Predicting Biggest Buyers in 2022 NBA Free Agency
Like location in the real-estate world, timing is everything in NBA free agency.
A summer bristling with both difference-making free agents and gobs of cap space is basketball's version of an oceanfront estate.
The 2022 offseason, though, is more like a rundown building in need of some serious TLC. The right buyer with the right vision can get a lot of mileage out of it, but good luck getting the market to erupt.
According to Spotrac, only five teams are projected to have cap space this summer, although more could create it with some financial gymnastics. Even if that happens, though, the number of shoppers with substantial cash to spend will be slim, which is probably just as well, since even the top free agents—Zach LaVine, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal—all come with question marks attached.
All of that said, players of significance will swap jerseys this summer, and a few are capable of shifting the basketball landscape. Let's spotlight the potential (relatively) big buyers.
It's true the Pistons haven't posted a winning season since 2015-16 and last won a playoff game in 2008, but they might be closer to breaking through than all of that suggests.
Cade Cunningham validated Detroit's decision to make him last summer's top overall pick, becoming one of 21 players—and one of six under the age of 25—to average at least 17 points, five assists and five rebounds. Fellow youngsters Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes all took a step forward, and Marvin Bagley III made a late push to get locked into this young nucleus.
Better days are ahead in the Motor City, and the front office has the flexibility to speed this process along. While the Pistons shouldn't throw money at just any notable name on the market, those who fit with this core's timeline—Deandre Ayton, Jalen Brunson, Miles Bridges and Mo Bamba all seem like potential (if optimistic) targets—would be worth a healthy investment.
"We don't want to appear, we want to arrive," general manager Troy Weaver told reporters recently. "We'll take a little long in some people's minds, but not in ours. We're building the right way, and we have a chance this summer to be aggressive in some other areas where we haven't been in the past."
Cunningham's climb toward stardom unlocks plenty of possibilities for the Pistons, but it also puts pressure on the front office to assemble the right supporting cast around him. Detroit has the funds to find him a co-star and could start seeing dividends from that expenditure as soon as next season.
Trading two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis at the deadline was a pivot point for the Pacers, but it didn't change their objective of fielding a competitive club. Remember, the only pick exchanged in that swap actually went from Indiana to the Sacramento Kings (2023 second-rounder), as the Pacers brought in ascending floor general Tyrese Haliburton and sharpshooter Buddy Hield.
Expect more of the same present-focused—or near-future-focused, at least—maneuvering this offseason.
"They're not going to undergo what most people would consider a rebuild, meaning trading off their assets, getting super young and a lot of draft picks," Fieldhouse Files' Scott Agness on the HoopsHype Podcast. "OKC is the far end of one spectrum. They're not even going to go close to that. They're trying to reshape the roster."
Between Haliburton and Chris Duarte, Indy's backcourt is in good shape regardless of whether it moves Malcolm Brogdon. The Pacers are strong at center too, assuming the Sabonis swap finally moved Myles Turner off the trade block.
The wings could be upgraded, though, and Indy has the money to make it happen. Miles Bridges could be a godsend for the Circle City—imagine the viral wildfires he could set racing alongside Haliburton in the open floor—even if it could be awfully tough to pry him away from the Charlotte Hornets.
New York Knicks
The Knicks aren't one of the aforementioned teams with spending money, but they seemingly have every intention of becoming one. Their offseason wish list features Jalen Brunson at the top, per B/R's Jake Fischer. In this market, Brunson might be the best free agent who has a realistic chance of signing elsewhere.
No matter where he goes, though, he'll find the proverbial pot of gold—and quite possibly several actual pots of gold. His stock is just an arrow pointing all the way up after he followed a breakout season by launching into orbit this postseason. Through five playoff games, he's averaging an absurd 28.6 points on 47.7 percent shooting while also dishing out 4.6 assists against just 0.8 turnovers.
"He's going to make a lot of money," Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said after Brunson's 41-point outburst in Game 2, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "I don't know if he needs an agent, but I'm gonna put my name in the hat."
The fact that New York is even mulling a Brunson pursuit—which would almost certainly require a sign-and-trade—shows the front office is ready and willing to take a huge swing this summer. Given the issues the Knicks have had at point guard for, well, decades now, it's an understandable sentiment.
In addition to putting the full-court press on Brunson, the Knicks might have to reach deep into their bag for a new Mitchell Robinson contract and use the $10.3 million midlevel and $4.1 million biannual exceptions to pump up their perimeter core.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013, aren't typically tankers, but apparently when they join the Association's annual race to the bottom, they leave nothing to chance.
Portland's post-All-Star play was "tankery" at its finest—or its worst, depending on your view of the unsightly (but sometimes necessary) practice. Fifteen players suited up for the Blazers after intermission, and even NBA diehards were unfamiliar with most. They played 23 games over that stretch and lost 21 of them.
This wasn't some sort of organizational shift to The Process: Pacific Northwest Edition, though. It was a strategic ploy enacted to make the most of a season already lost to injury and, if nothing else, salvage the club's lottery-protected pick. The Blazers managed to do that, and the way Damian Lillard sees it, they can now look forward without ever needing to look back.
"I just need y'all to know one thing: this will not continue," Lillard told fans ahead of Portland's season finale. "Next year, we will come back better than we've been."
If the Blazers want to build around Lillard—why else would he still be on the roster?—they can do it this summer. They could have around $30 million in cap space to chase just about anyone they want. Even if Portland ponies up for new contracts with Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons, it will have the flexibility to pursue other upgrades. Adding size and defense on the wings and mobility and spacing at center would be ideal.
San Antonio Spurs
Prior to last season, the Spurs had never been stuck in a multiyear playoff drought. Now, their franchise-record cold spell just reached its third year.
That makes the Alamo City the envy of some—Sacramento Kings fans raise their hands in unison—but it also shows that things are changing for the Silver and Black. One of those things is the organization's offseason approach.
Last summer, the Spurs actually chased down external free agents and wound up reeling in Doug McDermott, Zach Collins and Bryn Forbes. They have the funds to aim higher this time around, perhaps much higher depending on how they handle Lonnie Walker IV's restricted free agency and some of their non-guaranteed deals.
They have assembled a solid, young core featuring first-time All-Star Dejounte Murray, plus Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Jakob Poeltl and Joshua Primo. That's a decent foundation, but it's not a group that can make major noise in the star-studded Western Conference. With a productive offseason, though, San Antonio could give it a fighting chance.
The Spurs seem set at point guard with Murray, but every other position could be upgraded if the right player shows interest. Shot-creators, scorers, sharpshooters, two-way wings and perimeter-oriented centers could all move the needle, and if San Antonio's decision-makers are aggressive, they could check off a few of those boxes and really have this roster ready to rise sooner than later.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.