Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
6. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks are going to have cap space. The only question is how much.
If they go full housecleaning mode by declining Bobby Portis’ $15.7 million team option and cutting bait with every cent of inessential non-guaranteed salary (so, everyone’s but Mitchell Robinson’s), they can free up as much as $42 million. Only the Atlanta Hawks have a path to more spending power—and just barely.
That said, unless the outdated “it’s a big market, it’s the Mecca of basketball, it’s the Knicks” set of sales pitches somehow regains its appeal, selling points are scarce here.
The Knicks are under new management with Leon Rose installed as team president, and new head coach Tom Thibodeau will again try to prove his old-school approach still works in the modern game. Rose, a former agent, has connections, which may help. But Thibodeau is the exact opposite of a free-agent draw, according to a 2019 player survey that ranked him, by far, the coach players least wanted to play for.
Talent-wise, New York is wanting. Robinson is intriguing, but RJ Barrett had a brutal rookie year, and…that’s pretty much it. Any free agent considering New York will find no high-end on-court help, a longstanding culture of losing and mismanagement, and a coach with less appeal (according to players) than any other.
5. Detroit Pistons
A couple of key advantages nudge the Detroit Pistons ahead of the Knicks among teams with cap space, though pure spending power isn’t one of them. Detroit projects to have up to $30 million in room beneath the cap if Tony Snell picks up his $12.2 million player option.
The Pistons should have Blake Griffin available. Though it’s difficult to know how much star power he has left after so many significant injuries, the six-time All-Star is still a bigger name than anyone New York has on the roster.
Despite jettisoning Andre Drummond at the 2020 trade deadline, which precluded his opting in for $28.8 million (that’s the Cleveland Cavaliers’ problem now), the Pistons don’t appear prepared to tear the whole thing down.
Per the Detroit Free Press‘ Omari Sankofa II:
“After being hired as general manager in June, Troy Weaver rejected the term ‘rebuild,’ instead referring to it as a ‘restoring.’ Last month, Blake Griffin said his conversations with head coach Dwane Casey gave him the impression that the Pistons want to compete next season. Casey said something similar a day before the draft lottery, noting that the Pistons will ‘compete to win’ in 2020-21.”
Detroit has the 2017-18 Coach of the Year winner in Dwane Casey; a veteran core led by Griffin and Derrick Rose, emerging talent in Luke Kennard and Sekou Doumbouya, and a realistic chance to return to the playoffs.
4. Charlotte Hornets
Even after Nicolas Batum inevitably opts in to the final year and $27.1 million of his deal, the Charlotte Hornets will still have around $19 million in room below the cap. This organization has a recent history of financial malpractice (see: Batum and basically everything else that happened in 2016), which might paradoxically be attractive for free agents.
If you wind up in Charlotte, there’s a good chance you’ve just been overpaid.
The Hornets got a breakout sophomore year from Devonte’ Graham and a stellar debut from rookie forward P.J. Washington. Miles Bridges has bounce, and Terry Rozier proved many critics wrong as he turned in the most efficient scoring season of his career in the first year of a $58 million deal.
New York is a stay-away until proved otherwise, and Detroit is depending on some iffy vets. Charlotte, propelled mostly by young players and more firmly on the upswing, is a marginally better destination than either of those cold-weather spots.
3. Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young is a transformative offensive star who proved capable in his second season of single-handedly elevating his team’s attack. The Atlanta Hawks scored 95.7 points per 100 possessions without their star guard on the floor and 111.2 when he played.
Defense was an issue for the Hawks, but with Clint Capela now in the middle, another year of seasoning for Young and growth from a handful of young wings, it should improve. Add to that John Collins’ budding stardom, and it’s clear that this is the time to get in with the Hawks. A free agent who signs now will enjoy the fruits of the last few seasons’ struggles.
Lloyd Pierce solidified his position as one of the game’s most respected young coaches, and any free agent with an eye toward enlisting in the fight for social justice will find himself in the right place under Pierce in Atlanta.
There’s a lot of talent here—Young, Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish—and the East should provide a clearer path to the playoffs. Atlanta missed the last three postseasons after making the previous 10. It seems committed to hitting the upslope of its growth trajectory in 2020-21.
2. Phoenix Suns
Toss out the Phoenix Suns’ 8-0 bubble record, which served as an announcement that maybe they deserve recognition as a serious playoff threat in 2020-21, and this team still belongs in the No. 2 spot among cap-space teams.
Phoenix isn’t guaranteed to have room. Among the key moves the Suns would have to make to reach roughly $19 million in space: renouncing their rights on Aron Baynes and Dario Saric, two useful rotation players, to clear their cap holds. Those will be tough calls.
Devin Booker is a superstar, Deandre Ayton took a leap on defense as a sophomore, and Mikal Bridges used the bubble’s spotlight to prove himself as one of the NBA’s premier wing stoppers. In other words: The pieces are in place.
Though the Suns have been pilloried for dysfunction over the last decade or so, there’s still a winning tradition here. This franchise made the postseason in all but three years from 1989 to 2010. Like the Hawks, the Suns are on the upswing, driven by high-end young talent. And since we don’t have to toss out that 8-0 bubble record (instead, we’ll give it some weight), Phoenix has a significant momentum edge on Atlanta.
1. Miami Heat
We really should have a separate category for the Miami Heat. A squad on the verge of a title stands out starkly among five lottery teams.
The Heat may see their cap space evaporate on one-year balloon deals for key free agents Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder. Plus, there’s Derrick Jones Jr., another free agent, to consider. The Heat have one of the largest incentives not to spend beyond 2021 because they’ll be one of the hottest destinations for a deeper free-agent class next offseason. This year’s playoff run complicates things a bit; it would be a tough look to let the likes of Dragic and Crowder walk after such a successful run.
But Miami, led by Pat Riley, has survived attrition before. And to say the Heat have been ambitious in talent acquisition under Riley would be an understatement as big as one of governor Micky Arison’s cruise ships.
Forever an attractive landing spot because of weather, tax rates, lifestyle, universally admired professionalism and consistent success, Miami enters this offseason in a position of extreme power. If it chooses not to exercise that power, it’ll only be because it knows it will wield even more in 2021.