With a new champion (well, actually, kind of an old one) crowned and the 2022 draft in the books, the NBA-watching world now turns its attention to the onset of the new league year—and, with it, the highly anticipated game of musical chairs that will reset rosters, pecking orders, and expectations for next season and beyond. Welcome, friends, to the 2022 NBA offseason, which begins in earnest at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday; keep your head on a swivel, because things might get weird.
Which teams will look to take big swings aimed at entering the championship conversation? Which players are mere days away from grabbing a generational bag? And who might be on the verge of a big decision they’ll come to view with deep, penetrating regret?
The answers to those questions, and many more, will come in the weeks and months ahead. While we’re waiting, please accept this offseason primer as a means of setting the table and trying to get our arms around the biggest-ticket issues around the NBA as the annual feeding frenzy of acquisitions commences.
Do the Warriors open the vault to run it back?
After bouncing back from three years of injuries and uncertainty to return to the top of the mountain, the Warriors now face the choice that has bedeviled many a titleist before: whether to keep intact the bulk of the team that just won the championship at an astronomical cost to owner Joe Lacob, or to shuffle the deck in hopes of building a roster that might be equally well suited to defend it, but that will be a little less costly.
Seven Warriors are slated to hit the unrestricted market, headlined by Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., and Andre Iguodala. The 26-year-old Looney and 29-year-old Payton, in particular, could generate significant interest. Jordan Poole’s eligible for an extension of his rookie contract after a breakout third season, and could command $25 million per year on a new deal. Andrew Wiggins, fresh off a Finals performance that put to rest years of complaints over an inconsistent motor, is likewise eligible for an extension; his representatives will likely push for “nothing less than the max,” according to Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Even if GM Bob Myers lets the bulk of the UFAs walk, retaining Looney and Payton while also extending Poole and Wiggins—and perhaps Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, both of whom are also now eligible for multiyear re-ups—would result in a monumental financial outlay for Lacob. Factoring in both straight salaries and the escalating luxury tax payments, the Warriors would be looking at shelling out nearly $400 million this summer, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks—and, if they used their full taxpayer midlevel exception, well over $425 million, far and away a new NBA spending record.
From a fan perspective, the course is simple: Pay up and keep the good vibes rolling. Lacob’s individually worth $1.5 billion. The franchise that he and Peter Guber bought for $450 million is now valued at $5.6 billion. A full-capacity Chase Center continues to produce the NBA’s highest gate revenues, a total bolstered even further by all those home playoff games the Warriors hosted en route to winning it all. Entering next season as the presumptive favorite to repeat, the core of Steph Curry, Thompson, and Green deserve commitment commensurate with the coin they’ve put in ownership’s coffers. And yet, as Myers told reporters ahead of last week’s draft, his budget “is not limitless.”
“It’s just dependent on if we think we can get value in free agency for some of these guys,” he said. “We’re not going to spend just to spend. … We’ll look and see what we can do, and I’ll ask Joe what he’ll authorize, but there is a limit.”
There’s also the youth movement. Poole, former no. 2 pick James Wiseman (hopefully healthy after missing all of the 2021-22 campaign), and 2021 lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are all waiting in the wings to take on larger rotation roles in place of some of those veterans. Do Myers and head coach Steve Kerr believe they’re ready for that? If not, how much can Myers convince Lacob to delay the merging of Golden State’s parallel paths, and how high can he push that limit in pursuit of a fifth ring in nine years?
What comes next for Kyrie Irving and the Nets?
