Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers rolled through the 2020 NBA playoffs, losing just five games en route to the franchise’s 17th championship. Now the onus is on front offices around the league to make moves to contend with the Lake Show next season.
The good news for those other hopeful contenders is the presence of a strong free-agent market with several impact players who can help in that title pursuit. Exactly how much the balance of power shifts depends on how many player options and early termination options are utilized.
For now, let’s take a closer look at some of the pending unrestricted free agents who can provide an immediate, significant boost to a roster next season and predict where they’ll end up.
After years of splitting time between the forward positions, Danilo Gallinari played the stretch 4 almost exclusively for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, and he thrived. He averaged 18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists while shooting 40.5 percent from three.
The 32-year-old Italian ranked eighth among power forwards in ESPN’s real plus-minus, grading out positively at both ends of the floor. His improvement defensively to become a more well-rounded player is what makes him one of the most high-impact players available in free agency.
He made it clear he’ll prioritize winning over money, though.
“Yes. At this time, yes,” Gallinari said at the Festival dello Sport in Italy when asked whether winning a title is more important than the size of his contract (via Sportando). “I’m not 20 anymore.”
The Lakers are obviously the first team that comes to mind based on those comments as they gear up to defend their title next year. They have other prioritizes to take care of first, however, led by trying to sign Davis to a long-term extension.
Another great fit would be the Dallas Mavericks. They have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis to create a terrific inside-outside combination. Gallinari would bring another much-needed wing scorer into the mix who could stretch the floor and help make the Mavs a true threat in the West.
Fred VanVleet was a key role player during the Toronto Raptors’ run to the 2019 NBA title, and he parlayed that into a breakout campaign following the departure of Kawhi Leonard. He averaged 17.6 points, 6.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 2019-20, all of which represented career-high totals.
The uptick in production came at a perfect time before free agency, and now the question becomes whether he’ll seek the best financial offer available or try to remain with a winning organization at a possibly reduced price. He didn’t tip his hand when asked about those alternatives in April.
“Everything is on the table,” VanVleet told reporters. “I am in a position where I feel like I’ve done my work and I’ve proven my worth, and so we are going to position ourselves the right way, but also we are kind of waiting to see what’s offered. We have to wait and see what’s offered. We can’t create the deal, obviously.”
The 26-year-old Wichita State product has proved his worth as a complementary player on a contender, so he’ll likely receive offers from title hopefuls hoping he’ll take less to chase another ring.
At this point, however, his best option may be trying to build off his strong year in Toronto by seeking the best fit in terms of individual role. The New York Knicks, where he’d be the top guard and get to play alongside rising star RJ Barrett, could be tough to beat in that regard.
In an NBA world where rookies are expected to perform at their peak potential almost immediately, Montrezl Harrell has followed a more old-school development curve. He slowly progressed from a little-used reserve with the Houston Rockets to a strong two-way contributor for the Los Angeles Clippers.
He’s coming off a season where he averaged 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while shooting 58.0 percent from the floor. He was named the NBA Sixth Man of the Year and also won the NBA Hustle Award thanks to his high-energy play style.
The 6’7″, 240-pound power forward ranked 18th in the NBA in player efficiency rating, and his versatile skill set should allow him to attract widespread interest as a free agent.
If he doesn’t re-sign with the Clippers, however, one team stands out as the ideal match: the Phoenix Suns. They provided a glimpse of their potential by going 8-0 in the bubble, and while they came up just short of the playoffs, it showed they’re a budding threat in the West.
Harrell could be the missing piece in a starting lineup already featuring Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton.