It won’t be quite as quick of a turnaround as last offseason, but the pivot from the end of the 2021 NBA Finals to the start of the 2021-22 NBA offseason will still come fast enough to induce whiplash. Scarcely a week removed from the crowning of a champion, we will welcome the new crop of rookies at July 29’s 2021 NBA draft; just four days later, at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, August 2, teams can officially begin negotiating with free agents, opening the door to what could be another dramatic summer of deck-shuffling around the league.
Which teams will look to swing for the fences? Which players are about to enter new tax brackets? Who might be mere hours away from decisions they’ll regret for years to come? Your guess is as good as mine, but here are the biggest questions to keep an eye on as the annual feeding frenzy of acquisitions commences.
Will Damian Lillard demand a trade?
As so often seems to be the case these days, the biggest prospective prize on the market isn’t technically even on the market. Yet, anyway.
Noise about the possibility of a disgruntled Lillard started to get louder after the Trail Blazers lost to the Jamal Murray–less Nuggets in six games, Portland’s fourth first-round exit in the past five postseasons. The disappointing defeat prompted some Nipsey Hussle–inflected Instagram introspection that led many to wonder whether the six-time All-Star had begun to lose hope of competing for a championship in the Pacific Northwest. In recent weeks, though, it’s gone from a rumble to a roar.
After parting with longtime head coach Terry Stotts, Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey declared that the team’s lagging performance was “not a product of the roster” he’d put together, but rather a function of the way Stotts deployed it. But replacing Stotts with newcomer Chauncey Billups—not Dame’s first choice, as you might recall, and one whose hire has proved extremely fraught—does not appear to have assuaged Lillard’s concerns.
“I don’t disagree that maybe Chauncey can really change our team and make us a better team and get us going in that direction,” Lillard told reporters earlier this month while preparing to go to Tokyo with Team USA to compete in the Summer Olympics. “But I think if you look at our team as it is going into next season, I don’t see how you can say, ‘This is a championship team, we just need a new coach.’”
The Blazers have precious little flexibility with which to improve their roster, with nearly $103 million in salary already committed next season to Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Robert Covington, and reserves Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and CJ Elleby—and that’s before a big decision on Norman Powell (whom they acquired at the 2021 trade deadline), who will opt out of the final year of his contract and attract a long list of suitors. If this is as good as it’s going to get in Portland, at what point will Dame decide he wants out?
If Olshey’s either unwilling or unable to find the sort of dramatic upgrades that Dame’s seeking, then the Blazers star has a choice to make. Does he continue to stick it out and hope that, at some point, the cavalry finally does come? Or, after years of waxing rhapsodic about loyalty to a franchise being more important than winning rings, will the just-turned-31-year-old become the latest superstar with multiple years left on his supermax contract to search for greener pastures?
If he does, expect every team with assets, money, and grand ambitions—the 76ers, the Warriors, the Knicks, and on and on—to line up a bid for what might be the only true All-NBA blue chipper up for grabs this summer.
If Dame stays, how many big names will actually be on the move?
We know the Sixers are considering their options with Ben Simmons after all the persistent shooting and positional drama came to a head in the playoffs. On one hand, the former no. 1 pick’s value has likely never been lower; in Philadelphia’s second-round loss to the upstart Hawks, Simmons shot 33 percent from the foul line, didn’t take a single shot in the fourth quarter of any of the final four games, and infamously passed up a potential game-tying dunk late in Game 7, which Philly then lost on its home court. (Woof.) On the other hand, he’s still a 25-year-old three-time All-Star and two-time All-Defensive First Team selection who just finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and who’s under contract for the next four seasons.