A scant two months ago, Irving—fresh off averaging 15.3 points on 37.2 percent shooting through the final three games of the Celtics’ first-round sweep of the Nets, bringing an underwhelming end to a staggeringly chaotic and dissatisfying season—was insisting that he not only planned to re-sign with Brooklyn this summer, but that he saw himself and Kevin Durant “managing this franchise together alongside [owner] Joe [Tsai] and [general manager] Sean [Marks].” As the afterglow of elimination crept toward the run-up to the draft and free agency, though, some cold realities infringed on all the waxing rhapsodic: Irving wanted a long-term max extension, but Nets management didn’t want to grant him one, in light of the fact that he’s missed 123 games in the past three seasons to due to injuries, personal reasons, and the decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19—a decision that played at least some role in James Harden’s departure and the implosion of a would-be superteam that shared the court for just 16 games.
After two weeks of saber-rattling about impasses, leverage, lists, and acrimony, the Nets gave Irving’s camp the go-ahead to seek out a sign-and-trade deal that would land him the long-term extension he wanted. Several hours later, Irving told Shams Charania of The Athletic that he had decided instead to simply exercise his $36.5 million player option for next season, ending a fortnight of fretting in Brooklyn … and allowing all parties involved to just kick the proverbial can down the road a bit.
The move allows Irving to keep the $30 million he’d have had to forsake if he’d followed through on his threat to opt out and sign for the midlevel exception with another team, and puts him on a pathway to enter unrestricted free agency—and resume his pursuit of another lucrative long-term payday—next summer. It allows him to save some face, giving him the leeway to frame the decision as him “bypassing on multiple opt-in and trade scenarios” to stick by Durant rather than, perhaps, finding out that his sign-and-trade market was a bit frostier than anticipated. Perhaps most importantly, it allows him to drop another of his signature brand of … jewels:
Kyrie Irving: “Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow. I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall. A11even.” https://t.co/rpiS8YkSZI
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 27, 2022
On the other side of the coin, it allows the Nets to declare victory, however brief and however small, in their attempt to regain a measure of control over a situation that seemed to have gotten out of their hands. It also gives them both some cost certainty—whatever else Kyrie is or might be within the context of the Nets organization, he’s now also confirmed as a player on a one-year, $36.5 million contract—and some more flexibility to maneuver. They’ve now got a little more than a year to work out a new extension with him if they want. They can also still trade him—and now, any acquiring team wouldn’t have to deal with the downside of being hard-capped by accepting a signed-and-traded Irving in a deal.
Monday’s development doesn’t necessarily mean every issue’s solved. Kyrie will still want a long-term deal, and he’s still going to want to exert his influence over the organization. The Nets are still going to want Irving to show up, be accountable, and perform to the best of his abilities. The specter of contentious negotiations displeasing Durant—who had reportedly begun “considering options with his future” and suggesting he’d need to see a plan for how the Nets could contend without Irving if he skipped town—still looms large.
It does mean, though, that the temperature drops a bit, and that everything and everyone can just chill out a little. A couple of days ago, it looked like the Nets’ grand attempt to graduate from curating culture to competing for championships might go down in flames just three years after it began; for now, at least, it looks like they’ll get to head into free agency focusing on mending fences, getting everyone on the same page, and building toward opening night with the expectation of having three All-Stars on the roster.
What will James Harden’s new deal look like?
When Harden pushed his way to Philadelphia at February’s trade deadline, the path forward seemed simple. Step 1: Pair with Joel Embiid to propel the 76ers into championship contention. Step 2: Graciously accept a full-freight max contract extension from forever lifemate Daryl Morey this summer. The plan hit a bit of a snag, though, when Harden shot 36.5 percent from the floor over the final month of the regular season, only turned in one truly dominant performance in the postseason, and the Sixers bowed out in the second round for the fourth time in five years.
Harden said after the loss to the Heat that he intended to stay in Philadelphia, but that disappointing dismount—at this point something of a staple of the Harden postseason experience—effectively eliminated the likelihood that he’d net a full five-year max extension, which would top out at nearly $270 million. The question, then, is what his next deal might look like. Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported earlier this month that Harden’s expected to pick up his player option for 2022-23, which will pay him a cool $47.4 million; what sort of framework Harden and Morey can develop beyond next season, though, remains unclear.
