1 Free-Agency Prediction for Every NBA Team
Ready or not, here comes the start of 2021 NBA free agency.
Don't worry if you haven't yet stocked up on your own collection of educated guesses and gut feelings. We've prepared a batch of predictions just for this occasion, and there's enough for everyone's favorite team.
These free-agency hunches are not meant to be bold. Some, of course, will be on the spicier side. But rendering verdicts on unsettled matters or team needs is the primary objective.
Due to the relative shallowness of this year's free-agency crop, we're opening up this shindig to all sorts of post-draft transactions. Put another way: We will talk about trades! And trade candidates! And extensions!
Feel free to keep score as the offseason progresses on how many of these predictions flat-line and then yell at me about them. This is all in good fun. I'm not scared.
Well, maybe a little.
Atlanta Hawks: John Collins Signs a 5-Year Deal Worth Less Than the Max
John Collins turned down a $90 million extension from the Atlanta Hawks before the start of the season in a bet on himself that's about to pay off.
His regular-season performance coupled with a shallow free-agency pool ensures he'll get closer to—if not actual—max-contract offers. He saw his playing time decline in a more crowded frontcourt but still averaged 21.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes while downing 61.5 percent of his twos and 39.9 percent of his triples. No other player has ever hit all of those benchmarks in as much playing time.
Collins' postseason body of work only helped his case. His numbers didn't pop, and he struggled at times to knock down the three-ball, but he found ways to meaningfully contribute amid an awkward role. Playing next to Clint Capela so much means Collins cannot be the primary screener as often. He has supplemented that responsibility by relocating to the corners and remaining opportunistic on the offensive glass.
Rock-solid defense buoys his market value further. He's fared better as a rim protector in the past, but any "decline" there has more to do with his spending extra time guarding away from the basket. His highest-volume defensive assignments in the postseason included Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Julius Randle—three players who can handle the ball and attack like wings.
Using the open market to bag a four-year max or shorter-term deal that allows him to reach free agency again sooner is within the realm of possibility. The bet here is the Hawks won't let him window shop. Hashing out a five-year deal with a player option on the final season seems like a win-win for both parties. Atlanta retains one of its primary building blocks for sub-max money, and Collins gets financial security in a league that constantly recalibrates the value of bigs without burying him beneath five years of full team control.
Boston Celtics: Beantown Ducks the Luxury Tax
Jettisoning Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City carved out some flexibility for the Boston Celtics, but not a truckload. They will enter free agency with a little more than $10 million in wiggle room under tax and a hair over $16.5 million below the apron.
That really isn't runway to do much of anything. The Kemba trade, while cost-conscious, was more about alleviating next year's bottom line. Right now, Boston will probably have to dip into the tax just to keep Evan Fournier, unless his market is uncannily stale.
This should be no sweat for a contender. But the Celtics don't project as a contender without another notable addition, not in the same vein as the Brooklyn Nets or reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks. Boston is shorter than ever on shot-creators and -makers after exchanging Kemba for another big, and Jaylen Brown isn't slated to resume basketball activities until mid-August.
Offloading more incumbent salary is the likelier play. Tristan Thompson looms as the no-brainer candidate. His $9.7 million salary is expiring, and the Celtics have Horford, Moses Brown and Robert Williams III to populate their big-man rotation.
A team on the periphery of the contender's circle can always enter the tax and figure out how to duck it midseason. They have until the end of the year to do so. Boston's situation feels like the inverse. Perhaps it considers stepping into the tax around the trade deadline should the team overperform.
Brooklyn Nets: Spencer Dinwiddie Leaves by Way of Sign-and-Trade
Holding on to Spencer Dinwiddie past the trade deadline could suggest the Brooklyn Nets are interested in re-signing him.
Then again, probably not.
Dinwiddie was extremely available at the deadline. Brooklyn offered him to the Golden State Warriors for Kelly Oubre Jr., according to NBA reporter Marc Stein. The interest in moving Dinwiddie was inarguable, as was his interest in joining another team. The Nets have enough on-ball creation in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Bringing back Dinwiddie on a biggish-money deal that costs the moon in luxury-tax payments isn't the most prudent use of resources.
Working with him on a sign-and-trade is the caps-lock MOVE. The mini mid-level exception ($5.9 million) is Brooklyn's best spending tool, and it may need that to re-sign one or both of Blake Griffin and Jeff Green, two non-Bird free agents.
Flipping Dinwiddie in a sign-and-trade helps the team acquire a more expensive and, presumably, impactful player than the mini MLE can attract. The Nets cannot take back a fellow sign-and-tradee of their own; they're too far into the luxury tax to be hard-capped. But they can and should try to parlay Dinwiddie's next contract into defensive help on the wings.
This presumes Dinwiddie OKs that scenario. He will have suitors who can pay him using cap space. But partnering with the Nets on sign-and-trade talks permits him to expand his search beyond that scope.
Charlotte Hornets: Devonte' Graham Stays; Malik Monk Leaves
This runs counter to the flight-risk meter yours truly cobbled together in April, but Malik Monk seems like he has a higher probability of leaving the Charlotte Hornets after more thought.
Devonte' Graham could technically be the restricted free agent who fetches the fatter price tag. Primary playmakers tend to command more. Graham labored through an uneven performance this year, exacerbated by a left knee injury and shifting roster dynamics, but he retains his sheen from 2019-20, when he knocked down off-the-dribble threes and Charlotte's offense improved by 11.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Monk could be in line for a sizable payday himself. He wrapped the year averaging a career-high 11.7 points prior to a right ankle injury while downing a personal-best 40.1 percent of his three-point attempts.