Players like that will draw interest, even when they are Down Bad; according to Marc Stein, the Cavaliers, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Raptors have all reportedly been linked to the 76ers with regard to Simmons, with more prospective suitors likely to join their ranks as the summer progresses. Such players also command a return, even if it’s not the kind of haul Portland’s probably seeking for Lillard; according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Sixers “want an All-Star–caliber player in return” for Simmons. If that’s not forthcoming—if no offer arises that will make Philly a stronger contender without Simmons than it might be with him—Stein reports that “some rivals believe Morey is as willing as any executive in his position to let Simmons and [Joel] Embiid start a fifth season together.” That ought to lead to an exceedingly chill vibe at training camp in September.
As always, Bradley Beal looms, as the man himself is eminently aware: “[Trade rumors are] definitely going to increase more this year with me going into the last year of my deal,” he told reporters at his end-of-season press conference in June. But Beal has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to remaining a “franchise cornerstone” in D.C., and Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said after the season that building around Beal remains Washington’s “intention” for the future. The bet here: Sheppard will attempt to sign Beal to another contract extension—though declining that offer in favor of opting out and hitting the open market next summer could net Beal an additional $54 million on his next deal, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks—and give new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. the chance to coax better results out of the Beal- and Russell Westbrook–led roster before seriously contemplating a post-Beal future.
Past that, we’re kind of throwing spitballs. Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard can both opt out to hit unrestricted free agency, but given their specific circumstances—Paul leading the Suns to a surprise Finals run; Leonard suffering a partially torn right ACL during the playoffs that could keep him out for all of next season—it seems most likely that if they do opt out, it’ll be to re-up on new multiyear max extensions with their current teams. (Not that it’ll stop suitors from sniffing around.)
Mike Conley, fresh off finally shedding the “Best Player Never to Make an All-Star Team” label, might be the best unrestricted free agent available … except he too might not really be available. Tony Jones of The Athletic reported in February that Conley “made it clear that he would like to stay with the Jazz beyond this season” (though the point guard did take more of a “we’ll see” posture after Utah was eliminated from the playoffs) and reported last month that Utah “will make every attempt to keep the All-Star in a Jazz uniform once free agency opens.” That stands to reason: While the Jazz can use Conley’s Bird rights to go over the salary cap to retain him, they’d still be over the cap without him, leaving them without the financial flexibility to sign a suitable replacement.
In that case, Kyle Lowry would stand as the best player likely to move—long in the tooth at age 35, but still a productive playmaker, complementary scorer, and point-of-attack defender who could help any would-be contender looking for a “CP3 to Phoenix” type of boost. After Lowry stayed put with the Raptors at the trade deadline, though—a decision that might’ve owed in part to sentiment and in part to Daryl Morey’s unwillingness to give Masai Ujiri everything he wanted—it’ll be interesting to see what he decides to prioritize in free agency.
“You know, money talks, and years talk, and all that stuff,” Lowry told reporters after the season. “And let’s be real—I play this game for the love of the game, but at the end of the day, I want to make sure my family is still taken care of for generations and the time to come. … I want more championships. That’s always been the goal. Money comes with that, but championships are why I play.”
So: Can Lowry find a landing spot that provides multiple years, enough total salary, and championship contention? It would likely require a sign-and-trade, and Toronto wanting what the suitor’s got to sell. There’s also the question of whether Ujiri’s going to ink a new long-term contract to continue running the Raptors, which could impact not only Lowry’s destination but also a whooooooole lot of other business around the NBA. Revisiting the parameters of a deal with Philly could make a lot of sense, with or without Simmons, as could a partnership with former Team USA backcourt mate Jimmy Butler in Miami; Marc Stein reports that the Pelicans, eager to make a leap in Year 3 of the Zion Williamson Experience, might get into the mix, too.
Zach LaVine, coming off his first All-Star berth and a selection to Team USA, will be entering the final year of his contract and is eligible for an extension. Bulls boss Arturas Karnisovas seems less interested in shopping LaVine than in building around him; that said, if something went awry, LaVine would generate a ton of interest if Chicago opened for business. The roiling Dame drama could also lead Olshey and Portland’s brain trust to shop perpetual trade-rumor subject McCollum in earnest. (Perhaps in exchange for Simmons?) Other notable players might unexpectedly find themselves out of their teams’ plans, too, but if neither Lillard nor Simmons moves, all might stay relatively quiet on the star-shifting front this summer. (Famous last words.)
