Twenty-eight days ago, you could click on the Instagram app on your smartphone and attend the live-streamed celebration of any one of numerous Los Angeles Lakers as they popped champagne bottles and smoked cigars amidst their post-championship glory. Less than two weeks from now, sixty prospects will be fortunate enough to hear their names called on draft night. Assuming everything is kosher as the collective bargaining negotiations wrap up, free agency is supposed to open within the three days following draft night. All of that is fairly normal. It is what happens before that that makes the 2020 offseason so unprecedented.
The NBA is planning to lift its trade prohibition in the days prior to the NBA draft. Historically, the prohibition is lifted for each team upon the end of their seasons. The non-playoff teams can strike deals with other non-playoff teams after the regular season is complete. Playoff teams can begin to make trades with non-playoff teams or other eliminated teams once they are eliminated, themselves. This year, due to the undefined timeline and the uncertainty about revenues caused by the pandemic, the trading prohibition was universal for all teams until a provision could be agreed upon in the collective bargaining negotiations for the upcoming season. To tighten the timeline even further, and to make things even more unprecedented, the season is expected to begin the week of Christmas. That means the universal NBA offseason is going to fall well short of a ninety-day total. Training camp is expected to open the first week of December; in other words, teams will want to have the majority of their rosters filled within the next thirty days–and not a singular transaction has been made yet.
NBA draft picks typically carry more trade value if dealt prior to the draft, as the receiving team has the liberty to choose their selection. With the upcoming draft class particularly weak, and at least two teams (Minnesota and Golden State) seemingly interested in moving their top-5 picks, the trade market figures to be active for the top of the draft class. The Golden State Warriors are of particular interest, as they could look to find a prospect to groom as a pillar for the next era of Warriors basketball, or they could go all in and package that pick to acquire another star-level piece for their last hoorah. Beyond those two teams, with very few prospects consensus locks at any pick in the first round, teams very well could look to trade back for additional assets. The trade market is likely to be active, especially for packages involving first round picks in this year’s draft, as soon as the transaction prohibition is lifted.
That brings us to the draft, itself, which will look like this:
Nearly one-third of the teams in the league have more than the standard two selections in the draft. Four of the nine teams have legitimate playoff aspirations. They will look to add pieces that are ready to win, not pieces in need of long-term growth plans. Those teams will look to alleviate themselves of negative contracts, and they could look to use one of their numerous picks as currency to incentivize teams with cap room to take on their bad moneys.
That leads us to free agency. The league’s salary cap is expected to remain at $109 million headed into the 2020 season. With free agency opening roughly two weeks from now, and all transactions remaining halted until the days leading up to the draft, there is an unprecedented small window for teams to clear requisite cap space for new contracts. Fortunately–at least to some extent–this free agency class is weak, with only three players in the conversation for max contracts (the fourth would be De’Aaron Fox, but the Kings would be smart to pick up his team option instead of offering a max contract in this economy). Even without the lucrative free agent market, there are numerous players who will undoubtedly be asking for contracts paying $15-20 million annually. That becomes a painful pill to swallow when considering that there are only ten teams projected to have at least $10 million in cap space (under the assumption that all thirty teams renounce their cap holds, team options declined, and non-guaranteed contracts waived). Any salary capped sport is likely to suffer from the pandemic, as the leagues count on year-over-year salary cap growth to balance maintaining financial health with fielding competitive teams. The NBA in particular will feel that burden.
Teams will need to shed bad money to free up space for trades and/or free agents. Front offices will need to throw in draft picks to make it worth while for someone to take on their valueless financial commitments. The draft falls in between, and there does not seem to be a consensus on any prospect outside of the top four. By the way, training camp begins in less than a month. That adds up to one helluva a wild ride these next few weeks. My guess is that it will bleed deep into training camp, with many free agents working out independently as they figure out where they’re going to play in 2020. One thing I can say with absolute certainty is NBA agents are concerned about two things: that their clients will be victimized by trades forced by this year’s circumstances, and that their clients may make quick, rash decisions to avoid free agency dragging into the season. There is real worry that players who would not ordinarily be traded will be traded. Very few players feel completely safe from being moved. It’s a harsh reality for the league, but there’s only one thing for players, coaches, organizations, media, and fans to do: