With the NBA Finals officially in the books, it’s already time to look ahead and wonder what we’ll see from this year’s finalists, the Lakers and Heat, next season. For teams across the league–including the LA Clippers, who will hope to improve on their disappointing 2020 finish next season–knowing how the competition will shape up is an important step in assessing your needs and priorities.
An NBA season always carries a bit of unpredictability, but I’m not going to indulge in hot takes or risky predictions just yet. For now, I just want to look at the rosters of the two teams who just wrapped up in the Finals and ask whether it’s feasible that they will return to more or less the same level next season. So, while LeBron could (finally) start to seriously slow down due to age, or Bam Adebayo could take the “leap” from All-Star to superstar, we’re gonna leave that speculation to the talk shows and look at the decisions that will shape each team’s off-season.
Los Angeles Lakers
The big one
The absolute biggest variable for the Los Angeles Lakers to address this offseason is a $28.8M player option for Anthony Davis, their second star and a truly irreplaceable part of their nightly excellence on both ends of the floor.
Davis will almost certainly decline that player option, as he’s eligible for a higher salary and can lock in security via his bird rights. I seriously, seriously doubt that there’s any chance he even considers offers from other teams, instead just signing a new max to return to the Lakers (the Dallas Mavericks poaching Davis and pairing him with Luka Doncic would be the right combination of hilarious and terrifying, but I just don’t see it).
As long as nothing goes wrong, Davis will take a monster deal to stay a Laker this summer–possibly a 2+1 deal where he can opt out in the summer of 2022 and sign a new, larger maximum contract as a 10-year veteran. Either way, it would be a major surprise if he’s doing anything other than making $33M to play for the Lakers next season.
Getting the band back together
Other than the AD variable, a number of the Lakers’ role players are either going to be free agents or have player options. The team doesn’t really have a reasonable pathway to significant cap room and they won’t have a ton of tradeable contracts on the books, so look for them to try to re-sign their guys and use the mid-level exception to plug any gaps that emerge. Let’s take a look at each player’s situation:
- Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Talen Horton-Tucker are all under contract for next season. Green’s $15M expiring could be a trade piece, but the Lakers don’t have much in the way of value to attach to that contract to pull off a deal. Is Green’s expiring and Kuzma bringing back anything that great? Probably not.
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a player option worth $8.5 million. He should decline that, as he’ll be able to get a good multi-year deal after a strong showing for the champs, but in a rather dry market the Lakers should be able to use his bird rights to retain him on a reasonable deal, maybe in the 3 years, $30-36 million range.
- Avery Bradley has a player option worth $5 million. Bradley is a tricky question for the Lakers, as his (understandable) absence from the bubble left the team learning that they can win a title without him. He should decline his option, as he had a strong enough bounce-back year to get a solid multi-year deal, but the Lakers have just his non-bird rights–meaning they can pay him just under $6M next season. That might not be enough, and the Lakers might even shy away from making a commitment to Avery after winning without him.
- JaVale McGee has a player option worth $4.2 million. While McGee wasn’t a big part of the Lakers’ success in the playoffs, it’s hard to ignore that he greatly exceeded expectations this season as the team’s starter and proved that he can still be a strong positive as a rotation piece. Strong enough to turn down $4.2M for next year? It’s unclear, but even if he does the Lakers should be able to use his early bird rights (which would allow them to pay him up to $9.5M next season, far more than he’ll demand) to keep him.
- Quinn Cook has a partially-guaranteed deal worth $3,000,000 next season with a trigger date of October 17th. If waived before then, he’ll only be due $1,000,000. Cook had a pretty small role this season and doesn’t feel worth an above-minimum deal, especially since that wiggle room could help the Lakers navigate the hard cap next season if they use the full MLE. Waiving a guy the same week you won a title is harsh, but it wouldn’t surprise me here.
- Rajon Rondo has a player option for $2.7 million. Rondo was extremely mediocre for much of the season, but he was a leader for this Lakers team and he was huge for them throughout the playoffs when the pressure was highest. He can absolutely get more than $2.7 million from any number of teams (even the Clippers could use a backup point guard like him), but he’s unpredictable at this point in his career. He’ll turn 35 in February, he’s won two rings and made over $100 million. He could re-up with the Lakers, who have his early bird rights, or even decide to retire. We’ll likely get an indication about his future in the coming days.
- Markieff Morris is a free agent with non-bird rights. The most the Lakers can pay Morris is just under $3M, and unless he wants to stay badly enough to take a paycut that shouldn’t be enough after really strong, versatile performances throughout the playoffs.
- Jared Dudley is a free agent with non-bird rights. A non-factor on the court but a (seemingly) good presence in the Lakers’ locker room and organization, Dudley could be a candidate to retire at 35 or could return on another minimum deal.
- Dwight Howard is a free agent with non-bird rights. Like with Morris, the Lakers (at just over $3M) won’t be able to compete with what Dwight will be able to earn on the open market. But like Rondo, it might not matter. Howard will turn 35 soon and has had a bizarre career as an embattled journeyman superstar-turned-role player. Nearing $250 million in career earnings (plus tons of off-court money), is a slightly larger deal or role really going to tempt him? We’ll have to see if other contenders in need of another interior presence, like the Clippers or the Boston Celtics, come calling.
- Dion Waiters and JR Smith are non-factors. Smith could return on a minimum deal (though the Lakers may not be interested) or retire, while Waiters probably needs to pursue more opportunity on a worse team to rehabilitate his career.
Beyond keeping their own guys, the Lakers will have three potential avenues to add free agents: the mid-level exception (MLE), the bi-annual exception (BAE), and the minimum exception. The minimum exception is the most obvious here–Lebron James has proven that this Lakers squad is championship-caliber, and veteran players could take cheap deals to chase a ring of their own.
The MLE and BAE are a little trickier. Both exceptions trigger the NBA’s hard cap, which should be roughly $139 million again next season (assuming the cap/tax/apron remain flat after a bad revenue year due to COVID). The MLE will be worth about $9.2M, and the BAE $3.6M. For those of you keeping score at home, the Lakers have $68,415,578 committed to 5 players next season, plus a likely $33M salary for Anthony Davis.
That means they’d have something like 38 million to fit the rest of their roster under the hard cap, depending on where some final figures end up. If they want to use both exceptions, that means they’d be limited to just $25 million to negotiate new deals for a combination of Caldwell-Pope, Bradley, McGee, Rondo, Morris, and Howard. And there’s no getting around the hard cap with minimum-salary deals, so any end-of-bench deals for guys like Jared Dudley or a new rookie would have to fit in that $20 million range as well.
Is it possible? Maybe. It gets a lot easier if guys like Rondo and Howard take cheap deals, and the Lakers might be willing to part with one or both of Bradley and McGee if it means accessing those exceptions to sign new talent. Hell, if Caldwell-Pope is going to be too expensive, the Lakers could decide to let him walk, keep everyone else, and use the full MLE. The team can also turn their exceptions inward and use them to offer new deals to players like Morris and Howard who they don’t have much flexibility to re-sign using free agent rights. Accepting the hard cap would be an imposition on the entire season–will the Lakers do that if it might limit their potential to take on salary in a mid-season trade?
If the Lakers aren’t able to make everything work within the constraints of the hard cap, they’ll forfeit their BAE entirely and have to accept the smaller taxpayer mid-level exception, which is worth around $5.7M and can only run for three seasons instead of four. It could be used to add a solid outside player or retain one of Rondo, Howard, or Morris if they’re tempted by larger offers elsewhere.
The Lakers have their own 28th overall pick this year, but keeping it might not be the best idea if they’re planning on navigating the hard cap, as first-round rookies carry above-minimum deals that cut into the team’s alright-tight margins. Trading back into the 30s could be an option.
The team doesn’t have a 2nd round pick, but between the potential that they trade back from 28th and their $4.6M in cash available to trade on draft night, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Lakers were competing with the Clippers to buy picks in the 2nd round. When it comes to the hard cap, second-round rookies are huge assets as their rookie minimum contracts fill a roster spot with the lowest salary available in the league (this hard cap benefit only applies to players you drafted, so signing undrafted free agents isn’t a loophole).
The Heat have one of the best cap sheets in the league, in no small part due to a wonderful collection of young players on cheap deals. All-Star big man Bam Adebayo will make just $5.1M next year, while explosive guard Tyler Herro is due just $3.8M. Sharpshooter Duncan Robinson, who was a full-time starter this season, will make just under $1.7M, along with Kendrick Nunn, who Erik Spoelstra featured heavily all year.
Those cheap deals, along with a wide-open cap sheet (Jimmy Butler is on a max deal through 2023, but nobody else has guaranteed money in the 2021-22 season), give Miami a ton of flexibility to make all kinds of moves now or in the future. The team could add a max free agent this year with a little cap clearing, and they wouldn’t need to clear cap at all to chase a max free agent next summer when Giannis Antetokounmpo headlines a stellar free agent class.
The lack of money on the books and temptation of star-chasing in the 2021 off-season leave the Heat with an impossible set of decisions this summer: will they sacrifice future flexibility to keep together a roster that was good but not great this year before making a surprising Finals run from the 5-seed?
The Heat have Goran Dragic, Solomon Hill, Jae Crowder, Meyers Leonard, Derrick Jones Jr., and Udonis Haslem entering free agency this summer. Haslem is a Heat lifer; he’ll either be back on a minimum deal or retire and take a job in the organization. Miami has bird rights on Jones Jr. and will likely try to keep him on a team-friendly deal for depth, but it wouldn’t compromise this team to lose him.
