Tuesday, May 24, 2022

2022 NBA buyout market guide: Goran Dragic, Serge Ibaka among best likely in-season free agents

The 2021 buyout market set off one of the more needless controversies in recent NBA history. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and LaMarcus Aldridge moving from their small-market homes to the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers caused an enormous uproar about class disparity in professional basketball. Why should the best teams have access to former All-Stars at bargain-basement prices just because their original teams want to save a few bucks?

That’s a complicated question that fortunately has a simple answer: Buyout reform isn’t necessary because 2021 was an outlier. A few helpful role players usually hit the market after the deadline, but they’re almost never as accomplished as Griffin, Drummond and Aldridge. There was genuine fear that Griffin forcing his way out of Detroit with multiple years left on his deal would ignite a firestorm of unhappy veterans doing the same, yet the only analogous player in 2022 would be John Wall, who thus far has not even considered a buyout.

What we’re going to see in 2022 is going to be significantly closer to the norm. The majority of players to seek buyouts will be declining veterans with expiring contracts on bad teams. A few surprises will join them in free agency as casualties of the trade deadline. Beyond that? Don’t expect any major surprises. There just aren’t any major names likely to change teams without a trade at the deadline. Below, we’ll go over 12 of the most important figures of buyout season. When the dust settles, it’s a safe bet that less than half of them will ultimately change teams. As exciting as 2021 was, 2022 should look much more familiar.

Expiring contracts on bad teams

Harris started the season as an obvious buyout candidate without obvious value. He’d played just 114 games in the previous three seasons and watched his previously stellar shooting slip below league average. But now the shots are falling and Harris has suddenly played himself out of buyout consideration. He’s going to get traded now, if only for matching expiring salary and a second-round pick or two. That’s a major win for Orlando and a great example of how bad teams should handle veteran rehabilitation candidates. The Magic took on a bad contract, gave him all of the minutes and shots he wanted and will likely now be rewarded with assets.

Young probably fits into the Harris “too valuable for a buyout” category, especially considering his more manageable $14 million salary. If nothing else, Phoenix should offer the injured Dario Saric as matching salary along with a second-round pick, and there will be stronger offers. The only question is why Young hasn’t been traded already. The Spurs have hardly used him and interest has likely been plentiful since the moment he landed in San Antonio. If there’s some reason we aren’t yet aware of that Young hasn’t already been traded, that might open the door for a buyout. 

Favors will be a buyout candidate no matter what happens at the deadline, but the odds suggest he’ll be dealt elsewhere before Feb. 10. The Thunder love turning their expiring contracts into longer-term deals with assets attached, and if they do so again, Favors will likely be deemed expendable by his new team. The issue here is that Favors probably wouldn’t hold much value to contenders either. He is the first true failure of Oklahoma City’s veteran rehabilitation program, struggling on both ends of the floor and failing to garner any trade interest as more than an expiring salary. In all likelihood, Favors’ days as contributing player are over.

Lopez fits the buyout sweet spot from a talent perspective: not so good that his team refuses to let him go, but good enough to actually help someone. Golden State has coveted Lopez as a buyout candidate for years, and this might be the moment the Warriors’ wish finally comes true. Lopez is at least a playable backup center defensively, and his ugly hook shots are good for a couple of surprising buckets per night. The only real holdup here is that Lopez is so cheap at $5 million that some interested party could pretty easily just swoop in at the deadline and trade for him.

The Thunder will try to trade Mike Muscala, and they have the leverage to keep him if they don’t. He has a very reasonable $3.5 million team option next season that they could theoretically pick up (though given their influx of draft picks, they may not have the room). You’re not going to find a better shooting big man on the buyout market than Muscala, who’s hitting nearly 43 percent of his 3s this season.

Thompson has hardly played for Sacramento since Christmas. If the Kings were rational actors, that would make him an obvious buyout candidate. The Kings are not rational actors. They are so desperate to make the play-in round that the notion of saving a couple of bucks at the expense of possible emergency depth may not appeal to them. Plus, let’s be honest, this front office probably isn’t eager to hand the Lakers a DeAndre Jordan upgrade after all of the bad blood that followed the aborted Buddy Hield trade in July. 

Knox landed in Atlanta largely as matching salary in the Cam Reddish deal, and has predictably played just 35 total minutes with the Hawks since. Nothing about this is all that surprising, but if the Hawks have no interest in developing Knox, they’d probably be better served letting him sign with a team that wants to give him some run. Knox needs to end the season strong if he’s going to get a contract from anyone next season, and his agent would surely appreciate the favor from Atlanta if the Hawks give him that chance. Hey, saving a couple of bucks and clearing a roster spot never hurts either.

Expiring contracts that could be traded

The Clippers can save more than $40 million in salary and luxury taxes by trading Ibaka into Oklahoma City’s cap space. The Thunder would then presumably buy him out and allow him to sign with a contender, and there would be no shortage of candidates. The Nets recruited him hard as a 2020 free agent. The Lakers would allow him to remain in Los Angeles. Milwaukee would love a big man who can shoot and protect the rim to keep them afloat until Brook Lopez returns. Where he goes likely comes down to who offers him the best role. 

The Lakers are going to clear a roster spot or two before the deadline dust settles, and the easiest way to do so would be by trading Jordan and/or Bazemore. Jordan, if dealt by the Lakers, has probably played his last NBA game. Bazemore could probably still help the right team if his shot is falling. He’s lost a bit defensively but he can still hold his own on the perimeter. 

Lamb has started to turn a corner lately. After a miserable start to the season, he’s back up to around 44 percent from the field and 36 percent from behind the arc in his past eight games. If Indiana doesn’t trade him and doesn’t plan to re-sign him, the perpetually budget-conscious Pacers probably wouldn’t mind saving a couple of bucks and letting him join a contender. Of course, the Pacers refuse to tank, so their preference might be retaining the option to bring him back in the offseason, so on balance, his Bird rights are probably more valuable to them than the cash they’d keep by buying him out. If he’s dealt as matching salary in a bigger deal involving one of the core Pacers, he becomes a far likelier buyout candidate.

We’re probably just killing time here until Dragic becomes a Maverick. Dragic barely played in Toronto this season and will likely be bought out either after a deadline trade for another expensive player or once such a trade is no longer possible. One important note that the Mavericks are likely watching closely: If Dragic gets traded and then bought out, he could technically return to the Heat. Teams cannot reacquire players that they traded away until one year after the original trade, but if the player is moved a second time, that restriction voids. The Heat are probably deep enough at guard with Victor Oladipo coming back that they wouldn’t pursue Dragic, but they would be Dallas’ primary competition if they did try to bring him home. Still, with fellow Slovenian star Luka Doncic serving as lead recruiter, Dragic is probably going to wind up in Dallas.

Brooklyn is trying to find a new home for Millsap on the trade market, but the end result here is probably going to be a trade in which the Nets send out cash or a pick just to get him off their roster. The Nets will be a top buyout destination and just need an empty roster spot to offer their target of choice. As for Millsap? It’s been a disappointing season with his numbers plummeting across the board. He could be a useful veteran to have in a locker room, but he’s probably beyond the point in his career in which he can help a team win on the floor. 

Multi-year buyouts

Wall hasn’t shown any interest in a buyout thus far this season. Might that change if the deadline passes without a deal? At that point, he’d be staring down the barrel of two missed seasons in a row. Aside from the impact that would have on him as a player, you could make a compelling argument that it actually hurts his future earning power as well. Say Wall gives up $5 million to become a free agent and shines in a brief stint with a new team this season. How much more could he make back on a new deal that likely wouldn’t be available if he misses two full seasons? It’s unlikely, but it’s worth discussing. 

The Lakers won’t buy Westbrook out, but if he is ultimately traded for Wall, Houston would surely be open to it. Even in his declining state, Westbrook would instantly become the most valuable player ever to receive a buyout. He’s no longer a primary option on a good team or perhaps even a starter on one, but he’d be an extremely valuable player on the right bench for 20-25 minutes per night. Still, his free agency depends on the Lakers trading him for Wall, and for now, that seems extremely unlikely. 

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