NBA free agency: Who should (and should not) opt out this offseason?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

NBA free agency: Who should (and should not) opt out this offseason?

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NBA free agency: Who should (and should not) opt out this offseason?

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In the 2019 offseason, half the league had significant cap space, with most teams having maximum space available. The abundance of cap room convinced 11 of 18 players with player options to opt out and test the market. With more than $600 million available to be spent, no player who opted out of their deals got left behind. 2020 pales in comparison, projecting with just over $200 million in cap space to offer with a whopping 29 players with pending player options who will need to make decisions by June 30.

It is really hard to envision most of these players earning a pay raise or even equal to what they currently earn if they become free agents this summer. Most teams operating over the cap will be spending their money working around the margins, and cap space teams could do the same or take in bad contracts with draft picks attached. The lack of cap room will likely result in a smaller percentage of players with player options hitting the market.

GOOD CASES FOR OPTING OUT

Anthony Davis ($28.8 million) is going to decline his 2020-21 player option for sure. He formally declined the Lakers’ maximum extension offer, but that is because he would have left a lot of money on the table doing so. Barring an unexpected change in circumstances, expect Davis to re-sign with the Lakers for maximum dollars on either a one or two-year deal with a player option at the end. This process allows him to maximize his earnings over the next seven years.

Gordon Hayward ($34.19 million) has a very interesting case for opting out because he seems to have finally come back to form since breaking his leg in 2017. His efficiency and most of his numbers (except scoring) are higher than his 2016-17 numbers despite having a lower usage. He had a strong case for making the All-Star game this year if not for missing 13 games with a broken hand.

The Celtics rely on Hayward as part of their wing-centric lineup but they may have suitors to fend off. Charlotte, who previously signed him to an offer sheet in 2014, is projected with $26.7 million in cap space. Miami, who is projected with $26.5 million in cap space, also pursued Hayward in 2017, although indications are that they want to keep the keg dry for 2021. Other teams with at least that much cap space include Atlanta, Detroit, and New York. It seems unlikely that Hayward would want to leave Boston, and none of these teams other than New York can offer Hayward a true maximum contract (projected $40.3 million starting salary). If Hayward opts out, expect him to re-sign with the Celtics on a long-term deal. He is still getting minor injuries every now and then, so it would be wise to get the security given his history.

Jerami Grant ($9.4 million) is very likely, if not a lock, to secure a significant raise if he opts out. His skillset has a place on any modern NBA team and a player such as him could be one of the most sought after this offseason. Denver will not be able to replace him easily with the lack of players like him on the market, nor with just the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (NT-MLE). They’re already invested in him having traded a first-round pick for him and don’t exactly have an up and coming young power forward to take his place. Grant having full Bird rights with a team who can’t easily replace him and multiple suitors in free agency should lead to a lucrative long-term contract.

Evan Fournier ($17.2 million) could also see a nice raise or at least an incremental one. There should be suitors for him despite the dry market. His playmaking and scoring ability gives him a rotation spot on just about every team with or without cap space. He should be considered an extension candidate ahead of free agency as he currently can extend with the Magic for up to a maximum of $92.2 million between 2020-21 and 2023-24. If he opts out and is not offered long-term security, he could probably still earn more than $17.2 million on a one-year deal. Whether he opts out or not, he’s in an excellent position heading into the offseason because of his options.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($8.5 million) and Avery Bradley ($5 million) are having resurgences under Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. Assuming the Lakers re-sign Davis, they will be over the cap and replacing them will be difficult if they leave. Caldwell-Pope finally has full Bird rights with the Lakers, so unless they can replace him with just the NT-MLE, he has a lot of leverage to secure a higher salary, although for now they’re likely only offering a one-year deal in preparation for 2021. Bradley could get a very small raise for up to his non-Bird amount ($5.7 million) or can get more via the NT-MLE. Whether their success is just a product of Vogel’s system or not, many over-the-cap teams with the NT-MLE could be preparing offers in hopes of stealing them from the Lakers.

