The NBA’s 2020 Free-Agent Class Looks Like a Barren Wasteland

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The NBA’s 2020 Free-Agent Class Looks Like a Barren Wasteland

Given his penchant for technical-foul-drawing histrionics and opponent-wrecking defensive detonations, “stability” might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think about Draymond Green. That’s what the All-Star forward opted for this weekend, though, agreeing to terms on a new four-year, maximum-salaried contract extension that answers the Warriors’ biggest extant question 11 months early—and, in the process, heaps even more doubt on how teams facing their own roster-building dilemmas in the summer of 2020 might try to address them.

Golden State now has its four most important pieces—Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and new arrival D’Angelo Russell—under contract for at least three seasons, affording the Warriors a bit more continuity than would-be title contenders tend to get these days. Green secures a $99.7 million bag, ensuring a superstar’s salary and status with the franchise he helped build into a dynasty; he also reportedly got a player option for the final season, allowing him to hit the market in 2023 if he’d like. It’s a good bit of business for both sides. But while the re-up seems like a win-win for Draymond and the Dubs, it’s another L for the free-agent class of 2020, and for teams that might hope to find a difference-maker in it.

A former Defensive Player of the Year, three-time All-Star, and two-time All-NBA selection, Green was poised to be the cream of the crop next summer among players ready to reach the unrestricted market. The projected player pool is deep in veterans coming off rich deals whose best years are likely in the rearview mirror, such as Kyle Lowry, Danilo Gallinari, Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic, and Hassan Whiteside. It also features a few players who could move the needle for a playoff team at a decent price, like Eric Gordon, Fred VanVleet, Montrezl Harrell, and a maybe-healthy-again DeMarcus Cousins. Quality players, yes, but not ones who can tilt a franchise’s fortunes in the same way as the headliners who dominated this summer’s free-agent feeding frenzy.

Factoring in players who can opt out of their current deals adds depth to the 2020 class, but only one real bona fide cornerstone talent. That player, Anthony Davis, can’t renegotiate or extend his contract until January, six months after his blockbuster trade from New Orleans to Los Angeles became official, due to the decision to waive his trade kicker to facilitate the move. Davis isn’t saying much about the future just yet, but he is widely expected to ink a long-term deal with the Lakers next summer; after all the maneuvering needed to land him alongside LeBron James, it would likely take a stunning turn of events and a complete disintegration on all sides for him to wind up looking for a new home after only one season in L.A. (Stunning, but not unprecedented.)

If Davis joins Green in going off the board before he’s ever even really on it, then who will sit at the head of the 2020 class? Andre Drummond? Mike Conley or Otto Porter Jr., choosing to opt out after their first full seasons with the teams to which they were traded? A fully rehabbed Gordon Hayward, looking to put what’s thus far been an unpleasant chapter in Boston behind him? DeMar DeRozan, striking out in search of another big score after his sojourn in San Antonio? How many teams would be willing to back up the Brinks truck for any of them, believing they’re the missing piece to a championship puzzle?

Not too many, I’d wager, which is probably one reason why so many teams spent so freely this summer, severely limiting how many will have significant financial flexibility next year. According to Bobby Marks of ESPN, only the Hornets, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Hawks, and Raptors are in line to have more than $25 million in cap space next summer. A few other teams—like the Knicks, who have a lot of players on team-option or nonguaranteed deals, or the Suns and Pelicans, who have some decisions to make on restricted free agents-to-be—could work their way into a lot of spending power too. Given the current state of those franchises, though—all largely either at the start of the rebuild or in the midst of one, rather than ready for meaningful contention—it’s possible that the player-option-holding vets decide to sit tight, make their money, and wait until what could be a more rambunctious market in 2021. (For what it’s worth: Part of me would’ve loved to see what Draymond looked like as the old-head power forward/center on an up-and-coming Hawks team being built to mimic what he helped construct in the Bay. Oh, well. That’s what 2K is for, I guess.)

With Green locked up and Davis expected to follow, the most intriguing talents left might be on the restricted free-agent market. Players like Pascal Siakam, Buddy Hield, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Caris LeVert, and Domantas Sabonis could all draw plenty of attention from teams that prize not only their developing talents, but also the likelihood of paying for their ascending or prime seasons. The rub of restricted free agency, though, is that the incumbent team controls the whole process, whether by signing its RFA-to-be to an extension before the start of the season or by exercising its right of first refusal to match any offer sheet that an interested suitor presents. But after a summer that saw several restricted free agents moved on to new teams in sign-and-trades—Russell to Golden State in the Kevin Durant deal; Terry Rozier to Charlotte in the Kemba Walker deal; Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana, Tomas Satoransky to Chicago, and Delon Wright to Dallas in exchange for draft picks—it’ll be interesting to see whether teams unsure of how much they want to commit to their restricted types will continue to be more open to moving them on to suitors willing to pay both the draft-pick freight to get their players and the big contracts it’ll take to keep them.

 

If not, teams looking to make big additions next summer will have to work the trade market, trawling for talented players who are either disgruntled enough by the state of affairs in their town to start angling for an exit, or potentially worth more to their franchise as a chip to further a rebuild than as an on-court contributor. Could a quiet summer on the superstar front make someone like Bradley Beal an even more attractive, and valuable, commodity for the rebuilding Wizards to dangle? Would it draw spicier offers for a useful but pricey player locked into a long-term deal—like, say, Kevin Love, who’s under Cleveland’s control through 2023? Might it inspire teams that feel they’re just one move away to reexamine how much an aging but still very good Chris Paul can contribute, and whether it’d be worth finding a way to import his mammoth contract from Oklahoma City? Things change fast in the NBA; shifting circumstances around the league could lead to a whole new crop of pre-agents becoming the topic of trade talks before too long.

In the meantime, though, Green’s decision to take an extension and stay put, like CJ McCollum before him, highlights the interesting place in which the NBA finds itself right now. After all the superstar shake-ups of June and July, the league has kind of … settled. Roster churn is now the rule rather than the exception, but with so many All-NBA talents now on deals that extend for at least two years, it seems at least possible that the teams we see in October will be more or less the ones we’ll watch for the near future. Maybe that will aid the championship aspirations of teams that already have their superstars in place, with established support structures around them, like Milwaukee and Denver. Maybe it will boost the playoff chances of lower-tier teams that have already established continuity and can keep growing together, like Orlando and San Antonio.

On the flip side, maybe it will make jumping up a competitive notch tougher for teams like Miami or Minnesota, which have one star but haven’t been able to land another, and might not have many more opportunities to do so for a little while. If the cavalry’s not coming, you’ve got to rely on internal development; maybe teams with multiple rising young players (Dallas, Sacramento) stand to gain as much as those whose stars have already reached their ceilings.

There are a lot of questions left to answer on the court, but that’s kind of the point. Without megawatt superstars whose free agency is just ahead on the horizon, we might be able to turn our attention to, y’know, how these teams actually fit together and play against one another in NBA games. It’s a novel concept, I realize, but maybe, like Draymond and the Warriors, a little present-tense stability would do the league’s stakeholders and observers some good. 

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