Sunday, August 14, 2022

NBA offseason’s unfinished business: Sorting through teams, players in limbo as summer wears on

No one needs another story about potential Kevin Durant trades or why the Los Angeles Lakers are so desperate for Kyrie Irving. While we wait for these big dominoes to fall, I’ve challenged myself to write about the remainder of the offseason without mentioning the Brooklyn Nets or their disgruntled stars.

Here’s a look at some other teams with moves to make and some other situations that, a week-and-a-half into free agency, have yet to be resolved: 

The cap-space teams 

The Indiana Pacers have more than $26 million in cap space, and, they’re a logical landing spot for restricted free agent Deandre Ayton. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported on Monday that the deal could be imminent, but there has been no news since then. 

If the Pacers are going to sign Ayton to a max offer sheet with a starting salary of $30.9 million, they need to clear some space. They could also potentially acquire Ayton in a sign-and-trade for Myles Turner. (As The Athletic’s John Hollinger noted, this swap works cap-wise as long as Ayton’s first-year salary is at least $26 million.) 

Turner is 26 and on an $18 million expiring contract. Only four players blocked more shots last season, despite the fact that he only played in 42 games. He is coming off of a foot injury, but he’s also coming off the most efficient year of his career. If Indiana does not trade him for Ayton, will it trade Turner elsewhere? 

The Pacers have an unfinished, unbalanced roster. There are a ton of guards, a bunch of bigs and a serious shortage of forwards and “big wing” types. The 29-year-old Buddy Hield, who is owed $21.2 million next season and $19.3 million in 2023-24, is another trade candidate.

Aside from Indiana, the only team rich in cap space is the San Antonio Spurs. Jakob Poeltl is a year older than Dejounte Murray and is on a $9.4 million expiring contract, so it’s easy to imagine him getting traded if the price is right. They could also, obviously, be a dumping ground for “bad” contracts in multi-team trades.

The Detroit Pistons have already used most of their space that way, but they still have more than $13 million left. They also have a few vets that could be moved either before the season or before the trade deadline. Are they really going to keep Nerlens Noel (owed $9.2 million, with a $9.7 million option for 2023-24) and Kelly Olynyk (owed $12.8 million in 2022-23, with a partially guaranteed salary the next season) when they have Jalen Duran, Isaiah Stewart and Marvin Bagley III on the roster? Are they really keeping Alec Burks (owed $10 million, with a $10.5 million team option for 2023-24) when they have Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Killian Hayes, Hamidou Diallo and Cory Joseph on the roster? 

What’s going on in Utah?

It looks like the Jazz have started a full teardown. The Rudy Gobert blockbuster and the very strange Royce O’Neale trade brought them a combined five first-round picks and a pick swap. 

So will Danny Ainge move Donovan Mitchell next? What about Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Rudy Gay? What about the newly acquired Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley

You can point to Ainge, as the general manager of the Boston Celtics, choosing to build a team around Paul Pierce instead of trading him, or you can point to Ainge moving on from Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers six years later. It’s also worth noting that all of it could have gone differently: Ainge almost traded Pierce for Chris Paul in 2005, and Pierce tried to force a trade to the Dallas Mavericks in 2007, just before Ainge acquired Garnett and Ray Allen.

The beauty of having a ton of picks at your disposal is that you don’t necessarily have to tank. Brad Stevens’ first season, 2013-14, is the only time that Boston has missed the playoffs in the last 15 years. The following season, Ainge surrendered a first-round pick at the trade deadline in order to acquire Isaiah Thomas, a 26-year-old guard who had just four months earlier signed an extremely team-friendly contract. Thomas helped the Celtics earn the seventh seed that year and win 48 games in 2015-16, which got them a seat at the table with Kevin Durant and Al Horford in free agency. Horford signed, knowing that he’d have a chance to compete and that more young talent was coming. 

So yes, the Jazz have to decide what to do. They have the remnants of a win-now team, but their only 3-and-D guy is Beverley and their only centers are Walker Kessler and Udoka Azubuike. What Ainge does and when he does it, however, will be determined in part by the trade market. He got what he wanted for Gobert and O’Neale, so he moved them both. If he gets similarly attractive offers for anybody else on the team, do not expect him to hesitate. 

In theory, Ainge could also use some of the stuff he has just acquired to trade for a core player. What’s consistent about Ainge is that he’s opportunistic. 

Are the Hawks and Sixers done?

The Hawks didn’t just add Murray — A.J. Griffin, Moe Harkless and brothers Aaron and Justin Holiday will be in the mix next season. Stretch big Frank Kaminsky has joined the party, too, and Jalen Johnson should get more of an opportunity than he did as a rookie. But is that it? Around draft time, a source close to John Collins told The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner that Collins is “done in Atlanta.”

Before Collins injured both his foot and his hand last season, he was playing the best basketball of his career. The Hawks’ public position is that they still value him. They should. He’s a year younger than Murray and a year older than Young. (Fun fact: Murray and Young share a birthday.) There were questions about how Collins’ game would look under the playoff microscope, but he answered them emphatically in 2021. If this situation is salvageable, it’s worth trying to salvage it, unless an awesome trade offer comes along. 

If Atlanta trades Collins, it will be a drastically different team than the one that beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round 13 months ago. In that time, the Sixers have changed quite a bit themselves. And, if James Harden indeed has a $32 million starting salary on his new contract, as The Athletics Shams Charania reported, they’ll be about $4 million below the “apron,” i.e. the hard cap. Hmm. 

One theory as to why Harden hasn’t actually signed his contract yet: Philadelphia is still trying to upgrade the roster, and this might entail taking on more money. When Daryl Morey’s maneuvering is complete, the Sixers can give Harden every dollar that they have left in between their total salary and the hard cap. 

