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Darren Abate/Associated Press
Honesty is important among friends, and if we’re telling the truth, this NBA offseason wants for flight risks of star proportions.
Sure, you can talk yourself into certain scenarios. That doesn’t making them especially likely.
This exercise seeks to juggle the relative spiciness of marquee-name movement with reality. Put another way: This isn’t the spot to predict Stephen Curry and Karl-Anthony Towns trade demands. Those can be filed under “Not happening” and “He has three years left on his contract so chill,” respectively.
Candidates must have a clearer path to changing digs than becoming the subject of a shocking Woj bomb. Combined with the relative lack of available star power, that severely narrows the scope of our search.
Don’t worry, though. There will be no absurd reaches to hit some sort of arbitrary, imaginable minimum. Not every inclusion is a bona fide All-Star, but they each have the capacity to play at or around that level next season.
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Matt York/Associated Press
Stars and fringe stars alike cannot be considered flight risks just by virtue of entering free agency. Kawhi Leonard is going to decline his player option, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to predict he’ll leave the Los Angeles Clippers, a team he chose and traveled Paul-George-trade-sized lengths to join.
Lonzo Ball and John Collins are the closest restricted free agency gets to patented stars. Whether they should fall under that umbrella is irrelevant. Restricted free agents worth a damn are never likely to leave. Incumbent teams have the right to match any offer they receive. Sign-and-trade scenarios are a possibility, but Ball and Collins would’ve been jettisoned prior to the March 25 deadline if their squads didn’t view them as probable long-term keepers.
Common sense kiboshes other prospective candidates.
Barring a twist unseen, the Utah Jazz aren’t about to let Mike Conley walk after they extended Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and have no way to replace him coming off a year in which they might finish atop the Western Conference. The Chicago Bulls aren’t voluntarily trading Zach LaVine when they just gave up Wendell Carter Jr. and two top-four-protected firsts to land Nikola Vucevic.
Victor Oladipo can skate in off name recognition alone. But the Miami Heat were the team he always wanted to play for, and his latest right knee injury is yet another reminder he may never regain star form. Chris Paul has played well enough to decline his $44.2 million player option. But the Phoenix Suns are really good, and he already chose them over the Philadelphia 76ers, per The Athletic’s Sam Amick.
Spotlighting Kristaps Porzingis and Kemba Walker as trade candidates isn’t egregious. But they both play for teams with the urgency to win now. The Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics, respectively, aren’t selling them off for picks and prospects or cap relief, and neither is faring well enough to be the headliner in a deal that nets an upgrade over him.
Players far enough removed from their heyday or who aren’t particularly likely to recapture All-Star form are similarly excluded. Al Horford almost assuredly won’t be back with the Oklahoma City Thunder next season, but counting on him to reenter, say, the top-35 to -40 conversation during his age-35 campaign and after shutting it down early for this one is a stretch.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Including Bradley Beal when he has indicated, repeatedly, time after time, that he wants to stay with the Washington Wizards feels to some degree yucky. We accept that Damian Lillard is content to punt on championship proximity if it means remaining with the Portland Trail Blazers. Why should Beal be any different?
Stars on the verge of hitting the open market are always going to be the subject of speculation and seem more gettable. Lillard would be—and has been—in that same boat if he weren’t under contract for another four years (2024-25 player option).
Beal, on the other hand, has a 2022-23 player option he is bound to decline. That puts him one year out from free agency. And that matters.
Washington is not some powerhouse. It is fighting for a play-in spot. And it doesn’t have the ready-made tools to make a leap before next season.
Carving out cap space is a non-starter so long as Beal, Davis Bertans and Russell Westbrook are all still on the books. The Wizards also don’t have the prospects necessary to anchor the acquisition of another star who might become available. Rui Hachimura is quietly having a rock-solid sophomore campaign, but prospective packages built around him, Deni Avdija (who just suffered a season-ending right ankle injury) and future picks can and will be beaten.
Maybe Beal’s allegiance to the franchise transcends the difficult, mildly inflexible situation in which Washington finds itself. But his words only mean so much without a signed long-term commitment. Until—or rather, unless—he puts pen to paper on another multiyear contract, he will remain, for now, the NBA’s most sought-after trade candidate.
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Eric Gay/Associated Press
Hanging on to DeMar DeRozan past the trade deadline could be the San Antonio Spurs’ way of signaling they intend to re-sign him.
Counterpoint: Maybe not.
Second counterpoint: It also isn’t up to them. DeRozan plans to take a “wide-open” approach in free agency, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick and John Hollinger, and he’s going to have options.
For all the quibbling over his shot profile and on-off splits, DeRozan remains the Spurs’ most valuable offensive player. He is their playmaking engine and primary crunch-time weapon, and his low-volume inefficiency from beyond the arc is more of a wart than an insurmountable hurdle.
Just seven other players are averaging as many points (21.0) and assists (7.1) while shooting better than 50 percent on twos: Jimmy Butler, James Harden, De’Aaron Fox, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Nikola Jokic. DeRozan’s free-throw-attempt rate is the second-highest among this group, trailing only Butler.
San Antonio may not be inclined to enter a bidding war for a soon-to-be 32-year-old. It isn’t close enough to the title discussion. The Spurs might just decide to move on from DeRozan, period. They have plenty of young talent to groom on the perimeter and could warm up to the idea of a fuller-scale rebuild if they get trucked in the play-in tournament.
Head coach Gregg Popovich probably ensures San Antonio will at least halfheartedly try to bring back DeRozan. He turned 72 this past January. The Spurs aren’t going to steer completely into the reset skid so long as he’s around.