Still, his playing time routinely fluctuated in Charlotte, and the stretch leading up to his ankle injury saw his efficiency crater. More than anything, his restricted-free-agent hold is through the roof, clocking in at over $16 million.
The Hornets need to renounce Monk if they're going to maximize their cap space, but they don't need to do the same with Graham. His restricted-free-agent hold checks in at a speck over $4.7 million. Charlotte can float that hit, open up more than $20 million in cap space, spend said money and then re-sign Graham.
Perhaps the Hornets are less inclined to keep either guard. They have LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier and could bag another backcourt body with the No. 11 pick. But they have virtually no reason to renounce Graham's cap hold when it's so low. Keeping him gives them a third guard who has previously shown he can anchor strong offensive units.
Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine Doesn't Sign *Any* Type of Extension
A typical extension will give Zach LaVine a 120 percent raise off next season's salary ($19.5 million) once it takes effect in 2022-23. The resulting $23.4 million falls well short of the projected $34.7 million max payday he can nab as a 2022 free agent.
Locking LaVine down beyond next year before he hits the open market will require the Chicago Bulls to finagle a renegotiate-and-extend. That lets them offer him an immediate raise for 2021-22 and then build his salary off that number in subsequent years.
Here's the tricky part: LaVine's instant uptick must be bankrolled by cap space. If the Bulls want to bring him up to his 2021-22 max ($33.7 million), they'll need to have more than $14 million in breathing room.
Opening that spending power isn't difficult, but it comes at an opportunity cost. The Bulls are slated for a little more than $12 million in space if they renounce all of their own free agents, including Lauri Markkanen (restricted). Maybe LaVine accepts a hair below the max in 2021-22 before jumping up to it for 2022-23. Even then, Chicago must still grapple with using all of its flexibility to reinvest in a roster that missed the play-in tournament.
Sucking it up and paying LaVine is a reasonable course of action. Whether he'll want to tether the next half-decade of his career to a fringe playoff team that, in all likelihood, won't be making any significant adjustments over the offseason is a separate matter.
To be clear: The absence of a renegotiate-and-extend doesn't demand the Bulls trade LaVine. This instead assumes LaVine wants to reach free agency, or that Chicago decides to use its flexibility on talent upgrades over retention.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton Doesn't Sign Extension
Collin Sexton's extension eligibility has the Cleveland Cavaliers contemplating whether he's part of their future. He is considered "very available," per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd.
Quality players on rookie-scale deals seldom get moved prior to second contracts because their salaries are too low for incumbent teams to land anyone significant. Sexton falls under this umbrella.
He still has work to do as a table-setter—though he's shown flashes of looser tunnel vision when going downhill—but he's a certified bucket-getter. He just joined Jayson Tatum as only the second player in NBA history to average more than 24 points per game while knocking down over 50 percent of his twos and 37 percent of his threes before his 23rd birthday.
That marriage of volume and efficiency testifies to Sexton's value and why Cleveland is shopping him. His next contract could run somewhere between $18 million and $25 million per year.
Anything goes if the Cavaliers let him hit restricted free agency in 2022. Even getting him at a discount with an extension probably costs closer to $22 million annually than $15 million. Sexton may be worth that to some teams, but Cleveland isn't playoff-ready and has another, soon-to-be-extension-eligible guard who also stands under 6'2" and is better suited to lead an offense in Darius Garland.
Perhaps the Cavaliers pay both. But signing Sexton to an extension pigeonholes them. He becomes virtually untradeable due to the poison-pill provision, and it consigns them to a backcourt dynamic that becomes all the more complicated if they draft Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs.
Dallas Mavericks: They'll Choose Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cap Space
Luka Doncic's impending supermax extension makes this the last summer in which the Dallas Mavericks can go big-name hunting without clearing seismic amounts of money off their cap sheet. Play their cards right, and they could have somewhere between $23 million and $34 million in room.
Josh Richardson's player option will determine the pinnacle of their flexibility. Either way, they'll need to renounce Tim Hardaway Jr. if they want to peddle the cap space required to pitch marquee gets like Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry.
Or maybe not.
Dallas can re-sign Hardaway and work with cap space if it's willing to grease the wheels of a salary dump or two. Let's assume he's willing to take a three-year, $50 million deal that starts him at around $15.4 million in the first season. If the Mavs keep him at that number and find a taker for Richardson's expiring deal ($11.6 million) and Dwight Powell's pact (two years, $22.2 million), they can still have over $29 million to spend.
Granted, this rests on their ponying up the sweeteners necessary to lop off both players without taking any money back. That $29 million is fungible if they have to absorb inbound deals.. But the job shouldn't be obscenely difficult. Richardson might still opt out, and even if he doesn't, the idea of his defense and offensive shot-making from his Miami days should guarantee one team will take him into space.
Going this route tracks even if the Mavericks aren't assured of landing a star. They don't have to spend on a singular force. The market is hard up for stars, and this could be their final offseason of ready-made flexibility for a while. If they can retain Hardaway and dredge up serious spending power, they ought to do it.
Denver Nuggets: Will Barton Re-Signs
Will Barton's decision to decline his $14.7 million player option took some by surprise. It shouldn't have. The idea of his opting in was convenient for fake-trade machinations, but even when coming off a down year in which a right hamstring injury limited him toward the very end, it always made sense for him to explore the open market.
