Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2020 NBA Free Agents
Gaining a feel for the 2020 NBA free-agency market is a fool's errand. Too many questions remain unanswered to approach this offseason with confidence.
Where will the salary cap settle from its initial $115 million projection? Will it stay at this year's $109.1 million? Be artificially inflated? Fail to stay even lateral? How will all of this impact the luxury-tax line and apron? Will it mirror this season's markers? Stick with the initial forecasts?
And most importantly: How will the financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, both those from this year and the hits yet to come, impact spending? Will teams be less likely to use their mid-level exceptions and cap space? Will good players get squeezed into unexpectedly low price points? Does a cap-poor market incentivize short-term deals? Or will the league's state of lurch prompt players to seek more big-picture security?
Anyone else exhausted?
Near-comprehensive ambiguity is, for now, the free-agency standard. This quest to suss out dark-horse destinations for the top available names unfurls with that in mind. Everything is presented under the guise that next year's salary cap will come in at $109.1 million, and that teams with the bandwidth to spend will, well, spend.
Please don't consider this a complete free-agent ranking. Certain top names will be excluded, as you'll see. The focus is on the best players who also profile as flight risks. Their offbeat landing spots are determined with the goal of journeying away from the most exhausted suggestions and into long-yet-not-too-long-shot territory—a baseline that allows for the exploration of sign-and-trade scenarios and franchises' Plan B's, C's and D's.
Notable Player Options
- Mike Conley (early termination option)
- Anthony Davis
- DeMar DeRozan
- Andre Drummond
- Evan Fournier
- Tim Hardaway Jr.
- Gordon Hayward
Anthony Davis is the only player from this group guaranteed to opt out of his contract, and he's not leaving the Los Angeles Lakers on the heels of a conference finals bid and potential NBA Finals appearance, if not an actual title.
Everyone else is almost certainly finishing out the final year of their deals and won't hit the open market. Evan Fournier stands as the most likely exception, but not one strong enough to warrant an alternative-destination brainstorm.
Notable Restricted Free Agents
- Malik Beasley
- Bogdan Bogdanovic
- Brandon Ingram
Higher-end restricted free agents are difficult to poach when incumbent teams have the right to match any offer. And surefire max candidates are the hardest of all to whisk away. Current squads can see those overtures coming months, if not years, in advance.
That effectively eliminates Brandon Ingram. Prospective suitors can try making the New Orleans Pelicans uncomfortable by tendering a max offer, but they wouldn't have kept him past the trade deadline if they weren't prepared to open the vault.
Neither Malik Beasley nor Bogdan Bogdanovic should net anything close to the max, which theoretically renders them greater flight risks. But so few squads have cap space, it probably doesn't matter. The list of potential admirers who can toss them inflated deals tops out at, maybe, a half-dozen, and they don't have the possible-cornerstone clout to invite near-max offer sheets.
Sign-and-trade scenarios could be on the table, but this assumes their respective teams will play ball. That's not a small ask when both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings will be looking to keep Beasley and Bogdanovic, respectively.
Bogdanovic is probably more stealable. New Kings general manager Monte McNair may not be as married to him as Vlade Divac. But that feels like an inkling more likely to be addressed at next season's trade deadline or by moving Buddy Hield instead.
Do They Have Dark-Horse Landing Spots?
- Davis Bertans
- Montrezl Harrell
This tier of notable exclusions is awkward. Davis Bertans and Montrezl Harrell are both quality names and easily top-10 free agents relative to actual flight risks. They should land agreements worth noticeably more per year than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception.
But from where is the dark-horse offer coming? Few teams are working with more than the MLE, and among the ones that most likely will be—Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, New York Knicks—not many have a clear-cut need for either.
Sure, we could say Charlotte for Harrell and then Atlanta or New York for Bertans. But those aren't landing spots out of left field. They're the usual suspects. Scroll through the rest of the league, and an obvious sign-and-trade spot doesn't reveal itself. Maybe the Philadelphia 76ers for Bertans, but they'd be hard-pressed to finish that transaction below the luxury-tax apron.
Don't twist this into something it isn't meant to be. Bertans (flamethrower) and Harrell (thundering offensive finisher) are valuable. Unless they become baggable for the MLE, they're just more likely to stay put or end up exactly where you'd expect them to.
Goran Dragic: Orlando Magic
Many factors need to align for Goran Dragic and the Orlando Magic to sync up in free agency. First, he needs to price himself out of Miami's plans. That's not difficult to envision, though it's hardly a given.