Which teams might be at interesting inflection points?
I’ll give you five:
The Grizzlies earned their first playoff berth in four years by knocking off the Spurs and Warriors in the play-in tournament, surging back to the postseason on the strength of their enviable depth, the gentlemanly mashing of Jonas Valanciunas, the relentlessness of Dillon Brooks, and flashes of pure transcendence from Ja Morant. But after being ousted in five games in the first round, Memphis—for the first time in a while—faces a future characterized by excitement, expectations, and some big decisions. Memphis holds a $13 million team option on Justise Winslow, who’s been mostly injured and disappointing since coming over from Miami at the 2020 trade deadline. The Grizzlies also have to decide whether to stand pat with the 13 players they’ve got on guaranteed contracts for 2021-22 or look to make a leap up the standings by packaging a few young players on attractive salaries together to hunt for a more established talent. And perhaps most importantly, the franchise has to decide how to handle the contract situation of Jaren Jackson Jr.
The no. 4 pick in the 2018 draft is eligible for an extension as he enters the final season of his rookie deal. He has shown signs of developing into the kind of floor-spacing big man that teams covet in the modern NBA, averaging 17.4 points per game and shooting 39.4 percent from 3-point range on 6.5 attempts per game in his sophomore season. But he’s also missed 101 games over three seasons, playing in just 16 games this year as he worked his way back from a meniscus tear, and has struggled to make positive contributions on the glass and on the defensive end. Still just 21, Jackson’s undoubtedly a key piece of Memphis’s future; it’ll be interesting to see whether (and how much) Zach Kleiman and Co. are willing to pony up now to prove it, or if they might prefer to see Jackson turn in a healthy and productive fourth season before opening up the checkbook in 2022 restricted free agency.
The Pacers look like good candidates to bounce back from a sub-.500 season after exchanging the reportedly bad vibes of the short-lived Nate Bjorkgren era for the return of once-and-future coaching king Rick Carlisle. Combine a course correction with one of the league’s most adaptable and consistently successful bench bosses with better health from Myles Turner (a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate before going down in early April), T.J. Warren (an efficient 20-point scorer lost for the season after just four games with a stress fracture in his left foot), and midstream acquisition Caris LeVert, and the Pacers could have enough talent and depth to return to their long-held spot in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack. (Though potentially losing key reserves T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott in free agency would hurt quite a bit.)
I do wonder, though, whether that’s enough—whether Carlisle and Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard might look at a roster that features five players making between $12.9 million and $21.7 million next season and consider what options might exist for a more dramatic reimagining of what the Pacers could be. Orchestrating the kind of deals that could propel Indiana past the likes of Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Atlanta in the East won’t be easy, especially for a franchise unlikely to blow past the luxury tax line. Coming off a rare and disappointing postseason miss, though, with the return of Carlisle bringing a breath of fresh air, Indiana may look to redefine itself with a bold stroke.
The good news: When Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell shared the floor last season, the Wolves scored a blistering 120.9 points per 100 possessions (leaps and bounds ahead of the Nets’ league-leading mark) and boasted a net rating that would’ve finished just outside the top five in the NBA. The bad news: Ill-timed injuries limited that trio to just 327 shared minutes, only 175 alongside table-setting point guard Ricky Rubio, and eight in a five-man unit with scoring swingman Malik Beasley. That leaves the Wolves—yet again—with comparatively little information on how their best pieces fit together, and it’s unclear whether they’d be potent enough to elevate the roster out of the also-ran doldrums in which the franchise has spent most of the past 17 years.