Would Harden—who will turn 33 in August, has played more minutes than anyone else in the league over the past decade, and has also (somewhat famously) tacked on plenty of off-court miles—be willing to take a shorter-term deal? Would he be willing to take less than his maximum salary, perhaps allowing Philadelphia to duck under the luxury tax and affording Morey more flexibility to build out the roster? Woj reported last week that while Harden will “likely [sign] something short of a max contract,” he’d “still [command] a significant commitment” from the Sixers; just how much of a haircut might the former league MVP be willing to take to facilitate more additions around the core of himself, Embiid, and rising star Tyrese Maxey?
Morey, for his part, projects confidence: “As you guys have heard, it’s a mutual lovefest, so we feel like we’ll work it out.” When love and money clash, though, even the best-laid plans can go awry; the Sixers’ chances of elevating into the ranks of true contenders during Embiid’s MVP-caliber prime could hinge on whether Morey can keep this one from hitting a snag, too.
How many big-name free agents might actually be on the move?
Despite recent significant surgeries, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine—whose stay-or-go decisions we’ve talked about for ages—remain the belles of the unrestricted free agent ball … provided, of course, they actually attend it. Right now, though, that doesn’t seem likely. Michael Scotto of HoopsHype reported last week that Beal will decline his $36.4 million player option for next season, paving the way for him to do what many have long expected he would: sign a new five-year max contract worth an estimated $248 million to stay in D.C. Similarly, multiple reports suggest that the Bulls aim to present LaVine a five-year, $212 million maximum offer once free agency opens, and that he’s likely to take it, stamping him as the cornerstone of Chicago’s core moving forward—and significantly reducing the wattage of the star power on this summer’s open market.
The highest-profile drama, then, might come in restricted free agency, in which the Suns and starting center Deandre Ayton find themselves in an interesting position.
After playing a vital two-way role for a Phoenix team that came within two wins of the 2021 NBA championship, Ayton entered last summer seeking a maximum-salaried extension of his rookie contract. He didn’t get it, though. In fact, the Suns reportedly never even made Ayton a formal offer, leaving 2018’s no. 1 pick to sit by and watch while four draft classmates picked after him (Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Michael Porter Jr.) got max re-ups, and two Suns teammates (Mikal Bridges, Landry Shamet) inked new four-year deals. Despite his disappointment at not landing the extension, Ayton continued to produce, averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game on career-best 63.4 percent shooting for a 64-win Suns team that looked like a juggernaut heading into the playoffs. Things fell apart in Round 2 against Dallas, though, culminating in Ayton getting benched for the final 20-plus minutes of the Suns’ horrendous Game 7 blowout loss over an incident that head coach Monty Williams would only describe as an “internal” matter.
General manager James Jones told reporters after last week’s draft that “DA is a tremendous part of what we do [and] we want to keep this team together,” and the Suns can match any offer sheet that an interested suitor presents Ayton, up to and including the max. It’s unclear whether any team out there is willing to go that far for Ayton, though: Atlanta is reportedly interested, but only below that price point, and the Pistons, frequently tipped as an Ayton destination after creating a ton of cap space in the pre-draft deal that sent Jerami Grant to Portland, have reportedly shifted gears after landing Memphis big man Jalen Duren on draft night. No matter how bad a taste the end of the Mavericks series left in everyone’s mouths, it’d be tantamount to organizational malpractice for Phoenix to just let Ayton walk for nothing; the bet here is that, if nobody swoops in with a sign-and-trade offer that allows Jones to replenish the roster, the Suns re-up Ayton at a high-but-sub-max price, keeping him in the fold while kicking the question of whether to move him down the road to the 2023 trade deadline.
