another guard in the draft. It will definitely influence how it spends its mid-level exception.
Regardless of what the Wizards end up doing, they're a bellwether for the offseason. If they're open to trading Beal, the transaction market gets a much-needed boost. If they decide to stand pat, attention will shift to mostly underwhelming alternatives, and this summer may wind up wanting for blockbuster moves.
Potential Blockbuster-Trade Hunters
The Nets are subject to more volatility than any team that employs two superstars is supposed to be. They have a clear path to title contention after signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but their championship hopes hinge entirely upon both remaining healthy.
That's far from a given for either player. Durant is attempting to come back from a ruptured right Achilles, an absolutely devastating injury. Irving's surgically repaired right shoulder hasn't crossed the chronic-issue threshold, but he has missed 15 or more games in six of his nine seasons. Even in the age of precaution, that isn't normal.
Caris LeVert gives Brooklyn a cushion if he develops into a third star. Or the Nets could try taking matters into their own hands by consolidating assets into a more established third wheel, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on The Hoop Collective Podcast (h/t RealGM):
"I believe they have telegraphed they intend to use some of their young talent to acquire a third star along with Kyrie and Durant. Now, we can get enter a healthy debate here about whether Caris LeVert is that third star and they make the decision that he is. But my feel reading the tea leaves, paying attention to what Sean Marks has said and also being aware of some conversations they had at the trade deadline, which was sticking the toe in the water on some things, I think they're going to swing for the fences whenever the season comes. They're going to have to potentially hire a coach that is going to help them do that."
Brooklyn has some interesting starting points to peddle. LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie are all impact players, and a combination of Rodions Kurucs, Dzanan Musa and first-round picks can be used as sweeteners.
Whether this war chest is enough to get the Nets in the mix for a third star is debatable. Dinwiddie (turns 27 in early April) and LeVert (26 in August) are older than most blockbuster-trade magnets. Allen will be 22 when next season tips off, but he's not someone around whom a team can build its entire future.
Combining two of the three with other assets makes for an intriguing package, but for who? That offer can be beaten if the Bradley Beal sweepstakes kick off. The same goes for Jrue Holiday. Aaron Gordon is a potentially nice fit but doesn't provide much offensive assurance in the event Durant or Irving misses serious time.
Standing pat and letting the midseason trade market develop is always an option. Then again, maybe not. The Nets' title window isn't open-ended. Durant and Irving can reenter free agency in 2022 (player options), and letting head coach Kenny Atkinson walk when he did hinted at a palpable sense of urgency. Brooklyn seems primed for a significant trade this summer, whatever it might be.
Golden State Warriors
Holding serve this offseason is not outside the Warriors' realm of possibilities. They need more time to rehabilitate Andrew Wiggins' value, and a high pick in a shallow 2020 draft class won't get them too far in trade talks.
Still, Golden State is trying to reopen its title window. Playing the long game isn't in the cards when Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson are all on big contracts and the wrong side of 30. And without a path to cap space, that leaves the trade market.
Add the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2021 first-rounder (top-three protection) to the equation and the Warriors will be cooking with a little fish grease. They also have the $17.2 million Andre Iguodala trade exception, giving them the ability to take on a useful-but-pricey player who has run his course elsewhere.
Wiggins' salary admittedly complicates their search. Teams aren't treating him as just another filler piece even if he's attached to multiple firsts—not with three years and $94.7 million left on his contract. The Warriors don't have any alternative salary-anchors beyond their Big Three. This year's draft pick will be the fifth-highest paid player on the books.
Golden State can work with that. First-round selections turn into actual salary after they sign their contracts. The Warriors could theoretically wait 30 days and attach whoever they draft alongside Kevon Looney to drum up the money they can take back.
It isn't quite clear what that package—or what using the Iguodala exception and picks—could get them. Is that worthy of Jrue Holiday or Myles Turner? Are they maybe able to use the Iguodala exception and a lower-end collection of picks to get Aaron Gordon? Do they settle for just using the exception on a more modest name? What constitutes a modest name? Tony Snell? Thaddeus Young?
Perhaps the Warriors don't do anything substantial. Their payroll is already projected to rise above $150 million before luxury taxes. Maybe they bet on better health and a deeper supporting cast carrying them back to the top of the West. That's fine. But they have the tools and timeline to do more.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow your roll. This is not a blurby thingamabob dedicated to wondering if Philly will trade Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons.