The Wolves are 42-94 since Gersson Rosas took the reins. His big-swing moves—trading up in the 2019 draft to take Jarrett Culver, and trading Andrew Wiggins and what wound up being this year’s no. 7 pick for Russell—haven’t panned out. Three years and three coaches removed from the brief, successful, tumultuous, and ultimately untenable Jimmy Butler saga, Minnesota remains outside the Western playoff picture looking in with a defense that routinely ranks among the NBA’s worst. With franchise tentpole Towns having only two guaranteed seasons left on his contract after this one, and new ownership entering with a watchful eye, there’s pressure on the Wolves to make tangible improvements on the court this season and to push into postseason contention. Might that mean another big-swing move—perhaps one aimed at providing a frontcourt complement for KAT at power forward in the form of either Simmons or long-rumored target John Collins—is on the way?
Jimmy Butler is eligible for an extension that could pay him a maximum of $181 million over the next four seasons. In a vacuum, you’d imagine the Heat not blinking an eye before offering it. Context makes things tricky, though: Butler turns 32 in September, has nearly 24,000 combined regular and postseason minutes on his odometer (and given the way Tom Thibodeau and Erik Spoelstra have ridden him, those are some hard-driven minutes), and has played more than 65 games just three times in 10 NBA seasons. Might that give Miami’s decision-makers cause for concern about hitching their wagons to Jimmy through his age-36 season?
Beyond Jimmy, there’s the broader question about what the Heat see as their best path forward. They could bring back what remains of the core that helped fuel that 2020 Finals run—Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala, both on club options for next season, and Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, both hitting restricted free agency—and hunt upgrades that could restore them to contention in the sign-and-trade market (paging Kyle Lowry). Conversely, with nothing really on the books beyond next season besides Bam Adebayo’s extension and rookie-scale deals for Tyler Herro, Precious Achiuwa, and KZ Okpala, they could decide to clear the decks and once again ready themselves to present the “Come down to South Beach” pitch to the crop of stars available next offseason. We know that Pat Riley’s never content to just let Miami flounder in the middle of the pack; how aggressive will he be in setting Miami up for the future, and what kind of future will it be?
For a team that’s got the worst record in the NBA over the past three seasons, the Cavs are pretty fascinating to me. Worming their way into the James Harden blockbuster to come away with Jarrett Allen was an awfully nice piece of business, one that seemed to set them up with a nice group of young players: Allen, high-scoring guard Collin Sexton, improving point guard Darius Garland, versatile forward Larry Nance Jr., and rookie stopper Isaac Okoro. Combined with another high lottery pick at no. 3 this year, it could be the core of something interesting.
But Sexton’s up for an extension of his rookie deal, and Cleveland doesn’t sound super interested in paying up: Jason Lloyd of The Athletic recently wrote that Sexton is “very available,” with the Knicks reportedly interested in adding the 22-year-old scorer to a roster light on shot creation. Allen’s hitting restricted free agency, and while you’d imagine the cost of a lucrative new deal was priced into the decision to trade for him in January, all it takes is one asshole to push up the price tag and make Koby Altman start having second thoughts. Oh, by the way, Kevin Love’s still here, on the books for $60.2 million over the next two seasons; given how poorly his post-LeBron life in Ohio has gone, is it worth it to the Cavs to attach some future draft capital to Love’s deal to just excise him and move on? Ultimately, I guess the question is: What does Altman see as the Cavs’ direction, and what moves can he make this offseason to help get them there?
Who’s getting the max this summer?
I don’t see any unrestricted free agents nearing the max; Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley constitute the top of the market, and as point guards on the wrong side of 30, their average annual value’s more likely to be in the $20-25 million range. On the player-option side, Kawhi seems like a good bet. Even if he’s likely to miss all of next season, we saw Kevin Durant get the full-boat max from Brooklyn after rupturing his Achilles; if you’re at that level, you’re going to get every last penny possible, even if the team paying it has to wait a while for a return on investment.
If Paul opts out of the final year of his deal in Phoenix, I could see him eyeing the max on a new deal, even at age 36, considering he just made the All-NBA second team for the second straight season and helped lead the Suns to the Finals. One interesting potential path, as forwarded by David Kevin of The Four Point Play: CP3 picks up his $44.2 million player option for 2021-22, but signs an extension at a dramatically reduced figure for the subsequent two seasons, allowing him to still clear something like nine figures over the next three years while affording the Suns the financial flexibility to continue to add talent while budgeting in raises for Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.
