1 Bold Prediction for Every Top 10 NBA Free Agent

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 1, 2020

1 Bold Prediction for Every Top 10 NBA Free Agent

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    NBA free agency is for the bold.

    It's creating salary-cap space on the off chance that three superstars want to join forces in your organization and then holding a celebration as soon as the ink dries on the contracts. It's tuning out the haters to create a championship legacy. It's attempting to lead a franchise's first championship run or adding your own chapter to a storied organization.

    Oh, and it's also about ranking the top 10 free agents for 2020—excluding players likely to pick up their options, like Gordon Hayward and DeMar DeRozan—by age, ability and impact, then attaching a bold prediction about each one. We're here for that part.

10. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors (Unrestricted)

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Serge Ibaka joins Pelicans, becomes fifth 30-something with 100 threes and 100 blocks.

    In a perfect world, Ibaka would prefer to re-sign with the Raptors. But it's 2020; we might be several galaxies removed from a perfect world at this point.

    In this reality, he's likely to get squeezed out of Toronto's frontcourt. Once he hits the open market, he'll be joined there by teammates Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher. There probably isn't enough money to keep everyone, and if the Raptors are forced to choose between him and Gasol, they might prefer the latter's defensive communication, passing and floor-spacing.

    Ibaka would be highly coveted as an unrestricted free agent, but with his 31st birthday fast approaching, he should have his sights set on a win-now squad. The New Orleans Pelicans could scratch that itch, and they might need a new frontcourt partner for freshman phenom Zion Williamson as Derrick Favors is bound for free agency.

    Ibaka seems a snug fit as Williamson's running mate. Either works as a ball-screener, and Ibaka can unclog the offense (career-high 39.8 three-point percentage this season) and defend the opponent's best big.

    New Orleans probably will keep Ibaka at the rim as much as possible for maximum protection and lean on him heavier than Toronto did, since it doesn't have the same depth. That should give him a long enough leash to tally 100 blocks and 100 threes. He's hit both marks individually, but never in the same season (only 15 players ever have).

9. Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets (Unrestricted)

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Joe Harris is Brooklyn's third-leading scorer next season.

    Yes, we are aware the Nets are going third-star-hunting this offseason, but is that player even available? If the Washington Wizards wanted to move Bradley Beal or the New Orleans Pelicans were going to deal Jrue Holiday, they could have pulled the trigger already. Maybe a knock-your-socks-off kind of offer changes things, but a package built around Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen may fall just short.

    If Brooklyn can't find major external assistance, it can't afford to weaken itself internally. That means ponying up what it takes to keep Harris, even if that means doubling his $7.7 million salary. He may not be the most talented player on the roster, but he could prove to be the best complement to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. And being able to play off their collective gravitational pull could be a dream come true for a sharpshooter.

    "They're obviously incredible players," Harris told Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "You see what they're able to do when they are healthy and are playing. I don't see that there's anybody in the NBA who wouldn't want to play with those guys."

    Once Durant and Irving seize control of this offense, almost everyone will need to take a step back. Dinwiddie and LeVert are likely looking at the biggest cuts after both tying for 12th in the league with 3.2 isolation possessions per game. They can't keep getting those looks once it requires taking the ball away from Irving or Durant to do so.

    But Harris, who is the Nets' fourth-leading scorer this season with a career-high 13.9 points per game, could actually see his role expand when the stars return. They'll want to keep him involved to hold defenders' attention, and he'll be the recipient of even cleaner looks. Considering he's already posting a 64.9 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers, it's scary to think what he'll do playing alongside two elites.

8. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings (Restricted)

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Bogdan Bogdanovic averages 15 points and five assists for next season's Kings.

    Sacramento already signaled its intentions to bring Bogdanovic back in restricted free agency. More than once, actually. Giving him the starting gig over Buddy Hield roughly three months after giving the latter an $86 million extension was a pretty clear sign. The Kings doubled down on that commitment by keeping Bogdanovic at the deadline knowing the open market awaits him.

    But just in case this isn't crystal-clear, The Athletic's Jason Jones spelled it out in an April mailbag. Jones labeled Bogdanovic's free agency the Kings' "top priority" and said they "intend to match any offer sheet from another team."

    Sacramento believes in Bogdanovic, and he's not a hard sell as a versatile 27-year-old. That belief could push Hield to the trade market, but even if it doesn't, it seems likely a new Bogdanovic deal could bring an expanded role with it.

    More minutes might be all he needs to supply per-game contributions of 15 points and five assists (he's at 17.1 and 4.4 per 36 minutes, respectively, for his career). Those aren't jump-off-the-page numbers, but only 31 players have posted them this season. If Bogdanovic joins that club, it could be the internal lift this franchise needs to get over the playoff hump.

7. Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons (Unrestricted)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Christian Wood becomes Pistons' first Most Improved Player award winner.

    There's a chance we're massively overvaluing Wood here since five years into his pro career, he's received his first consistent role around the turn of the new year and only looked like a difference-maker once the Pistons pounded the reset button. There's also a chance we're underselling a 24-year-old unicorn-in-training, as he flashed difference-making characteristics when Detroit cleared the runway (22.3 points and 9.5 rebounds over his final 15 outings).

    Applying the Goldilocks Principle, though, that should make this ranking just right for a player with promise but no track record of consistent production.

    The Pistons have to see where this is headed. Even if the stats are a bit inflated because of the lack of support around him, his game is legitimate.

    There's no way to fake being 6'10" with a 7'3" wingspan, skill and athleticism. He's a 36.8 percent three-point shooter on nearly 200 attempts, and he can finish above the rim. Defensively, he provides a presence in the paint (career 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes), and he can handle switches on the perimeter.

    Detroit should cover whatever his free agency costs, and considering the state of this roster, he'll have a chance to run wild next season. Even if Blake Griffin gets healthy, Wood will have become the future of the franchise, and his shot total will reflect that. He could be a nightly source of 20 points and 10 boards per game for an entire season, and if he hits those marks in 2020-21, that statistical growth could earn him MIP honors.

6. Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards (Unrestricted)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Davis Bertans becomes third member of the 300 three-pointers club.

    No matter to what degree Bertans breaks the bank this offseason, the Wizards will be the ones signing his checks. They've already said as much and then put their money where their mouth was by declining trade offers from virtually every contender.

    He's a big factor in their belief that they can compete again once a (hopefully) healthy John Wall rejoins a never-been-better Bradley Beal. With two guards who can do damage off the dribble, the perks of having a 6'10" sniper with a 41.4 career three-point percentage speak for themselves.

    But once Washington reaches a new deal with Bertans—potentially skyrocketing his earnings from his current $7 million salary—it will need to get its money's worth for the investment. That means making his neon-green light a permanent piece of this offense and watching him let it fly at any and every opportunity.

    The Wizards already know he can maintain his efficiency with an absurd amount of volume. He launched 8.7 threes per night this season and converted 42.4 percent of them. Among the 52 players to attempt at least six threes per game, he was one of only three to shoot 42-plus percent.

    If he merely matches this season's volume (3.7 makes per game), he would finish an 82-game season with 303 triples. But there's a chance he could play more (he's only at 29.3 minutes), especially if the Wizards pay him a ton—with more floor time comes more net-shredding chances.

5. Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder (Unrestricted)

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Danilo Gallinari helps guide Heat to 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.

    Maybe Miami will prove this take wrong, but the team appears to have one Gallinari-sized hole in its playoff plans. That's probably why the Heat pursued him to the point of discussing a contract extension at the deadline before the deal fell apart at the half-yard line.

    "I like Gallo," Heat president Pat Riley said, per Anthony Chiang of the Miami Herald. "And I think he would have fit in here really well, but it didn't work out."

    Miami can make it work this offseason, as Gallinari hits a market with few win-now teams outside of South Beach that have money to spend. His fit with the Heat will make as much sense as it did at the deadline.

    The team needs more scoring threats, particularly ones with three-point range and an ability to create off the dribble. Gallo owns a 42.1 three-point percentage since the start of last season (ninth-best among players with 100-plus makes), and he's hitting a solid 35.1 percent on pull-up threes. More than half of his two-point field goals and over 11 percent of his threes have been unassisted over his career.

    He isn't the most versatile defender, but he doesn't have to be when Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala are around to take on the toughest matchups. In return, Gallinari can give this group the offensive weapon it needs to reach next season's conference finals.

4. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers (Unrestricted)

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Montrezl Harrell finds a starting gig in Charlotte and leads Hornets in points and rebounds.

    Harrell has played 318 games in his five-year career and only started 25 of them. Does that mean he's incapable of joining the opening group or just that he best fits what the Clippers want to do by coming off the bench?

    His lack of size (6'7", 240 lbs) poses problems in certain matchups, but on teams without as much depth as the Clippers, he might have a path to the first five. If he gets to the Hornets, who reside in his home state of North Carolina, he could not only zip past Cody Zeller for the starting center spot, but Harrell could bully his way to the top of the offensive food chain.

    His 18.6 points per game—again, almost entirely contributed off the bench—are more than any Hornet averaged this season. He hit that mark (and 7.1 rebounds, which would tie Zeller for the team lead) despite getting just 27.8 minutes a night. If he could land in a featured role, he could bump his production to an All-Star level.

    The Kemba Walker-less Hornets need an identity on offense. While Harrell doesn't quite have the talent of a tone-setter, on this roster, he'd at least give it some direction. Charlotte has the league's least efficient attack on isolations and plays finished by pick-and-roll screeners. Harrell ranks among the 83rd percentile or better in both.

