As front offices work diligently to find replacements for the recent surge of players in the NBA's health and safety protocols, the focus may have slightly shifted away from the Feb. 10 trade deadline. But it's looming, and teams need to evaluate their way forward with caution.
Which squads have a legitimate chance at contending? Which are better off focusing on next year? Teams may have to make long-term decisions now, instead of waiting until the summer, because this offseason may be the tightest in many years.
"That's why we saw so many extensions this year. No one has any money [in July]," one executive said at the NBA's G-League Showcase. "Teams are going to have to trade to get better. I think we'll have a busy deadline."
Very few franchises will have the spending power to improve via free agency. Just four teams project to have any significant money in July of 2022, and several executives questioned if any will be a big spender.
The Detroit Pistons could reach about $37 million but are rebuilding around players like Cade Cunningham. The Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs could near a bottom-tier maximum salary at about $29 million each, but the Memphis Grizzlies only get to $17 million by letting key rotation players like Tyus Jones and Kyle Anderson go.
The top names could include Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal (player option), James Harden (player option), Kyrie Irving (player option), Deandre Ayton (restricted), Miles Bridges (restricted) and Collin Sexton (restricted), among many others. But if they want to leave their respective teams, but almost no one has money, where can they go?
One workaround can be the sign-and-trade, but that typically requires leverage. For example, if the Phoenix Suns refused to send Ayton to another team this summer, will he get a big offer from one of the four? If not, he's stuck re-signing on either a long-term deal (at a price the Suns set) or a one-year via his $16.4 million qualifying offer to explore unrestricted free agency in 2023.
"I could see the Pistons giving Bridges an offer sheet, but they're probably not going after big-dollar star players," another executive said.
With so little money in the system this summer, teams may go after their targets now, which could make for a hectic six weeks.
Celtics Want More Tatum/Brown, Not Less
The Boston Celtics have no immediate plans to break up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The team hasn't performed up to expectations—expectations set by three Eastern Conference Finals appearances over four years (2017-2020).
Per NBA sources, the Celtics don't blame the duo of Tatum and Brown. If they could clone them, they would. The more significant issue is the supporting cast, which doesn't provide enough to keep Boston in true contention.
The team cycled through big-name talent like Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker and Al Horford (who is back in Boston after a series of trades) with hopes of winning a title. Ultimately, that didn't happen. But Boston is looking for long-term pieces that fit the age profile of Tatum (23) and Brown (25).
Horford (35) may be the most likely casualty in trade, given his friendly contract. The Celtics have several well-regarded prospects like Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard. Veterans like Dennis Schroder and Juancho Hernangomez could also be on the move.
The more difficult question for the Celtics is Marcus Smart, but the initial goal appears to be keeping the veteran guard along with young center Robert Williams III.
Why Horford, Others Have Appealing Contracts
If a team doesn't project to have cap space next summer, can it get there by trade?
That's certainly a possibility, but probably not by waiting until July, since so few teams have the means to do what the Oklahoma City Thunder have accomplished the last couple of years, absorbing unwanted contracts at an exorbitant fee (in picks and prospects).
With the scarcity of cap space in the summer, it could be very expensive. But it may not be as pricey before the trade deadline.
Only the Thunder have the means to fall significantly under the salary cap (to about $35 million in space). The franchise is currently over by the Trevor Ariza $11.3 million trade exception that expires on Feb. 3 but has all the flexibility it needs to get a blockbuster done.
Other teams with trade exceptions may be willing to take on payroll without matching salary in trade. The more prominent trade exceptions include:
- Orlando Magic: $17.2 million (Evan Fournier)
- Celtics: $17.1 million (also Fournier)
- New Orleans Pelicans: $17.1 million (Steven Adams)
- Thunder: $11.3 million (Ariza)
- Brooklyn Nets: $11.5 million (Spencer Dinwiddie)
- Dallas Mavericks: $10.9 million (Josh Richardson)
- Celtics: $9.7 million (Tristan Thompson)
- Thunder: $9.6 million (George Hill)
- Los Angeles Clippers: $8.3 million (Rajon Rondo)
Some may not be willing to add to their budget, like the Nets, who are already projected to pay a sizable luxury tax. Brooklyn could look to tinker via trade and improve via the buyout market but may not make any moves that add significant salary.
