NBA player option predictions: Nine players who might opt out despite a depressed free-agent market

This article was originally published on this site

Pool Photo (USA Today)

In a rising salary cap environment, productive players with options in their contracts are heavily incentivized to test free agency. It’s common sense. Consider Kyrie Irving. When he signed his rookie extension in the summer of 2014, the salary cap was $63 million. Last offseason, when he had to decide whether to pick up the option on the final season of that contract, the cap was over $109 million. Over the past half-decade, the cap has grown so rapidly that, short of injuries or rapid decline, player options have largely been a formality. Players wanted to get to free agency as quickly as possible. 

But in 2020? Most veterans will want to sit out. The spending spree of 2019 deprived most teams of 2020 cap space even before the pandemic. Now? The best-case scenario is likely a cap freeze, and a decline is not off the table. Those same player-options have become life rafts. Nobody wants to dip their toe into such an uncertain free-agent market. In 2019, 12 of the league’s 26 player options were declined. 

That number is going to be substantially lower this time around. There are 28 player options on the board, according to Spotrac. The overwhelming majority will be exercised, most without a second thought. But of those 28 options, nine stand out as possible opt-outs. Some make significantly more sense than others, and we could see a surprise or two, but the total number will wind up being closer to four or five. Below are the players who could credibly improve their financial standing through free agency rather than passivity, and how their teams might respond to such a decision. But first, a quick glance at the options that we should expect to be exercised without much thought: 

Who’s staying put: 

DeMar DeRozan: There have been rumblings that he is unhappy in San Antonio, but $27.8 million is just too much to pass up in a market that features only three teams projected to even have that much cap space. 

Otto Porter Jr.: When was the last time a non-star passed up over $26 million after a season in which he played only 14 games?

Andre Drummond: The Pistons traded him specifically to avoid paying his $25.4 million option. 

Nicolas Batum: One of the last remaining 2016 albatrosses, Batum is a fringe starter making $24 million. 

James Johnson: He’ll go back to making the minimum once his $14.4 million salary expires. 

Kelly Olynyk: In a normal environment, $12.5 million might be beatable, but not in 2020. 

Tony Snell: It’s not nearly as farfetched as it seemed in 2019, when the Bucks gave up a first-round pick to dump him, but he’s not coming close to $11.5 million in this market, and the Pistons should be able to give him enough minutes to pad his stats next season.

Jabari Parker: It’s been a long, wild ride, but Parker’s days making much above the minimum are coming to an end. You have to be far better on offense to justify $6.5 million for a total defensive liability. 

Rodney Hood: Kevin Durant can pass up an option after rupturing an Achilles, but mortals can’t. Hood is keeping his $6 million. 

Enes Kanter: Boston, well above the tax, is going to look to dump Kanter’s $4.9 million. Nobody wants to pay that much for a center that can’t defend in space. 

Robin Lopez: Lopez isn’t a minimum-salary player, but the center market is so deep that $4.9 million from a contender (featuring his brother) just isn’t getting topped. 

Stanley Johnson: He scored 60 points all season. At $3.7 million, that’s over $61,000 per point. 

Austin Rivers: He may be able to do better than the minimum, but he seems to like Houston and it’s a perfect setting for a player of his skill-set. Of these players, he is the likeliest surprise, but remember, he only got the minimum last offseason, a relative boom time. 

Willie Cauley-Stein: The Mavericks acquired Cauley-Stein to replace Dwight Powell, but he opted out of the bubble. Catching lobs from Luka Doncic is too tempting to opt out of even a minimum deal, though. 

Mike Muscala: He might be able to get the minimum elsewhere, but there’s not much upside to that risk, and he should get minutes in Oklahoma City. 

James Ennis: The minimum in Orlando is valuable right now. There’s no state income tax in Florida, and Jonathan Isaac’s injury will give him minutes. 

Mario Hezonja: This will likely be his final NBA contract, so he should savor the $1.8 million he is owed before heading back to Europe. 

The superstar

Anthony Davis

Davis is the only player on this list that is guaranteed to decline his player option. That option would pay him $28.7 million. Even if he wants to stay with the Lakers, he is virtually assured a sizable raise by opting out of his deal and signing a new one. Davis, as an eight-year NBA veteran, is eligible for a contract starting at 30 percent of the salary cap. Under last season’s $109.14 million cap, that would have paid him over $32.7 million. The expectation right now, despite the coronavirus pandemic damaging the league’s finances, is that the cap stays the same. Even if it falls, it would have to drop over $13 million to cost him enough money to opt into that $28.7 million. There isn’t going to be a $95 million cap, therefore, Davis is opting out and taking the raise. 