COMPLICATED CASES FOR OPTING OUT, SHOULD CONSIDER AN EXTENSION IF ELIGIBLE

Mike Conley ($34.5 million) is in his age-32 season and may have started to show signs of a decline, although his February numbers are much closer to his career norms. Even if he plays at a level closer to that in Memphis, it makes very little sense for him to opt out because most of the 2020 cap space teams already have a starting point guard. Miami could make sense, but they’d likely only offer a one-year deal. The maximum amount he is eligible to extend for is $174.8 million over four years, but realistically he is looking at at least half that total. Utah is heavily invested in Conley after trading two first-round picks for him, but whether or not he fits in with them is still a work in progress. Conley will most likely opt in, but his long-term future in Utah is in question.

Andre Drummond ($28.6 million) is soon facing a very harsh and frustrating reality. In the past few offseasons, centers have been getting smaller and smaller guaranteed deals. In 2018, a considerably low cap-space offseason, we saw non-stretch centers Clint Capela and Jusuf Nurkic earn $16 million and $12 million annually, respectively. Charlotte and New York are the only two teams with significant cap space who make some sense for Drummond, but it’s hard to see either team shelling most of their cap space just to him. If Drummond were to opt out and test the market, he might end up getting offered similar figures as Capela and Nurkic did. That is a steep paycut overnight, and because he was traded in February he is not extension eligible for the rest of the season. If he were to opt out, it probably won’t be without assurances of a lucrative deal via a cap space team or a sign-and-trade. Otherwise, expect him to opt in.

DeMar DeRozan’s ($27.7 million) next contract should be a lucrative one, but it is difficult envisioning a 2020 cap space team that makes sense for him. He could be a sign-and-trade candidate if he opts out and if there is a return that interests San Antonio. He has discussed an extension with the Spurs, but according to Sam Amick of The Athletic, they are far apart on an agreement. If he’s hoping for the maximum $149.1 million he is eligible for, he may not even get that from a team he’s potentially traded to. He has options, but unless he signs a lucrative extension, his best option is to opt in and test the market in 2021.

INDIFFERENT BUT SHOULD AT LEAST RECOUP DECLINED MONEY

Enes Kanter, Robin Lopez, and JaMychal Green ($5 million) signed for the $4.8 million room mid-level exception (R-MLE). That became the price tag for other backup big men such as Richaun Holmes, Frank Kaminsky, and Mike Scott. JaVale McGee ($4.2 million) is also earning a similar amount. Most likely that $5 million range will remain the price for backup big men, so if any of these players opt out, they should have the R-MLE amount to fall back on.

Austin Rivers ($2.4 million), Willie Cauley-Stein ($2.3 million), Wesley Matthews ($2.7 million), Mike Muscala ($2.3 million), and James Ennis ($2.1 million) all signed for the veteran minimum or slightly above it. It is tough to gauge whether they’ve done enough this season to garner a raise, but at the very least they should have a minimum offer available next season. If any of these players opt out, it could be for a change of scenery.

BAD CASE FOR OPTING OUT

Otto Porter ($28.5 million) had an unbelievable stretch during the 2018-19 season that made opting out in 2020 a reasonable possibility. However, injuries have severely limited him over the past two years, making him very unlikely to hit free agency. Rodney Hood ($6 million) was making a strong case too, but his Achilles injury will certainly have him opting in.

Tim Hardaway Jr. ($19 million) and Kelly Olynyk ($13.2 million) have been productive role players and are likely looking at paycuts down the line. Meanwhile, Jabari Parker ($6.5 million) and Stanley Johnson ($3.8 million), have not been as productive and are probably leaving money on the table if they opt out. All these players might as well opt in and try to boost their stock for 2021.

Nicolas Batum ($27.1 million), James Johnson ($16.1 million), and Tony Snell ($12.2 million), the last of the remaining ‘sour sixteens’ (or ‘seventeens’ in Snell’s case), can thank the cap spike of 2016 for their fortune. No cap smoothing led to a surplus in cap space, and one of the unintended consequences was allocating large portions of it to non-qualified players. Expect these players to opt in.

Despite only earning minimum salaries, there is no guarantee that Rajon Rondo ($2.6 million) and Mario Hezonja ($2 million) would be signed next season. They should only opt out if they have assurances of a minimum deal from at least one team.

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