5 Ways the Next NBA Season Will Impact 2021 Free Agency
The 2020-21 NBA season is coming, and it's coming fast, if reports on a Dec. 22 start date from The Athletic's Shams Charania are any indication.
So while we still have the 2020 draft, this offseason's free agency and an entire season to play before considering the loaded 2021 free-agent class, well...it doesn't feel so wrong to look that far ahead when the league's pace seems stuck on overdrive.
All of the unknowns—the draft and the more immediate set of free agents—make prognosticating next year's free agency difficult. We have to cling to the few certainties we have.
For instance, we know 2021 free agency will feature far more star power than this year's edition, and we also know several teams have been organizing their finances in anticipation of that bumper crop of talent. In addition, a handful of pressure-packed situations in Milwaukee and Los Angeles will have an impact on the market.
It's possible Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will lead a 2021 free-agent class that could flip the league landscape upside down...or preserve the status, depending on how things shake out.
With 2020-21 rosters unsettled, draft picks unselected and games unplayed, we're absolutely getting ahead of ourselves. But if you aren't looking ahead, you get left behind.
The Giannis Fallout
We may get clarity on Giannis Antetkounmpo's future before next offseason, which would render the most consequential unknown issue of 2021 moot. If the back-to-back MVP signs a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks prior to the start of upcoming campaign, teams that had been clearing space and gearing up for a free-agency run at Antetokounmpo will pivot to their Plan Bs.
Though that outcome would cause less chaos than the alternative, it would still create the possibility of upheaval. If the Bucks lock Antetokounmpo down, teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and others could suddenly fix their sights on Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyle Lowry or whichever high-profile members of the 2017 draft class hit restricted free agency. (More on that list shortly.)
Antetokounmpo might not sign an extension with the Bucks this offseason because there's virtually no risk for him. Kevin Durant tore his Achilles at age 30 and got a four-year max deal weeks later. Antetokounmpo, heaven forbid, could suffer a catastrophic injury and expect similarly undiminished earning power.
If Milwaukee wins a ring, Antetokounmpo's odds of staying put will skyrocket, while anything short of a championship would make his exit likelier. It seems fair to assume that the closer the Bucks come to winning it all, the better their chances at retaining Giannis will be.
Antetokounmpo's potential 2021 free agency had an impact on how teams operated this past season, how they'll spend in the coming weeks, the decisions they'll make during the 2020-21 campaign and, of course, next offseason.
Nothing will affect 2021 free agency quite like Giannis' next (and possibly final) year with the Bucks.
Closing the Clippers' Window?
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George aren't the cornerstones for a dynasty. How could anyone argue otherwise when both can opt out of their contracts and hit free agency after the 2020-21 season?
Dynasties are built to last. This Los Angeles Clippers team is, in contrast, impermanent.
This team's contention window was always going to be finite, especially because it depended on Leonard, a player who isn't known for loyalty or sentimentality. That Los Angeles parted ways with head coach Doc Rivers following a disappointing end to 2019-20 highlights the urgency surrounding this team.
If the Clips come up woefully short of a championship again, after changing coaches and likely making significant alterations to the roster this offseason, there isn't just a chance that one or both of Leonard and George could be gone. It should be the expectation.
Leonard will be 30 next offseason. George will be 31. Whether they intend to stay in Los Angeles or not, both seem like locks to opt out and seek larger, longer-term salaries. By then, each will be eligible for pay bumps based on accumulating 10 years of service in the NBA.
If Antetokounmpo is off the market, and if we assume LeBron James and Anthony Davis aren't going anywhere, Leonard would become the league's most coveted 2021 free agent. He, not Antetokounmpo, would suddenly have the full attention of Dallas, Miami and any other team with the ability to clear max room.
If Leonard and/or George were to opt out after a rough year, the Clippers would also find themselves with unexpectedly large reserves of cap space. It's possible they'll have two max slots to chase replacement stars, and considering the allure L.A. has for free agents, the Clippers would be major players on the market.
It's probably true that the Bucks are under more pressure than any other team in 2020-21. But don't forget that in addition to possibly losing their two best players in free agency, the Clippers, unlike Milwaukee, gave up massive draft capital to build this roster. George cost the Clips five first-round picks and swap rights on two more.
The big market helps with free agency, but L.A. can't rebuild through the draft if things go south.