A handful of veterans currently under contract could re-up at higher price tags. The aforementioned Beal, Butler, and Towns could command max extensions, though they might prefer to wait until they can hit the open market in one or two offseasons and secure even richer long-term paydays; LaVine probably could, too. In Brooklyn, Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden are all eligible for extensions of their current max deals; if they all want new full-freight maxes, it’ll run Nets governor Joe Tsai just over $700 million in total salary, a tidy reminder that superteams don’t come cheap.
The second- and third-place finishers in MVP voting can both re-up, with Joel Embiid now eligible for a supermax extension that would tack four years and up to $190 million onto his existing deal and Stephen Curry, already operating on a supermax, able to add four years and more than $215 million. It’s all but a formality that both superstars will get, and accept, the richest offer possible. Given the state of affairs in their respective organizations, though—with Philly coming off a disappointing second-round exit marred by the Simmons Issue, and Golden State falling short of the playoffs completely despite a ludicrous season by Steph due to a lack of quality depth and complementary offensive firepower—it’d be awfully interesting if the MVP candidates chose to withhold their John Hancock to ensure that some changes were in the offing.
Among those eligible for rookie-scale extensions, Luka Doncic and Trae Young are lead-pipe locks to get the top possible dollar, after Luka’s second straight All-NBA first team nod and Young’s commanding performance in a postseason debut that ended in the Eastern Conference finals. I’d wager that Phoenix rewards Ayton’s 2021 breakthrough, too. He’s the first age-22-or-younger player ever to average 15 points and 10 rebounds per game in the playoffs while shooting better than 60 percent from the field, and he proved a defensive anchor capable of back-stopping a team with championship aspirations. That’s a guy worth paying to lock up.
A pair of picks from outside the top 10 in 2018 also bear watching here. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the no. 11 pick in that draft, was sensational in Oklahoma City last season—a shade under 24 points, six assists, and five rebounds per game on 51/42/81 shooting splits. You’d figure Sam Presti and Co. would want to make SGA the new standard-bearer for what they’re building in Oklahoma City; will that translate into a max deal at the first opportunity?
Michael Porter Jr., taken three picks after SGA thanks to back issues and medical concerns that led the highly touted prospect to slide down the draft board, has proved to be an incendiary scoring threat in Denver. The just-turned-23-year-old averaged 19 points per game on scorching .663 true shooting last season—numbers that actually went up over the final month of the season, when he moved into a more featured offensive role following Jamal Murray’s season-ending injury. His size, athleticism, capacity to shoot off the catch and off the bounce, ability to threaten defenses off the ball as a cutter, and natural scorer’s instincts make him a hand-in-glove fit alongside MVP playmaker Nikola Jokic. But with Murray already on the books for nearly $131 million through 2025, and Jokic eligible for a supermax extension after this season, could Denver be reluctant to shell out another monster deal?
I’d bet no—Jokic makes the Nuggets a potential contender, with or without Murray, and contending takes talent, and Porter has that to burn. The only question is whether the Nuggets will shell out the top dollar right away, wait a year to do it in restricted free agency, or come to an agreement on a sub-max deal that gets MPJ his money sooner but builds in some injury protections for the Nuggets in case the back problems flare up again.
Who might get an eye-popping bag?
Did you really think you were going to get through this blog post without a 20-minute video of Richaun Holmes highlights?
