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October 1, 2023

NBA free agency 2022: Burning questions

NBA free agency 2022: Burning questions

With free agency only a couple of days away, here’s a look at several pressing questions from around the league that could define the NBA’s offseason. With Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine and James Harden all expected to re-sign with their current teams, we may not get the type of fireworks display most want. But there are still plenty of important moves to be made. Here are several to keep an eye on.

Wait, so are the Nets a contender?Thanks to everyone involved and what happened last season, it remains way too soon to say. But after Kyrie Irving made a semisurprising decision to exercise his $36.9 million player option and spend at least one more season in Brooklyn, the Nets dodged what would’ve been a complete and utter catastrophe.

Irving stays and, presumably, so does Kevin Durant, who earlier this week felt destined to be traded for a monster haul (think something along the lines of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and three first-round picks) that would’ve dramatically lowered expectations.

Now, if everyone is healthy and Joe Tsai takes care of his own free agents, the Nets can trot out some of the most lethal units basketball has ever seen. Irving, Durant, Joe Harris, Seth Curry and Ben Simmons are an uncompromising group that combines acres of space with effective playmaking.

Add Nic Claxton, Bruce Brown, Patty Mills (who has until 5 p.m. on June 29 to decide whether he’s coming back or opting out of his player option) and whoever they’ll sign with the $6.2 million mid-level exception and this roster isn’t bad. The Nets also have an $11.3 million trade exception from the deal that shipped James Harden to Philadelphia. (That’s big enough to fit someone useful like Jae Crowder, Jakob Poeltl or Royce O’Neale.)

A Finals appearance isn’t guaranteed in a conference that still has the Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Sixers and Raptors in it, but had Irving opted out and, say, taken the Lakers’ tax-paying mid-level exception, Durant likely would’ve followed him out the door. There are surely some Nets employees who would have chosen that doomsday scenario over another unpredictable, rambling year with Irving hijacking any chance to achieve incremental collective progress. (If both sides can’t hammer out an extension before the trade deadline, the Nets can and may exchange him for whatever they can get—as opposed to losing Kyrie for nothing as an unrestricted free agent next summer.)

But, in the here and now from a pure basketball perspective, most teams still wish they could experience the position Brooklyn is currently in. However temporary it might be.

How aggressive will the Trail Blazers be?It’s possible Portland re-signs Jusuf Nurkić and Anfernee Simons, stays above the cap, adds a useful vet with its mid-level exception and placates Damian Lillard without burning any bridges to what can still be a tantalizing future. But where does that actually get them?

In a cutthroat Western Conference, Lillard, Simons, Nurkić, Jerami Grant, 19-year-old Shaedon Sharpe, healthy Nassir Little, Josh Hart and whoever can be had for the $10.2 million full mid-level exception (Victor Oladipo would be interesting if they waive/trade Eric Bledsoe) probably aren’t enough to guarantee a playoff spot, let alone make a run to the conference finals.

As a new front office tries to keep Portland’s future bright while maximizing the rest of its 31-year-old franchise player’s prime, there’s a rising duel between optimism and precariousness. Can they be patient with Simons (who flashed All-Star pedigree last season) and Sharpe and hope their development elevates Lillard to heights he’s never been over the next couple of years? Or do they need to be a little more assertive? Dangling Sharpe and Hart’s contract for someone like OG Anunoby or John Collins is technically still possible, and the Blazers made an effort to grab more established players on draft night. “We pursued some of them, and it didn’t work out this time around,” Blazers GM Joe Cronin said.

Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports

But there aren’t too many practical names who can be had with a package like that who will actually move the needle. If the Nets’ season goes sideways and Durant (who Lillard clearly wants in Portland) demands a trade, would Simons, Sharpe, Hart and three first-round picks be enough? That last scenario is the type of pipe dream that highlights just how far the Blazers actually are from title contention.

Lillard is coming off abdominal surgery that limited him to 29 games and the worst season of his entire career. He shot 40.2% from the floor and, for the first time since his rookie year, the Blazers were outscored with him on the court. In July, Lillard will become eligible for a two-year, $107 million extension that would keep him in Portland through 2027.

Should the Blazers give him that contract, then keep Nurkić and Simons, they wouldn’t have any long-term cap space before they take care of Grant, who’s entering the final year of his deal, and Little, who will be restricted next summer if he’s not extended sometime over the next couple of months. Cronin has a ton of options, but regardless of what he decides to do, Sharpe looms over the entire operation as both their most desirable trade asset and a potential ceiling raiser who Lillard can one day hand the keys to. This offseason is critical in Portland. Don’t miss whatever it is they do.

What is John Collins’s trade value?Collins’s hot-and-cold relationship with the Hawks is, to me, a perplexing spectacle. Yes, I get there’s been friction with Trae Young. Yes, I know Collins’s stated desire to one day be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame is thwarted on a team that doesn’t go out of its way to run plays for him. But the Hawks want to be good and Collins—at 24 years old and a natural complement to Young’s pick-and-roll genius—has been one of their most important and consistent players.

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For basketball reasons, the constant trade rumors are peculiar, especially now that he has at least three years and as much as $102 million left on his contract. Finding a suitor for Collins that can also give Atlanta useful present-day contributors isn’t easy; it’s unclear which team would surrender a two-way wing or high-quality playmaker for a big who struggles to defend at the five. Interested teams would need a proper infrastructure, the type of players around Collins who accentuate what he’s good at while covering up his weaknesses (which is exactly what Young and Clint Capela do). Despite all that, multiple reports forecast a trade. When/if it happens, there’s a decent chance one of the involved teams will regret it.