A Potentially Loaded Class of Restricted Free Agents
Members of the 2017 rookie class are eligible for extensions this offseason, and those that don't sign one (or aren't offered in the first place) will enter restricted free agency in 2021.
it's hard to imagine Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell, the cream of the 2017 crop, not inking extensions. We should probably add De'Aaron Fox to that list as well. The Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz will have their offers ready the second they're allowed to convey them, while the Sacramento Kings may not be far behind.
But Bam Adebayo, whose playoff run with the Miami Heat suggested he belongs in the class' top tier, is another story.
The Heat may be the team most conspicuously keeping their 2021 books clean for a pursuit of Antetokounnpo. Although they surely want Adebayo around for his upcoming prime years, they may not be willing to lock him down this offseason. Miami will still have the advantage of restricted free agency, which allows them to match any outside offer, but postponing an extension Adebayo clearly deserves to maximize cap space could create some issues.
Perhaps he'll be upset and less motivated than he'd otherwise be in 2020-21—unlikely given his work ethic and professionalism to this point, but certainly more likely than if the Heat extend him early, right?
Adebayo's is an unusual case, but plenty of other notable extension-eligible players will play the 2020-21 season with restricted free agency looming at the end. It isn't out of the question that John Collins, OG Anunoby, Lauri Markkanen or even someone further down the list like No. 29 pick Derrick White will play well enough to warrant max or near-max compensation by the time 2021 free agency rolls around.
Much will change based on 2020 free agency, but nearly half of the teams in the league are slated to be in the neighborhood of max cap space in 2021. That could produce a robust bidding war for whichever 2017 rookies don't sign extensions this offseason and subsequently bust out.
The Resurrection of Centers?
Chances are, the NBA won't reverse momentum on its marginalization of centers. It doesn't feel like we've reached the outer limits of pace and space just yet, which means old-school bigs and interior play will continue to take a back seat to positional versatility and three-point shooting.
The do-it-all wing will probably stay king. However, the 2020 playoffs offered small reminders that stylistic preferences are reactionary. Dependent. Even cyclical.
The rise of zone defenses made interior size and rebounding more valuable, and we even saw Nikola Jokic go full bully ball on several old-school backdowns against overmatched "modern" centers. Sure, Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis, a pair of ultra-skilled bigs that most likely represent the future of the position, mattered most in the end. But Joel Embiid, Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Ivica Zubac and even Dwight Howard all had meaningful roles during the 2019-20 season and in the playoffs.
If the 2020-21 season is a copycat extension of the 2020 playoffs, we might see increased usage of zone looks. And as more and more teams feature smaller front lines, the aforementioned behemoths could see more opportunities to exploit shrunken opponents in the post and on the boards.
Confirmation that conventional bigs still have real uses would be big news for Gobert, a potential unrestricted free agent in 2021 and easily the best center who could hit the market. But it would also impact free agency for Andre Drummond, Richaun Holmes, Steven Adams, Jarrett Allen and several other bigs who thought they were ticketed for underwhelming deals.
The 2020-21 season will go a long way toward determining teams' willingness to spend on centers.
LeBron's Last Stop?
You can't omit the most significant player of the last 20 years when discussing the NBA's near and mid-term future. So although there's no sign LeBron James will leave the Los Angeles Lakers if he opts out of the final year of his deal in the 2021 offseason, we have to at least acknowledge his future is uncertain beyond the upcoming campaign.
Assuming Anthony Davis re-signs on anything longer than a one-plus-one deal during free agency, James will have a hard time finding a better place to play than Los Angeles. The Lakers' books are uncommonly clean beyond this season, a fact that'll change once AD re-ups and several rotation mainstays pick up player options, but still unusual nonetheless.
Depending on how hard of a line general manager Rob Pelinka wants to draw on contract length, the Lakers could hit 2021 free agency with Davis and almost nobody else under contract for 2021-22. For now, L.A. has exactly four possible commitments for that season: James' player option, qualifying offers for Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker and Luol Deng's stretched $5 million salary.
Assuming he has influence over roster decisions (which we should absolutely assume), LeBron could have a practically blank slate in 2021. Of course, if the Lakers have a down year or Davis isn't keen to commit for some reason, James could also enter free agency himself. In that sense, the 2020-21 season could completely upend 2021 free agency.
Unlikely as James leaving the Lakers seems, nothing is impossible. And the last three times LeBron has changed teams, he's delivered a title within two seasons. Just something to file away for a few months...