Even if the Heat are bent on keeping their books clean for 2021 free agency, they can offer Dragic a gargantuan one-year deal. A 34-year-old might be more interested in a long-term agreement, but his market outside Miami could be the non-taxpayer mid-level exception if he wishes to join a playoff team. A three-year contract at that price point, should the MLE go unchanged, would net him slightly under $30 million.
The Heat can give him that for one year. It's basically his free-agent cap hold ($28.8 million).
Maybe Miami has no interest in going that high, and perhaps Dragic wants to guarantee himself more than $20-something million in his next deal. That opens the door his departure.
Which brings us to the next issue: The Magic have to enter the conversation for his services. They need a point guard who can run the offense, shoot and probe set defenses like Dragic, but he'll have a bunch of other suitors peddling the MLE, many of whom will be better positioned to contend. Orlando can sell its proximity to Miami, if he doesn't want to uproot his life, but the team needs to separate itself with a fatter contract offer.
Herein lies the next obstacle: Dragic has to like the Magic enough for them and the Heat to explore sign-and-trade scenarios. This might be the easiest step.
If Dragic is leaving Miami and considering Orlando, finding middle ground shouldn't be too hard. The Heat aren't getting Aaron Gordon or the injured Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL, meniscus), but the Magic could have Fournier's expiring contract to dangle, and Jimmy Butler will need another shot creator aside from Tyler Herro if Dragic is out of the picture. And that return would just so happen to jibe with their plan to go star-hunting in 2021.
Orlando might be reluctant to give up its second-leading scorer, but the hesitation should be short-lived. Dragic replaces Fournier's point totals and off-ball fit beside Markelle Fultz while injecting a boatload more playmaking. He is only a no-go if the front office is looking to about-face into a rebuild.
Danilo Gallinari: Los Angeles Lakers
Danilo Gallinari isn't landing with the Los Angeles Lakers without help—a lot of help.
Getting the Oklahoma City Thunder on board with a sign-and-trade is paramount. The Lakers will only have the non-taxpayer mid-level at their disposal, and Gallinari should fetch more. That's not the end of the world.
Oklahoma City appears headed for the rebuild it was supposed to enter after it traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook last offseason. That reset won't include a 32-year-old Gallinari. Some teams might be reluctant to break bread with the Lakers, but if the Thunder aren't itching to immediately contend in the Western Conference, they won't be among them.
Netting compensation for a player they may otherwise let walk is more in line with their future. The Lakers don't have any prime-time assets to offer, but they can build packages around expiring contracts and the No. 28 pick.
Cobbling together enough outgoing money without including Danny Green will be the real challenge. It depends on where Gallinari's price point falls and how many incumbents exercise their player options. Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo all become useful salary filler if they forgo the chance to explore free agency.
A package assembled around Bradley, McGee and Quinn Cook (non-guaranteed) would let the Lakers start Gallinari at around $17.2 million. They can drive up that number by dealing the No. 28 pick as an actual salary, including yet another player or subbing in KCP's money for anyone.
Is this enough to get the Thunder to bite? Debatable. It is definitely more appealing if they're saving immediate cash in any eventual Chris Paul trade.
This is much less of a question for the Lakers. Gallinari forces Anthony Davis to play more 5 or for head coach Frank Vogel to roll out supersized lineups with two bigs, Gallo and LeBron James, but that shouldn't be a deal-breaker. The Lakers can get creative with how they stagger minutes if AD won't, finally, warm up to being a full-time 5. Gallinari is most valuable to them as a shot creator (and foul-drawer) who can inoculate their half-court offense against huge drop-offs without LeBron anyway.
Jerami Grant (Player Option): Toronto Raptors
Jerami Grant isn't joining the Toronto Raptors without collateral damage. They won't have cap space if they run it back. The non-taxpayer mid-level exception will be their ceiling, and he's not declining his player option to sign another contract for roughly the same annual rate. If for some reason he does, the Denver Nuggets will be the ones paying him.
Toronto only enters the Grant conversation if its offseason goes nuclear. Put another way: Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet probably all need to leave.
That reads ridiculously on its face. The Raptors came within one win of the Eastern Conference Finals. Seismic turnover is not the default.
It might still be the endgame.
VanVleet feels like Toronto's tipping point. If he commands a price tag team president Masai Ujiri has no problem shelling out, he'll return and there will be more motivation to bring back Gasol and/or Ibaka on short-term pacts.
