The start of the 2020s has brought no shortage of change to the NBA, and not just due to the COVID-19 crisis. A new decade has brought a new slate of Finals contenders following the Warriors’ extended reign, with a pair of Los Angeles teams ruling the West while the Bucks look to break through in the East. There’s little telling who will rule the 2020s as we wait for the 2019-20 season to resume.
The free agency market is likely to shape the next decade of basketball, especially in 2021. Giannis Antetokounmpo could headline the elite class, potentially joined by Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Victor Oladipo and Anthony Davis among others. The league’s next superteam has yet to present itself.
So who could emerge as the league’s next dynasty? We at The Crossover assessed the potential options with an eye on the free agent class of 2021.
The Raptors face two disparate paths in the near future, and we should get a good idea of their plans both in 2020 free agency and before the 2020-21 trade deadline.
The easiest route for Toronto would be to re-sign Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol this summer, or shell out up to nine figures for point guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto could also add another year or two onto Kyle Lowry’s contract–which expires after 2020-21–effectively continuing to ride their roster as currently constructed around Pascal Siakam. The Raptors aren’t a paper tiger in 2019-20. They’re legitimate contenders for the Finals, and Nick Nurse has emerged as one of the league’s premier coaches. It’s not the sexiest path forward, but it’s hard to blame Toronto if it wishes to stay the course after a Finals win in 2019 and a 46–18 record in 2019-20.
Yet dispute the benefits of stability, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Masai Ujiri has something else up his sleeve. Toronto could look to largely blow up the roster before July 2021, clearing as much cap space as possible to hunt for talent next to Siakam. The Raptors could clear two max salary spots with ease by saying goodbye to Ibaka, Gasol and Lowry before the summer of 2021, with Antetokounmpo looming as the top prize. Ujiri hasn’t been afraid to make a splash before. He could follow up his coup for Kawhi with one of the greatest free agent signings in league history.
Can Dallas finally make a free agency splash in 2021? Mark Cuban and Co. largely wasted the post-Finals era with Dirk Nowitzki, watching one free agent after another eschew Dallas for a different location. From Dwight Howard to DeAndre Jordan, Dallas could never find a right co-star for their franchise anchor.
With a slate of free-agency misfires fresh in the memory bank, Cuban ditched free agency altogether in order to build the Mavericks’ new dynamic duo. He surrendered legitimate assets in order to move up and take Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft, and seven months later, he swiped Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks. And don’t count out the trade market for Cuban’s next move. Dallas would be a great fit for Bradley Beal–though he has expressed continued commitment to Washington–as would fellow two-guard C.J. McCollum. Expect Dallas to have heavy interest in the next superstar who enters trade rumors.
The Mavericks could also bide their time and hope to make a splash in 2021 free agency. Tim Hardaway’s expensive deal expires after 2020-21, and Courtney Lee will be on an expiring contract next season. Dallas could also deal Dwight Powell, Maxi Kelber or Seth Curry to clear additional cap space, and they could receive a modicum of assets in return. It’s hard to see the Mavericks as serious contenders for Antetokounmpo. But they could still land a max player, albeit one on the next tier of NBA talent.
Los Angeles Lakers
Perhaps Los Angeles emptied most of its war chest in the Anthony Davis trade, but LeBron James and Co. aren't completely devoid of assets should the Lakers look to acquire a third star. Kyle Kuzma is a productive young forward with two years before he hits restrictive free agency, and Los Angeles still has its 2020 and 2021 (protected 8-30) first round picks. The Lakers still have an opportunity to improve their roster after 2019-20.
Los Angeles can even run the West even without a blockbuster deal, at least in the first half of the 2020s. James remains near the peak of his powers, and Davis is a top ten talent at just 27-years-old. When James' time in the spotlight is done, Davis will be ready to seize the leading role as the Lakers search for a new All-Star running mate. This is anything but a short-sighted plan at the Staples Center.
Pat Riley pulled off perhaps the greatest acquisition this century when he lured LeBron James from Cleveland, and he’ll presumably be in strong position for an encore in July 2021. The Heat could have Jimmy Butler’s contract as their only max deal on the roster after 2020-21, and even if Bam Adebayo inks a extension before July 2021, Miami could still have room to add Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak is certainly at the top of the Heat’s list. But is he their lone option two summers from now?
Miami could have a slate of choices outside of Antetokounmpo, albeit players who don’t exactly make the Heat Finals favorites. Riley could create a twin towers situation with Adebayo and Rudy Gobert, and Jrue Holiday would fit Miami’s physical ethos. Chris Paul will continue to remain an option, though it’s likely he’ll opt into his $44 million in 2021-22. The Heat should strike again in free agency with the 2021 class. But outside of Antetokounmpo, the Larry O’Brien Trophy may remain out of sight.
Golden State Warriors
Unlike Miami, the Warriors still possess the elite talent to contend for the Finals even without Antetokounmpo. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have the profiles to age well into their 30s, and a top-three lottery pick could be entering the Chase Center in 2020-21. Even if the Warriors make a minor splash compared to the summer of 2016, they can still vault to the top of the Western Conference.
Golden State’s cap sheet is the complicating matter in Golden State’s plot to recapture the West. Andrew Wiggins is on the books for $31 million in 2021-22 and $33 million in 2022-23. Perhaps Wiggins taps into his No. 1 pick potential and serves as a fourth All-Star in Golden State, but barring a massive turnaround, it’s unlikely the Warriors will be able to dump his deal without sacrificing an asset. And Wiggins isn’t the most egregious contract on his own roster. Draymond Green’s performance continues to plummet, and he’s not a player who will age gracefully into his 30s. With a contract that potentially extends through 2023-24, significant draft capital may have to be sacrificed to deal Green.
The outlook may look bleak for Golden State, but frankly, the Warriors can deal all the draft capital they want if they land a big name in 2021 free agency. If Bob Myers begins stripping the team’s assets next season, be on high alert: a major free agency splash could be on the horizon.
Los Angeles Clippers
Both the Lakers and Clippers sacrificed a war chest of assets in order to acquire their pair of superstars, and frankly, both moves look prudent through the first 60-plus games of 2019-20. James and Davis have led the best team in the Western Conference. But looking toward the next decade, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George may have the upper hand.
The Lakers’ deal for Davis forced them to deal nearly every young asset on the roster, save for Kyle Kuzma. And while their collection of future draft picks is a slight upper hand on the Clippers, they don’t hold significant value given they’ll likely fall in the late 20s. The Clippers still have chips to cash in. Landry Shamet and Patrick Beverley are under contract until July 2022. Ivica Zubac’s deal lasts through 2022-23. Los Angeles could also re-sign Montrezl Harrell this summer, then trade him in future seasons. If Leonard and George commit to the Clippers again after 2020-21, they could quickly move to acquire a third star, fueling the Western Conference’s next dynasty.