The trade market could wind up being frothier than either flavor of free agency, too, with a number of high-level players anticipated to be on the move in the next few weeks. A source close to John Collins told Chris Kirschner of The Athletic that the Hawks power forward is “done in Atlanta” … which may or may not dovetail with Fischer’s reporting that the Hawks and Spurs are discussing a deal that would send Collins to San Antonio and All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to Atlanta. The names Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner continue to be bandied about; the Knicks and Wizards are reportedly in on the Pacers guard, while the Hornets, Timberwolves, and Raptors have all reportedly registered interest in Indiana’s shot-swatting center (although the fact that all three drafted centers in last week’s draft might alter those plans).
Given the complicated nature of all of those option, extension, and trade talks, Jalen Brunson is the most notable name on the unrestricted market who has multiple suitors and who might command a nine-figure deal. He also may be the answer to our next question:
Who might get an eye-popping bag?
After being the 33rd overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Jalen Brunson signed a four-year, $6.1 million contract; he made $1.8 million last season. He’s probably going to make about 14 times that next season.
The former Villanova standout grew into a dependable no. 2 creator behind and alongside Luka Doncic and is fresh off averaging a career-high 16.3 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.9 rebounds in 31.9 minutes per game last season. He’s developed into an efficient three-level scorer: 68 percent at the rim, 50 percent from midrange, 37 percent from beyond the arc, and 84 percent at the free throw line last season. He rarely turns the ball over and consistently makes the right play in the screen game. Ninety-nine players finished at least 150 plays as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll during the 2021-22 season, according to Synergy; Brunson finished tied for first in points produced per possession.
After a disappointing playoff debut during Dallas’s seven-game loss to the Clippers in 2021, Brunson bounced back in a big way in this postseason. He averaged just under 22-5-4 to help the Mavs run all the way to the Western Conference finals and kept Dallas afloat (including a 41-point masterpiece in Game 2 of the opening round) while Doncic worked his way back from a calf strain.
Dallas drafted and developed Brunson. The Knicks, though, are run by team president Leon Rose, who used to be Brunson’s agent, who used to be Brunson’s dad’s agent, and whose son is now Brunson’s agent. Combine those family ties with the fact that New York hasn’t had a top-flight lead guard in ages, and you’ve got the recipe for a franchise eager to go all in on Brunson in hopes that a more central role could produce regular outings like those outbursts against Utah. The Mavericks, who could have extended Brunson for $55.5 million before last season but decided against it, want to keep Brunson—the capped-out Mavs don’t have the financial flexibility to be able to replace him, either—and can pay him more money for more years than New York or another suitor, by virtue of holding his Bird rights.
But with Dallas already in line to pay the luxury tax next season—something Mark Cuban hasn’t done in more than a decade—the Knicks’ best chance of getting their man might be to shed more salary to create even more cap space and hit Brunson with the kind of offer that even Cubes would blanch at beating. On a related note, New York added three more future first-round picks on draft night—the better to attach to big contracts as sweeteners—and is “increasingly expected to assemble a four-year offer to Brunson valued in the $100 million range,” according to NBA insider Marc Stein.
“Sources say there is a growing fear within the organization that Brunson covets the new challenge and broadened responsibility with the Knicks, even if Dallas counters New York’s offer with an audacious five-year deal,” Stein reported.
Whichever path Brunson chooses, it looks like the 25-year-old may well be in line for a nine-figure payday when free agency opens—something I’m not sure anyone saw coming when the 33rd pick rolled around back in 2018. (OK, maybe one guy did.)
The other not-quite-household name likely to get a monster deal this summer? Restricted free agent forward Miles Bridges, who finished seventh in Most Improved Player voting after a breakthrough season in Charlotte that saw him average 20.2 points, seven rebounds, and 3.8 assists in 35.5 minutes per game—all career highs— to help push the Hornets back to the play-in tournament.
