5 Teams Desperate to Make a Splash in 2020 NBA Free Agency
As play in Disney's bubble nears its completion, many NBA front offices are focusing on the 2020-21 season.
The league experienced its share of firsts in resuming play amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the offseason will be no different. Free agency is slated for Oct. 18, nearly four months later than normal—and even that might be pushed back, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Diminished spending is expected to follow the losses in box office revenue, but several teams will still enter the transactional window looking to dramatically improve their odds.
Typically, those without hopes of contending might consider absorbing exorbitant salaries to gain draft assets. However, following the unlikely lottery success of teams such as New Orleans in 2019 and Charlotte in 2020, franchises might press their luck.
Also, many of the teams with the most to spend were sidelined from bubble participation and may feel a bit more desperate to improve their odds than normal. And of course, win-now teams are always willing to add whatever firepower they can to go from pretender to true contender.
Many franchises will make themselves players via trade. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers will likely be some of the biggest movers and shakers in the trade market but are excluded from this exercise. We are targeting teams with the cap space to add a costly difference-maker.
Here are our picks.
The Atlanta Hawks can't get any younger. After Vince Carter's retirement, the Hawks only have two players under contract with more than four seasons of NBA experience. They will likely add yet another top-10 pick to that mix unless they package the No. 6 selection for a veteran.
Should they use the pick, they can still become the NBA's biggest player in free agency with as much as $43.2 million projected in space.
Atlanta could take on exorbitant contracts to acquire future assets, but at some point, the team will need to start the path toward contention—and for Trae Young, that time is now.
The Hawks have plenty of holes. They need a backcourt facilitator who can take some pressure off Young. They need defense at every level. The two most notable free agents, Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram, will probably return to the Lakers and Pelicans, respectively, but plenty of talent will still be available.
Jordan Clarkson, 28, and Maurice Harkless, 27, could make low-cost additions to fill both voids and stay near the young core's timeline. Miami's Jae Crowder has been a bright spot in the bubble via his defense of Giannis Antetokounmpo and his three-point shooting and would be a marked improvement for the Hawks.
An unlikely high-cost target could be Detroit's Christian Wood. He would immediately bolster depth at the 4 and 5 behind John Collins and Clint Capela and become a focal point for the bench. Over his last 15 games, Wood was sensational, averaging 22.3 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 56.2 percent from the field and 41.0 percent from three on 4.1 attempts. At 24 years old, he's perfect for the Hawks' timeline.
Despite finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference, the Charlotte Hornets played their best basketball late, winning seven of their final 13 games. Led by Most Improved Player candidate Devonte' Graham, the Hornets are quietly building a promising core. Armed with the No. 3 pick, they'll look even better in 2020-21.
The Hornets have plenty of avenues to improve via trade and the draft. The third overall selection will elevate Charlotte's ceiling and possibly land the team a rim-running big man such as James Wiseman.
Uncertainty still surrounds Nicolas Batum, who played just 22 games last season and was often a healthy scratch. The Hornets can move his $27.1 million expiring contract (assuming he picks up his player option) to facilitate a swap with a team looking to move long-term salary and another win-now difference-maker (Blake Griffin, Kevin Love).
However, their greatest chance of improving from a fringe playoff team to a true threat will come through free agency. The Hornets should have the fourth-most spending power ($22.5 million) come late October.
Montrezl Harrell would make a dynamite addition and fill a glaring need. Charlotte finished 29th in offensive rating in 2019-20. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is the only player in the NBA to shoot 59 percent from the field while scoring at least 17 points per game the past two seasons. He'd help remove pressure from Graham and Terry Rozier while affording P.J. Washington a cushion on the wing.
Paul Millsap would make another underrated find after finishing 17th in defensive real plus-minus and third among power forwards. Serge Ibaka could upgrade center and give minutes at the 4, while Goran Dragic could follow his impressive bubble play with a massive payday.
If the Hornets improve via the draft, the trade market and free agency, they could become the Cinderella story of 2020-21.
The Detroit Pistons' immediate future is bleak. After moving two-time All-Star Andre Drummond in February, the team is led by two aging, health-related questions marks in Derrick Rose, 31, and Griffin, 31. Each probably deserves better than bottoming out in the Eastern Conference and could move to a contender at some point in 2020-21.
