The NBA players about to be overpaid in 2020 free agency

Ben Rohrbach
·11 min read

The NBA and its players’ association agreed in principle on a series of provisions to the existing collective bargaining agreement on Monday night. Barring an unlikely disapproval from the league’s Board of Governors, that will set in motion a calendar that now includes the opening of free agency in just 10 days.

The two sides agreed to flatten the salary cap and luxury tax at this past season’s respective figures of $109.1 million and $132.7 million. Those levels will increase annually no less than three percent and no more than 10 percent for the remainder of the CBA, which extends through either 2023 or 2024, depending on whether either side opts out a year early. That is no small adjustment for teams that entered this past season with projections that the cap would increase to $116 million this year and $125 million for 2021-22.

The margin for error has slimmed, and while front offices have had months to prepare for this coronavirus pandemic-induced shortfall, the dates come fast and furious now. Free agency opens two days after the Nov. 18 draft, and training camps open less than two weeks later. With no stars on the open market, teams will need to be more prudent than ever, and that has never been a strong suit of NBA general managers. An expedited process could force even more expedient decisions that will impact teams for years to come.

That is a recipe for overpaid free agents. Here are the likely candidates for those outsized contracts.

Remarkably, Danilo Gallinari might be the most coveted NBA player in 2020 free agency. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Remarkably, Danilo Gallinari might be the most coveted NBA player in 2020 free agency. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The best players in a starless market

Potential candidates: Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Davis Bertans, Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted)

Outside of Anthony Davis, who is worth whatever he wants from the Los Angeles Lakers, there is no franchise player on the unrestricted free-agent market. There is not even another All-Star beyond Brandon Ingram, a restricted free agent who will re-sign with the New Orleans Pelicans for the max or close to it.

In a market with a handful of teams that have cap space, at least a few of the handful of players who are very good but not quite great are sure to be paid like stars. The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks can create in excess of $40 million in cap space, and both need to overpay to attract anyone of significance. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets, who can also free up close to max cap space.

Gallinari is the most likely candidate to get a mega-deal. He is coming off a three-year, $65 million contract and will not be looking for a pay cut. His shooting at 6-foot-10 is a weapon for modern offenses. Over the past five seasons, he has averaged 18.8 points (44/40/89 shooting splits), 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He is also 32 years old, with a lengthy injury history, and has never played beyond the first round of the playoffs. Handing him a whole lot of money is a risk that comes with a ceiling that falls below star level.

Ibaka is a similar case. He is 31 years old, coming off a career year. Ibaka was a key cog in the Toronto Raptors’ success this past season, contributing as a fourth option offensively and a defensive anchor in some of their more versatile lineups. He found a role much like the one he had on the title-contending Oklahoma City Thunder and was well worth the $65 million he was paid over the past three years. But luring Ibaka from Toronto likely means paying him commensurate with a role for which he is not best suited.

Bertans and Bogdanovic are also high-quality third or fourth options who could be paid like secondary stars. They served similar roles on teams that failed to make the playoffs, but at 28 years old, there is reason to believe they could be foundational pieces of far better teams in the right situation. Both are snipers, the former a stretch forward and the latter a 6-foot-6 wing, and those are valuable commodities in this era — valuable enough for teams with cap space to become convinced they are worth overpaying.

Would Gordon Hayward really turn down $32 million to enter free agency? (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Would Gordon Hayward really turn down $32 million to enter free agency? (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Anyone who opts out of big money right now

Potential candidates: Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, Kelly Olynyk, Jerami Grant

Outside of Davis, none of the other high-paid players with an option for the 2020-21 season are worth what they would be giving up by opting out. You can bet Otto Porter Jr. and Nicolas Batum will not be turning down their respective $26.6 and $24 million options, for example. But not all are so clear in their intention.

There have been some rumblings that Hayward may not be completely happy with his role on the Boston Celtics. He would have to turn down a guaranteed $32 million deal to sign elsewhere this offseason. Doing so would come with the certainty that he will make that money back over the course of his next contract.

The gruesome ankle injury he suffered six minutes into his Celtics career has prevented him from reaching his All-Star form in Boston, and he has fallen behind the team’s young playmakers on the depth chart. When healthy this past season, Hayward was an efficiency monster, averaging an 18-7-4 on 50/38/86 shooting splits. That may have been enough to convince a team like Atlanta that Hayward is still worth max money, capable of handling higher usage and the missing piece to the franchise’s middling playoff hopes.

The NBA’s grim financial landscape may have softened DeRozan’s previous stance on declining his $27.7 million option for the coming season. There are only so many teams who can create that kind of cap space, and each one of them — save for the Miami Heat — is miles from contention. Is a championship-starved 31-year-old four-time All-Star really going to opt out of max money to play for another lottery team, even if he is less than thrilled with the San Antonio Spurs? Only if he knows he will be paid a boatload of money.

This is why Drummond has already revealed he “definitely will be in Cleveland” on his $28.8 million salary. He knows that money is not coming back to him in free agency. Reversing course would mean some team of interest has communicated through backchannels that it would be willing to pay him beaucoup bucks.

