Players on expiring contracts are always a hot topic of conversation this time of year. Teams looking to make a move for this year but retain future flexibility often target these contracts at the trade deadline in order to upgrade their team for a playoff run. Other teams target expiring contracts as a way to dump their future obligations on other teams, with dreams of signing their next superstar in the summer.
This year is slightly different, however – teams aren’t necessarily targeting 2020 cap space in a way they normally do. The 2020 free agent class is particularly bereft of top-end talent, creating a situation in which teams aren’t as interested in moving for expiring contracts as they normally would be. For now, it looks like there will be somewhere five and seven teams with cap space this summer, most of whom are younger teams with longer-term ambitions than most veterans can help them realize, which puts those players in a particularly difficult circumstance: who is going to pay them?
The teams lacking in cap space will have their own free agents and the non-taxpayer mid-level exception to add to their team, but there are several upcoming free agents who will want more than the ~$10 million the NTMLE can provide in 2020-21 salary. This class of free agents isn’t chock full of top-end talent, but the role players involved are still going to want to be paid as such and if teams only have that $10 million exception to use, then they may have a hard time finding that $15+ million annual payday they want.
As they were last year for a handful of players, sign-and-trades may be the answer for these players. An over-the-cap team can grab a free agent for more than their NTMLE by working a sign-and-trade with his previous team. That previous team is usually open to negotiating a sign-and-trade, since they will receive something of value for a player who was planning on leaving anyway. How this affects negotiations leading up to Thursday’s trade deadline: teams with these players on their books have to weigh what they can get for them now against the chances they re-sign on a value contract or what they could get in a sign-and-trade this summer. Teams targeting these players are making the same calculation – is it worth moving for them now and hoping to re-sign them, with the backup plan of working a sign-and-trade in the summer, or trying to be the receiving team in a sign-and-trade in July?
For all the consternation about the lack of top-end talent in this year’s free agent class, there are quite a few players for whom this principle will apply. I’ve identified nine players who could possibly be on the move at this deadline and should command more than the NTMLE this offseason, creating this sort of interesting calculation for their current teams and any teams trading for them: Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Danilo Gallinari, Evan Fournier, Hassan Whiteside, DeMar DeRozan, and Davis Bertans.
Millsap makes $30 million on a Denver team that is about to get a lot more expensive. Jamal Murray’s max contract extension kicks in next year at a projected $28.75 million and while they have some buffer below the tax with which to work this summer, they’re likely going to be more interested in retaining Grant at the 4 than Millsap. Millsap’s a better player than Grant at this stage, but is also ten years older, which makes him a significant injury risk as he reaches the twilight of his career. Grant fits Denver’s young core much better than Millsap and will likely need a new contract of his own this summer after a third consecutive season of above-average shooting efficiency and positive defensive impact.
DeRozan and Drummond represent the two highest-profile player option decisions this summer. Neither is outplaying their one-year salary for the 2020-21 season, but both may still opt out in order to secure more overall money or find a change of scenery. Neither player will be targeted by the best teams in the league – they’re floor-raisers rather than ceiling-raisers – but there are teams in the hunt for the bottom half of each conference’s playoff picture who may be interested in working a sign-and-trade with those players if they hit the market this summer.
Whiteside is on the wrong side of 30 and probably doesn’t make a ton of sense for the projected cap space teams, which could put him in an interesting position this summer. His full Bird rights are nearly useless to his current team, the Portland Trail Blazers, as they’ll have Jusuf Nurkic back to man the middle by the time the 2020-21 season begins. They’re likely already looking to move on from Whiteside, a notion that should appeal greatly to him – anywhere he’s traded will likely value his Bird rights more than Portland will. If he’s not moved by Thursday, then his free agency will be very interesting to monitor; is there a team out there who wants to pay significantly more than the mid-level and send Portland something for participating in the sign-and-trade in order to obtain Whiteside?
Oklahoma City’s surprising season has quieted some of the trade talks surrounding Gallinari, but they’ll likely heat up again as we approach the deadline. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer and should command quite a bit more than the mid-level, but as Oklahoma City transitions into their younger core, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the massive amount of draft picks they have, some of which they’ll turn into other young players to pair with Gilgeous-Alexander. Gallinari may fit in their short-term vision, but if he wants to go to a contender, a sign-and-trade may be in the offing. He’s no stranger to a sign-and-trade, of course; that’s how he got from Denver to the Clippers in 2017.
Evan Fournier has an option for $17 million (plus bonuses up to $18.5 million) for next season with the Magic, but he might look around at the other free agents this summer and think of himself as one of the best players available. He’s having a great year in Orlando and could be in line for a $20 million payday this summer. The Magic have a penchant for taking care of their guys and keeping the band together (even when it might be a better idea to move on), so Fournier will at least have his own team as a viable suitor if he does opt out. The teams with cap space may not necessarily want to use that money on a player with his defensive shortcomings, but another team closer to the playoffs may view him as the missing piece to unlock their offense and could work a sign-and-trade with Orlando to nab him in the summer.
Marcus Morris is one of the most popular names on the trade block this year, though New York has been adamant that they want to keep him and see him returning this summer as a part of their long-term plans. As I wrote in my article covering the wings and forwards, the team that holds Morris’s contract at the end of the year will have Non-Bird rights, which should be enough to bring him back if he’s interested in returning this summer. He won’t make the full $18 million annually he could with those Non-Bird rights, but I’d imagine he’ll make more than the mid-level, making him a prime sign-and-trade candidate if he finds another home in the summer. The Knicks may be pricing that into their stance to not trade him; with more good teams having flexibility in the summer, perhaps New York will wait until then to work a sign-and-trade with Morris to one of those teams.
Davis Bertans is in a similar boat – he’d be fantastic on a number of high-end contenders, but Washington has been steadfast in their no-sell mentality to this point. Both the Knicks and Wizards have to be thinking about the sign-and-trade possibilities for their star role players this summer, since both can walk away for nothing and will have a number of suitors across the league. It’s not like either of these teams really have a winning culture to back up their pitches, either, particularly in Bertans’ case, since he never made the choice to join the Wizards like Morris did with the Knicks. They seem very confident they can re-sign him, which should be informed by conversations they’ve had with Bertans and his representation, but they do run the risk of him bolting for a team with cap space – it’s not like moving from Washington to one of those teams would be any sort of step down in terms of competitiveness next season.
Money is going to be tight around the league this summer, but sign-and-trades should give certain players a bit more flexibility in picking their next destination. As the trade deadline approaches, both their incumbent teams and potential trade partners will have to weigh their chances of working a sign-and-trade this summer, in addition to the other factors that are always included in these transactions.