All is not lost for Pistons fans. Luke Kennard impressed as a playmaker and perimeter threat, nailing 39.9 percent of his 6.5 three-point attempts per game this season. The Pistons can hope for development from Sekou Doumbouya as well as this year's No. 7 pick.
Still, for their fortunes to reverse, they'll need to make a splash. Re-signing Wood could take much of the third-highest spending power this offseason, but the Pistons may instead place importance on a veteran leader in the backcourt who can organize the offense.
James Edwards III of The Athletic reported the Pistons were targeting Fred VanVleet as far back as January. VanVleet would more than capably fill the backcourt vacancy left by Reggie Jackson, who's also a free agent this offseason.
VanVleet was one of just 15 players to post at least 17.6 points and a minimum of 6.6 assists per game last season. Of those 15, only Damian Lillard shot better than VanVleet's 39.0 percent from three-point range (40.1 percent). An underrated defender, VanVleet also finished with 1.9 steals per game, good enough for third in the league.
Adding VanVleet to Kennard, Rose and Griffin (should they keep the pair), and a springy rim-protector like Onyeka Okongwu or a three-and-D wing like Devin Vassell might be enough to make the Pistons a playoff team again.
The Miami Heat have few holes, if any, thanks to their impressive display in Orlando. They have their veteran superstar and closer in Jimmy Butler, their 23-year-old All-Star and defensive anchor in Bam Adebayo, and shooters at every level. Though the Heat have the NBA's fifth-most cap space, they could easily use that money to bring back Dragic and Crowder.
Or, the Heat could move Kelly Olynyk (player option) and become a max-level suitor. In that instance, they'd be foolish not to kick the tires on restricted free agent De'Aaron Fox should the Kings not max him in free agency's opening moments. They could prod Davis and Ingram to see their commitment levels in Los Angeles and New Orleans, respectively. They could look for a fixture at point guard in VanVleet.
However, Pat Riley may have already tipped his hand at the deadline when the Heat nearly traded for impending free agent Danilo Gallinari. According to Wojnarowski, the Heat's intention was to bring in both Andre Iguodala and Gallinari. Crowder may have moved to Oklahoma City instead of Miami, but Minnesota replaced OKC in the three-team Miami-Memphis swap.
With Crowder's standout play, that may have worked out in Miami's favor. However, if Riley is still hung up on Gallo, he'd be getting one of the NBA's best scoring wings. Gallo was one of just 10 players to score at least 18.7 points per game while shooting over 40 percent from three. Imagine the shooting in a lineup of Butler, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Gallinari, with Adebayo at center.
Should a superstar such as Giannis become available, Gallinari could also become important for salary-matching purposes. Regardless, if Dragic and Crowder seek too rich a payday, Gallinari will make a fine prize in South Florida.
New York Knicks
In April, Ian Begley of SNY reported the New York Knicks front office said its best path forward remains to add a superstar via trade. It has the resources to do so, with intriguing assets such as RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, this year's No. 8 pick and future selections via Dallas.
The Knicks even have enough space to simply assume a contract and could do so to provide breathing room for franchises such as Detroit (Griffin), Cleveland (Love) or Oklahoma City (Chris Paul). Paul has already been the subject of frequent rumors involving the arguable mecca of professional basketball.
But if team president Leon Rose follows the more conventional path and uses the projected $41.5 million in cap space to acquire two difference-makers, they could make a staggering improvement under head coach Tom Thibodeau in his first year with the team.
The Knicks need veteran backcourt leadership. While Paul and VanVleet are the obvious candidates, the Knicks may prefer Dragic. At 34, he is still an exceptional player but probably wouldn't seek a contract beyond two or three seasons. The Knicks can offer a lucrative two-year, $36 million pact that he'd be hard-pressed to beat.
Wood and Gallinari would make other fine additions. Harrell would fill up the bucket but probably make for a clunky fit next to Robinson.
Instead, the Knicks should seek wing shooting. Davis Bertans should be a candidate for a rich, long-term deal given his size (6'10", 225 lbs), versatility and age (27). Malik Beasley is also the ideal three-and-D wing. Though he's restricted, a substantial offer may be enough to pry him from Minnesota.
However, Joe Harris might be had for a much more manageable price given his age (30 in September) and the Nets' financial restrictions. Harris graded in the 92nd percentile or better in effective field-goal percentage in each of the past three seasons and 90th or better from three-point range.
Adding Dragic and Harris may not be flashy, but they're guaranteed to improve the Knicks while keeping them flexible.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.