The NBA just pulled off one of the most remarkable feats in league history, successfully hosting a 22-team race to the end of the 2019-20 season inside a self-imposed bubble on the Walt Disney World campus in the coronavirus hotbed of Orlando, Florida, without a single positive test among its players.
At the end of a 12-month season, the league’s premier franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, captured the 2020 championship, and its premier player, LeBron James, took home Finals MVP honors. L.A. rejoice.
Everyone else’s attention now turns to the hope of a 2020-21 season, which will almost surely be held entirely in 2021. We have you covered with everything there is to know about the upcoming draft, free agency and trade market, complete with a best guess as to when we will see a reshaped league again.
When is the 2020 NBA draft?
The NBA and its players’ union announced last month that the 2020 NBA draft — originally scheduled for June 25, and then tentatively moved to Oct. 16 prior to the restart — will now be held on Nov. 18.
Teams can conduct in-person interviews with prospects starting Friday until Nov. 16, according to ESPN. Potential draftees will reportedly have the option to participate in on-court workouts for multiple teams. Front offices were previously limited to virtual interviews and live or taped video feeds of player workouts.
Who are the best players in the draft?
There is no consensus No. 1 pick, not the way Zion Williamson was the clear choice last year, and this year’s draft is considered relatively weak on high-end talent. Mock drafts reshuffle the top prospects on a semi-regular basis, and almost every one of them comes with a red flag or two concerning their potential.
LaMelo Ball is No. 1 in Yahoo Sports draft expert Krysten Peek’s latest mock. After leaving high school at age 16 in October 2017, Ball has played professionally in Lithuania and Australia, sandwiched around a prep season at the SPIRE Institute. Every stint was covered in the drama that follows his controversial father, LaVar Ball. Like his older brother, New Orleans Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball, the 6-foot-7, 180-pound LaMelo is also considered an elite ball-handler and passer who struggles with his shooting ability.
University of Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards, who has drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade and Donovan Mitchell, has been a top prospect since high school. The 6-foot-5 (6-9 wingspan), 225-pound guard averaged 19.1 points (on 40/29/77 shooting splits), 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.9 combined blocks and steals in 33 minutes per game for a Bulldogs team that finished a disappointing 16-16.
James Wiseman, the 7-foot-1 top-ranked prep recruit in the Class of 2019, is on the rise again after an eligibility battle cost him all but three games in college and his stock fell in the absence of evaluation. Once-heralded prospects Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton have respectively slipped into the middle of the first round after disappointing years at North Carolina and in Australia, according to prognosticators.
That leaves a collection of players who could make their way into the draft’s top echelon: 22-year-old Obi Toppin, wildly improved Iowa State sophomore Tyrese Haliburton, Israeli forward Deni Avdija, French point guard Killian Hayes, Nigerian-American forwards Onyeka Okongwu and Isaac Okoro, rising 3-and-D prospect Devin Vassell and Florida State athletic marvel Patrick Williams, among other names.
The combination of an unclear hierarchy and the restrictions forced by the coronavirus pandemic could make for a crapshoot of a lottery come draft time. Front offices have their hands full over the next moth.
When is free agency?
The NBA has yet to set a date for free agency, largely because the league’s finances are in such flux. The window has traditionally opened in the week following the draft. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told The Athletic’s Shams Charania that she expects free agency to begin no later than Dec. 1.
Neither the NBA or the players’ association wants to see the salary cap dip below the 2019-20 figure of $109 million, and the league cut its projected cap for next season from $115 to $114 million in June. Now that the season is complete, the NBA can begin poring through its finances to determine just how much revenue it lost during the pandemic and just how much it expects to fall short of expectations next year.
Who are the top free agents?
Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis is the top unrestricted free agent in the 2020 class, but anything besides returning to L.A. would come as a shock. Likewise, All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, who was traded for Davis last year, is the top restricted free agent, and he is expected to re-sign with the Pelicans.
A number of other established stars — Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan and Andre Drummond — will have decisions to make on their max-salaried player options for next season. Only a handful of teams are projected to enter free agency with significant cap space, per Yahoo Sports cap expert Keith Smith: the Atlanta Hawks ($43.2 million), New York Knicks ($41.5 million), Detroit Pistons ($28.2 million), Charlotte Hornets ($22.5 million), Miami Heat ($20.9 million) and Phoenix Suns ($18.9 million). It would be stunning for any of those teams to match the options those former All-Stars already own for 2020-21.
That leaves a shallow talent pool at the top of this free-agency class. Nobody is worth a max salary. Veteran forward Danilo Gallinari might be the best unrestricted free agent available, followed by Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell. Davis Bertans and Christian Wood are also ripe for being overpaid. Oft-injured former All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins is an intriguing option for any team looking for high-risk, high-reward ways to counter the Lakers’ size.