A second-round pick of the Sixers in 2015, Holmes has gone from product of the Process to legit NBA starter, averaging 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 blocks in 28.8 minutes per game over two seasons in Sacramento. The backcourt of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Tyrese Haliburton gets most of the ink, but Holmes has been arguably the team’s biggest bellwether since his arrival; the Kings were 8.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions better with him on the court last season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Holmes is a dynamite finisher in the screen game, producing 1.30 points per possession used after rolling to the rim in the pick-and-roll last season—the fifth-best mark among players to finish at least 100 such plays, according to Synergy Sports. He doesn’t have to dunk everything to be effective, though: He’s got excellent touch on his foul-line floater, shooting a sparkling 58.1 percent on shots taken in the paint but outside the restricted area, and has improved as a midrange and free throw shooter, too. He combines that offensive punch with strong rim protection. Opponents shot just 51.4 percent against Holmes at the rim this season, the ninth-stingiest mark out of 247 players to contest at least 100 up-close shots, and he’s posted roughly the same block rate since entering the league as Embiid, Jarrett Allen, and Jusuf Nurkic.
Put it all together, and you’ve got an awfully solid low-usage, high-efficiency, high-effectiveness option at center. And in a market where there aren’t many of those available, and in which the small minority of teams with money to spend include some with sizable holes in the middle—looking at you, Raptors and Hornets—that could leave the 27-year-old Holmes in line for a very significant raise over the $5 million he made last season.
A few other names to watch:
- Duncan Robinson: He’s made more 3-pointers than anyone besides Hield or Lillard over the past two seasons, and he’s got the seventh-highest 3-point percentage in that span among players to attempt at least 500 triples. The 27-year-old has also already proved himself as a playoff performer on a team that went to the Finals and is just now entering his prime. Joe Harris got four years and $75 million last offseason; while Robinson’s status as a restricted free agent could complicate matters, it wouldn’t at all be shocking to see him surpass that.
- John Collins: The Hawks forward had an excellent season amid weird burbling trade rumors, and might have enough prospective suitors—Shams Charania of The Athletic recently name-checked Minnesota, Dallas, San Antonio, and Miami as teams that could be in on him—to land a max offer. And while Atlanta’s decision-makers have been somewhat cagey about how far they’ll go to bring Collins back, you wonder whether the bummerific news that Onyeka Okongwu will miss six months after undergoing shoulder surgery—a timeline that would keep the rising sophomore big man out through late January, and could cost him nearly half the season—might make the Hawks more likely to match such an offer to keep him around for now to avoid taking a step back after their breakthrough conference finals run.
- DeMar DeRozan: If only because it feels like he’s fallen under the radar during his stint in San Antonio, and because he might be the best offensive wing/point forward type available on the unrestricted market. DeRozan nearly made the All-Star team last season, finishing as one of only 17 players to average at least 20 points and five assists per game on a league-average-or-better true shooting percentage—if Kawhi doesn’t opt out, DeMar’s the only free agent to do so—and third in the NBA in total clutch points scored. He’s still not a 3-point shooter and he’s about to turn 32; he’s not going to keep making $27.7 million per year on his next deal. I wouldn’t be shocked, though, if he winds up getting quite a bit more than the two-year, $35 million-ish pact that John Hollinger of The Athletic projects.
Who are some non-marquee names to keep an eye on?
Doug McDermott (unrestricted free agent)
Everybody knows that McDermott’s a knockdown shooter; he’s drilled 41 percent of his triples over the past six seasons, 10th best among active players who’ve hoisted at least 1,000 long balls in that span. What kicked his game into another gear last season, though, was taking advantage of Domantas Sabonis’s skills as a playmaking hub and how aggressively teams closed out to run him off the arc by putting the ball on the deck and using his size to go straight to the cup.
McDermott nearly doubled his previous career high in drives to the rim per game, taking nearly half of his shots inside the restricted area, and making nearly 70 percent of them. Here were the top five players in The BBall Index’s at-rim finishing grades for the 2020-21 season: Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, De’Aaron Fox, LeBron James, and Montrezl Harrell. No. 6? You guessed it:
McDermott’s far from a defensive standout, but at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, he’s got enough size to be more viable than smaller sharpshooters, and just about every team wants wings with size who can both make it rain and make something happen off the bounce. If Indiana doesn’t prioritize keeping him around with its midlevel exception, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another team with playoff aspirations take a swing at one of the more quietly well-rounded and dangerous offensive wings on the market.