Beyond Collins, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanović and Capela are also seemingly on the trade block, while De’Andre Hunter can be signed to an extension anytime before Oct. 17 and Danilo Gallinari’s nonguaranteed contract becomes guaranteed if he’s not waived today. Rumors for Dejounte Murray sound nice, but it’s unclear what exactly would be involved, or why the Spurs would prefer an ascending team’s future draft capital over the 25-year-old franchise player they’ve spent years molding into what he’s become. They just drafted three players in the first round and have intriguing prospects like Josh Primo and Devin Vassell already on the roster. Meanwhile, Murray still has two years left on his contract. Why cash out now?

All right, getting back to the Hawks: They just drafted the sharpshooting AJ Griffin out of Duke and have last year’s first-round pick, Jalen Johnson, around to fill a slightly larger role in his sophomore season. It’ll be interesting to see just how many steps back the Hawks take, if any, as they try to fix what ailed them on the defensive end last season.

Where is Deandre Ayton going?Now that Durant is presumably off the board and the Pistons drafted a center, Ayton’s potential destinations are getting murkier by the day. I don’t know where he’s going, if anywhere. But if I were the Spurs, instead of trading Murray for a bunch of picks, I’d make a full-throated effort to pair my All-Star point guard with Ayton.

How will the Pistons spend all their money?The Pistons are a test case in how a complete teardown to rebuild through the draft doesn’t have to require years in the wilderness. On March 5, 2021, they waived Blake Griffin, ending a three-season era that was more about ownership’s desperate tread toward relevance than the need to establish actual direction. That transfer is easier said than done, particularly when your own recent history is a depressing reminder of how shaky first-round picks can be.

After they took Andre Drummond ninth in 2012, Detroit used its top picks on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard and Sekou Doumbouya. In ’20, with Griffin on his way out, Drummond already traded and a clear pivot underway, they added Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart (who was acquired in a sign-and-trade that sent Christian Wood to the Rockets).

Detroit then won the lottery (a nice accelerant!) and was rewarded with Cade Cunningham, who now has Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren (the draft’s two most athletic players at their respective positions) by his side. Cunningham is 20. Ivey is 20. Duren is 18. Bey is 23. This is their core. (Hayes is 20, Stewart is 21 and Marvin Bagley III—a restricted free agent they seem invested in—is 23; they shouldn’t be disregarded entirely, but may have to develop in reduced roles going forward.)

The Pistons aren’t “ready to win” yet. But their talent base and potential is enviable. They also have a boat load of cap space to spend this summer, if they believe stacking more expensive pieces around who’s already in place can push them toward a fight for the play-in as soon as this season. (Detroit always has the option of rolling that room into next season and becoming a dumping ground before the trade deadline, or, more notably, a fascinating buyer in July 2023.)

Ayton and Jalen Brunson have been rumored targets for weeks. Both made more sense before Ivey and Duren were taken in the draft, though. Should they move on from those two but still feel the need to be aggressive, Miles Bridges makes quite a bit of sense for them. Only 24 years old and from Flint, Mich., the Pistons can put the Hornets in a position they reportedly don’t want by offering Bridges a max offer sheet. It’s an overpay, to be clear. But for the Pistons, an organization that’s never doubled as an attractive free-agent destination, Bridges could be worth it.

He fits their time line, just averaged 20.2 points on 59% two-point shooting and over the next few years, would give Cunningham and Ivey an explosive running mate in their frontcourt. Spacing is a long-term obstacle, as would be perimeter defense. But the Pistons aren’t trying to win the title right now. They just want to win. Bridges would be a homerun swing toward that short-term goal.

Should the Warriors trade Steph Curry?Curry (right) celebrates with Payton.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Just kidding! The now four-time defending champs have a fairly straightforward offseason ahead of them, with Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. entering free agency, with Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman all positioned to slide up and assume larger roles.

Warriors fans should feel confident in at least two of those veterans coming back (Looney is pretty much a lock, unless one of the league’s 29 other teams wants to dramatically overpay him as their new starting center) despite an exorbitant luxury tax penalty. From there, Jordan Poole is extension eligible and should ask for the moon, with his value sky high and the possibility of a max offer sheet gliding under his nose next summer.

A Wiseman trade isn’t likely just yet, but if Looney returns on a long-term deal it’s something to monitor before February’s deadline.

Are the Jazz really going to sit on their hands?How discouraging would it be if after three straight gut-punch postseason flameouts, Utah decided to run it back with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the same assorted cast of three-point shooting defensive sieves, convincing itself that a new head coach could make all the difference/delaying an inevitable rebuild until after Salt Lake City hosts the 2023 All-Star Game?

Even after finishing the regular season with the best offense and third-highest net rating in the NBA, this scenario seemed untenable after they were eliminated by the Mavericks a couple of months ago, but trading Gobert is easier said than done. Moving on from a 25-year-old who’s under contract for three more seasons with a 28.3 points-per-game career-playoff scoring average is hard to swallow.

Pretty much everyone else (Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Bojan Bogdanović, Royce O’Neale) is attractive only to a team that’s also trying to win now. Acquiring future assets doesn’t work so well with Gobert and Mitchell on board.

It’s not 100% impossible for everything to break their way: They nail the head coach hire, Mitchell holds himself accountable on defense, Gobert stays healthy, Conley stiff-arms Father Time for eight more months, their tax-paying mid-level works out, Nickeil Alexander-Walker makes a leap and they catch a few injury-related breaks at the right time. But something in Utah felt broken at season’s end; it’d be weird and sad if it didn’t make a major personnel change before training camp. 

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