After trading the no. 13 pick to the Pistons in a three-team deal that returned the Nuggets’ lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick and four future second-rounders and then drafting Duke center Mark Williams at no. 15, Charlotte sits about $40 million below the luxury tax—with enough room for the Hornets to match even a max offer sheet for Bridges without winding up over the line. It’s unclear where that max might be coming from; the Pacers and Pistons have been mentioned as potential suitors, though Detroit is now reportedly planning to opt out of the spending spree. The best-case scenario for Charlotte: Nobody comes with the max, Bridges is amenable to something a little lighter—maybe somewhere around the four-year, $105 million deal that Memphis gave Jaren Jackson Jr. last October—and we all get to keep watching those sweet, sweet LaMelo-to-Miles alley-oops for a few more years.
Which teams find themselves at interesting inflection points?
Here’s five to whet your appetite:
Los Angeles Lakers: Less than two years ago, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Co. were hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy inside the bubble. Now, coming off a disastrous 33-49 season, everything’s seemingly up in the air. L.A.’s exceedingly unlikely to find a market for Russell Westbrook, no matter how many different ways Rob Pelinka tries to package Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, and a 2027 or 2029 first-round pick. Can new head coach Darvin Ham really find a way to get more out of him than Frank Vogel did? Any thoughts of getting into the Kyrie sweepstakes went up in smoke when Irving decided to opt in; so, too, did their plans to kick the tires on a just-bought-out John Wall, who’s reportedly set to join the rival Clippers instead. With only the $6.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception to use to shop for help, how will a Lakers team already into the luxury tax with just eight contracts on the books make the significant improvements to its perimeter defense, rim protection, and rebounding necessary to get back into contention in a conference that seems to have left them in the dust?
Utah Jazz: New boss Danny Ainge just needs to figure out which of the 15 head-coaching candidates he’s interviewed he wants to hire to replace Quin Snyder. Then all he has to decide is whether to deal Rudy Gobert (one of the best and highest-impact regular-season defenders in the NBA, but also an offensively limited 30-year-old 7-footer who’s owed $169.7 million over the next four seasons), Donovan Mitchell (a near-All-NBA offensive dynamo whose shortcomings as a defender and playmaker have been cast into relief in the Jazz’s playoff losses, and whom many league sources believe will ask out of Utah sooner or later), neither, or both. Whatever he decides to do about his stars, he’s also got to find a way to improve a perimeter defense that has absolutely buckled in the past two postseasons; Utah has a $9.8 million traded player exception from sending Joe Ingles to Portland at the trade deadline, plus its $6.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception, but will new owner Ryan Smith be willing to take the luxury tax hit that’d come with Ainge using them? If not, and if neither Mitchell nor Gobert is going anywhere … then, well, how can this iteration of the Jazz go anywhere?
Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young’s supermax is about to start, which means playtime’s over in the Peach State. Collins, one of the most productive power forwards in the league over the past four seasons, is reportedly all but gone, as president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk and GM Landry Fields look to revamp the roster after a disappointing follow-up to 2021’s Eastern Conference finals berth. Can the Hawks find a defensive complement to Young in the backcourt? (That persistent Dejounte Murray talk is awfully interesting.) The Hawks are evidently willing to consider moving just about anybody besides Young and forward De’Andre Hunter, who’s eligible for an extension of his rookie contract; with Collins on the block, Danilo Gallinari now on a $21.5 million expiring contract, Bogdan Bogdanovic a year away from his player option, and Atlanta sitting on a 2023 Hornets first-round pick from the Cam Reddish deal plus a ton of extra seconds, Schlenk’s got plenty of chips to play. How aggressively will he look to push them into the middle?
New Orleans Pelicans: The Pels were one of the feel-good stories of the 2021-22 season, bouncing back from a dismal 3-16 start and Zion Williamson’s foot injury to make the play-in behind a star turn from Brandon Ingram, a trade for CJ McCollum, and breakout performances from youngsters Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, and Jose Alvarado. The big questions now: How do David Griffin, Willie Green, and Co. build on that initial success, and how does the reintegration of a reportedly healthy Zion work in the context of the Ingram-centric team dynamic that the Pelicans began to win with last season? (Another thing to watch: Will the addition of no. 8 pick Dyson Daniels, a rangy defensive playmaker who seems like a perfect fit alongside McCollum in the backcourt, open the door to trading Devonte’ Graham, who saw his playing time dip after the CJ trade?)
Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns just returned to All-NBA status. Anthony Edwards turned in an age-20 sophomore season that puts him in the context of some of the brightest young talents we’ve seen in recent memory. The Wolves won their play-in game, made it to the postseason for just the second time in 18 years, and pushed the Grizzlies in six hard-fought games. But how do they take the next step? New president of basketball operations Tim Connelly comes in with a fresh set of eyes, some interesting ideas about how to proceed—KAT at power forward, anyone?—and one big question to answer: What to do about D’Angelo Russell, who was an integral part of the Wolves’ resurgence on both ends of the court, but who’s entering the final year of his contract and thus becoming an intriguing trade chip, and whose struggles against Memphis cast doubt on whether he should be the primary ball handler and creator moving forward. Minnesota’s new ownership group poached Connelly specifically to solve thorny roster-management conundrums like this one. How he decides to proceed could go a long way toward determining whether Minnesota’s return to postseason play was a brief blip on the radar, or merely the first entry in a longer story about a franchise returning to relevance.
Who’s getting the max this summer?
After winning back-to-back MVP trophies, Nikola Jokic will definitely be getting not only the supermax, but the largest contract in NBA history. After making one of the three All-NBA teams this season, Towns and Devin Booker are now also eligible for supermax extensions worth $211 million over four years. Towns was a little cagey when asked after the season about signing an extension this summer, but longtime Timberwolves reporter Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic recently said that he “fully expects” the Wolves to offer him the max, and for him to sign it; you’d expect the same to be true in Phoenix, where GM James Jones said after the season that Booker’s supermax eligibility “doesn’t preclude us from doing anything. We’re not talking about luxury tax issues or avoiding those things.”
LaVine didn’t make one of the three All-NBA teams, which means he can’t get that supermax deal. The eight-year veteran is still eligible for the max for a player with between seven and nine years of service time, though, which would pay out $212 million over the next five seasons. Beal didn’t make All-NBA this season, either, but he did hit 10 years of service time; that allows him to earn up to 35 percent of the cap with 8 percent year-over-year raises. That puts him in line for a five-year, $248 million deal; the Wizards reportedly plan to offer it to him, and he reportedly plans to accept it.
Coming off his All-NBA second team campaign, Ja Morant’s a lock to get the same kind of deal Trae Young did: a five-year max with the designated rookie/“Rose Rule” escalator that will allow him to make up to 30 percent of the cap if he makes All-NBA again next season, which would bump his total contract from a projected $186 million over five years to $223 million. Cavaliers All-Star Darius Garland will likely join Morant in receiving an offer for the lower-tier max—five years, $186 million—with president of basketball operations Koby Altman telling reporters recently that Garland is “going to be in Cleveland for a long time.”
Among high-priced veterans: As we’ve discussed, Harden and Irving probably aren’t getting max extensions of their current contracts. LeBron will be eligible for a two-year, $97.1 million extension later this summer … if he wants it, which he might not. The question of whether or not to offer Damian Lillard a two-year, $107 million extension this summer was one of many clouds hanging over the firing of former Blazers chief Neil Olshey; with the Grant trade and reported intentions to re-sign center Jusuf Nurkic and restricted free agent guard Anfernee Simons, though, maybe new GM Joe Cronin is more willing to pony up than his predecessor might’ve been. Several other notable names—Draymond and Klay in the Bay, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam in Toronto, Khris Middleton in Milwaukee—might also be in line for max re-ups, but might also be more likely to reach agreements on sub-max longer-term deals, if they extend at all.