This year's pool wants for higher-end talent, which increases the likelihood teams pay the piper for more mid-end options like Barton. And even if he doesn't nab the $14.7 million he turned down, he's bound to make it up over the longer haul. At 30 years old with a proven track record of providing offensive juice both on and off the ball, teams won't shy away from giving him multiyear pacts.
Count the Denver Nuggets among them. They need his scoring and, perhaps most importantly, secondary playmaking more than ever until Jamal Murray returns from his torn left ACL. Barton does a nice job hitting shooters when coming around screens and has serviceable chemistry with Nikola Jokic in the two-man game.
Paying him next season shouldn't be prohibitive. The Nuggets can re-sign Barton and JaMychal Green (also a free agent now) at numbers similar to their player options while remaining comfortably beneath the tax if they let Paul Millsap walk or he commands less than he did this season ($10 million). They can even keep Barton and use the bigger mid-level exception if they're willing to step into the tax; they have enough room below the apron.
Mapping out Barton's future—as well as those of Green and Millsap—only gets prickly because of fast-approaching paydays for Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. (extension-eligible) in 2022. MPJ specifically could net the full monty, leaving Denver with three max players. Retaining Gordon won't come cheap, either.
But that's a problem for another offseason. The Nuggets can futz and fiddle with their books when they're actually feeling the squeeze. In the meantime, Barton is much too important to let walk.
Detroit Pistons: Mason Plumlee Gets Traded
Social media initially mocked the Detroit Pistons for signing Mason Plumlee to a three-year deal worth almost $25 million. The jokes didn't stop after they declogged their center rotation.
But they sure as hell stopped once he annihilated expectations.
Plumlee's offensive value transcended the most optimistic projections for much of the season. He was effectively their floor general for long stretches, teeing up his teammates out of the post and pancaking dudes on his screens. His finishing at the rim was otherworldly; he shot a career-high 79.5 percent inside three feet and averaged 1.5 points per possession as a cutter—the sixth-best mark among 84 players to finish at least 50 such touches.
Harping on his defense (he's not especially mobile) and turnovers (he had a higher turnover rate than usage rate) is fair. But he played like a starting-quality center on a backup's contract. That has value—to both the Pistons and other teams.
Those "other teams" win out here.
Backup bigs are at once replaceable and not available in the largest supply this summer. Plenty of teams could use them, particularly one who can start in a pinch or just start bar none.
Detroit, meanwhile, has Isaiah Stewart and an incentive to ensure its roster isn't tank-proof for at least one more season. A fairly enticing offer fleshed out with a first-rounder or prospect might materialize. (Something assembled around Phoenix's No. 29 pick?) And with the Pistons in asset-collection mode for at least one more year, they'd do well to capitalize on the value Plumlee has built up.
Golden State Warriors: A Blockbuster Trade Will Be Made
Mortgaging part of the future in the form of James Wiseman, the No. 7 pick and the 14th pick seems like a no-brainer for the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry is 33. Draymond Green is 31. Klay Thompson is also 31 and returning from ACL and Achilles injuries. The Golden State Warriors' window with the current base isn't getting any wider, and they owe it to their stars to contend now.
At the same time, the front office might be more concerned about preserving the long term. Golden State won three titles in five years. It could, even if tacitly, be perfectly fine watching the Big Three play semi-important basketball over the next few years while trying to develop next-era faces.
Except that stance only works if Steph, Dray and Klay are along for the ride. They're not. They've made it known to the front office that they'd prefer seeing pick Nos. 7 and 14 flipped for immediate help, with Bradley Beal looming as the crown jewel, according to The Athletic's Marcus Thompson.
Please don't confuse this with saying Golden State will land Beal. It might. But this is more so saying the team will do something tectonic—a trade that costs either No. 7 or Wiseman, if not both. Maybe it's Beal. Or Pascal Siakam. Or Zach LaVine. The who isn't important. Knowing the Warriors are under pressure from their stars to make such a move is the meat and potatoes of this prediction.
There is an additional risk in assuming this happens after the draft, when which team Golden State partners with cannot use No. 7 and/or No. 14 itself. That's mostly immaterial. Squads selling stars are usually in talent-acquisition mode, and the Warriors are bound to lean mega-high upside with at least one of their lottery choices.
(Closing thought: If I had more spine than a jellyfish, I'd make "Bradley Beal ends up on the Warriors" the official prediction, since that's what I believe, but I don't have more spine than a jellyfish, so here we are.)
Houston Rockets: Eric Gordon Gets Traded
Sources told The Athletic's Shams Charania that the Houston Rockets "have looked to use Eric Gordon and one of their picks in the 20s—Nos. 23 and 24 —to move up in the draft."
Parlaying Gordon and a low-level first-rounder to a near-lottery pick falls on the stupid-ambitious end of the spectrum. Not only is he entering his age-33 season, but he's also guaranteed $37.7 million over the next two years and missed most of 2020-21 with left knee and right groin issues. Houston's leverage is additionally limited by virtue of its timeline. It has little use for a 30-something guard with a checkered health bill.
This does not render Gordon immovable. Far from it.
His familiarity uncorking ultra-long threes will open up pockets of space for any team, and he'll probably hit more of his triples overall within an offense that isn't so clumpy. He still wields some north-south jet fuel as well. He shot 58.2 percent on drives last season—a top-six mark among 143 players who averaged at least five downhill attacks per game, behind only Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Joe Ingles, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Walking away from any Gordon trade with longer-term cap relief (aka expiring contracts) and perhaps a smaller-scale pick or prospect registers as a quality return for the Rockets. If they turn him into a bigger get, more power to them. Regardless, unlike other veterans who make sense to hold on to until the trade deadline, Gordon should begin the season on a different team.