The real question here is what sort of contract Davis does demand from the Lakers, and logically, there are three options: 

  • A one-year deal paying him something resembling that $32.7 million would get him back to free agency in 2021, when the cap could potentially start to rise again. That is far from guaranteed, though. The real advantage of a one-year deal, though, is that it aligns him with LeBron James, who has a player option of his own for the 2021-22 season. Should James decide to leave, it would give Davis the flexibility to do so as well. That isn’t likely, but with James you never really know. The other possible but unlikely advantage is that if the Lakers hope to create max cap space to pursue Giannis Antetokounmpo or another star, both James and Davis could leave some money on the table to help make that possible. This isn’t likely for a multitude of reasons, but given the careful way that the Lakers have managed their cap, it can’t be fully ruled out either. 
  • A two-year deal would pay him roughly $68 million, but it would also get him back into free agency at the optimal moment. If we assume that the pandemic is over by the 2022 offseason, the salary cap could begin to rise back to projected levels again at that point. It would also get Davis to 10 years of NBA experience. That would allow him to make 35 percent of the cap in the first year of a new deal. Depending on where the cap lands, that could get him a five-year deal worth something in the neighborhood of $250 million after the conclusion of that $68 million pact. 
  • A five-year deal under the terms of the 2019 cap would pay Davis roughly $221 million. Given his Klutch Sports representation, it seems unlikely that Davis would prioritize that guarantee over the flexibility and leverage of a short-term deal, but he’s had some injuries in the past, so it’s a slight possibility. 

Davis will be able to demand a player option on the final year of any of these offers. The Lakers will deny no request of his after the postseason he just had, so he is free to dictate whatever terms he chooses. 

The extension candidates

Gordon Hayward

The projected luxury tax line is right around $132.6 million. Boston already has over $140 million committed for next season… before factoring in their three first-round picks and any free agency expenditures. This team is going to be expensive, and it has a serious incentive to avoid the tax for as long as possible. Jaylen Brown’s max extension is about to kick in. Jayson Tatum’s is coming, and if he hits the Rose Rule criteria, it is going to get even pricier. Kemba Walker has three max years left, and at the very least, a new Marcus Smart contract virtually assures that the 2022-23 season will be spent in the tax no matter what. 

Boston can probably afford to pay the tax every now and then, and did so during the Big Three era, but this ownership group hasn’t touched the repeater tax. The Celtics want to put off starting that clock (three years in a row, or four out of five) for as long as possible. That’s where Hayward comes in. He’s guaranteed $34.2 million this season, but his earning prospects afterward, given his health and underwhelming showing in Boston, are another matter entirely. He might get another big deal in 2021 free agency, but it may have to come from a weaker team, and it almost certainly won’t be a long-term pact. 

If Hayward wants to keep contending in Boston and buy himself some security, the Celtics could be interested in giving him a long-term deal at a substantially lower rate in order to avoid the 2021 tax. Let’s say, for instance, Hayward was willing to cut his salary in half, but on a four-year deal. He could guarantee himself almost $77 million while getting the Celtics out of the tax this year. 

Would he take that? Probably not. Even this version of Hayward should be able to get the difference between those two figures relatively easily in 2021 free agency. Go much higher than that and the Celtics probably get queasy. Taking the Hayward hit now at least keeps him off of the books moving forward. Hayward has plenty of reason to doubt Boston’s loyalty after Danny Ainge traded Isaiah Thomas, so if he takes a below-market deal, there’s no guarantee he plays it out in Boston. This shouldn’t be viewed as extremely likely, but there may be a number that both sides can live with. 

Evan Fournier

Orlando’s situation isn’t nearly as dire as Boston’s. The Magic are approximately $10 million below the tax line before factoring in D.J. Augustin, their first-round pick or 2019 first-round pick Chuma Okeke, who has yet to sign his rookie-scale deal. Even if they paid the tax this year, there is no reason to believe they’re in repeater tax danger moving forward. But without Jonathan Isaac, this is a lottery team, and rarely do small-market owners want to pay the tax for a lottery team. 

A Fournier extension could buy them some breathing room. He’s slated to make $17 million this season, but he’s only 27 and the Magic would probably prefer to keep him anyway. He could drop down to $14 million, but get over $81 million guaranteed in a five-year deal. Remember that Florida has no state income tax, so that money is more valuable than it would be in most markets. 

But does Fournier want to lock himself into that sort of contract with a non-contending team? He is, after all, only 27, and several contenders are positioning themselves to spend big money in 2021. Someone has to lose the Giannis Antetokounmpo sweepstakes, and when they do, a 28-year-old Fournier isn’t going to look so bad. 

The market testers

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo

The Lakers lead the NBA with a somewhat staggering five player-options to account for. No other team has more than three, but this was by design. Once the Lakers missed out on Kawhi Leonard, they planned their cap around big-game hunting in 2021, so in order to get worthwhile players to sign short-term deals, they had to give out an inordinate amount of options. We’ve already covered Davis. JaVale McGee should opt-in at $4.2 million. The backup center market is loaded and he would be unlikely to get more than the minimum elsewhere (or, frankly, in Los Angeles). The other three are more complicated. 

The Lakers were mocked for overpaying Caldwell-Pope three offseasons in a row. Now? He’s the best 3-and-D guard on the market, and his $8.5 million player-option is no longer close to market value. With full Bird Rights, the Lakers could give him another hefty one-year deal, but doing so has major short-term drawbacks. The Lakers have a tightrope to walk if they plan to use the full Mid-Level Exception, and giving Caldwell-Pope a long-term deal is their best chance of limiting his immediate salary. That takes them out of the running for 2021 cap space, though, so what the Lakers do with KCP will be a test of their priorities: defend the championship, or build a new one. If the Lakers don’t pay Caldwell-Pope, it’s not hard to imagine Cleveland, New York or Phoenix doing so. The full Mid-Level Exception for four years is probably the floor. 

