NBA: What will teams do with their 2021 cap space now?

With the 2021 NBA free-agent class quickly depleting, teams who hoarded cap space will have to pivot off their initial plans

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and Paul George all extended or re-signed with their current teams which will lock them up for several years and takes them off the market headed into the 2021 NBA offseason.

You can say what you will about the length, value, and reasoning of the contracts, but the deals are done and they’re no longer changing situations.

This came as a shock to several franchises who had purposely been planning their salary sheets so that there was enough space to fit a max free agent, Giannis being the most important out of all of them with his standing in the league.

So, if you’re the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, or Dallas Mavericks, three teams each with reported interest in the Greek Freak, what do you do now?

On top of that, teams like the New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Cleveland Cavaliers among others will find themselves naturally creating a large amount of cap space. But all this does is add more names to the NBA’s musical chairs game. Now there are fewer chairs to go around.

Here are some avenues the teams can pursue with their new situation:

NBA restricted free agency

While the upcoming unrestricted free agency class took a hit with the extensions, the restricted class definitely didn’t and there are a few names on the list who you can see will benefit greatly from these teams being flush with cash.

Going in descending order from their salary this year, you have: Lonzo Ball, Lauri Markkanen, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Zach Collins, Nicolo Melli, and then notable names from later in the draft include John Collins, Jarrett Allen, and Josh Hart.

Now the deal with restricted free agency is that if one of these players finds a contract elsewhere, the original team will have three days to decide whether they want to match the offer, keeping them on the team, or decline and let their young player walk. This tends to end in one of three ways; first, the player realizes there isn’t much of a market for their skills outside of the one situation or the player gets overpaid on an offer elsewhere and they end up overpaid on one of the two teams.

A good example of this in practice is when then-Portland Trail Blazer Allen Crabbe signed a four-year, $75 million offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets, a team that had nothing else to do with their cap space and wanted to take a flier on a young prospect. Portland matched the offer, bringing back their wing on what quickly became one of the least-desirable contracts in the league.

(Side note: the Nets eventually traded for Crabbe during the life of that contract. Never give up on your dreams kids).

Crabbe wasn’t worth the $75 million he was given and that makes sense now but at the time it was believable to think he could grow into a better player than he was in a bigger role. You had to squint really hard but yes, it was possible.

What’s to say one of these teams can’t look at Lonzo Ball, John Collins, or Lauri Markkanen and think there’s room for growth?

The only cause for concern is that if you’re going to pay them a large-enough contract for the initial team to decline, you’re making a bet on the player that they’ll grow into (and maybe beyond) it.

ESPN’s and The Hoop Collective’s Brian Windhorst reported that John Collins turned down a $90 million contract from the Atlanta Hawks with the idea that he deserves more.

Lonzo and the New Orleans Pelicans “remain positive” that the two can come to an agreement next offseason according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but if they’re so positive, how come it wasn’t done before the deadline?

And who knows what Markkanen thinks he’s worth as NBC Sports Chicago’s KC Johnson says:

“[Chicago Bulls and Markkanen] were never close on a deal”.

Sign an NBA player that isn’t an MVP and DPOY

Due to the tampering rules, we don’t know for certain that Miami, Toronto, and Dallas all cleared their cap space to pursue two-time Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo since he’s on a different team. But we can pretty well assume they didn’t clear their space for DeMar DeRozan.

Assuming Kawhi Leonard, who has a player option for the 2021-22 season, stays with the LA Clippers in some capacity and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin pick up their options, the best players available are quickly deteriorating.

The top names on the list are DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Andre Drummond, Otto Porter Jr., Jrue Holiday (player option), LaMarcus Aldridge, Mike Conley, Victor Oladipo, Dennis Schroder, Evan Fournier, Spencer Dinwiddie, Montrezl Harrell (PO), Norman Powell (PO), and Lou Williams to name a few.

The only player on that list who’s under 30 and has “superstar potential” is Victor Oladipo, a player who has had his ups and downs with the Indiana Pacers so far. His 2020-21 campaign has gotten off to a great start so far and many are saying he’s back to the Oladipo we saw two seasons ago when he won the Most Improved Player award.

Imagining Victor alongside Luka Doncic in Dallas, Jimmy Butler in Miami and Pascal Siakam in Toronto (assuming the Raptors turns things around from their early-season struggles) is exciting.

But if one of these playoff teams with cap space miss out on Oladipo, where do they turn? Most of the other players are on the wrong side of 30 and if a team approaches one of the lesser free agents, they’re going to know that there’s the opportunity to offer them more money if they don’t want to overpay.

For example, I don’t believe Montrezl Harrell is worthy of a max contract. More than he’s on now with the Los Angeles Lakers, but not max-worthy. It’d be hard for one of these teams to offer him a lesser contract, especially since he spurned the Clippers for not offering him what he wanted.

Sit on your hands and don’t waste it

Just because a team wanted to sign (potentially) the best player in the world in Giannis, it doesn’t mean they have to still go out and spend the money.

We’re seeing just how threatening a good playoff team with cap space can be to the rest of the league. The Milwaukee Bucks overpaid on the trade market for Jrue Holiday in the eyes of some as a way to show Giannis how committed they are to winning and putting a contender around him.

Yes, in the case of Luka Doncic it’s now or never with an inevitable max extension coming to Luka in two years but in the case of Miami and Toronto, they can either go for a win-now move by signing one of the aging players, look to bolster their young talent on the restricted free agency market or wait and see what the trade market looks like a year from now. Nobody would’ve known James Harden was requesting a trade before he did.

And in the case of the cap space teams who aren’t in the playoff picture right now. When/if a superstar does request a trade, there’s the possibility of salary dumping, meaning a team can sit there and wait for the load up on bad money with the payment being assets.

It’s not the end of the world for the 2021 free agency class but if I had to say anything, it’d be that some restricted free agents are about to see a whole lot of money thrown their way.