An alternative approach includes a relatively short list of players who may have especially desirable contracts this season either with team options or partially/non-guaranteed salary for 2022-23. It's a trick that only works by the deadline, as the NBA has rules in place to prevent teams from similarly benefitting in the summer.
Forward Danillo Gallinari is a perfect example, with $20.5 million fully guaranteed with the Atlanta Hawks this season, but only $5 million of his $21.5 million promised for 2022-23. The Hawks can take on a player earning as much as $25.6 million for Gallinari (more if they include other outgoing players like Cam Reddish). The incoming team can waive Gallinari's final year at just $5 million (with the option to stretch it for $1.7 million over three seasons).
Just by way of an example, the Sacramento Kings could send Buddy Hield to the Hawks for Gallinari. If the Kings then stretched Gallinari's $5 million, the team could near $28 million in cap space next season. Or suppose the Indiana Pacers agreed to send Caris LeVert and Jeremy Lamb to Atlanta for Gallinari and Reddish. Indiana could get to about $13 million in cap room next season (while adding Reddish via trade).
Deals would have to make sense for both parties, but the shortlist of players who could be in demand at the deadline for their favorable, decent-sized contracts include:
- Horford: $26.5 million, $14.5 million guaranteed
- Gallinari: $21.5 million, $5 million guaranteed
- Eric Bledsoe (Clippers): $19.4 million, $3.9 million guaranteed
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Washington Wizards): $14 million, $4.9 million guaranteed
- Josh Hart (New Orleans Pelicans): $13 million, non-guaranteed
- Kelly Oubre Jr. (Charlotte Hornets): $12.6 million, $5 million guaranteed
- Danny Green (Philadelphia 76ers): $10 million, non-guaranteed
- Maxi Kleber (Dallas Mavericks): $9.2 million, non-guaranteed
- Mason Plumlee (Hornets): $9.1 million, $4.3 million guaranteed
- Ivica Zubac (Clippers): $7.5 million (team option)
- Zach Collins (San Antonio Spurs): $7.4 million, $3.7 million guaranteed
- DJ Augustin (Houston Rockets): $7.3 million, $333,333 guaranteed
- Juancho Hernangomez (Celtics): $7.5 million, non-guaranteed
- Hamidou Diallo (Pistons): $5.2 million (team option)
- Taj Gibson (New York Knicks): $5.2 million, non-guaranteed
- Ish Smith (Hornets): $4.7 million, non-guaranteed
Some may be too valuable for their current team, like Caldwell-Pope, who is believed to be close to Beal. Some of the names above could be targeted by the deadline, only to be cut before the offseason to clear salary.
Teams Not Sure About the Blazers
The Trail Blazers recently fired top basketball executive Neil Olshey, naming Joe Cronin as the interim general manager. While other teams recognize that Cronin has the authority to make deals before the deadline, some question how much power he has.
One source noted that he probably has the leeway to trade role players like Robert Covington or Jusuf Nurkic but probably can't deal Damian Lillard. What about CJ McCollum? Can Cronin take in significant salary in a deal that further ties up the team's books for years to come?
Or will the Blazers wait to hire a long-term general manager first to make the more significant decisions?
Cronin is undoubtedly a candidate for that position, but several sources have Chicago Bulls executive Marc Eversley as a favorite. Another is believed to be Shareef Abdur-Rahim, president of the G League. Abdur-Rahim has the same agent (Aaron Goodwin of Goodwin Sports) as Lillard.
Allison Feaster, the vice president of player and organizational development with the Celtics, recently surfaced as a possible fit as Portland's head of basketball operations.
Typically, a player can only sign two 10-day contracts with a single team. Once they expire, the player can re-sign for (at least) the rest of the season, but not another 10-day deal with the same organization.
That same rule doesn't apply to the hardship 10-day contracts players are currently signing. For instance, Stanley Johnson could theoretically sign three (or more) hardship 10-days with the Los Angeles Lakers, then sign for two regular 10-days before the team decided on him long-term. The Lakers, who have 15 regularly contracted players, would need to make room for Johnson on a non-hardship signing.
Last Monday, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association mutually agreed to make all hardship 10-day contracts exempt against the salary cap and luxury tax. Any non-COVID hardship exemptions signed after last Monday will count against the cap and tax. The amendment is temporary and specific to the current issues created by the pandemic.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.