Josh Hart (restricted free agent)
The 26-year-old Villanova product has carved out a niche for himself as a steady, low-usage, high-floor swingman. The strong shooting stroke he showed as a rookie in L.A. hasn’t held up, but he’s continued to earn rotation minutes after moving to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis blockbuster by doing a little bit of everything else. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, he’s got the length, strength, and quickness to defend across the guard and wing spots, and even to withstand spot duty as a small-ball 4. Hart can also burrow his way into the paint and finish well inside, and has become perhaps the best rebounding wing in the league, grabbing a career-high eight boards per game last season. The only guard to play at least 1,000 minutes and come down with a higher share of available caroms was Russell Westbrook. If you need a plug-and-play perimeter glue guy, and are willing to pay a bit more per year than the $9.5 million midlevel exception, Hart could be an enticing option.
T.J. McConnell (UFA)
Another Process veteran, McConnell was a killer bench player in Indiana last season, turning into one of the most opportunistically larcenous backcourt defenders in the entire league. Only Jimmy Butler averaged more steals per game, despite McConnell playing just 26 minutes per contest coming off the Pacers bench; only Fred VanVleet (who averaged 10 more minutes per game) and Robert Covington (who played one more) racked up more deflections per night. McConnell proved to be a persistent point-of-attack pest, forever slicing his hand into opponents’ dribbles and launching his body into passing lanes when they least expected it. It’s exhausting just watching him defend inbound plays:
Combine that relentless defensive motor and knack for creating extra possessions with his high-floor and efficient offensive play—a sterling 3.38-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, 58.6 percent shooting inside the arc—and with the exception of knockdown 3-point shooting, McConnell checks just about every box a coach could ask for in a backup point guard.
Kelly Olynyk (UFA)
In the event you sort of lost touch with Olynyk after he got shipped to Houston in the Heat’s optimistic but ill-fated gamble on Victor Oladipo—understandable, because the Rockets were a pretty tough watch down the stretch—the former Celtic took advantage of his opportunity to sop up minutes and touches, averaging 19 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 31.1 minutes per game while shooting 64 percent on 2-pointers, 39 percent from distance, and 84 percent at the charity stripe. He’s unlikely to replicate that level of production in a more circumscribed role on a team with playoff aspirations, but he’s proved over the years a fairly steady and versatile hand, capable of playing the 4 or the 5 as matchups dictate, serving as a floor-spacing pick-and-pop threat or an offensive hub at the elbows. He also brings a ton of playoff experience from his stints in Boston and Miami, which could make him an attractive option for teams looking to bolster their frontcourt rotations with an eye on long postseason runs.
Robin Lopez (UFA)
RoLo’s a rock-solid option for teams seeking interior stability at the center spot. He won’t space the floor or dance with fleet-footed guards on switches, but he can eat up a ton of space in the paint in drop coverage and make life difficult on drivers at the rim—72 players defended at least 200 shots in the restricted area last season, and Lopez ranked seventh in defensive field goal percentage allowed.
He routinely ranks among the league leaders in screen assists and box outs, springing his teammates for open looks and creating the space for them to grab the ball off the rim and trigger a fast break. Last season, he broke out a sweeping hook shot that proved surprisingly devastating; he led all players to log at least 100 post-ups in points scored per possession on those plays, shooting a remarkable 67.5 percent on those loping forays from the block into the lane to arc one over the outstretched arms of a powerless defender. He plays hard, he doesn’t demand much, and he is by all accounts a great vibes guy—well, provided you’re not his twin brother or a mascot, I guess—all of which would seem to make him a hand-in-glove fit for a drop-style team in need of someone who can be extremely big and efficient in limited opportunities.
Wait, aren’t there a couple of Coastal Elite Big Market Franchises with some stuff to figure out?
