In the summer of 2019, the NBA saw 207 players become free agents, and 13 teams used cap space to make significant additions. There were also several superstar trades, including multiple via sign-and-trade. To put it simply: It was one of the most exciting NBA offseasons the league has ever seen.
In Hollywood terms, if the summer of 2019 was a summer of blockbusters, 2020 might be more of a summer for indie flicks. There are only 150 potential free agents (on the high side before option decisions) this summer. That group is also very light on stars. Anthony Davis is the big prize, but he’s considered a virtual lock to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. The next tier features guys with player options like DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward and Andre Drummond. All of those players could opt in because they might have trouble making up the money they’d be opting out of.
In addition, a promising group of restricted free agents was depleted when Pascal Siakam, Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Caris LeVert and Dejounte Murray all signed contract extensions. That leaves Brandon Ingram as the lone restricted free agent with star potential. It’s likely the New Orleans Pelicans will match any offer sheet Ingram signs because he was the centerpiece of the Anthony Davis trade last summer. That could mean that no team even bothers to throw an offer Ingram’s way.
That leaves players such as Fred VanVleet, Montrezl Harrell, Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted), Evan Fournier (player option) and Davis Bertans as the best of a weak free-agent crop. They are all good players, but they’re role players. None of them is carrying a franchise to playoff success as a team’s top option.
The good news for those few impact free agents? There are only a handful of teams that project to have cap space this summer, and they all could use some help. After a wild trade deadline that saw 11 swaps and 40 players change teams, the landscape for free agency changed. Only six teams now project to have cap space in July:
Atlanta Hawks: $50.4 million
New York Knicks: $44.6 million
Detroit Pistons: $34.3 million
Miami Heat: $26.5 million
Charlotte Hornets: $25.7 million
Phoenix Suns: $24.8 million
The Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers could join the above group, but it’s more likely that they’ll keep cap holds for their free agents and operate as over-the-cap teams.
Outside of Miami and Portland, that group of six to eight teams has something in common: They’re all bad teams. The Hawks are in the middle of a rebuild. The Hornets and Pistons are in the early stages of full-scale teardowns. The Knicks, Suns and Wolves? They’re each in Year Umpteen of their rebuilds.
Miami has been pegged as a team to watch by many. Not only did they add veteran help in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at the trade deadline, but they also shed the onerous contracts of James Johnson and Dion Waiters. That put the Heat in position to be a player in free agency this summer. While that certainly could happen, the bet here is that Pat Riley and Co. have their eyes on bigger prizes in the summer of 2021.
That summer, we’ll see a monster free-agent class hit the market. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Victor Oladipo and Rudy Gobert could be the headliners. A strong group of restricted free agents could include Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox, if they don’t sign contract extensions. In addition, the class is full of role players who could be solid starters on playoff teams.
This summer might be much more of a tepid market. Atlanta is focused on building around its young core. Miami (and Portland and Minnesota, if they go the cap space route) will prioritize 2021 over 2020. They’d rather be in the mix for a star than pushing for small upgrades now.
The rest? They could be the ones who make questionable decisions this summer. The Hornets are just getting out of some bad contracts, but Michael Jordan has never been one to exercise much patience. He could push Mitch Kupchak to try and rebuild immediately. Phoenix has been wandering the wilderness for far too long and could see this as a chance to upgrade its roster around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
That leaves the Knicks and Pistons. Both front offices are new-ish and shouldn’t be held accountable for the sins of past regimes. That said, history tells us that both will likely spend and spend big. Both teams have a need at point guard and could throw a massive offer at VanVleet. Harrell or Bertans could be seen as ideal big men alongside the bigs Detroit and New York already have.
That means this summer will likely be light on fireworks. Sure, something unexpected will happen. Some superstar will find himself unhappy with his current team and will request a trade. One of the teams with cap space will fall in love with the lesser free agents and will hand out a contract or two that they will come to regret. Beyond that, it’s likely to be a summer of solid indies as opposed to high-priced popcorn movies. You’ll enjoy the moves, but none is likely to make all that much of a difference.
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