Indiana Pacers: Salary Will Be Offloaded to Keep T.J. McConnell, Doug McDermott
Carrying cap holds for T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott leaves the Indiana Pacers over the luxury-tax line, which is where they'll stay should both combine for more than $14.6 million in salary. Paying the tax to field a contender should never be off the table, but the team won't have the full-strength sample size to make that call before next season.
For the time being, this projects as an either-or situation. Unless the Pacers slash payroll. Which they will. Maybe.
Trading Myles Turner can be a means for trimming salary. He is not someone Indiana should unload into cap space, but it can send him out for packages that don't bring back nearly as much money and are more so built around cost-controlled contracts and future picks.
Whether that's an ideal return for a team still built to compete in the East is a different story. The Pacers can avoid thinking about Turner deals in those terms by shifting focus to Jeremy Lamb, who's entering the final year of his contract.
Deep-sixing him into another team's cap space (or trade exception) shouldn't be too difficult. He missed half of this season while recovering from a torn left ACL, and his year then ended due to soreness in that same left knee, but he's not that much of a risk. He still moseyed his way to his in-between spots through 36 games, but he also traded in most of his long twos for threes, on which he shot a career-best 40.6 percent.
Clearing his money completely gives the Pacers more than $24 million in wiggle room under the tax. That should be enough to retain both McConnell and McDermott.
Los Angeles Clippers: Both Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson Return
Both Nicolas Batum, who led the Los Angeles Clippers in total regular-season minutes, and Reggie Jackson, who went super kaboom in the playoffs, established themselves as integral to the team's cause. Losing either would be a huge blow—particularly with Kawhi Leonard (player option) slated to miss a bunch of time with a partially torn right ACL.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, bringing back both Batum and Jackson isn't merely a matter of wanting to pay them. They must work within the confines of not having full Bird rights on either one.
Jackson's free agency is an easier tackle. The Clippers have his Early Bird rights, so they can offer him a starting salary worth 105 percent of the league average or use cap space. The latter isn't happening. Los Angeles is too far into the luxury tax. But 105 percent of the league's average salary comes to around $11 million in Year 1. Building off that number on a three- or four-season deal should be enough to keep him—especially when he sounds like someone who really wants to stay.
Batum's foray into free agency is more complicated. The Clippers are working with non-Bird rights on him, which only lets them pay 120 percent of this past season's salary before using an exception or cap space.
Offering 120 percent of the league minimum shouldn't fly in a vacuum. Batum knocked down 40.9 percent of his threes, made excellent swing passes and spent serious time guarding tough wing assignments.
He got a lot of money from the Charlotte Hornets last offseason and might want to stay with the team that helped reboot his value, but does he re-sign for whatever with the Clippers and trust they'll pay him next summer using Early Bird rights? They could need a huge chunk or all of their mini mid-level to retain him. And, frankly, they shouldn't flinch if it comes that.
Los Angeles Lakers: They Will Trade for a Real Third-Best Player
You know the heart of the offseason is nearing when the Los Angeles Lakers are being linked to a handful of red-carpet names they technically can't afford.
They want Chris Paul. And Russell Westbrook. Spencer Dinwiddie wants them. So do DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Is Kyle Kuzma, salary filler and No. 22 enough to get them Damian Lillard? Or would the Portland Trail Blazers need to send them a couple of unprotected first-rounders, too?
And so on.
Tongue-in-cheek scenarios aside, the Lakers are not necessarily trafficking in impossible scenarios. Kuzma is intriguing value at three years and $39 million, the No. 22 pick isn't nothing, and they have two incumbent players who will pique attention in sign-and-trade scenarios (Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker). There are moves to be made.
Chris Paul seems out of reach. He'd have to opt in and lean on the Phoenix Suns to help out or sign with the Lakers at an unfathomable discount. But similarly expensive point guards like Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker feel gettable. The Washington Wizards won't have much use for Westbrook if the Bradley Beal situation goes sideways. The Oklahoma City Thunder have minimal use for Walker unless they're hell-bent on rehabilitating his trade value a la CP3 in 2019-20.
Acquiring a third star (or fringe star) by way of sign-and-trade—i.e. Dinwiddie or Lowry—is also in play. Such a move would hard-cap them and, by extension, run some of their own free agents out of town, but it's not unworkable. They will have a $15-plus million cushion below the hard cap if Montrezl Harrell opts out, they renounce everyone except for Caruso and THT and the Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope deals are priced for salary filler.
Memphis Grizzlies: Role Players Will Be Consolidated into an Upgrade
After obliterating expectations over the past two seasons, the Memphis Grizzlies are among the upstart squads on "big move" watch.
Their sending Jonas Valanciunas to the New Orleans Pelicans didn't change this calculus. Getting Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe—who isn't expected to stick—merely gave Memphis two more salary-matching tools with whom to work.
Joining the sweepstakes for the next available star might be outside their purview. Players such as Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine would be nifty fits alongside Ja Morant, but the Grizzlies cannot trade for contract-year flight risks without assurances they will re-sign.
Not all aggressive swings need to include the acquisition of a star, though. Memphis is primed for medium to medium-big deals given its breadth of playable bodies.
