NBA Free Agency Preview: Biggest Questions And Rumors

With NBA free agency set to begin today, Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix answers the biggest questions.
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Some key questions with the NBA offseason set to begin …

What now, Gordon Hayward?

Hayward ended weeks of speculation by opting out of the final year of his contract, leaving $34.2 million on the table. It’s impossible to believe Hayward would toss that winning lottery ticket if he didn’t feel confident there was a lucrative long term deal on the table. The Knicks cleared more than $30 million in cap space this week, and there is interest in Hayward, with head coach Tom Thibodeau among Hayward’s strongest internal advocates.

Hayward had a rough three years in Boston that began with a catastrophic ankle injury in year one, continued with a slow recovery in year two which was part of a truly dysfunctional ’18-19 season. A broken hand stalled Hayward’s start last season and a nasty ankle sprain limited him during Boston’s playoff run.

Still, Hayward is just 30 and regained his shooting stroke over 52 games last season. His offense and playmaking will be coveted on the free agent market. Boston is motivated to get involved in a sign-and-trade with Hayward that would allow them to get something in return.

Is there any market for Russell Westbrook?

Teams have been probing the Rockets about James Harden in recent days, though Houston has been reluctant to fully engage, per league sources. The Rockets will engage on Westbrook but interest for the All-Star guard has been lukewarm, at best. Houston has sent signals that it is not looking to just dump Westbrook’s contract—he has three years and $132 million left on the deal—which has further eroded the market. The Knicks have not engaged—Westbrook is not a priority for New York, per league sources—while Charlotte, another potential landing spot, just drafted LaMelo Ball.

It’s unlikely Houston deals Harden without having a landing spot for Westbrook, which could prove exceedingly difficult.

What is going on in Sacramento?

The runaway winner for the most bonkers story this offseason is the Kings-Bucks-Bogdan Bogdanovic trade that crumbled over the last few days and has put both teams squarely in the sights of NBA investigators. To recap: Milwaukee believed they had a deal to acquire Bogdanovic, a rising two-guard who would have fortified a revamped Bucks backcourt. By midweek, though, Bogdanovic claimed he had not agreed to being dealt to Milwaukee, the trade fell apart and the league office had opened an investigation into the Bucks allegedly agreeing to terms with Bogdanovic, a restricted free agent, before the signing window opened.

Can the deal be resuscitated? It depends on who you ask. It’s almost impossible to believe the Bucks would have agreed to the framework of this trade without knowing Bogdanovic would play for them (and spare me any consternation about tampering—backchanneling with agents goes on all the time). Milwaukee is frantically attempting to upgrade the roster in an effort to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a contract extension, and Bogdanovic would be a significant upgrade over the Donte DiVincenzo, D.J. Wilson and Ersan Ilyasova package of players the Bucks would ship out. The Kings are keen on working with a team on a trade for Bogdanovic, per league sources, with Sacramento contractually locked into a De’Aaron Fox-Buddy Hield backcourt and Bogdanovic’s desire to start among the reasons why.

There will be a strong market for Bogdanovic, which will include Atlanta, one of a handful of teams with significant cap space. It remains to be seen if the Bucks will be part of it.

Will Giannis sign the supermax?

There are obvious ramifications here for Milwaukee; the future of the franchise hangs on Antetokounmpo’s decision. But there are ripple effects that could impact this fall’s free agency. Several teams (Bucks, Heat, Lakers, among others) are attempting to keep their books as clean as possible next summer, when Antetokounmpo can become an unrestricted free agent. If Giannis signs—he has until December 21st—those teams could be more aggressive this offseason. That could mean making a play for a Westbrook—Westbrook in Miami feels like one of the few places that make sense—or extending bigger offers to Bogdanovic or Montrezl Harrell or other impact free agents looking for long term deals.

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What’s the market for Fred VanVleet?

Ordinarily there might be a feeding frenzy for a player like VanVleet, a proven scorer who, at 26, is just hitting his prime. But this is a quirky market. VanVleet telegraphed his intentions on a recent podcast appearance with J.J. Redick, saying he wanted to “cash out” this offseason; that, sources say, can be translated as VanVleet looking for a deal in the $20 million per year neighborhood. Detroit’s interest in VanVleet is mild, a source said. The Knicks could give a long look, as VanVleet fills a badly needed position and is a proven winner, no small thing for a young Knicks roster in need of leaders. But will anyone outbid Toronto? The Raptors are committed to bringing back VanVleet, with Toronto hoping to keep its core together until the next summer, when (again) they hope to be players for a big ticket free agent.

Will the Clippers run it back?

The Clippers have some big decisions to make, with several key free agents including Harrell, Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green. L.A. tinkered with its roster on draft night, flipping Landry Shamet as part of a package that brought back Luke Kennard, but the Clippers remain determined to add another guard, per league sources. Rajon Rondo is on L.A.’s radar, though Rondo could command a larger salary than the capped out Clippers can afford. L.A. has also explored a deal for Charlotte’s Terry Rozier, per league source. Still, as ugly as the Clippers finish to last season was, there remains a possibility that the Clips could run back largely the same team has last season.

Is there a market for Dwight Howard beyond the Lakers?

No, not right now, anyway, at least not above the veteran’s minimum. Howard repaired his reputation with the Lakers last season, accepting a bench role and showing a willingness to sacrifice scoring opportunities to be a defender/rebounder. And he was a key player during the Lakers championship run. However a market for the 34-year old Howard just isn’t there. Howard, in an interview with Basketball News, said he wants to get paid this offseason. But the Lakers may be the only team willing to offer him a contract, much less a more lucrative deal.

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Quick hits

· Expect the Wizards to move aggressively to re-sign Davis Bertans. Washington turned down multiple first round picks for Bertans at the trade deadline, and the Wizards have been adamant that they intend to bring Bertans back to provide floor spacing for the newly restored John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt

· Dallas is among the teams interested in Danilo Gallinari. The Hawks could make a run at the versatile, 32-year old forward as well.

· The Lakers would love to land Tristan Thompson, an ex-LeBron James teammate in Cleveland who would shore up the front line. The Raptors, who could lose both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, are expected to pursue the Toronto-born big man. With Andre Drummond opting into the final year of his contract, Thompson’s time with the Cavs could be over.

· Expect Aron Baynes to be hotly pursued by several contenders. Baynes, 33, is coming off a productive season in Phoenix, where he connected on a career-best 35.1% of his threes. Baynes is a bone-crushing screener and a phenomenal teammate who fits into just about every system.

· Did the Robert Covington trade signal an end to Carmelo Anthony’s time in Portland? Anthony was productive with the Blazers last season and says he wants to return. But any opportunity would likely come on a small contract with the understanding that Anthony will likely have to slide into a multi-positional reserve role. Still, Anthony is popular Portland stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which could lead to a return.