But VanVleet could get bonkers money from one of the cap-rich teams—the Pistons, Knicks or even Hawks. Other potential suitors such as the Dallas Mavericks or Phoenix Suns could also clear room to make him a monster offer. His future in Toronto becomes a lot less secure if he's costing $20-plus million per year—particularly if Ujiri has his eye on the 2021 free-agency class.
Letting him walk would pave the way for more drastic measures. The Raptors could run it back with everyone else. They could look to reset around OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam and not only bid farewell to Ibaka and Gasol, but also gauge the market for Kyle Lowry. Or they could try to find a middle ground—a pivot that spares their cap sheet's malleability without consigning them to a gap year or worse.
Signing Grant would mesh with the latter scenario. The Raptors should have more than $20 million in cap space if all their own free agents leave. That might be enough to bag him and one of Gasol or Ibaka.
And while they'd miss VanVleet's shot creation, Grant fits their frenetic defensive model. He has four-position range, can give them minutes as the small-ball 5 and makes it easier to roll out Siakam as the lone big. His floor game isn't advanced enough to do much more than attack closeouts, but his 39.1 percent clip from downtown over the past two seasons is very plug-and-play.
Once more: The half-court offense would still be a concern, especially if the 2021 free agent the Raptors have goo-goo eyes for is Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the half-court offense is a wart now, and it'll be a sore spot regardless of who they reel in if VanVleet leaves.
Toronto is better off banking on Siakam to tighten his handle and decision-making in traffic than overthinking how to offset FVV's (hypothetical) departure.
Joe Harris: Atlanta Hawks
Landing Joe Harris wouldn't help the Atlanta Hawks move Trae Young off the ball much more frequently, if at all. He has some semblance of a floor game—he shot better than 50 percent on drives during the regular season and can pass his way out of collapsing defenses—but isn't a from-scratch creator.
The Hawks can live with that. They still need what he predominantly brings: a crap-ton of shooting. Atlanta finished last in three-point efficiency this year, and Harris' 43.9 percent clip from long distance over the past three seasons comes on a nice blend of spot-ups, quick-fire looks coming around screens and the semi-occasional pull-up jumper.
Putting him beside Young will ensure the offense hums. The spacing he guarantees should also help the Hawks navigate some of the minutes they log without their star. What Harris does best is universally translatable—a for fit for every team, regardless of timeline.
Prying him away from the Brooklyn Nets won't be as seamless, assuming it's even possible. He is mission-critical to the full-strength version of a roster with so many ball-handlers. Brooklyn should—it must—be willing to back up the Brinks trucks.
But the Hawks have the spending power to come over the top...and then back again. They can eke out more than $40 million in space even if, as expected, the cap holds serve.
Offering Harris an ultra-lavish two- or three-year deal that exceeds anything the Nets were expecting—say, $17 million annually?—could do the trick. Brooklyn might think twice about going so high when it already forecasts as a taxpayer, and while Atlanta would be overpaying, it has the flexibility necessary to bankroll an overaggressive short-term pact.
Marcus Morris Sr.: Miami Heat
Marcus Morris Sr. won't come cheap if the Los Angeles Clippers want to keep him. They don't have his Bird rights but can offer him up to 120 percent of this year's $15 million salary, which would check in at $18 million. That arms them with plenty of leverage against, well, pretty much anyone.
For their part, the Heat might have the cap space to go after Morris hard. Just how hard depends on their own free agents. They won't have any breathing room if they carry holds for Jae Crowder ($14.8 million) and Goran Dragic ($28.8 million). Both could go for much less than their opening cap hits, but re-signing both still probably takes Miami out of the running for those who will cost noticeably more than the mid-level exception—even if Kelly Olynyk declines his player option.
Morris becomes a more realistic target if the Heat move on from one or both of Crowder and Dragic. What they're willing to pay would remain tied to their 2021 free-agency ambitions, but he might be among the select players open to inking a bloated one-year deal, just as he did this past season.
Miami also has the option of not preserving its powder. It is one win away from the NBA Finals. Capitalizing on this window may demand immediate multiyear commitments, and that doesn't entirely remove the Heat from the available-star discussions. Having another mid-tier salary on the books would make it easier for them to match money in prospective trade negotiations down the road.
Anyway, Morris fits whatever iteration of the roster Miami rolls out next season. It doesn't matter if Crowder is coming back. Having him, Morris, Butler and Andre Iguodala is more than workable, particularly when the latter turns 37 in January. Morris adds more than a dab of shot creation, can down catch-and-shoot threes and optimizes the Heat's overarching portability on defense, as someone who can capably guard 2 through 4 and, in some cases, sponge up small-ball-5 reps.
