Yardbarker NBA writers Pat Heery and Sean Keane address the hottest issues in the NBA. This week's topic: players who could be moving after the season.
Heery: Even before the word "coronavirus" became a part of our daily lexicon, the 2019-20 season was destined to be wild. Mass player movement in the 2019 offseason had caused a rebalancing of power across the league, and, for the first time in half-decade, the championship was likely not going to feature the Golden State Warriors. Then, once the pandemic hit, this officially became the "craziest season ever." Now, no matter what happens in the Orlando Bubble, this season will be one to remember and its ripple effects on 2020 offseason player movement will be fascinating.
With a number of teams lacking salary cap flexibility this offseason and league revenue projected to fall off a cliff until fans can attend games, free agents will have interesting dilemmas on their hands. Do they all opt in to their player options or sign one-year deals with their current teams and "run it back" for a season, hoping that the 2021 offseason will be more normal? Or do they take a gamble that one of the few teams with cap space, like the Hawks, will throw money their way? Do we see big-name players get traded because of playoff failures in the bubble? Or will some teams (76ers, Rockets) chalk up an early-round exit to the overall weirdness of 2020 and keep their stars in place?
Keane: If there’s one thing NBA owners love more than extorting cities for stadium deals, it’s finding excuses for saving money. There was already a lack of cap space before teams such as Atlanta and Memphis added 2020-21 money at the deadline, and the incredible shrinking COVID cap is going to tighten things more without some artificial adjustment. What that means is bad news for free agents hoping for a payday.
The Lakers' Anthony Davis is likely to take a one-year deal with a player option this summer, since the lower cap adversely affects the value of his inevitable max contract. But he also benefits by waiting a year, since he can sign a deal for 35 percent of the cap as a 10-year veteran, and that max deal will be waiting for him in 12 months. And I’m going to assume that everyone with a player option is opting in for 2020-21. Andre Drummond already said he’s going back to Cleveland, and DeMar DeRozan (Spurs), Gordon Hayward (Celtics), Otto Porter (Bulls) and Nic Batum (Hornets) will all do the same. (This free-agent class is weaker than a margarita in Salt Lake City.) Only Danilo Gallinari (Thunder) and Davis Bertans (Wizards) seem likely to demand multi-year deals, and maybe Evan Fournier (Magic) — look, the Knicks are going to pay someone too much money this fall.
So I think we are going to see a lot more trades, more for saving money than for forming superteams. Specifically I expect moves from the most broke owner in the league: Rockets owner and wharf restaurant magnate Tilman Fertitta. He was highly leveraged even before the pandemic hit, but a man whose precarious fortune is based on casinos and fast casual dining was not going to come out of a nationwide lockdown intact. Unless Houston goes to the Finals, Mike D’Antoni will be gone, Russell Westbrook will be shopped and Fertitta already joked to the president about firing GM Daryl Morey.
Philly is interesting because regardless of what happens in the quaran-tournament, the Sixers still have four front-court players making a combined $120 million next season. Unfortunately, their most tradable guy is swingman Josh Richardson. At the same time, in a weird short season, the wildly inconsistent Sixers might be able to lock down rusty offenses and salvage the weirdest NBA season in recent memory.
Keane: Who do you think is most likely to blow up their team this fall? And which teams are likely to actually spend money?
Heery: It’s hard for me to imagine some of the teams you mentioned, like the 76ers and Rockets, doing a complete blow-up and rebuild as a result of this unique postseason. However, I could definitely see both of those franchises doing some serious reorganizing if they falter in the first round.
In Philly, Brett Brown is toast. He’s a solid coach and organizational figurehead for a young rebuilding team, but he isn’t the guy you want drawing up plays late in games. And while I’d be extremely hesitant to trade Ben Simmons (in fact, I’d probably trade Joel Embiid before Simmons), he has a ton of trade value and will have plenty of teams snooping around this offseason if there’s a chance he’s available.
The trade I keep thinking about (and worrying about) is a Golden State package of Draymond Green, the Dubs’ 2020 first-rounder (best odds at No. 1 in the league), and the Minnesota 2021 first-rounder (top-three protected for 2021 only) for Ben Simmons. While this alone shouldn’t be enough for Philly to give up on Simmons, it’s probably enough for Philly to have an internal discussion and make a counter-offer (perhaps they get a third team involved so they can reroute Draymond for a point guard like Jrue Holiday).
As for the Rockets, barring a Finals run, D’Antoni is definitely not getting a new contract, and Morey is toast too. And if they are gone, will the franchise remain as small ball and math-centric as currently constructed? Or will the new front office listen to offers for Harden or even Harden and Westbrook? Stranger things have happened.
The Hawks seem like a team that should actually use the cap room this summer. Some predicted (including yours truly) that the Hawks would flirt with the playoffs this season. We were a little premature on that, but this roster still has some nice, young pieces around Trae Young — a scoring guard or forward who could ease some of Young’s high usage rate could help Atlanta make a nice jump in 2021.