Adams, Bledsoe, Morant, Grayson Allen, Kyle Anderson, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones, De'Anthony Melton and Xavier Tillman arm the Grizzlies with 12 players who deserve a crack at regular rotation minutes. (Clarke did his darnedest to fall off this list last year.) Some will toss John Konchar into the mix, too. Memphis is also slated to pick at Nos. 10 and 40.
None of this includes any additions the Grizzlies make during free agency. They won't be a major cap-space spender, but the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception is usually enough to net one rotation-worthy player when treated as a singular investment.
Morant is clearly off limits. Ditto for Jackson unless the Grizzlies are landing a superstar. But mid-salaries galore, a handful of second-tier prospects and some extra first-rounders position them to consolidate a part of their roster hodgepodge into a higher-end name—preferably another shot-creator who strengthens their standing in the Western Conference arms race.
Miami Heat: No Star Signs with Them
The Miami Heat can fairly easily dredge up more than $20 million in cap space if they renounce all of their own free agents save for Kendrick Nunn (restricted) and Duncan Robinson (restricted). They can even piece together a little more spending power without losing the latter two if they engage in some qualifying-offer shenanigans.
But the question, as ever, remains: Where's that money going?
Most of the Heat's primary targets are off the board following a flurry of late-2020 extensions. Kawhi Leonard (player option) never projected as a real flight risk and is even less likely to leave Hollywood after suffering a partially torn right ACL.
Bam Adebayo's extension also precludes the Heat from scrapping their way to true max room, limiting their scope ever further. They can't flat-out max John Collins (restricted). It isn't even clear the money they have available is enough to get them in the running for Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul, all of whom could be on the prowl for multiyear deals worth $25-plus million per year.
Miami might actually be better off exercising team options on Goran Dragic ($19.4 million) and/or Andre Iguodala ($15 million), operating over the cap and using their expiring money to anchor blockbuster packages with other moving parts while re-signing Victor Oladipo to a make-good, stay-healthy contract. If not that, the Heat should consider divvying up their spending power among multiple targets.
Splitting the difference also makes some sense. They could, say, throw an offer sheet at Josh Hart (restricted) and try to re-sign Dragic at a more team-friendly number. Like always, the Heat have options aplenty at their disposal. Signing a star just doesn't feel like it'll be one of them.
Milwaukee Bucks: Bobby Portis Leaves; P.J. Tucker Does Not
Winning the championship is just cause for the Milwaukee Bucks to run it back while also expanding upon their questionable depth. But they might not get much say in certain cases.
Make no mistake, some of this is on the Bucks. They'll begin the offseason in the luxury tax without factoring in new deals for free agents like Bryn Forbes (player option), Bobby Portis (player option), P.J. Tucker and, yes, Thanasis Antetokounmpo. Re-signing any of their incumbents who will get more than minimum salaries mandates a commitment to swallowing a steep tax bill.
Maybe that's no biggie. Once more, with feeling: They won a damn title. But that championship could also breed conservatism—a "We just won, so we have the goodwill not to pony up" type manta.
Assume this isn't the (entire) case. Milwaukee's title window is not forever, it still has an obligation to Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jrue Holiday's extension infers a certain deep-pocketedness.
Actually convincing the team's own free agents to stay is the larger issue. Portis is chief among those challenges. The Bucks cannot offer him a starting salary more than the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception. It sounds like he'll secure more than that, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Tucker's free agency is more straightforward. Milwaukee owns his full Bird rights; it must only be willing to pay him. Luxury-tax implications could render his next deal prohibitive, but he's 36 and saw his offensive value deteriorate this year. He hit just 31.4 percent of his corner threes, his bread and butter, in the playoffs.
In the event Tucker does have a more robust market, the Bucks may just be resigned to matching his best offer. His defensive malleability is crucial to their Giannis-as-the-primary-big lineups, and it'll be awfully hard to approximate the value of both he and Portis on a restrictive budget.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Gersson Rosas Makes a Bold Move for a 4
Minnesota Timberwolves team president Gersson Rosas isn't going to let a little thing like not having cap space get in the way of grand free-agency ambitions. His squad has been linked to a cabal of names, some of whom are free agents it cannot outright afford, others who are just plain expensive.
Each target constitutes varying levels of lofty. They all point to the Timberwolves' attempt to upgrade the frontline spot beside Karl-Anthony Towns in a noticeable way. (Yes, Simmons is technically a point guard. But he could also be more of a playmaking 4. This is eye-of-the-beholder stuff.)
It's fair to assume Minnesota won't stop here and will be skulking around any power forward, big or bigger wing who can function beside Towns and potentially become available. How about Harrison Barnes? Or Thaddeus Young? What if Bojan Bogdanovic becomes available as the Utah Jazz try to evade a stark luxury-tax bill? Or Joe Ingles in the same scenario?
What if the Toronto Raptors decide to build from the ground up and open the Pascal Siakam bidding? Or the Orlando Magic field offers on Jonathan Isaac? Or the Cleveland Cavaliers part with Larry Nance Jr.? Or the Detroit Pistons consider selling high on Jerami Grant?
Rosas has hardly played it safe since assuming control of basketball operations. Pity the person who tries guessing which 4 he'll target. It won't be me. But the Timberwolves will rejigger their frontline alongside Towns via trade—aggressively and noticeably.
New Orleans Pelicans: Lonzo Ball Leaves by Way of Sign-and-Trade
Lonzo Ball's status with the New Orleans Pelicans appears tenuous at best.
As Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer said during an appearance on The NBA Podcast (44:35 mark): "There's two sides to this. There's one where there's a word out there that the Pelicans view Lonzo as more of a playmaking wing than a guard. But I don't think Lonzo's going back to New Orleans. Everything you hear, it doesn't sound like that's going to happen."
The Pelicans' acquisition of Jonas Valanciunas might shift the tenor of this discussion. They cleared more than $21 million in payroll by jettisoning Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe, leaving them with plenty of room to pay Ball and Josh Hart in restricted free agency.
And yet this roster is a fair distance from championship contention, and the Pelicans have already invested a max contract in Brandon Ingram. Funneling star-type money to a point guard better suited to play off the ball within half-court sets isn't the most home run use of resources unless they nab a more comprehensive floor general to play alongside him.
That may explain their pursuit of Kyle Lowry. They can't pay him free and clear and keep Lonzo, but they can try landing him via sign-and-trade and retain Lonzo in the process. This presumes Lowry wants to play in New Orleans amid expected overtures from Dallas, Miami, New York, etc., and that the Pelicans are cool carrying three star-price contracts on their books for the next few years with Zion Williamson's extension right around the corner.
Signing and trading Lonzo augurs as a distinct possibility. Said transactions are complicated and relatively rare, mostly because they require cooperation from three parties: the player, their incumbent team and their new team. Lonzo has an incentive to suss out a club that will work with the Pelicans. It not only allows him to negotiate with over-the-cap teams, but keeping New Orleans in the loop is also important if he doesn't want it to match an offer sheet from one of his admirers.
The Pelicans' side of the equation is more straightforward. Losing Lonzo for nothing would be a disaster. They've already made it easier to float (or lower) his cap hold while going about other business. They should intend to put that extra pliability to good use.
New York Knicks: No Big-Money Deals Longer Than Two Years Will Be Signed
Hedging is important, kids.
The New York Knicks can knife out $53-plus million in spending power, but why would they? Kawhi Leonard (player option) is the only superstar in his prime scheduled to hit the open market, and he is neither healthy (partially torn right ACL) nor feasibly gettable. Even restricted free agency wants for the high-upside fit worth overpaying. John Collins is redundant with Julius Randle in the mix, and Lonzo Ball, while a potentially good match, doesn't promise enough from-scratch half-court creation.
In other words: This is sooo not the summer to tout league-best cap space. New York will be better off prioritizing some of its own free agents—Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, etc.—and anyone else willing to sign inflated shorter-term pacts that preserve the team's spending power for 2022 and 2023 free agency.
It feels like that's what the front office, led by president Leon Rose, will do. The latest regime has taken a more measured, if not flat-out gradual, approach to retooling this roster.
Ticketing the Knicks for zero big splashes still doesn't sit right. They are coming off their first playoff berth since 2013 and seemingly laid the groundwork of a sustainable culture. They should pop up on the radar of free agents worth a damn-and-a-half and have the money to pay them.
Absent any stars with the leverage—or legality under the Age-38 Rule—to demand huge contracts over three or four years, this not-so-incendiary but not-at-all-guaranteed prediction tries to account for scenarios in which they shell out gargantuan salaries for a Kyle Lowry or Chris Paul on a two-season basis.
Oklahoma City Thunder: SGA Signs 5-Year Max Extension Without Player Option
Anyone surprised by the notion that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a max-extension formality has—well, they haven't been paying attention to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Many wondered how he'd handle his first season without a veteran-star safety net and as the primary offensive initiator. He responded by posting one of the most mind-meltingly efficient seasons for someone in his role.
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are the only other players who averaged over 20 points and five assists while shooting as well on twos (54.7 percent) and threes (41.8 percent). Last I checked, those guys are pretty good.
That SGA maintained this amalgam of volume and efficiency is truly absurd knowing he operated as the Oklahoma City Thunder's be-all. Over 87 percent of his made baskets went unassisted—the absolute highest mark among 439 players to appear in at least 20 games.
Plantar fasciitis in his right foot ended SGA's season on March 24. And the Thunder offense only placed in the 27th percentile of efficiency with him on the court. Neither caveat gives Oklahoma City leverage to offer less than a max extension. SGA is just 23, and the offense still improved by 7.3 points per 100 possession when he played. A fifth-year player option is the only concession he'll make, and even that may understate his position of power.
Orlando Magic: They'll Sit Out Free Agency
Relative inaction isn't sexy, but it befits the Orlando Magic's situation.
Ten players are already under guaranteed contract for next season. Tack on the No. 5 and No. 8 picks, not to mention the No. 33 selection, and that number rockets to 13. That still leaves them with spots to spare, but they won't be working with cap space and have a categorically "What the hell are we?" roster in place.
Taking to the market as sellers has clear advantages. Teams will no doubt be interested in Terrence Ross (two years, $24 million), Michael Carter-Williams (one year, $3.3 million) and Gary Harris (one year, $20.5 million). The Magic could even decide to look at moving Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac or the extension-eligible Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. depending on how much of a fresh start they want.
Yet, all of that seems like business that'll be hashed out closer to the 2022 trade deadline, if at all. Orlando will make moves on the margins, because that's the game. Perhaps it slings a short-term inflated offer Otto Porter Jr.'s way in hopes of turning him into a midseason trade asset. Maybe it feels compelled to bring back James Ennis after he canned 43.3 percent of his triples last year.