Bradley’s case is more debatable. Before the pandemic, he was a near-lock to opt-out. At 29, he doesn’t have too many more opportunities to cash in, and he just had his best defensive season since leaving Boston by far. But his momentum is gone after skipping the bubble, and now, the Lakers know for a fact that they can win a championship without him. Should he opt-out, the Lakers could only use their Non-Bird Rights to give him a 120 percent raise, barring use of their exceptions. It’s no certainty that he even gets that. With that being the case, it seems likelier than not that Bradley opts in and secures another $5 million to compete for a championship in Los Angeles. 

Rondo is a mystery. In cap terms, he’s a fairly rare case. Despite making the minimum last season, the Lakers can pay him almost $10 million next season using Early Bird Rights because he originally signed with them during the 2018 offseason. The question is how willing they are to touch that number, and how much Rondo cares about money at all at this stage in his career. In fairness, he’s largely been underpaid. He’s made less in his career than players like Wesley Matthews and Thaddeus Young, according to Spotrac. What does the market think he’s worth, though? Few teams can afford to spend their Mid-Level Exception on a player who hibernates through the regular season, but on a contender, he more than makes up for it in the playoffs. The Lakers have the question of their own Mid-Level Exception to consider here as well. Paying Rondo as much as possible takes them close enough to a hard cap to effectively prevent them from using the Non-Taxpayer version. 

There’s game theory at play here. What each of them do affects the others, who are all in turn affected by whatever the Lakers have planned for this offseason. Any of them could leave or stay, but in a perfect world, the Lakers would like to keep all three, either through their existing contracts or on new ones to spring out of these options. 

Jerami Grant

Aside from Davis, no single player is likelier to opt-out than Grant. At $9.3 million, his player-option is just barely above the Mid-Level Exception. There is no universe in which he is not offered that much by someday, and realistically, he is going to make substantially more. Grant is only 26. He’s been among the NBA’s more versatile defenders for years now. He’s quietly made 39 percent of his 3-pointers over the past two seasons, and he just averaged 16 points per game in the Western Conference finals. Every cap space team wants him. 

The Nuggets are the overwhelming favorites to keep him, and fortunately, they have full Bird Rights. But there is a line in the sand somewhere. They’re looking at around $31 million in wiggle room below the tax line to sign some combination of Grant, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig. If keeping Grant means losing one of them, so be it. But there is a number they’ll walk away from with max contracts owed to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray with Michael Porter only a year away from extension-eligibility. That number should be around $20 million per year, though, so unless Atlanta wants to pay out the nose for Grant, he’s probably staying put. 

Tim Hardaway Jr. 

Everybody knew that the Mavericks got the best player in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. That was a given. It’s why we call it the Porzingis trade. Amazingly, though, Dallas scooped up the second-best player in the deal as well, and they got him as a cap dump. Dallas got Porzingis largely based on its willingness to take Hardaway, and then Hardaway averaged nearly 16 points per game on some of the best 3-point shooting numbers in basketball. 

There is almost no chance those numbers sustain. Hardaway was a below-average shooter for his career and hit only 34 percent of his attempts during the 2018-19 season. Then he jumped to nearly 40 percent. Some of that is the Luka Doncic effect. Some of it is luck. Hardaway will never make $19 million in a season again, but he’s only 27 and coming off of a career year. Someone would offer him a long-term deal. 

That team wouldn’t be Dallas. The Mavericks are keeping their powder dry for a 2021 run at Giannis Antetokounmpo, so if Hardaway wants to stay put, he’s opting-in. At his salary, that’s entirely defensible, and few players are more reliable numbers boosters than Doncic. Hardaway could have another big year and find a bigger deal in a better market. That’s the likeliest outcome, but don’t be surprised if Hardaway cashes in on his best season as a pro. 

Wesley Matthews Jr.

Minimum-salary players are fairly hard to predict. In most cases, they made the minimum for a reason, and options at the minimum make more sense than venturing out into the market and either not getting a similar offer or getting one from a less desirable team. There will be unlisted minimum-salary players that decide to opt-out (with Austin Rivers almost getting a spot on this list), but the group as a whole is so unpredictable that most aren’t worth predicting. 

Matthews is the exception because he wasn’t forced to take the minimum, he chose to do so. Had he pursued a market-value contract in 2019, he likely would have approached eight figures in annual salary. But he grew up in Wisconsin, attended Marquette and wanted to win a championship, so he took the minimum to start for the Bucks. He may well do so again, but at 34, he’s running out of time to get one last payday. 

Someone would give him the Mid-Level Exception for one or two years. The Bucks might. Financially speaking, Matthews has no compelling reason to opt into his deal. If he does so, it will be for a combination of sentimental and competitive reasons.