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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Well, the glitz and glam of 2021 NBA free agency sure de-escalated quickly.
Initially expected to include stars galore, the upcoming pool of available players is far less tantalizing after Bam Adebayo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, OG Anunoby, De’Aaron Fox, Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Jonathan Isaac, LeBron James and Jayson Tatum signed extensions, among others. Jrue Holiday (player option but extension-eligible) may soon join the off-the-market ranks as well.
Never fear, though. Plenty of worthwhile players are still scheduled to become free agents. And with intriguing talent comes a reason for teams to dig up more cap space.
This year’s market is already slated to be richer than this past offseason’s barren wasteland. A bunch of teams are tracking toward either near-max space or projected to be comfortably above mid-level-exception money.
Figuring out which squads should look at clearing cash for a free-agency spending spree is mostly about identifying those already with space that have the means and motive to grind out even more. Let’s get to it.
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Charlotte can get to nearly $20 million in space if it renounces (or moves) Malik Monk (restricted). Striving for even more doesn’t make much sense. The Hornets are no longer overflowing with sizable long-term contracts, and the benefits of spending in free agency pale in comparison to keeping the current version of Terry Rozier.
The Heat have a bunch of team options they can decline to reach near-max money and don’t have much they can do beyond that. They aren’t dumping Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler, and the only players under guaranteed contract after them are Precious Achiuwa, Tyler Herro and KZ Okpala, none of whom earn enough to appreciably mushroom Miami’s spending power.
New York Knicks
No other squad forecasts to have more cap space than the Knicks in 2021. They’ll be sitting on close to two max slots if they renounce all their own free agents and waive Julius Randle ($4 million). That gives them a ton of flexibility to re-sign or keep players they like, including Randle, without jeopardizing their max room.
In the event they’re looking to futz and fiddle with the personnel while preserving dual-max possibilities, they can look at moving Randle or shopping Kevin Knox. RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin are the only other players on the roster with guaranteed money for next season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City projects to have anywhere between $40 million and $55 million in room this summer. The final number will be based on decisions for restricted free agents (Justin Jackson, Hamidou Diallo) and what happens with George Hill, who’s on the books for slightly over $10 million but guaranteed only $1.3 million.
Whatever money the Thunder end up with will likely be enough. There are very few scenarios in which they’ll have less than max space, and they aren’t yet at a point of their rebuild where reeling in expensive names should take center stage.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have almost $85.3 million set to wash off their books with the expiring contracts of LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Trey Lyles and Patty Mills. Left alone, they should enter free agency with more than max money—which is good, because they don’t have any long-term deals unimportant enough to dump.
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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Maximizing cap space is only valuable to the Chicago Bulls if they believe they have a long-term nucleus in place. They might. They clearly need a truer floor general than Zach LaVine or Coby White, but between them, Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Patrick Williams, they do have an intriguing base.
Carving out max-type wiggle room will only get harder from here if they keep the band together. Markkanen is headed for restricted free agency this offseason, LaVine hits the open market in 2022 and Carter will be extension-eligible over the summer. This could be their last chance to spend big with this exact group in tow.
Entering the near-max fray ahead of 2021 free agency shouldn’t be too difficult. The Bulls are already slated for more than the mid-level exception while carrying Markkanen’s projected cap hold ($20.2 million), but only by a hair.
Tomas Satoransky ($5 million partial guarantee) and Thaddeus Young ($6 million partial guarantee) are their swing costs. Chicago can clear another $11 million from the deck by waiving them, but that’s a lot of dead money to carry, even if for only one season.
Moving one of them prior to the March 25 trade deadline in exchange for an expiring deal would wipe roughly the same amount from the ledger. The Bulls would erase more than $24 million from next year’s books if they ship out both for expiring contracts. That isn’t quite necessary, and it wouldn’t spare them from having to renounce Otto Porter Jr., but it is their most efficient path to max room and then some.
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John Raoux/Associated Press
Depending on where they land in the 2021 draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers should have comfortably more than $20 million to spend over the summer if they renounce Andre Drummond. Re-signing him, on the other hand, essentially torpedoes their shot at max or near-max space.
Prioritizing flexibility feels more valuable than keeping Drummond. The Cavs have to start thinking about a new deal for Collin Sexton, and both Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. (who still isn’t with the team) won’t be far behind him. Cleveland will have other opportunities to spend before everyone gets expensive, but Drummond’s pending free agency acts as a natural pivot point.
The problem is that the Cavs don’t have many dispensable mid-end salaries. Larry Nance Jr. is too valuable at his declining MLE-ish price tag, especially if they don’t retain Drummond. That basically leaves Cedi Osman. Offloading the final three years and $22.8 million (two years, $15.6 million guaranteed) of his contract would give them a line to max space without any major collateral damage.
Revisiting Kevin Love trade scenarios is their other possible route. His calf injury won’t make it any easier to move the two years and $60.2 million left on his deal after this one, but they needn’t flip him solely for expiring money to make a dent. Turning him into a smaller multiyear deal (plus expirings) could chisel out more room than dumping Osman for no long-term money.