I thought we already talked about the max extension bill for the Nets’ Big Three and the Clippers’ Kawhi conundrum.
Oh, right! The other ones.
Coming off their first playoff berth in eight years, the Knicks enter the summer with the potential to make a big splash, thanks to the capacity to create about $50 million in cap space. Doing so would require some tough decisions on players instrumental to last season’s success, including Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, Reggie Bullock (who’s reportedly drawing interest from the Sixers and Celtics), and Alec Burks.
But it would allow them to throw a full-freight max at a superstar like Paul or Leonard, or a rich-but-not-quite-as-rich offer at someone else who might elevate the developing core of Julius Randle (eligible for an extension himself after his breakthrough All-NBA campaign), RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Obi Toppin—perhaps a veteran point guard like Lowry or Conley; perhaps a sign-and-trade target like Cleveland’s Sexton; perhaps a restricted free agent like Lonzo Ball—and help the Knicks take the next step from “nice season” to “more serious contention.” It would also give New York the flexibility to be able to absorb a massive salary in a trade without necessarily sending out players whose contracts match up—which could prove useful should the Knicks work their way into conversations for a high-priced talent like, say, Lillard.
Then again, the way the Knicks’ season ended—ignominiously, at the hands of the Hawks, with Randle looking like a complementary option at best and the need for a point guard/shooter/creator becoming glaringly obvious—might give the front office some pause when it comes to the notion that this core is one piece away from being a real contender. How New York chooses to approach things could go a long way toward determining how the broader NBA marketplace will shake out.
Three thousand miles west, the Lakers continue to lick their wounds after a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the Suns. Bringing back a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis will obviously put them right back in the contending mix, but L.A.’s inability to weather the loss or diminished capacity of its stars revealed a desperate need for more help on the wing and more shot creation. The million-dollar question, then: How can Rob Pelinka get it?
The answer starts with the team’s approach to the unrestricted free agency of Dennis Schröder, one of the more curious cases on the market. A team already light on off-the-dribble juice and non-LeBron creativity can ill afford to lose a prime-age playmaker who just averaged 15.4 points and 5.8 assists per game for nothing. But after his postseason scuffles against Phoenix, you’d also imagine that the Lakers would like to improve upon Schröder if possible—especially if, as has been reported, he really expects a nine-figure payday. Similar to the Jazz’s quandary with Conley, the already-capped-out Lakers don’t have the cash to replace Schröder if he leaves … unless, that is, someone’s willing to either take a massive pay cut and take the midlevel exception to play alongside LeBron in L.A. or the Lakers can turn a middling cache of tradable pieces into a higher caliber of player.
The rumblings on who that higher caliber of player might be began nearly the second the season ended:
If Chris Paul opts out of his contract with the Suns, his first call should be from his best friend LeBron James and the Lakers.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) July 21, 2021
A big three with LeBron, Chris, and AD will equal a NBA championship!
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) July 21, 2021
Marc Stein pegged the Lakers as “the most realistic threat to derailing the Suns’ hopes of re-signing Paul,” owing to CP3’s desire to be near his family in Los Angeles and his close friendship with James. Marc Spears of The Undefeated reported after the Finals that the “Lakers have been on the hunt for a veteran point guard, and Paul is on the list”—as is Wizards guard Russell Westbrook, who would have to be imported by signing-and-trading some combination of Schröder, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and whatever draft compensation isn’t already headed to the Pelicans.
On its face, none of that seems like it’s enough to get the kind of help that LeBron and AD are looking for. Then again, this is the Lakers we’re talking about; some players of consequence could well be willing to shuffle their priorities a bit to link up. To wit: Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times reports that DeRozan, Lowry, and Spencer Dinwiddie, hitting the unrestricted market after being limited to just three games in Brooklyn last season by a partially torn ACL, all have interest in coming to L.A. With two megastars already in tow and the league’s most attractive market to sell, it’s probably wise not to count the Lakers out until all the dust from what promises to be an awfully hectic next couple of weeks is settled.