The most fascinating case on the board is Zion: a force of nature during a 2020-21 season in which he averaged 27 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game on 61.1 percent shooting, but one who also just missed an entire season due to foot injuries, and who has missed way more games through three seasons (141) than he’s played (85).
“It’s not a big decision—it’s a pretty easy decision,” Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin told The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo during a recent interview. “The kid is historically good when he plays. … This is a max player. That’s easy.”
What might be less easy, though, is getting Zion and his representatives on board with an extension framework that includes certain injury protections and/or minutes and games played incentives built in, like the one that Joel Embiid signed coming off of his rookie contract. “What becomes significant, as a team that’s a small-market team and as a team that can’t make mistakes in terms of injuries over time, you have to indemnify yourself in some way for that, and that’s fine,” Griffin told Russillo.
Zion, for his part, told reporters after the season that he “couldn’t sign [an extension] fast enough.” We’ll find out in a few days’ time whether his first step’s still as quick as it used to be.
Please give me 12 more names to keep an eye on.
Weirdly specific, but sure, OK, here you go:
Tyus Jones, Grizzlies: Long one of the league’s best backup point guards and a fixture at or near the top of the assist-to-turnover ratio leaderboard—more than 7-to-1 last season!—Jones shined while taking on a larger role for Memphis when Morant was injured. He averaged 12.7 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game as a starter in Ja’s stead; the Grizz outscored opponents by an elite 7.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Jones on the floor and Morant off it, according to Cleaning the Glass. With Irving and Harden likely to stay put, Jones might be the best point guard on the market who won’t cost $100 million or trade chips.
If the Knicks and Wizards strike out on the likes of Brunson and Brogdon, expect them to find out whether their full non-taxpayer midlevel exception could net them the rock-steady 26-year-old. If that’s all he costs, though, the Grizzlies may well decide to just pony up to keep him—or, as suggested by Chris Herrington of The Daily Memphian, look for a sign-and-trade to bring back more help on the wing (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Malik Beasley?) that could aid Memphis in another push for Western Conference supremacy next season.
Speaking of New York …
RJ Barrett, Knicks: It’s one of the more remarkably grim facts in the league: The Knicks haven’t signed a first-round draft pick to a multiyear second contract since Charlie Ward back in 1999. Barrett might soon break that streak. The third pick in the 2019 draft was a key two-way contributor to New York’s 2021 playoff run, and finished last season on a tear, averaging 24.5 points per game after the All-Star break. On the one hand, Barrett tends to pile up his points inefficiently, shooting just 44.5 percent on 2-pointers and 69.7 percent from the foul line for his career. On the other hand, his productivity, work ethic, and age (he just turned 22) suggest that he’s a strong bet to continue to improve over his next deal. The big questions: Do Leon Rose and Co. see him developing into an All-Star? Will Barrett and his reps balk at any rookie-scale extension short of the max? The answers to both should go a long way toward determining whether Barrett breaks the Knicks streak this summer or heads into his final season before restricted free agency without a new deal … or, if Rose can finally find a deal he likes, whether Barrett winds up headlining a trade package for a bona fide star.
Tyler Herro, Heat: It’s a similar question in Miami for Herro, who’s made no bones about seeing himself as a peer of max-level stars like Luka, Trae, and Ja, and who’ll likely enter the offseason looking for a contract commensurate with theirs. He played a critical role generating half-court offense for the top-seeded Heat en route to winning Sixth Man of the Year honors; Herro also struggled mightily in the playoffs against the combination of increased defensive attention and aggressive hunting by offenses looking to exploit him as Miami’s weakest link. Herro wants to start; Heat boss Pat Riley wants him to prove that he can hold up on defense first. If there’s a discrepancy between how Herro and Miami’s brass see his capability and his best role, both right now and into the future, it would stand to reason that there’d also be a gap in the dollar figure each side thinks makes sense for the 22-year-old. Those gaps can be bridged; they can also create tension. Which way will it go in Miami?