Opening up max space doesn’t appeal as much after so many superstars signed extensions. But there remain a number of semi-young wings on whom the Cavs could look to aggressively bid. Think along the lines of Josh Richardson, Gary Trent Jr. (restricted) or Duncan Robinson (restricted). Attempting to pair Nance with Jarrett Allen (restricted) or Mitchell Robinson (team option) in the frontcourt instead of Drummond would also be an intriguing play.
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Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press
Nothing has changed for the Dallas Mavericks after losing the Giannis Antetokounmpo sweepstakes that never were. This offseason will still be their last chance to swing for the fences before Luka Doncic is earning max money.
A duller than expected free-agency class should not dissuade the Mavericks’ aggression. Talented running mates for Doncic will still hit the open market. Kawhi Leonard (player option) may be a virtual lock to stay with the Los Angeles Clippers, but Dallas has reason to chase Jrue Holiday (player option), Victor Oladipo, Kyle Lowry, Spencer Dinwiddie (player option) or maybe even Lonzo Ball (restricted).
Paying any one of those players shouldn’t require an additional move. The Mavs can get to more than $30 million in space if Josh Richardson opts out and they decline Willie Cauley-Stein’s team option.
Dredging up more spending power is about diversifying their range of outcomes. Getting closer to that $45-50 million mark might allow them to sign two standouts from the non-Kawhi pool. Failing that, trimming money from next year’s books would help them maintain access to max room while keeping Richardson, who should fetch less than his $22 million cap hold.
Dallas has a few mid-tier salaries it can jettison to make this happen, most notably Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell. Unloading the latter would be ideal. He makes around $2.3 million more than Kleber, and the Doncic-Powell minutes have not looked great in Kristaps Porzingis’ absence.
Flipping Powell for an expiring contract will require a sweetener or two. He has two years and $22.2 million left on his contract, which skews decidedly toward net-negative value at the moment. The Mavericks don’t have a ton of buffers to ease that burden. Their 2021 first-round pick is headed to the Knicks, and they aren’t flush with tantalizing prospects.
Attaching some combination of Jalen Brunson, Tyrell Terry and second-rounders to Powell is their best bet. That isn’t an insignificant opportunity cost, but it’s well worth the potential reward.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Poaching free agents will never be the New Orleans Pelicans’ top priority. They don’t have the built-in swaying power of teams from bigger markets.
But in this case, shedding money wouldn’t be about actualizing pipe dreams. It would merely drum up their offseason optionality.
The Pelicans won’t have a realistic path to serious cap space if they plan to retain Lonzo Ball (restricted). He should command less than his cap hold ($27.5 million), but he’s still going to run them a pretty penny.
If they’re out on him—a distinct possibility given his struggles to create and put pressure on defenses in the half court—it makes sense to shop him and capitalize his potential departure. If they want to keep him or simply remain undecided, purging other money from the books opens up offseason scenarios in which renouncing him arms them with significant money to burn.
Everything begins and ends with Eric Bledsoe. He’s owed $18.1 million next year and $19.4 million in 2022-23, but only $3.9 million of his final-season salary is guaranteed. That should make him easier to move, though turning him into an expiring contract should still require a sweetener.
Remove Bledsoe’s money from next year’s bottom line, and the Pelicans could have between $25 and $30 million in room if they renounce Ball and Nicolo Melli (restricted) and depending on where their draft pick lands. That cash could be used to target someone like Kyle Lowry or Victor Oladipo, or New Orleans could look to offer extreme cap relief as part of a star trade. James Harden and Bradley Beal could be on different teams by then, but another marquee name is always on the verge of hitting the auction block.
Dealing Bledsoe won’t be for naught if the Pelicans wind up keeping Ball. They could still have some cap space depending on how much he costs, in which case they can up that ante by scoping out Jaxson Hayes deals. At the very least, moving Bledsoe would give them more runway beneath the tax if they bankroll substantial raises for Ball and Josh Hart (restricted).
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Kim Klement/Associated Press
The Toronto Raptors are roughly one salary dump away from sporting near-max space in free agency. They’ve peppered their books with enough non-guaranteed money to hover around the $15-20 million tier, but the OG Anunoby extension and Fred VanVleet contract knifed into their previous projections.
Cobbling together a full max is almost out of the question. Anunoby, VanVleet and Pascal Siakam will earn a combined $69.7 million next year. But Toronto can come pretty close if it finds a taker for Norman Powell. He holds an $11.6 million player option for 2021-22, and right now, he’s playing like someone who will have to pick it up.
What the Raptors have to gain by hawking as much room as the Mavericks or Heat isn’t immediately clear. Kawhi Leonard probably isn’t leaving Los Angeles to rejoin Toronto (imagine, though?!?), and they don’t need cap space to re-sign Kyle Lowry.
Still, the market won’t be devoid of reasons to spend. Victor Oladipo could help the Raptors. So, too, could John Collins (restricted) or Duncan Robinson (restricted).
More cap space will also be valuable if Toronto is looking to enter a quasi-reset. Other teams will invariably look to pawn off unwanted money. Having the capacity to swallow unsavory dollars might allow the Raptors to load up on picks and prospects.
If nothing else, the more cap space they carve out, the more likely it becomes they can re-sign Lowry and still have real money left over to dole out elsewhere.