On a smaller scale, you can be sure that free agents like Olynyk and Grant — both of whom played important roles for teams making deep playoff runs — will not be declining their respective $12.5 and $9.1 million options without knowing more is coming on the open market. Grant is the more likely candidate to opt out, because his positional versatility will surely attract multiple suitors willing to pay him more, leveraging the Denver Nuggets into a raise, perhaps even one hefty enough to exceed his actual value.

Rajon Rondo's championship contributions are already generating more free-agency interest for the former All-Star. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Rajon Rondo's championship contributions are already generating more free-agency interest for the former All-Star. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The Lakers supporting cast

Potential candidates: Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris

LeBron James and Anthony Davis extracted every ounce of value from the combined $15 million the Los Angeles Lakers paid Rondo, Caldwell-Pope, Howard and Morris. There is no other situation in the NBA where Rondo and Caldwell-Pope would warrant an argument about who was the third-best player on a title team. Yet, all four role-playing Lakers now have that championship sheen to them entering free agency.

Having seen what those veterans contributed, there are plenty of general managers who will tell themselves that Rondo, Howard and Morris are worth more than the veteran minimum contracts they got from the Lakers, or that Caldwell-Pope’s Finals performance is worth to them the $37 million the Lakers paid him the past three seasons. Only, other teams do not have James and Davis to extract those players’ peak value.

The L.A. Clippers have already expressed interest in Rondo, per The New York Times’ Marc Stein, and he may well be able to do for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George what he did for the Lakers. He will also turn 35 years old in February and has missed significant time due to injury in nine of his last 10 seasons. Rondo had practically played himself out of the league before resurrecting his career as a complementary veteran on these Lakers. Likewise for Howard. Paying them much more to replicate those efforts is wishful thinking.

Fred VanVleet has been one of the NBA's best bargains. That could change this offseason. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Fred VanVleet has been one of the NBA's best bargains. That could change this offseason. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Contributors who contenders cannot afford to lose

Potential candidates: Goran Dragic, Fred VanVleet, Joe Harris, Montrezl Harrell

Like the Lakers, plenty of other teams also cannot afford to lose key contributors to their title hopes. The list is much longer than the names above, but the threat of Dragic, VanVleet, Harris or Harrell leaving his current situation could mean the difference between a championship or not on the Heat, Raptors, Nets or Clippers.

Do not be surprised if Dragic returns to Miami on a one-year deal that pays him more than the $19.2 million he earned this past season. That investment is worth holding the Heat’s Finals core together while keeping their cap sheet clear to pursue bigger names in 2021. If another suitor needed to extend the same money over multiple seasons, that would require overpaying a 34-year-old coming off a serious non-contact injury.

The other three on this list are all in ideal situations that push their values higher than they might be to another team. VanVleet has thrived on a Toronto roster flushed with enough talent to create space for him offensively and mask his limitations at 6-foot-1. Harris is a sharpshooter who should complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving perfectly. And Harrell is a Sixth Man of the Year whose offensive prowess is largely tied to Lou Williams’ playmaking ability. Paying any one of them to fill a greater role may be a mistake.

At the same time, there will be teams interested in signing these key cogs away from contenders, and that will force their current teams to decide whether it is more costly to lose them than to outbid their real value.

Christian Wood quietly earned himself a healthy raise with his performance on the Detroit Pistons. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Wood quietly earned himself a healthy raise with his performance on the Detroit Pistons. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Solid role players in a bidding war

Potential candidates: Christian Wood, Jordan Clarkson, Aron Baynes, Jae Crowder, Malik Beasley (restricted), Marcus Morris, Justin Holiday

With so few teams capable of creating cap space in the eight figures, the midlevel exception from non-luxury taxpaying teams — a starting salary as high as $9.3 million — will be the big prize for remaining free agents. That could pay out as much as $40 million over the next four years, no small chunk of change given the NBA’s uncertain financial future. But even the list of quality role players is short with this year’s class.

Smart teams will be looking to find players who can fill similar roles to a Harris or Harrell for MLE money. There are also more smart teams than ever before, and competition for those players will raise the stakes.

Wood is a fascinating case. Waived by the New Orleans Pelicans prior to this past season, the 25-year-old big man signed a minimum contract with the Detroit Pistons and played his way to what should be a sizable raise. Over the final month of that deal, Wood averaged 24.2 points (on 57/39/74 shooting splits) and 9.8 rebounds. He will have a line of teams offering the non-taxpayer MLE and possibly more. His departure would be a blow to a Pistons team already devoid of talent, and they may have to overpay just to keep him.

Clarkson, Crowder and Baynes can all be re-signed by employing Bird Rights, which allow their current teams to exceed the cap and outbid competitors. Minnesota can also match any offer Beasley receives. Re-signing them to multi-year contracts could create financial issues down the line. Clarkson and Beasley would push the small-market Jazz and Timberwolves closer to the luxury tax, while the Heat and Suns want to maintain flexibility for a superior 2021 free-agency class (and Baynes is a bit redundant in Phoenix).

Every player on this list, including Morris and Holiday, comes with question marks about his ability to consistently contribute in line with their production in this past contract year. With only one MLE to play with — at a significant cost in this market — nailing that signing is a must. It can also feel like a crapshoot.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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