Davis, VanVleet headline top 10 NBA free agents of the 2020 off-season

Toronto Raptors' Fred VanVleet looks on during a coach's challenge in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics. (Ashley Landis, Pool, AP)

As the NBA and the NBPA continue to negotiate over the start date to the 2020-21 season, the world remains in the dark on a myriad of other crucial dates and numbers, including just when and how long this year’s off-season will run.

But while the specifics of free agency remain clouded, the 2020 class is clear and available for dissection. As fate would have it, this year’s group is rather thin, and since it’s likely that teams will be feeling a fiscal crunch thanks to the ramifications of the global pandemic, it may ultimately limit the action that takes place on the open market (leading to, perhaps, more trades).

Before diving in, it is important to note a couple things: First, there has been no official statement on what the salary cap will be for next season, nor has there been for the luxury tax or any other related number. For the purpose of this piece, any prognosticating on matters that require a number to work off of will assume that the cap stays flat (the prevailing theory) at $109.1 million and that the luxury tax does so as well at $132.6 million.

Second, as a quick refresher (or, if you’ve never come across the terms before): An unrestricted free agent (UFA) is free to sign with any team he chooses, and there’s nothing the player’s original team can do to prevent it; a restricted free agent's (RFA) original team is allowed to keep him by matching any contract the player signs with another team; an athlete with a player option (PO) has a year left on their contract, which they can opt into if they wish, or they may opt out and enter unrestricted free agency.

That’s it. Now for the list.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (UFA)

Davis is rather a conundrum for this list, but he’s on here despite his path forward being largely clear because he is, until the ticking of the clock denotes that he isn’t, a free agent (and by far the top one, at that). That said, Davis has a $28.7-million player option that is technically still on the table, but he has reportedly (and unsurprisingly) already opted to forgo that choice in order to re-sign with the NBA champion Lakers for what is certain to be both a lucrative and longer-term deal.

What remains intriguing about Davis’ position is the specifics of that deal. Out of the available options, it would seem to be most likely that a three-year contract (in this case a two-plus-one, meaning that the final year would contain a player option) would take precedence, as that would bring Davis to 10 years of service prior to 2022 free agency, making him eligible for up to 35 per cent of the cap and a maximum-length contract of five years.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans (RFA)

Aside from Davis, Ingram is the only other 2020 All-Star on the market this off-season, and his restricted status means his free agency will likely be just as anticlimactic. The Pelicans are widely expected to offer him a max contract, understandably after a breakout season at the age of 23, and will be able to match any number should another team convince him to sign an offer sheet.

Again, akin to Davis, the intrigue here lies not in where Ingram will wind up, but rather in what sort of deal he is signed to. A four-year contract (a three-plus-one, with a player option in the fourth year) would seem to be likely here, since it offers Ingram the most control out of any of the available options.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors (UFA)

It is no secret that the Raptors have, for quite some time now, been basing their decision-making around the goal of retaining a max slot for the 2021 off-season, when a panoply of top-tier free agents (most notably, of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo, lest he sign an extension with Milwaukee) will become available.

This makes negotiations perhaps more difficult than they may seem from the outside, as the Raptors have a significant number of key players either already taking up a fair portion of the cap (Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell), players that could/will eventually take up a fair portion of the cap (OG Anunoby), and players that they will inevitably be looking to re-sign at potentially below market value (Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka).

With that all in mind, Toronto’s aim will likely be to try and satiate VanVleet and his camp with a manageable deal somewhere around $18-20 million a year (again, this is assuming a flat cap of $109.1 million), else they risk losing the max slot they have worked so hard to retain.

VanVleet’s decision about whether or not to remain with the Raptors, then, will come down to how much he values not just money (as there are other teams that will absolutely be able to offer him more than Toronto can), but playing on a competitive club, his role on the floor, continuing to build on a championship culture he helped cultivate, and staying in the city where he has spent the entirety of his NBA career.

Goran Dragic, Miami Heat (UFA)

Much like the Raptors, the Heat believe they have a real shot at landing a big-time free agent in the off-season of 2021 and, as such, they will be looking to prioritize a certain amount of cap space. That space becomes complicated by the fact that Bam Adebayo is extension-eligible, and after a shocking run to The Finals this past post-season that featured their young, star big man, bypassing the opportunity to lock him up immediately in order to keep as much space open for as long as possible would be a tricky (and potentially unfeasible) tightrope to walk.

Somewhere in the mix of all that is Dragic, who had his own remarkable run in the playoffs as the team’s second-leading scorer before being sidelined by a torn left plantar fascia. There is reportedly mutual interest between he and the Heat for a new deal, though Miami’s emphasis on flexibility would likely make it a shorter one.

If the Heat and Dragic can’t manage to find a middle ground, expect there to be plenty of interested parties ready to swoop in.

Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder (UFA)

While it’s likely that plenty of free agents will re-up with their current teams thanks to the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the salary cap (there’s a good chance most major player movement will occur via trades rather than signings), Gallinari hasn’t been shy about his willingness to sign with a new franchise if necessary, posting a photo on Twitter showcasing various versions of himself in different jerseys he’s worn throughout his career with the caption: “Where to next?”