Making that decision is a last resort. And yes, the Sixers might reach it. But they have to explore other options first—those alternatives being everything else.
Al Horford's name springs to mind first. A source told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt that Philly would probably be open to moving him for a package that brings back shooting. That is...ambitious. Horford turns 34 in June, has dealt with Achilles issues this season and is owed $81 million over the next three years ($69 million guaranteed).
Shopping Tobias Harris poses similar obstacles, albeit not as stark. He's much younger and a borderline No. 1 scorer, but he has four years and $147.3 million left on his deal. Josh Richardson is a more palatable trade asset, but Philly would have to hope attaching his $10.9 million salary to another two or three contracts, plus picks, is enough to land a star. It probably isn't unless Matisse Thybulle is one of those other inclusions.
Exactly what the Sixers might do isn't important. Their need to do something is the point. If this season doesn't end with a deep playoff push, they'll have to shake up a roster that is both shallow and not properly tailored to its two best players.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Initially billed as inevitable sellers entering the regular season, the Thunder played well enough to stand pat past the trade deadline. Their core has since made the case to last even longer.
Posting a 9-17 record against teams above .500 isn't ideal, but it's not a harbinger of eventual doom. Oklahoma City has handled its business against inferior squads and owns the league's best crunch-time net rating.
Chris Paul is in the All-NBA discussion. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has beefed up his scoring portfolio. Danilo Gallinari remains a fringe star. Dennis Schroder is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year. Steven Adams is still a dirty-work extraordinaire.
Spin it however you want. Contending for a top-three playoff spot in the West is big-time. The Thunder can build off this standing. Re-signing Gallinari and adding a wing with what should be the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception would enable them to keep pace in the West's ever-expanding postseason fray. With as many as 15 first-rounders between now and 2026, they also have the ammo to leave a dent on the trade market.
This doesn't mean they will look to advance their position. Getting into Gallinari for long-term money is risky if this isn't their indefinite asset base. And it's not. Paul turns 35 in May. Adams and Schroder are free agents after next season. It will be both expensive and restrictive to float this core for more than another year.
By leaning into the long game, Oklahoma City could almost single-handedly ignite the trade market.
Paul should be eminently more movable after posting his highest true shooting percentage since 2016-17 and avoiding any extended absences. Adams and Schroder are pricey, but at least one of them, if not both, should incite interest as an expiring contract. Teams without cap space will form a disorderly queue if the Thunder broker sign-and-trade scenarios for Gallinari.
Nearly anything goes for the Thunder. Their post-Russell Westbrook timeline has unmatched malleability. Buy, sell, hold—it doesn't matter. They can justify any direction. And whatever they choose, the rest of the league is going to feel it.
Significant change should not be on the menu for the Raptors. They've staged a legitimate title defense. Dissolving this core would feel wrong.
It's also possible.
Chris Boucher (Early Bird restricted), Marc Gasol, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are all about to hit free agency. Toronto is in no way bringing all of them back. Team president Masai Ujiri has Giannis Antetokounmpo on the brain—him and every other executive—and is unlikely to lock himself into a core that nukes 2021 cap space.
Running it back becomes more likely if Antetokounmpo removes himself from next year's free-agency pool by signing a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. Even then, though, Ujiri is the type who knows this nucleus has a finite shelf life.
Gasol is 35 and had only just returned from a hamstring injury that cost him more than a month when the NBA ceased play. Kyle Lowry is 34. Serge Ibaka is 30. Fred VanVleet, 26, aligns perfectly with the bigger picture, but he's the best point guard scheduled to hit the open market. Toronto will have to weigh the opportunity cost of paying him what could be near-max money.
Renouncing all of their own free agents would leave the Raptors with almost $25 million to burn. On who, though? Ibaka and VanVleet are two of the top 15 free agents. Toronto is more likely to look at shopping Lowry than spending big money elsewhere if it suffers a mass exodus.
Will the Raptors bring most of this year's squad back? Let most of their free agents walk? Do they steer into a gap year if that happens? Is there a middle ground? How many of their incumbents would accept inflated one-year deals to maximize spending power in 2021? Does that even matter if Antetokounmpo signs the supermax?
How does Lowry's future factor into this if Toronto looks starkly different next year? Is he a goner if Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet all leave? Or would Ujiri let him, OG Anunoby, Terence Davis, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and anyone he adds try to tread water near the top of the East?
The range of outcomes for the Raptors' offseason is extensive. That much is clear. What comes next for them is less so.