Leonard and Hill are both easy enough to let walk. Hill was salary filler at the trade deadline and didn’t factor into Miami’s rotation, and will probably get an above-minimum contract and rotation role elsewhere. Leonard ended up with the Heat by coincidence as they used Portland as a dumping ground for Hassan Whiteside’s salary last summer to facilitate the signing of Butler, and while Meyers did start and get solid minutes for the Heat this year, he barely played after an ankle injury coincided with Miami adding Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at the trade deadline. Especially with Kelly Olynyk likely picking up his $13.2M player option to return (he would take a serious paycut on the open market), Leonard’s skillset is replaceable.
Dragic and Crowder, though, are backbreaking. Two of the most important pieces of Miami’s run, it’s hard to imagine this team reaching their same level next season if either were to depart.
Both are interesting cases. Goran, at 34 years old but coming off of some of the best basketball of his career in the playoffs, might view this as one last chance to get a multi-year contract in the NBA. But as he recovers from a plantar fascia injury that could cost him the start of next season, interest around the league could wane. The Heat would presumably love to get Dragic back on an expensive one-year deal that keeps him on board without compromising their 2021 cap space. Paying him a lot next season shouldn’t be an issue, but if he wants a second or third year I expect the Heat would prioritize flexibility and trust in their two rookie guards next season. At the end of the day, I’m not sure where an offer is coming from for Dragic that will beat something like a one-year, $20 million deal to stay with the Heat.
Crowder is more likely to force the Heat to make a real choice. At 30 years old and coming off of a stellar run, Jae will certainly be sought after in free agency and might even solicit multi-year offers above the MLE. I don’t think a slightly larger one-year deal will be enough for the Heat here. With such wide-open books, the Heat could choose to calculate a salary for Crowder that will still leave them with max space in 2021, but doing so is an inherent risk as long as the COVID sports economy threatens basketball revenue going forward. Is Crowder the guy they want to take that risk in? A career 34% shooter, he greatly exceeded his average in a small sample size with the Heat, and ultimately shot 40% in the first two rounds of the playoffs before dropping off to 29.6% in the final two rounds.
The Heat could open up cap space this summer, but if we assume they follow the path for Dragic outlined above they’ll be an above-cap team. That means the same tools we talked about for the Lakers, namely the MLE and the BAE. Like we’ve talked about, the Heat aren’t going to want to make multi-year investments in role players, but they could use the MLE to add a Crowder replacement in free agency. A one-year MLE contract isn’t super attractive, but it could get them a player like Moe Harkless.
Miami’s other option to look at how close they came this year, say screw it, and make a bigger play to find talent upgrades now instead of waiting around to chase Giannis in a year. If the Bucks fear losing Giannis and decide to trade him, a Heat package built around Bam Adebayo would be at the top of the list. Did Tyler Herro do enough in the bubble to be the centerpiece of a deal for Bradley Beal or Jrue Holiday? Would Miami be willing to let their free agents walk if it opened up the money for them to bring in Chris Paul’s contract from Oklahoma City? After falling short of bringing in Danilo Gallinari at the trade deadline, will Miami try to use some of their cap room to pursue him in free agency?
As a bit of an afterthought, the Heat have their own 20th overall pick in this year’s draft. You wouldn’t expect their selection there to be a major contributor next season, but this Miami front office has done pretty well in identifying prospects in recent years.
The Lakers, all things considered, should look really similar next season to how they looked this season. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if their rotation next season featured almost entirely guys who were a part of this title run, or even if the roster returned 12 or more players. If they do make moves, they’ll likely be on the edges, like adding minimum-salary veterans (we saw how effective this was with Rondo, Morris, and Howard this year) or using the taxpayer MLE to add one rotation piece. If teams chase the Lakers’ role players with money this summer, they could have to scramble to fill their rotation, but that’s unlikely in the current market. If things break LAL’s way, they could end up with the more lucrative full MLE to potentially add an impact player to their championship core.
The Heat are a little bit more of a wildcard. They are fully capable of paying their important free agents and running it back, but this year’s roster was supposed to be a competitive transition until they pursued another star next summer. It’s hard to believe they’ll cast aside those hopes and give up their flexibility to keep this team together, but also hard to see them letting key players walk and giving up on a group that just lost in 6 games in the Finals while dealing with serious injuries. Miami could try to thread the needle, keeping the important guys without sacrificing next summer’s max slot and filling in the gaps with new, bargain deals. But they could also go the other way, and decide that this core has proven that they’re good enough to cash in on their flexibility now and pursue a big-time acquisition.
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