Bruce Brown, Nets, and Gary Payton II, Warriors: Neither of these players fits neatly into a traditional positional box, or into the framework of more conventionally constructed teams. But if you’ve got flexible enough stars and creative enough coaching staffs, chances are you’ll find a role for a pair of undersized guys who have the physicality, quickness, instincts, and safecracker hands to defend all over the positional spectrum and the ability to contribute on offense through screening and rolling, making the extra pass, and drilling the occasional corner 3. Brown and Payton might not leave their current teams; if they do, though, expect most contenders with midlevel money to spend to at least make a call inquiring about their services.
P.J. Tucker, Heat; Nicolas Batum, Clippers; and Wesley Matthews, Bucks: Take what I just said about Brown and GPII, only make the players bigger and older, with way more big games under their belts. A half-dozen title hopefuls, including the incumbent Clippers, have eyes for Batum; Tucker, at the ripe old age of 37, is reportedly in line for three years and $30 million from his old pal Daryl in Philly (provided that Morey can shed some salary to open up the space); Milwaukee reportedly wants to bring Matthews back. Show me where these guys go, and I’ll show you a team that believes it can win the championship.
Cameron Johnson, Suns: As discussed earlier, the Suns have more pressing business to tend to, but I’m really interested to see how they handle extension talks for Johnson, who finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting after a strong third season. You’d imagine that James Jones and Monty Williams would want to keep around a 6-foot-8, 210-pound forward who can guard multiple positions and drill a heavy volume of 3-pointers at a 42.5 percent clip. Yet with nearly $130 million already on the books for next season—and with more than $105 million committed to just five players for 2023-24, Booker’s supermax coming up, the Ayton situation hanging over everything, and Mikal Bridges starting his $90 million extension—the 26-year-old sharpshooter might wind up squeezed out of Phoenix’s plans. Maybe that won’t be the case if Jones finds a new home for Jae Crowder; the Suns reportedly “called rivals to measure [his] value on the trade market” before the draft, according to Bleacher Report’s Fischer. If the Suns don’t re-up Johnson, though, he could become a target for teams with cap space and an appetite to ride the wave of restricted free agency next summer.
Isaiah Hartenstein, Clippers: A former second-round pick of the Rockets, Hartenstein blossomed in his fourth NBA season, averaging 8.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks over 17.9 minutes per game while emerging as one of the NBA’s best backup centers. He showed great feel for the game as a playmaker on the short roll and from the high post; among power forward and center types who played more than 1,000 minutes last season, only Jokic, Draymond, Julius Randle, Domantas Sabonis, Joel Embiid, and Pascal Siakam posted a higher assist rate than Hartenstein. He was a monster protecting the rim, too, holding opponents to a microscopic 47.5 percent shooting at the basket—stingiest of any player to defend at least 200 up-close shots, per Second Spectrum. The 24-year-old is due a raise over the minimum salary he played on last season, but the Clippers seem to be using their taxpayer MLE to land Wall. If that move means Hartenstein hits the open market, every team with a hole in the middle should get on the phone immediately.
Cody Martin, Hornets, and Caleb Martin, Heat: Charlotte and Miami might use their right of first refusal to their advantage, wait the market out, and bring their respective Martin twin back for a song. But if I was a team that needed depth on the wing, I’d think about taking a shot at one of the Martins, who combine size (6-foot-5 with 6-foot-10 wingspans) and athleticism with improving touch on the jumper (38.4 percent from deep last season for Cody, 41.3 percent for Caleb), juice off the bounce, and a relentless motor. Both players, who will be 27 on opening night, are grinders, earning minutes and respect under the likes of James Borrego and Erik Spoelstra; if they don’t wind up in the plans of the Hornets or Heat for whatever reason, I bet they wind up working their way into someone else’s pretty quickly.
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