The Thunder, who were semi-surprisingly very good this past season and took the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, may be looking to dive headfirst into the rebuild they cued up following their trading of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. If that’s the case, then paying Gallinari a significant sum may not be in the cards for them, especially when he will have plenty of suitors as a sharpshooting big man who can fit snugly onto nearly any roster.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings (RFA)

At one point, eons ago, when the NBA trade deadline was approaching last February, Bogdanovic’s name was part of the rumblings. Plenty of teams were looking for a lethal shooter like the 28-year-old, including the Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, and Philadelphia 76ers. But the Kings were reluctant to move him, and ultimately chose to keep him, during which time he found himself replacing Buddy Hield (who just signed a four-year, $20 million deal in 2019) in the starting rotation.

Now, he’s a restricted free agent, and Sacramento has made it known that retaining him is a crucial, if not their foremost, off-season priority. If they cannot come to terms with him on an extension (they presented him with one prior to last season) before another team tenders him an offer sheet that he chooses to sign, then they will certainly match it.

Especially with Hield reportedly no longer returning head coach Luke Walton’s phone calls.

Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics (PO)

When one looks at Hayward’s sizeable player option ($34 million), it immediately becomes difficult to believe that he will not opt in, since there’s no way he’ll be able to wrangle that much on the open market. And perhaps that bears out, and Hayward simply opts in for the short-term boon with the notion in mind that he’ll deal with the future when it arrives.

However, there is mutual incentive for both the Celtics and Hayward to desire a situation in which he does, in fact, opt out. In that scenario, the Celtics would potentially be able to avoid paying the luxury tax (this assumes they dump a couple other contracts) and would be able to re-sign to a longer, cheaper deal a solid, veteran player whose playmaking abilities have proven inherently valuable to the present roster, as became clear when he missed a large portion of play in the Orlando bubble to a right ankle sprain.

For Hayward, opting out and re-signing with Boston would provide him with long-term security (something precious to a player with a checkered injury history and on the wrong side of 30) and could potentially net him more money than if he opts in and re-signs with the team next off-season due to how much capital could be held in escrow this year.

Of course, opting out leaves Hayward free for other teams to come calling, which necessarily carries its own degree of risk as well.

Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons (UFA)

Not necessarily one of the sexiest names on this list (but he will be if he keeps on his current trajectory), Wood had a breakout season with the Pistons in 2019-20. A burgeoning plus-defender who can spot up and stroke from distance, rim-run with the best of them, and score efficiently in the pick-and-roll, the big man will certainly have many suitors come the off-season.

Detroit, one of the six teams (Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns) with significant projected cap space, will attempt to keep him, but his skyrocketing value may prevent them from doing so if it interferes with their alternative goals. Those goals include signing one of the other top free agents available (their interest in VanVleet is well-documented), which would very likely eat up most of if not all of their space.

There have been no outward indications from Wood that he’s unhappy in Detroit, though he would seem an easier target to pry away than a Dragic from the Heat, who have a firm longstanding connection, for example.

Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards (UFA)

If a player can shoot, then they will always have a place in the NBA. Luckily for Bertans, shooting is his forte (most of the other aspects of the game, not so much). Put him on the floor and he’s prone to fire away as soon as the ball touches his fingertips, no matter where he’s standing or at what point the shot clock is at.

And though his shot selection is the sort that could easily make a coach throw up their hands, he makes so many of his three-point attempts (42.4 per cent) on such a significant volume (8.7 shots) that it’s often intentionally overlooked.

Washington, who’s entering a significant season with John Wall’s return imminent and suitors already inquiring about Bradley Beal, has stated that they view Bertans as their top off-season priority, and will therefore look to retain him, though they’ll have a serious amount of competition to contend with.

DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs (PO)

As with Hayward, DeRozan has a substantial player option ($27.7 million) on the table in front of him. Unlike Hayward, who even if he declined his option would seem fairly likely to return to the Celtics, there have been few indications about which direction DeRozan desires to go, save for a report from Yahoo’s Chris Haynes back in March (which DeRozan shot down) that stated he would decline his option should he and the Spurs fail to reach an agreement on an extension.

If DeRozan does indeed turn down his offer to enter free agency, it will be with the belief that he will be able to sign a comparable or more lucrative deal than what he’s set to make. The only teams able to offer that, as aforementioned, are the six with significant cap space.

One is left to wonder, then, if DeRozan does not wish to remain on the Spurs but isn’t interested in switching to a team fighting to remove itself from the bottom of the NBA barrel, if he instead becomes the focus of a sign-and-trade, allowing him to move somewhere more competitive while still finding a way for the Spurs (whose record 22-year playoff streak ended this past season) to accumulate assets in return.

Other noteworthy names to keep an eye on:

Andre Drummond (Cleveland Cavaliers, PO), Otto Porter Jr. (Chicago Bulls, PO), Marc Gasol (Toronto Raptors, UFA), Serge Ibaka (Toronto Raptors, UFA), Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets, UFA), Montrezl Harrell (Los Angeles Clippers, UFA), Evan Fournier (Orlando Magic, PO), Kris Dunn (Chicago Bulls, RFA), Jakob Poeltl (San Antonio Spurs, RFA), Derrick Jones Jr. (Miami Heat, UFA), Wesley Matthews (Milwaukee Bucks, PO), Rajon Rondo (Los Angeles Lakers, UFA), Dwight Howard (Los Angeles Lakers, UFA), Tristan Thompson (Cleveland Cavaliers, UFA)

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