The NBA’s vaunted free-agency class of 2021 is not so vaunted anymore, especially now that Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has signed a supermax extension well beyond the coming year.
For the few teams that felt they had a realistic shot at convincing the two-time reigning MVP to join them — namely the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Toronto Raptors — all that planning goes by the wayside. The salaries that were shed, the contracts that were not extended beyond this season, the moves that were and were not made to ensure salary cap flexibility next year, they were based on a prayer that went unanswered.
Antetokounmpo was a pipe dream for most teams, from the Los Angeles Lakers and their embarrassment of riches to the New York Knicks and their embarrassment to riches. But for savvy front offices in Miami, Dallas and Toronto, they felt they had a real shot at convincing Antetokounmpo he was their missing piece.
And they acted accordingly. The Heat’s attempt to land Danilo Gallinari at the February trade deadline fell through because Pat Riley was unwilling to offer the talented forward an extension beyond 2021. Who knows what impact he might have had on their run to Game 6 of the Finals. The Mavericks salary dumped Delon Wright for James Johnson’s expiring contract. And the Raptors lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to free agency because they too were unwilling to commit to their incumbent bigs beyond this coming season.
The cap space they preserved can still be used, but the ceiling for August 2021 and beyond got lowered. Paying max money to a Victor Oladipo or Rudy Gobert is not just less appetizing, but borderline inedible. So, what is Plan B for the three teams that had a far clearer blueprint for title contention a few days ago?
The Heat’s maximum extension offer to All-Star center Bam Adebayo was the first sign of serious doubt from Miami that it would be the landing spot for Antetokounmpo. Extending Adebayo now rather than later meant the difference between entering 2021 free agency with max money or roughly $25 million in space.
Granted, the Heat can still work a sign-and-trade for a star player who wants to join them in Miami, but parting with the assets it would require to clear the space for a max player is less appealing when Oladipo is the prize instead of Antetokounmpo. It may still be worth the cost to add a third star of any ilk alongside Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, considering how close they came to winning a championship without one.
But the free-agent talent pool is shallow if Kawhi Leonard returns to the Los Angeles Clippers. Remember, Leonard reached out to Jimmy Butler about a potential partnership in L.A. before the focus turned to Paul George, so recreating that scenario is not out of the question if the chemistry on the Clippers remains sour.
Oladipo’s reported interest in the Heat is well-documented. Now that Antetokounmpo is off the table, Miami may be less hesitant to chase Oladipo if he returns to All-Star form two years removed from knee surgery.
Beyond Leonard and Oladipo, the pickings are slim. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will opt into the final year of their deals. Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap are past their primes. Gobert and Andre Drummond do not make sense alongside Adebayo, as DeMar DeRozan does not next to Butler. Absent a breakout season from Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz, there is not a restricted free agent to overpay.
Here is a fun option: Jrue Holiday, the recent Milwaukee acquisition who owns a player option for the 2021-22 season. If you cannot have Antetokounmpo, you might as well make life more difficult for his Bucks, and Holiday would be a fascinating fit both with Miami’s star players and as part of the Heat’s vaunted culture.
There is always the chance the Heat could split their $25 million-plus among several players. The 2021 class is filled with solid role players. Dennis Schroder, Evan Fournier, Will Barton, Patty Mills, Spencer Dinwiddie, Norman Powell, P.J. Tucker and Lou Williams, to name a few. None of them move the needle enough to make Miami a title favorite, but a couple could help if Butler powers another improbable run.
Now, the elephant in the room: James Harden. With LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Antetokounmpo all committing longterm, it could be some time before a paradigm-shifting talent becomes available. The Heat are on Harden’s short list of preferred trade destinations, and they can build a decent offer to the Houston Rockets centered around Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and a pair of first-round draft picks. Harden is not what you would call the ideal Heat Culture fit, but if he ever bought in, man, they would be a serious threat.
Do you sacrifice the depth that made you a finalist this year for a guy who has continually clashed with his superstar partners and often fallen short of playoff expectations? Riley has no qualms about chasing rings.
The Mavs’ interest in a third star to pair with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis is no secret. Harden is not that guy. His ball-dominant style would clash with Doncic’s own brand of ball control. Antetokounmpo was that guy. He would have fit seamlessly on the wing as another playmaker who can carry a defensive load. That international triumvirate with Doncic and Porzingis could have owned the NBA for the next decade.
But alas, the Mavericks’ free-agent plans have been foiled again. Guys like Leonard or Holiday would obviously be great fall-back options, but luring either to Dallas feels like a long shot, and neither is a great fit for the timeline of the Mavs’ two 25-and-under stars. Antetokounmpo would have been perfect, and just about every other young star around the league is signed for the longterm. Potential partners are limited.
And so are the Mavericks. While they are rich with talented players, they have little to offer in a trade for a star. They do not even have a first-round pick before 2025 to deal. That leaves them off the table if and when someone like Bradley Beal becomes available. And they cannot continue rolling cap space year over year, because Doncic will be due for a max contract extension starting in 2022. This is their time to spend.
The Mavs are not without options. They, too, could allocate their 2021 cap space to multiple role players. Given Doncic’s rapid ascendance, that may be enough to make them a perennial contender, unless they become convinced that Porziginis — out to start the season with a second knee surgery in three years — is not the championship-caliber second star they imagined. He could still be the anchor of a deal for someone Dallas could have more faith in, like Beal or the next disgruntled star to demand a trade (i.e., Joel Embiid).
Doncic will be competing for MVPs in the near future, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban knows full well how hard it is to surround a generational talent with more stars in Dallas. His best swing at that will come in 2021, and it would be a shame if the Mavs fail to find talent worthy of their $35 million in space.
Toronto’s concerns are less pressing and possibly less consequential. The Raptors have also not been a popular free-agent destination. President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri had developed close ties to Antetokounmpo, which made Toronto a possibility. Ujiri’s history with Leonard leaves open the possibility of a reunion, but beyond that unlikely scenario pitching Toronto over Miami is a tough sell to NBA players.
Pascal Siakam is an All-NBA performer but not one who can be the best player on a championship team. Only he and Fred VanVleet are signed beyond 2021 for less than half the projected salary cap. OG Anunoby will warrant a healthy raise, but not one so hefty that it will break the bank, barring the positive development of a breakout season that commands one. Toronto should be able to maintain cap flexibility going forward, although that could mean the loss of quality players like Norman Powell and franchise mainstay Kyle Lowry.
Re-signing Powell and Lowry or trading their expiring contracts for longer-term assets are also possibilities now that the allure of Antetokounmpo is gone. It might even be likely without a superstar awaiting in 2021. That would keep Toronto a star away from contention, with plenty of tradable assets to make a move. Heck, the Raptors could enter the fray for Harden right now with a package that might have to include Siakam.
Ujiri is as sound a decision-maker as there is in the NBA, and that means the Raptors will be fine. They may not be great without Antetokounmpo in the picture, but they will be ready when an opportunity rises again.
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