Morey has already reunited Harden with P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and De’Anthony Melton. (OK, Melton never actually played with Harden, but he was a Houston Rockets draft pick and he played for them in summer league — it counts.) He doesn’t have to make some big, transformative trade involving Tobias Harris, as the team is already deeper and much better defensively than it was last season. But between Matisse Thybulle (extension-eligible and on a $4.4 million expiring contract), Georges Niang ($3.5 million expiring), Shake Milton ($1.7 million expiring), Furkan Korkmaz (owed $10.4 million over two years) and summer league standout Isaiah Joe ($1.8 million expiring), Morey has pieces to put trades together. 

OKC and Houston are definitely not done

Houston general manager Rafael Stone laughed about having 19 players under contract when he joined ESPN’s summer league broadcast on Saturday. The Rocket most often mentioned in trade rumors is 33-year-old guard Eric Gordon, who would fit perfectly on plenty of playoff teams. Those teams have not been able to meet Houston’s asking price, though, and Gordon’s $19.6 million salary isn’t easy for championship hopefuls — like, say, Philadelphia — to match. 

Kenyon Martin Jr. met with the Rockets to “to discuss the possibility of a trade,” Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported before the draft. This is a sign that it’s going to be difficult for Houston to keep all of its young players happy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will move him — Martin has a $1.9 million team option for 2023-24 before he even hits restricted free agency. 

Something has to give, though. Maybe the Rockets can get something of value for sharpshooter Garrison Mathews on a cheapo deal. Ditto for Sterling Brown on a $3 million expiring contract. Brown arrived in the Christian Wood trade, in which they also acquired Boban Marjanovic, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss, none of whom figures to be part of their long-term plans.

Including two-ways, the Oklahoma City Thunder have 21 players under contract. Sam Presti has said that they’ll try to move veteran JaMychal Green, but they’re going to have to do more than that. With roster spots so scarce, I’ll be surprised if Derrick Favors is still on the team on opening night, even though he has been part of the OKC contingent at summer league. For teams that tried to nab Kenrich Williams before the trade deadline, it’s a good time to try again. 

One player who won’t get a roster spot with the Thunder: 28-year-old guard Vasilije Micic, the 2021 Euroleague MVP. He wants to make the jump to the NBA, and, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, several teams are interested in making that happen.

But I was told there would be more trades! 

Five other names you’ll hear a lot leading up to next year’s deadline, if they aren’t traded sooner: 

  • D’Angelo Russell: He’s extension-eligible, but the Wolves won’t max him out again and their roster just got a lot more expensive. Maybe playing next to Gobert, the kind of lob threat he hasn’t had in years, will be perfect for Russell, and maybe there’s a number that works for both sides. If not, Minnesota will risk losing him for nothing in free agency — Russell is on a $31.4 million expiring contract. 
  • Terrence Ross: This man is perpetually in trade rumors. He has outlasted everybody else in Orlando, having now spent five-and-a-half seasons there, one year longer than his stay in Toronto. If the Magic want to field a competent team, they probably need Ross to give them 20-something minutes of floor spacing. He’s on an $11.5 million expiring deal, though, which makes him an obvious trade candidate. 
  • Gary Harris: Some people were surprised that the Magic signed Harris for a reported two years and $26 million. Once the details came out, though, the arrangement made sense. The second year is fully non-guaranteed, so he’s essentially on a $13 million expiring contract. And since he signed an extension, not a new deal, he can be traded right now, rather than six months after putting pen to paper. If he’s a real 3-and-D guy again, then that price tag is perfectly reasonable. 
  • Harrison Barnes: No player illustrates the Sacramento Kings‘ present predicament better than Barnes. At 30 years old, he is still in his prime, but a full four years older than Domantas Sabonis. They’re not close enough to contention that offering him a four-year, $100 million extension is an easy call. They are determined, however, to make the playoffs, or at least the play-in, and it’s unlikely they’ll find a trade that doesn’t hurt their chances of doing so. If the Kings don’t extend or trade Barnes, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer, at which point we can all do the same analysis again, as they weigh the cost of a new contract against whatever sign-and-trade opportunities present themselves. 
  • Richaun Holmes: Overqualified for a 15-minutes-per-game role behind Sabonis, Holmes doesn’t really fit in Sacramento anymore. If it were easy to trade bigs for wings, he’d likely be elsewhere already, but there he is, on the roster, making $11.2 million next season and $12 million in 2023-23, with a $12.9 million player option. 

So I guess free agency is over then? 

Not quite. Collin Sexton among the short list of players in restricted-free-agent limbo, and there are a ton of over-30 guys who remain unsigned. 

A non-exhaustive list of veteran FAs: Lou Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, D.J. Augustin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Wayne Ellington.

The most interesting vet of the bunch might be a guy who technically isn’t a free agent yet. Two weeks ago, ESPN reported that the Pistons were finalizing a buyout agreement with Kemba Walker, but he hasn’t been waived yet. For a win-now team confident in its medical staff, the 32-year-old Walker would come with more upside than the average veteran-minimum signing. 

Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder, who both signed with the Lakers a couple of years ago after finishing 1-2 in Sixth Man of the Year voting, both remain unsigned. So do Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, movie star Juancho Hernangomez and restricted free agent Jordan Nwora.

Jarrett Culver is still out there, after a year spent mostly with the Memphis Grizzlies‘ G League team, as is Josh Jackson, who preceded him in Memphis’ second-draft program. Yuta Watanabe and Ish Wainwright, who competed for a roster spot in the Toronto Raptors‘ training camp last year, are both available and more than worth a flier. And if you’ve read this entire thing, I probably don’t need to tell you about Mac McClung putting on a show with the Golden State Warriors‘ Summer League team. 

Anything else?

Um, are you interested in contract-extension candidates?

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