Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press
The 2019-20 NBA season has been on a COVID-19-related hiatus since March 12, leaving players set to become free agents with even more uncertainty about their futures.
The 2019 free-agency class was headlined by heavy-hitters such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson. Durant and Irving opted to leave the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, respectively, to sign long-term contracts with the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn lost point guard D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade connected to Durant’s deal, and the Nets roster could again see a reshuffling, with sharp-shooter Joe Harris set to become an unrestricted free agent.
Leonard departed the Toronto Raptors for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Raptors don’t have as much at stake in free agency this year, but Fred VanVleet has proved to be a clutch player in the North. While Leonard was deservingly named the 2019 NBA Finals MVP, VanVleet was crucial in the decisive Game 6 with three fourth-quarter triples and 22 points off the bench to propel Toronto 114-110 over the Warriors.
In the Western Conference, it’s possible that nobody did more to improve his market before the hiatus than New Orleans Pelicans All-Star forward Brandon Ingram.
Read on for predictions about whether Ingram, Harris and VanVleet will stay put or be on the move once the 2020 free-agency window gets underway.
Last summer, the Pelicans sent 2012 top overall pick Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and three first-round draft picks.
New Orleans couldn’t have known that Ingram would become its leading scorer.
Ingram was selected second overall by the Lakers in the 2016 draft. The 22-year-old developed steadily through three seasons in L.A. despite a strained hip flexor, neck muscle contusion, sprained ankle and deep vein thrombosis in his right shoulder causing him to miss 53 games combined throughout 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Ingram has started 56 of the Pels’ 64 games this season while averaging 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.0 steals in 34.3 minutes—all of which are career-high marks—and earning his first All-Star nod.
“Within the next five years, I think Brandon could be one of the top five or 10 players in the game,” Jerry Stackhouse, who mentors Ingram and used to coach him in AAU, told Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader for an October 2018 profile.
New Orleans struggled immensely to find a rhythm because of various injuries, most notably that of 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, affecting the rotation. Ingram was the glue holding the Pelicans together before Williamson was able to make his debut Jan. 22, and the team can’t ignore that once the time comes to extend the $9.48 million qualifying offer (h/t Spotrac).
The Pelicans will have the right to match any offer made to Ingram by other teams. “Multiple sources expect the New Orleans Pelicans to match any offer sheet,” Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor reported March 18.
Prediction: Ingram remains part of the 28-36 Pels core.
The Nets’ 2019-20 campaign was more or less written off with Durant not scheduled to return to action until next season while recovering from an Achilles tear suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals, and Irving only playing 20 games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson was fired March 7 as the team floundered, but through it all, Harris averaged a career-high 13.9 points and 4.3 rebounds on 47.1 percent shooting from the field and 41.2 percent from three.
Harris recently disclosed to UVA Today‘s Jeff White that he “severely sprained his left ankle” during the Nets’ 104-102 victory over the Lakers on March 10.
“So I was going to be out a month, no matter what, and then [the NBA shutdown] went down literally the next day,” Harris said.
The 28-year-old noted his ankle is now healed, but what’s more is that his stock wasn’t diminished because of the time he spent away from the court as a result of the injury.
Harris told reporters Feb. 21 that he “definitely” wants to remain a Net through free agency. However, it might not be up to him given the Nets are not projected to have any cap space:
Keith Smith @KeithSmithNBA
My current projections (still using cap of $115M) are:
1. ATL – $48.5M
2. NYK – $46.7M
3. DET – $33.5M
4. CHA – $28.0M
5. MIA – $26.5M
6. PHX – $24.4M
If the cap drops, adjust those by a roughly equivalent amount to the cap drop. Not exactly perfect, but close enough. https://t.co/eWZPlq16Ft
Durant and Irving are set to account for a combined $73,438,050 in cap space for the 2020-21 campaign, and Harris will command much more than the approximately $7.7 million contract he’s playing on this season. If Harris wants to play alongside Durant and Irving, he will likely have to do so on a shorter, team-friendly deal.
Prediction: Harris will opt for a larger contract elsewhere.
VanVleet was candid about how he is approaching a perhaps unprecedented free-agency situation April 22:
The 26-year-old signed with the Raptors after going undrafted out of Wichita State in 2016 and then re-signed to a two-year, $18 million contract in July 2018. VanVleet joined Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid in October 2019 and revealed he wanted to sign long term with Toronto as a free agent in 2020 (6:43 mark):
“I love it. I love it. Nobody wants to leave where they’re at, you know, most of the time. I’ve been here. This is the team that gave me my chance. I think we understand that. I’m not gonna speak too much on free agency because it’s a business, and I have to do what’s best for me and my family.
But, I mean, I’ve been on record about how I feel about this place. This organization knows how I feel about this place. And so, in a perfect world we know what would happen. But I’m just so focused on this year and trying to be the best I can be for this team and then we worry about the rest of that stuff in the summertime.“
Through 48 starts this season, VanVleet was averaging 17.6 points, 6.6 assists and 3.8 rebounds—all career-best numbers—and continued flexing his clutch gene and make a tangible impact on defense:
The Raptors extended Kyle Lowry on a one-year, $31 million deal in early October to prevent the 34-year-old All-Star from hitting free agency this summer and gave Pascal Siakam a four-year, $130 million extension later that month.
VanVleet has also earned one, but as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said in December, though the Raptors want to re-sign him, it’s not a sure bet (h/t RealGM):
“I think for Toronto, they look at this season and then they look at the summer of 2021, when like a lot of teams, they want to be in the sweepstakes for Giannis Antetokounmpo. You’re not going to see them do anything here that’s going to compromise their salary cap flexibility for the following year.“
Landing Antetokounmpo feels like a long shot, but it’s possible that Toronto allows veteran big men Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to walk this summer while finding a way to retain VanVleet and keep alive its hopes at bringing in the league MVP.
Prediction: Raptors re-sign VanVleet.