Fred VanVleet: Dallas Mavericks
Going after Fred VanVleet could come at a stark opportunity cost for the Dallas Mavericks. They have a brief window, next offseason, in which they can chisel out max room before Luka Doncic's next contract is on the table. Adding a pricey player would likely remove them from the superstar sweepstakes, headlined by Antetokounmpo, in 2021.
Then again, this doesn't have to be viewed as an either-or proposition. The Mavericks still have plausible paths to max room in 2021 if they add a $20 million or so player before next year. The math is tighter and the preliminary moves more complicated, but it's possible. Also, cap space isn't as important as general curb appeal. Teams will figure out a way to make room if a top-20-or-better player indicates he wants to sign with them.
Taking that rosy view admittedly doesn't simplify a VanVleet pursuit. Dallas isn't scheduled for cap space unless Tim Hardaway Jr. declines his $18.9 million player option, which borders on unfathomable.
Jettisoning him into another squad's cap space is always a possibility, but that limits the Mavericks to a market of roughly four teams—if they're lucky. Sign-and-trade scenarios with Toronto might be easier to hash out. VanVleet is only leaving if he prices himself out of town, and the Mavericks can offer Hardaway and Justin Jackson, both of whom are on expiring deals, in addition to the No. 18 or No. 31 pick to grease the wheels.
Traveling such lengths is worth that level of asset concession. Dallas needs another shot-creation weapon next to Doncic. A healthy Kristaps Porzingis doesn't quite cut it. He's not suited for post work or for high-volume off-the-dribble attacks from the outside in. Hardaway and Seth Curry are the next best in-house options to fill this void. That isn't good enough for the Mavericks to leave their pecking order untouched—not after posting a bottom-five offensive rating during crunch time.
VanVleet addresses that second-option issue. He isn't the best finisher or most effective pick-and-roll initiator, but he stretches defenses both on and off the ball. He banged in 44 percent of his spot-up threes this season, and his attacks inside the arc, while touch-and-go when he's looking for his own shot, are actions around which defenses collapse. And perhaps best of all, unlike Gallinari, his secondary scoring doesn't come at the expense of Dallas' already stops-starved defense.
Christian Wood: New York Knicks
This is not a "The Knicks want to sign all the big men!" joke. Promise.
Christian Wood is a quality fit. They need a frontcourt body who pairs nicely with both Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. It isn't Bobby Portis (team option). Nor is it Taj Gibson ($1 million guaranteed). It might be whoever they draft at No. 8, but rookie additions are typically slow burns.
Rolling the dice on Wood would be more immediate and wouldn't disregard the bigger picture. He'll be 25 when next season tips off; he won't age out of a rebuild for a couple of years. More than that, he doesn't pigeonhole the Knicks into a front-line direction.
Wood can play the 4 or 5, spacing the floor around whomever's his partner. He splashed in 38.6 percent of his triples this season on 3.8 attempts per 36 minutes, and better still, has more to offer. As yours truly wrote in February:
"The depth of his scoring makes him a tough case to solve for defenses. He is comfortable squaring up for standstill triples, fanning out behind the rainbow, running into quick catch-and-fire opportunities, slipping to the baskets off screens, beating closeouts off the dribble and even driving baseline, through traffic, and creating his own looks at the rim. ...
Wood has even shown some slightly more advanced decision-making as a passer. He can throw dimes from set perimeter positions to teammates cutting toward the basket, and in recent outings, he's exhibited more of a knack for finding shooters while on the move."
Lineups featuring Randle and Wood up front could be sieves at the other end, but that's true of any arrangement including Randle. Wood is at least committed to covering a ton of ground. Showing more off-ball discipline will fast-track him toward net-positive defensive contributions, even if he's never a presence around the rim rival offenses genuinely fear. (He owned Detroit's third-best defensive-rating swing this season, but that came amid a ton of backup minutes.)
Convincing Wood to leave the Pistons is the Knicks' more pressing concern. They aren't going to steal him. Detroit only has his Early Bird rights but is also one of the few teams with cap space. Letting him go needs to become a matter of preference—of price point.
New York has the financial juice to make it happen. Atlanta is the sole squad with more projected wiggle room. Actualizing that space will entail the Knicks' declining Portis' club option and waiving all of their non-guaranteed deals, but that's not a problem. Nor is it necessary. Poaching Wood won't require max or near-max room. Something in the $16 million range or slightly higher has to get the Pistons thinking twice (right?), even if it's over the short term.