The bubble games in Orlando aren’t just about crowning a champion—for prospective free agents, it’s an extended, heightened audition, with seeding games staggered all day, the playoffs approaching, and the entire league watching closely and preparing for a mid-October offseason. That said, smart teams will evaluate player performance in the bubble with a level of trepidation. The unusual conditions (no fans, no travel, fewer distractions, you name it) plus the question of small sample size (the majority of teams will be out after one playoff series) create a pretty real chance we see at least handful of players unexpectedly break out, or conversely, slump. This is another wrinkle bound to impact free agency to a degree. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to straight up disregard, say, a bench player thrust into action going on a 40% tear from three point range. But when teams are actually negotiating against each other for that player’s services and agents can hammer those numbers home, bubble performance is almost certainly going to have a role in establishing value, particularly for players who haven’t had rampant opportunity.
Next year’s salary cap numbers are already in a state of flux, although the sensible move will be for the NBA to artificially hold them steady until fans can return to arenas, whenever that may be. Allowing them to drop not only screws the 2020 free agent class, but it creates potential for an eventual cap spike not unlike the one that enabled Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State, and could lead to long-run competitive balance issues for the league. The sooner the NBA can provide clarity, the better. For now, it’s fair to assume most potential free agents with big-money player options will choose to opt-in and hit the market in 2021, at which point the league’s financial framework will hopefully be more stable.
As scrimmages begin Wednesday and games resume in full next week, here’s a look at five prospective free agents to keep an eye on.
Montrezl Harrell, Clippers
Harrell hits free agency after improving his production three straight seasons with the Clippers, currently working as a focal point of bench lineups on a team with a tangible pathway to winning a title. At age 26, he’s due for a long-term payday at the end of a two-year, $12 million deal that wound up being a bargain. But even with a strong season already under his belt, Harrell will need to close strong and produce in the playoffs to maximize his ask: bottom line, he’s still an undersized and defensively inflexible option at a position that’s become easy to replace.
The Clippers may end up being priced out. But it’s hard to see Harrell getting the type of long-term money that, say, Tristan Thompson got in 2015 given the NBA’s state of affairs and the diminishing value of centers, particularly ones who don’t shoot threes or consistently protect the rim. Harrell brings a lot to the table in terms of energy, competitiveness and attitude, but he may have to decide whether to seek a bigger contract from a lesser franchise, or if it’s worth a smaller raise to be part of a winning team long-term.
It’s worth noting that a slew of potentially more cost-effective veteran bigs are set to hit the market. But if the Clippers make a run to the Finals and Harrell can effectively close games when it matters, he’ll certainly have some leverage as he enters his prime years as one of the league’s more tenacious interior enforcers.
Fred VanVleet, Raptors
VanVleet is essentially assured to be the top point guard on the market. The question is where that designation will actually land him on the salary spectrum. The three-year, $56 million deal Terry Rozier got from Charlotte last season feels like a baseline, noting VanVleet’s role in Toronto’s unexpected 2019 title, his successful transition into a full-time starting role this season, and his reputation for making big shots. He’s a winning player who takes care of the ball, defends, and has proven to be situationally flexible. The Raptors will be financially flexible this year and next, with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka’s contracts expiring this fall and Kyle Lowry’s deal up next year. If they view VanVleet as part of their future—and it’s easy to argue that they should—they should be able to afford him. But with a strong finish, a point guard-needy team with cap space (the Knicks come to mind) might be even more tempted to offer big money and up the ante.
On a side note, the Raptors have an interesting summer ahead as far as reshaping the roster is concerned, with the 35-year-old Gasol and 30-year-old Ibaka still holding real value on the market. Pascal Siakam’s big extension is set to kick in, and with VanVleet due for a big raise and OG Anunoby approaching eligibility for an extension, Toronto has to plan carefully. Another in-house option, Chris Boucher, hits restricted free agency and appears ready for more consistent minutes, be it in place of Gasol or Ibaka or on another team. How the defending champions assign minutes in the bubble and in the playoffs, and what it means for their team long-term, should be a worthwhile storyline.
Jerami Grant, Nuggets
Grant went on record with Yahoo’s Chris Haynes in June saying that he was leaning against picking up his $9.3 million player option. After establishing himself the past two seasons with the Thunder and Nuggets and proving he’s a legitimate threat from long range, the 26-year-old, hyper-athletic forward is due for a raise. Denver didn’t have to give up much to get him, dealing Oklahoma City a first-rounder that’s top 10 protected through 2022, then turns into multiple seconds. But Grant’s fit with the Nuggets—and particularly alongside Nikola Jokic—is so strong that you have to think Denver works to keep him long-term. As a forward who blocks shots, catches lobs and hits open threes, it’s hard to think of a better complement to Jokic’s immaculate passing and crafty post play, but limited verticality. Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee will be unrestricted free agents, and the Nuggets will have the flexibility to tweak their frontcourt. It seems like Grant should be an amicable match, and more than just a rental.
Still, if the Nuggets are able to piece together a playoff run and Grant is the guy closing games, his value and asking price will rise accordingly. He’s already al to take over a starting role next season, and has room to improve. There will be other teams with real interest in his relatively rare skill set, which facilitates lineup combinations on both ends of the floor thanks to his tools and ability to shoot. But Denver’s core players are still young, and there should be internal impetus to remain stable and see how far this group can go together. It’s certainly possible the Nuggets have already tried to be proactive here behind the scenes.
Joe Harris, Nets
Harris is arguably the most proven shooter on the market after three straight seasons shooting north of 41% from outside, including a league-best 47.4% clip in 2018-19). Approaching age 29, he’s in position to sign what may be the only hefty long-term deal of his career. Barring a trade, the Nets may going to be priced out of retaining him, after giving new contracts to Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince. Brooklyn will have designs on contending with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and while Harris is one of the more dangerous spacers in the league and an underrated all-around player, his fit may not be as optimal defensively moving forward. The undermanned Nets aren’t likely to be long for the bubble, but the result is a good opportunity for Harris to showcase himself, and to make a case for remaining in Brooklyn, where he’s said he’d like to remain. Regardless, he shouldn’t have to sign a team-friendly deal this time around.
Josh Jackson, Grizzlies
Tuesday’s news that Justise Winslow will miss the rest of the season with a hip injury means even more opportunity for Jackson, who acquitted himself fairly well coming off the bench for the Grizzlies after spending the first half of the season working to revive his career in the G League. Jackson fell from grace in Phoenix (which was an unstable situation unto itself) after going fourth overall in the 2017 draft, but is still just 23, and had strung together five straight games scoring in double figures for Memphis before play was halted in March.
He’s now looking at a potentially key role as the first wing off the bench on a team in pole position to hold down the eighth seed in the west. Jackson still has his flaws, as a streaky shooter and sporadically iffy decision-maker, but if he’s truly willing to reinvent himself as a versatile role player—and if he can remake his image around the league—he might make for an interesting free-agent gamble for a rebuilding franchise, or a long-term hold for the Grizzlies. With the entire NBA watching, this is a pretty big platform for Jackson to re-establish himself.