That does nothing to dispel DeRozan’s own license, though. San Antonio could offer him the most money only for him to decide he’d rather latch onto a contender. Or maybe the Spurs actually do get outbid. This year’s market is punctuated by a lack of star power and a surplus of cap space. Suitors of varying desperation can easily talk themselves into throwing the bag at someone who flirted with All-Star status this year and remains a human bucket.
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Spencer Dinwiddie isn’t so much a potential flight risk as a virtual goner. That the Brooklyn Nets didn’t trade him at the deadline does nothing to change that. They tried to move him in a swap for Kelly Oubre Jr., according to the New York Times‘ Marc Stein.
Perhaps the rash of injuries and absences from their three superstars—Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving—will convince the Nets they need to bring back Dinwiddie as a shot-creation buffer. His skill set becomes less of an overlap and more of a necessity if Brooklyn thinks it’ll be navigating spotty to scant availability from its megastars.
At what cost, though? Dinwiddie isn’t expected to play again this season—though he hasn’t ruled it out, per The Athletic’s Diamond Leung—after undergoing a reconstruction of his right ACL. That isn’t a dire enough setback to prevent him from declining his $12.3 million player salary.
Even the worst-case scenario will entail Dinwiddie getting at least that much money over a longer term. And he has little incentive to hold serve with the Nets if the money’s equal elsewhere, let alone give them a discount. His role will forever be capped when playing alongside a trio of perennial All-NBA candidates.
Also, let’s be real: The money probably won’t be equal. Nets team governor Joseph Tsai has deep pockets, and pinching pennies is a terrible way to operate when Durant, Harden and Irving are on your roster. But Brooklyn would be ponying up for preservation, if not redundancy, rather than to fill a void.
Footing the bill on Dinwiddie’s next deal only to try flipping him later is technically a possibility, just not a foolproof one. His next deal will devolve into a net-negative chip if he’s anything less than the fringe star he was before, and again, the best version of him on the Nets will have a finite ceiling.
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Nell Redmond/Associated Press
Kevin Love might be closer to the Victor Oladipo end of the spectrum than All-Star territory. Injuries—and perhaps a lack of competitive urgency by the Cleveland Cavaliers—have cost him 112 games over the past three seasons, including this year, and counting.
Still, Love warrants the benefit of the doubt. He has spent the bulk of his career in the All-Star discussion. Oladipo’s reputation is founded around a season-and-a-half sample size. It likewise helps that Love played through most of last year at an effective level, averaging 17.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists while hitting 53.7 percent of his twos and 37.4 percent of his threes.
Any issue with Love’s inclusion should be purely logistical. He has two more years at $60.2 million left on his deal. It would be one thing if he were on an expiring contract, but that multiseason price point is a tough sell given his checkered health bill.
The Cavaliers only complicate matters with their oddball window. They’re either not in a rush to win, in which case they needn’t trip over themselves to move a player who no longer has the cachet to spark a postseason bid on his own, or they actually want to make noise next year, in which case a healthy Love becomes super intriguing alongside Jarrett Allen (restricted), Darius Garland, Larry Nance Jr., Isaac Okoro, Collin Sexton and this year’s lottery pick.
Going on 33 (September), Love could force Cleveland’s hand. But demanding a trade won’t suddenly widen the market for his services. Stretch bigs with excellent vision have value. They are also much more common and usually not this expensive. Plus, Love doesn’t appear to be in any rush to get out. He is “all-in” on the Sexland core.
Consider this more of a gut feeling, the offshoot of incongruent timelines coming to a head. The Cavs may want to accelerate their rebuild next year, but they’re not morphing into contenders by then. And while Love’s contract remains steep, it isn’t long-term anymore. The light at the end of the tunnel is in view.
Teams in need of a higher-end talent infusion can find upside in acquiring a healthy Love, if only because they’ll be barren of other options. Free agency isn’t flush with poachable stars, and Bradley Beal is, at the moment, the lone bigwig who might, possibly, maybe hit the trade market.
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Rich Schultz/Associated Press
Penciling in Kyle Lowry as a surefire goner would be foolish. He is the best player in Toronto Raptors franchise history, and they kept him beyond the trade deadline. That has to mean…something.
Lowry also hasn’t played in Toronto since Feb. 28, 2020. That has to mean something too. And all this talk about the Raptors’ timeline rings hollow. Their record doesn’t accurately tell the tale of this season. Every game comes on the road for them, and they’ve been ripped apart by COVID-19 and injuries more than most.
Besides, even if they’re trying to duck the play-in tournament this season—they were already fined for improperly resting players relative to league policy—this isn’t a team on the cusp of bottoming out. A core of OG Anunoby, a healthy Chris Boucher (non-guaranteed salary), Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) and Fred VanVleet, plus an inbound lottery pick, profiles as an Eastern Conference playoff squad. Toronto has enough juice view paying Lowry as the default plan.
At the same time, we cannot pretend Lowry remains with the Raptors on purpose. Keeping him was more incidental.
The Athletic’s Sam Amick reported Toronto and Philadelphia came close to striking an agreement that would’ve landed the 35-year-old point guard in his hometown. Draft compensation was reportedly the final hang-up and deal-breaker.
Anything is on the table now. Sign-and-trade scenarios could be in play. Lowry could leave outright for a more universally recognized contender with cap space, like the Miami Heat or Dallas Mavericks. Or he could come back. We just don’t know.
Lowry and the Raptors probably don’t either.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate heading into Friday’s games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.