Mostly, though, the Magic are a portrait of a team that must first evaluate its player base from within, on the heels of more actual games, before making any significant additions—or subtractions.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons Does Not Get Traded
Seldom does a player staying put qualify as a bold prediction. Ben Simmons' future with the Philadelphia 76ers is the mother of all exceptions. He disappeared on offense in the Eastern Conference Finals, lending both merit and urgency to the belief the team needs to pair Joel Embiid with a completely different kind of co-star.
Philly has since opened up "trade conversations" involving Simmons, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. His exit now feels like a matter of when, and many will demand the Sixers jettison him ASAP.
But that may not be the smartest or likeliest course. Simmons' trade value has for the time being imploded to some degree, and Philly is looking for an All-Star in return for his services, per Charania. Keeping him into next season and trying to rehabilitate his curb appeal prior to the trade deadline should give the Sixers a crack at much better offerings.
Packages more in line with Simmons' value as a 25-year-old passing wizard and Defensive Player of the Year candidate could still pop up, but Philly's timeline still invariably narrows potential suitors. It cannot accept proposals constructed around picks and prospects.
Even the widely discussed CJ McCollum-for-Simmons framework is starting to lose its cachet. The Sixers should want other stuff along with CJ, and the Portland Trail Blazers might not view the four years and $146.7 million left on Simmons' deal as a net positive.
Beyond that, why should Philly assist Portland's attempt to keep Damian Lillard when he's the Blazers player on its radar, according to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor? So, yeah, Simmons lasts with the Sixers through the summer.
Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul Stays
Before the Phoenix Suns had time to process their NBA Finals loss, Chris Paul's name meandered onto the rumor mill.
Sources indicated to The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears that the 36-year-old was on the Los Angeles Lakers' list of veteran point guard options they intend to explore. This sentiment was backed up by NBA reporter Marc Stein, who billed the Lakers as the "most realistic threat" to poach Paul from the Suns.
This whole discussion is dotted with complexities. The Lakers, for starters, aren't signing Paul unless he takes a mammoth pay cut. He has a $44.2 million player option for next season, and his max on the open market starts at $39.3 million. The most Los Angeles can offer him in the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, if they're lucky, which is worth substantially less at $9.5 million.
Paul can always opt in and try forcing a trade to the Lakers. That's how he went from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Houston Rockets. But he'll need the Suns' cooperation—which is really saying he'd need them to be interested in a package built around Kyle Kuzma, the No. 22 pick, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and probably a Talen Horton-Tucker (restricted) sign-and-trade.
There are no doubt kernels of truth to the Paul-Lakers connection. CP3's family still resides in Los Angeles during the season, and as Stein noted, Phoenix's proximity to Hollywood factored into his initial desire to join the Suns.
But Paul just reached the Finals for the first time in his career, with a team that is hardly temporary. The rest of the Suns' supporting cast is young enough to both sustain and improve. Phoenix can even take a swing at a third star on the trade market by dangling all of its non-Devin Booker assets. This feels like a relationship that'll persist—either with a new contract or an extension off his player option. And for Paul's part, if he's truly skeptical of the Suns' future, he can always revisit a trade request if next season goes belly up.
Portland Trail Blazers: Norman Powell Gets More Than $15 Million Per Year
Norman Powell is working his way off a career year, and he's about to get paid handsomely for it.
Declining his $11.6 million player has to rank among the easiest decisions of his career. The free-agency wing market is bone thin this summer, and despite standing 6'4", his north-south juice will pique the attention of teams with money to burn lusting after 2-3s.
Whatever you're thinking about the average annual value of Powell's next contract, just go ahead and predict it'll hit the over. Stephen Curry, Zach LaVine and Damian Lillard were the only other players to match or exceed Powell's true shooting percentage (61.8) while averaging more than 18 points and attempting as many three-pointers.
Aside: Holy crap.
Re-signing him remains a "top priority" for the Portland Trail Blazers, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. Take that as a sign they're willing to pony up, because if Powell costs under $15 million per year after entering this free-agent market, it'll be a genuine shock.
Sacramento Kings: Richaun Holmes Leaves
Richaun Holmes wouldn't be a true flight risk if the Sacramento Kings had the bandwidth to pay him whatever.
Sacramento is only working with his Early Bird rights, which allows it to offer him 105 percent of the league's average salary before dipping into cap space. Giving him the max raise off the league's average salary leaves him sitting under $11 million in Year 1 of his next deal. That should fall shy, if not noticeably short, of his open-market value.
Using cap space to pay Holmes more is not currently an option. The Kings don't have any. They're essentially right at the cap line entering free agency.
Clearing money to keep Holmes is a possibility, but to what end? Offloading Marvin Bagley III without taking any salary back probably doesn't do it. Harrison Barnes or Buddy Hield would need to go instead, or Sacramento can look at rerouting both Bagley and Delon Wright.
Cap-clearing scenarios are not off the table. But shipping out rotation players just to pay another one is dicey business, particularly for a non-playoff team, and especially when two of the trade options would be shopped at below-peak value (Bagley and Hield).
Funding Holmes' next deal also only makes sense if the Kings are committed to remaining in the sub-middle of the Western Conference or have other moves lined up to more authentically contend for a postseason spot. Again: Anything is possible. But the logistical and common-sense gymnastics involved are nightmarish. Failing a decision to accept a four-year deal worth Sacramento's full boat, Holmes feels like a goner.
San Antonio Spurs: Some Cap Space Will Be Used to Take on Unwanted Money
Call it what it is: This is the coward's prediction.
Braver people will choose a side in the "to rebuild or to try winning now?" battle. Not this guy. The San Antonio Spurs are approaching an organic reset point with DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills hitting free agency, but head coach Gregg Popovich turns 73 in January, and they haven't smashed the "rebuild" button in literal decades.