There are other teams and big-name players we haven’t touched on yet — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks could be in for some tough conversations this offseason if things go wrong in Orlando. Same for Rudy Gobert and the Jazz.
Heery: What’s your gut feeling on how those situations play out? Is it championship-or-bust in Central Florida for Giannis and the Bucks?
Keane: I can’t tell if the rumors of Giannis leaving are due to actual inside information or our insatiable thirst for player movement and trade talk. Fairly or not, the Bucks doing anything but winning it all will be seen as a second straight playoff failure (even though the Raptors were just better last year), an indictment of Mike Budenholzer’s coaching and a reason for Giannis to leave town. I believe that if he wants to leave, he’ll leave — Kawhi just showed us that winning a title is no guarantee that a superstar stays. (Kevin Durant was also leaving the Warriors no matter what happened in the Finals.)
And with just a year left on his deal, Giannis also gets to choose his destination. The Warriors are always in these rumors, though the case seems based on Giannis and Steph Curry picking each other in the All-Star draft. It doesn’t seem like they’d have the ammunition to make this move, even if they get the No. 1 pick in this draft: Why would Milwaukee want to take back Andrew Wiggins?
The other possibilities are Toronto, where team president Masai Ujiri has a long-standing relationship with Giannis, and the Raptors have cheap, young players, a clean cap sheet and a history of success. But if I were the Bucks, I’d be most worried about Miami, where Pat Riley suddenly has a star to pair with Giannis in Jimmy Butler, tons of young three-point shooters and 2021 cap space and a track record of pulling off impossible deals. My prediction is that Milwaukee holds onto Giannis even if he turns down a supermax extension and hopes to convince him to stay. Still, the owners would have been better off paying the luxury tax to keep Malcolm Brodgon around, instead of buying a casino.
Meanwhile, the Jazz are in a tough spot, having used most of their trade assets to acquire the highly disappointing Mike Conley last summer. At the same time, "Patient Zero" Rudy Gobert alienated public health experts and his own teammates in March, and his contract expires at the end of the season. I could absolutely see the team shopping Gobert (and Conley, though that $34.5 million will be tough to move) this offseason, which might be its best shot at reloading around Donovan Mitchell.
Keane: Do you think the new Leon Rose-led Knicks make a splash this summer? And aside from the Warriors and Hawks, do you see any of the "Delete Eight" teams returning to relevance in 2020-21?
Heery: I could see the Knicks making two splash moves this summer. First, I’d expect them to hire a big-name coach — Tom Thibodeau seems to be the front-runner. I’m out on him as a long-term solution for a franchise (he can’t help himself from running his best players into the ground), but he might be the right guy to turn the lowly Knicks around over the next few years. However, if I’m Rose, I’m treating Thibs as though he’s Doug Collins or Scott Skiles — good coaches who eventually “lose” the team after a couple of years due to their hard-driving ways and micromanagement. Got to have a plan for the Thibs exit.
The other splash I’d consider if I’m Rose would be acquiring a culture-changer like Chris Paul. Because of his contract (nearly $40M per) and age (35), CP3 won’t cost what other superstars do, but his professionalism will be invaluable for a team with so many directionless youngsters like the Knicks have.
And to answer your question about the Delete Eight teams sans the Dubs and Hawks: No, I don’t see any of them being relevant or making the playoffs next year. The Bulls might have the roster talent, but Coach Boylen‘s got to go before I ever take them seriously.
Heery: What say you? Do you have faith in the T-Wolves or any of these other struggling franchises?
Keane: I love your plan for the Knicks, because I love the idea of Coach Thibs and CP3 screaming at each other for 82 games a year. Ideally, Thibs could save his voice from yelling “ICE!” every defensive possession and simply yell at Paul, letting him incorporate the coaching instructions into the existing yelling he’s doing at his teammates. They could win 39 games, which could be good enough for the seven seed in the East.
As for the rest of the Delete Eight, I don’t see a playoff team besides the Warriors, but I do see some potentially watchable squads. Minnesota struggled with defense for years, but with the addition of D’Angelo Russell, the team is giving up on defense entirely in favor of a fast-paced, three-point-bombing attack. The T-Wolves might score 120 points per game but give up 130. Cleveland may draft a third straight point guard in the lottery and still end up starting three centers at once: Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and Larry Nance, Jr. And Charlotte probably won’t use its $27 million in cap space on an impact free agent, but after “The Last Dance,” owner Michael Jordan will be much more comfortable drinking huge glasses of tequila in his courtside seats.
My favorite unfounded, unsourced rumor is the Celtics dodging the luxury tax by sending Marcus Smart to the Warriors for their draft pick and the Andre Iguodala trade exception. The Warriors rebuild their defense and focus on their title window, and Danny Ainge gets to do his favorite thing: hoard draft picks and wait ‘til next year.