Cap restraints give teams a better shot at retaining their own mid-tier free agents, and those who are looking for a change will be competing for non-taxpayer midlevel exceptions in the $10 million range. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic, Derrick Favors, Jerami Grant, Joe Harris, Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap and Marcus Morris may all be best off staying put in preferred situations.
You might then see much of the free-agent movement center on names like Jordan Clarkson, Reggie Jackson, Markieff Morris, Tristan Thompson, Hassan Whiteside and other underwhelming options.
When can players start being traded?
Players cannot be traded now. The NBA and its players’ union must first navigate several financial hurdles, collectively bargaining an addendum to their current agreement, assuming neither side wants a lockout. They have to figure out how to smooth the salary cap, so as to avoid roster chaos and undue luxury tax penalties, and determine how best to share the burden of what will be an economic downturn.
November is the new June. Expect the moratorium on trades to be lifted when those details are ironed out, presumably in the weeks leading up to the draft, when rumors customarily start circling anyhow.
Who are the big-name trade possibilities?
The trade market always features a surprise name or two, but as a general rule big-name players get moved when their age no longer falls in line with the team’s direction or their contracts are coming to an end with some uncertainty about either side’s willingness to re-sign. Several All-Stars fit that bill this year.
Take Bradley Beal, for example. The injured and supermax-salaried John Wall is borderline un-trade-able, and the Washington Wizards are going nowhere fast. They have been in steep decline since losing Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals, and they should now be thinking towards 2023, when Wall’s deal comes off the books. That means shopping Beal now for assets that can help in that future.
Chris Paul was the catalyst for a storybook Oklahoma City Thunder season, but they maxed out as first-round fodder for the Western Conference’s elite. The goal for OKC should be building around 22-year-old rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with the cache of assets they received in exchange for Paul George and Russell Westbrook. The Philadelphia 76ers are a logical landing spot for Paul’s win-now services.
Likewise, the Indiana Pacers may have reached their ceiling as a frisky Eastern Conference also-ran. Myles Turner could be the odd man out in an awkward frontcourt fit with All-Star center Domantas Sabonis. Even more intriguing is speculation that All-Star guard Victor Oladipo may want out of Indiana. He is entering the final year of his deal, and the Pacers cannot afford to lose him for nothing in 2021.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, the San Antonio Spurs finally appear ready to embrace a rebuild around an underrated young core. That should mean placing veteran stars DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on the trading block. Neither fit into the Spurs’ future, and both will be entering the final years of their contracts, assuming DeRozan picks up his $27.7 million player option.
Jrue Holiday is in a similar scenario with the New Orleans Pelicans. He has two years left on his deal, and his talent and leadership could help the young Pelicans make a playoff push next season, so there is less urgency around trading him. However, Holiday could also be the missing piece for a championship contender, and New Orleans may be able to bolster their bright future with the right return for Holiday.
Then, there is Paul George, whose injury history, recent postseason failures and post-playoff upset comments have raised doubts about his ability to help Kawhi Leonard lead the L.A. Clippers to a title.
Elsewhere, the Brooklyn Nets could pursue a bona fide third star around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, using Caris LeVert and/or Spencer Dinwiddie as trade bait. The Houston Rockets may be looking to shed salary and retail around James Harden, which could mean moving Eric Gordon and even Russell Westbrook. The Sacramento Kings’ relationship with Buddy Hield appears to be souring. The Orlando Magic’s reliance on Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier may have run its course to a middling end.
As for those surprise names, we have yet to mention two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose commitment to the Milwaukee Bucks ends in 2021 and comes with the caveat that they build a true contender around him. That could also mean upgrading from Eric Bledsoe and/or Khris Middleton.
Similarly, the Sixers should try to make the misfit tandem of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons work under new coach Doc Rivers, giving both another year before one enters the rumor mill in earnest. Instead, Al Horford and Tobias Harris are more likely to be shopped for better fitting pieces around their two stars.
When will the next NBA season start?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s “best guess” is that next season will not start until at least January, now that the ideal date of Christmas has become increasingly under the weight of an uncertain future.
Roberts suggested Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18 would be “symbolically fantastic” as the start date for a league prioritizing social justice, and her comments fall in line with veteran players who have publicly pointed to late January and early February as more realistic possibilities for a return to the court.
There is also some speculation that the start of next season could be pushed to March. Owners are eager to get fans in the stands and recoup lost revenue, and further delaying the restart would only increase the likelihood that the coronavirus pandemic subsides enough to maximize ticket sales.
In other words, we do not know for sure when we will see the NBA again, which brings us back to the pre-bubble days of waiting for players and owners to come to an agreement while watching “The Last Dance” and classic games. At least we have the draft, free agency and trades to tide us over this time.
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