    He's limited enough to land just outside of our top three, but his skills are sharpened to the point he could price his way out of L.A. and become a go-to option in Charlotte.

3. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors (Unrestricted)

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: VanVleet stays in Toronto and replaces Kyle Lowry as Raptors' second All-Star.

    With the Raptors carefully tracking their spending ahead of what they hope will be a transformational offseason in 2021, it's possible a team like the New York Knicks or Detroit Pistons lures VanVleet back south of the border with a blank check. The Wichita State product is, after all, the best point guard on the market (by a mile) and someone who can play on or off the ball and cause all kinds of havoc at the defensive end.

    But he'd like to stay put if he can, and Toronto should be able to afford his new deal and still have the funds to chase impossibly big dreams next summer. Besides, with just four seasons under his belt—only one spent as a full-time starter—there's a decent chance the league hasn't seen his best yet.

    It's an enticing possibility, since he's already one of just 14 players averaging 17 points, six assists and two three-pointers. It's even more intriguing when considering he ranks fourth among that star-studded group with 2.7 defensive win shares. In other words, he can be a full-fledged floor general at both ends of the floor. While the Raptors already have a great one in Kyle Lowry, VanVleet is a near replica of his All-Star backcourt mate.

    "We're talking about two undersized point guards who approach the game with the same type of intelligence and intensity, both of whom are leaders, and both of whom defend far beyond their size would suggest, taking every marginal edge they can find to create advantages where some don't see those opportunities," The Athletic's Blake Murphy wrote.

    If VanVleet enters next season—the last on Lowry's deal—with a colossal new contract, Toronto could subtly start the changing-of-the-guard process. They could still share the starting backcourt duties, but if VanVleet gets the edge in usage, that could be all he needs to take Lowry's place alongside Pascal Siakam in the All-Star Game.

2. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans (Restricted)

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Brandon Ingram gets full five-year max offer from Pelicans as soon as market opens.

    For an up-and-coming club with a 20-year-old centerpiece (Zion Williamson), re-signing a 22-year-old, first-time All-Star seems like a no-brainer. But whenever Ingram's free agency comes up, it's hardly seen as a certainty that New Orleans will greet him with the biggest possible offer.

    "I wonder if [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] will hardball [Ingram] and say, 'Get an offer,'" one executive told ESPN's Tim Bontemps. "Where is he getting it from?"

    It's a fair question to ask, as cap space was at a premium before the COVID-19 pandemic clouded the Association's financial picture. If a major money offer comes in, the Pelicans can simply match it, as Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor reported they're expected to do. But if that offer isn't out there, it might make sense from a business standpoint to stay patient and wait for Ingram's asking price to decrease.

    As our prediction suggests, though, we don't think the reward is worth the risk. Maybe the Pels save a few million dollars here or there, but what if the offer sheet is shorter than they'd like? What if opt-outs take control away from the franchise? What if this sours Ingram on the Crescent City? Even worse, what if Williamson interprets it as a sign this organization won't do whatever it takes to win?

    The Pelicans shouldn't make this complicated. This season's Ingram—he's one of eight players averaging 24 points, six boards and four dimes—is worthy of a full five-year max commitment. He should get better going forward, and the franchise won't want to miss that.

1. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (Player Option)

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Bold Prediction: Anthony Davis returns to Lakers and becomes their first MVP in over a decade.

    Are spoiler alerts required when plot points are already universally known? Well, just to protect ourselves, let's start with this—spoiler alert!—before getting to the obvious: Davis is going nowhere in free agency.

    After seven seasons in New Orleans where his historic production yielded only two playoff trips and one series win due to improper support, he's now competing for a crown with the NBA's actual king. The Davis-LeBron James combo is cheat-code dominant, and the Hollywood spotlight around the Purple and Gold ensures every bit of Davis' brilliance is acknowledged and lionized.

    So, yeah, non-bold prediction: Davis is staying put, probably on a two-year deal with a third-year option. That contract structure lets him reenter the market when he's eligible for the highest possible payday as a 10-year veteran and keeps pressure on the front office to supplement this roster for whenever James ages out of his prime.

    As for the boldness, our crystal ball sees Davis becoming the first Laker to earn MVP honors since the late, great Kobe Bryant hoisted the hardware in 2007-08. Yes, this means James won't win it this season, but we told you that already. We do, however, see Davis snapping what will be a two-year run for Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2020-21.

    James may well be a cyborg, but with his 36th birthday looming in December, it'll be torch-passing time sooner than later. Davis is ready to support a heavyweight contender right now—the 27-year-old trails only James and Michael Jordan in career player efficiency rating—and voters will appreciate the fact he dominates at both ends.


    All stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Stathead unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.