Delivering this "They will lease out some of their cap space" aims to strike a happy medium. The Spurs can re-sign DeRozan at something like $20 million to $25 million and still have somewhere between $29 million and $34 million to burn, leaving them with more than enough room to take on unwanted money attached to picks and prospects.
In my defense, this prediction is not without some gall.
Renting out cap space has never been the Spurs' thing. Trades in general seem taboo to them. This also demands they don't bring back everyone, and it's somewhat hard to envision them bidding farewell to Patty Mills, a billboard for the franchise's culture, by choice.
And hey: Maybe the Spurs don't have to let him walk. They have access to nearly $50 million in room. Depending on how much he and DeRozan cost together, they could re-sign both and still have $15 million to $20 million (or more) left to absorb unsavory deals if Gay leaves.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry Re-Signs or They Tear It Down
Pretty much everything about the Toronto Raptors' offseason is shrouded in mystery.
Keeping Kyle Lowry past the trade deadline would seem to suggest they wish to re-sign him and run it back with the No. 4 pick plus other additions. But they came really close to moving him, which in turn suggests he may be heading elsewhere in free agency.
Toronto could try treading water without him. It did win the minutes OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) and Fred VanVleet logged without Lowry, and a top-four prospect will be joining the party.
On the flip side: Does jumping up the lottery ladder make the Raptors more likely to embrace a quasi-teardown should Lowry head elsewhere? Anunoby just turned 24; he can be part of any rebuild. But Siakam and VanVleet both turn 28 before the end of next season. A full-scale reset should consist of trading one or both of them.
Many seem to think the Raptors will end up somewhere in the middle: Lowry will leave but there won't be any other fireworks after they make their pick at No. 4. But team president Masai Ujiri—who, by the way, is a free agent—has yet to author a total rebuild during his time in Toronto and Denver. Between Lowry possibly leaving and nabbing the No. 4 pick in what's considered a four-player draft at the top, this could be the impetus he needs to construct a team mostly from scratch.
At the same time, the Raptors were much better than this season's record. They had a top-10 net rating prior to March and outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions with Anunoby, Lowry, Siakam and VanVleet all on the floor. Bringing back the best player in franchise history and fancying themselves major players in the East would be a totally rational angle.
Moral of the story: The Raptors are capable of traveling many different paths. Let's be semi-definitive and agree they'll either aim for immediate Eastern Conference contention or fire up a restart by trading at least one of Siakam or FVV rather than indulging a trajectory somewhere in between.
Utah Jazz: Bojan Bogdanovic or Derrick Favors Gets Traded
Running it back is perfectly acceptable for the Utah Jazz. Yes, they blew a 2-0 series lead against the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers. But they finished with the league's best regular-season record and might've avoided a second-round exit if not for Donovan Mitchell's ankle injury or Mike Conley's hamstring issues.
On the other hand, running it back is uber expensive. They're right around next year's luxury tax before baking in a new contract for Conley. Though they dipped their toe in the tax waters this past season, going from a roughly $5 million bill to one that could exceed $60 million if Conley costs somewhere between $20 million and $25 million is muuuuch different.
Utah is, not surprisingly, open to making moves, according to Action Network's Matt Moore. Bet on it being something substantial if, as The Athletic's Tony Jones reported, the team intends to keep Conley.
Dangling Bojan Bogdanovic is the way to go if the Jazz want to shake up the core. The two years and $38.3 million left on his deal isn't exactly a bargain, but he's a dependable secondary scorer who just drilled 50 percent of his pull-up threes during the playoffs. Does Utah see his money as totally expendable after Jordan Clarkson's Sixth Man of the Year romp?
Unloading the two years and $19.9 million owed to Favors is more pressing if the Jazz want to cut operating costs while standing mostly pat. Whether he'll need a sweetener attached remains to be seen. Joe Ingles' expiring contract could be in play, per ESPN's Jonathan Givony, but moving him has an air of franchise-culture malpractice.
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal Gets Traded
Washington Wizards fans are entitled to play the "lazy, sniveling armchair keyboard geek" card. Predicting a Bradley Beal trade flies in the face of what's currently floating around the basketball sphere. He has repeatedly indicated a desire to stay in Washington, and the Wizards currently have no plans to look at moving him, according to The Athletic's Fred Katz.
Still, this isn't indolent trolling winning out. Beal and the Wizards are approaching an implicit fork in the road. He's entering a contract year (2022-23 player option), Washington is nowhere near title contention as presently built, and, oh, he's also "mulling" his future with the team, per The Athletic's Shams Charania.
This shouldn't solely be a matter of his needing to request a trade for the Wizards to solicit offers. If he doesn't commit to staying beyond next season or the team is unable to dramatically improve the roster around him, the front office should go into the summer with the most open of minds. Shopping a player who hasn't requested a trade also comes with inherently more leverage.
For anyone wondering, the Golden State Warriors' reported interest in Beal, per The Athletic's Marcus Thompson, plays only a small part in stepping out on this limb. Fielding The Godfather offer from them—James Wiseman, No. 7, No. 14, other picks, salary filler—should get the Wizards thinking, but other teams can't create a sense of urgency on their behalf.
Things change if other stars like Zach LaVine, Damian Lillard or Pascal Siakam hit the trade block. For the time being, though, this prediction is more so banking on Washington or Beal to recognize the fragility of their situation.