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Executives, Agents Brace for Volatile Free Agency Periods

A report from The Athletic’s David Aldridge and John Hollinger detailed how agents and organizations are bracing for a wild 2021 free agency period.

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA’s prospective restart in Orlando, a destination undergoing a spike in coronavirus cases, is not the only murky item on the league’s horizon. In a report from The Athletic’s David Aldridge and John Hollinger, the duo spoke with a handful of top agents and executives about the free agency landscape in the years ahead.

When asked about the 2021 free agent class, a group that is on track to be headlined by Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, an anonymous top agent explained that 2020’s uncertain future could lead to an even more crowded field of top-level talent.

“Before this year, you knew what that crop of ’21 is going to be,” one prominent agent, speaking on background, said. “It’s going to be even more crowded, because you’re going to have a significantly higher number of players (this summer) doing 1+1s (two-year deals with a player option for the second season). … I’m very lucky that I’m not going nuts going into this free agency. It’s going to be a bloodbath. We don’t know what the cap is going to be, but if it stays the same, how many owners are going to go with more than 13 guys?”

The Athletic’s report spoke to another agent who explained that 2020’s unsettled future is tied to the cumbersome task of navigating an abbreviated season in the midst of a global pandemic. The agent went on to explain that most players, even players on Anthony Davis’ level, could lean into short-term deals in hopes of finding a friendlier market down the road.

“We don’t know whether they’re going to play or not,” another top agent said. “I know everyone’s assuming they’re going to play, but you see all these things going on, people coming back (testing positive) from football, people protesting, I don’t know the effects of all this. … you can’t tell me that if I’m a 65-year-old executive, with a family, that I’m comfortable being in this bubble? Me, it’s just too much unknown. … it probably makes sense for everybody to sign a one-year deal. Even the big free agents like Anthony Davis – sign a one-year deal (this summer) and see what the numbers are for ’21, and sign a contract based off the projections for that.”

Outside of individual player negotiations, The Athletic’s story revealed that teams are bracing for uncertainty when forecasting their cap sheets. One Eastern Conference cap expert explained that the league and the union could set their sights on a payroll projection that deviates from the traditional model in hopes of reducing the potential for a landscape filled with peaks and valleys.

“We legitimately have no idea for 2021,” an Eastern Conference team’s cap expert said. “Planning all over the board. 2021 had some uncertainty pre-pandemic with the Morey tweet situation and now we really don’t know. A lot probably depends on when fans are let back into games. I do think that the NBA/NBPA will jointly set the cap the next couple of years and not just rely on the standard method. That should hopefully prevent it from absolutely plummeting. The last official projections from the fall from the NBA were $125M/$151M for Cap/Tax for 2021 (pre-Morey tweet and pre-pandemic). Safe to say teams are planning on it being less now.”

Depending on how the 2020 offseason pans out, the Trail Blazers could be navigating the potential unrestricted free agent departures of Rodney Hood, Trevor Ariza and Mario Hezonja in the summer of 2021. Along with that trio, Zach Collins and Gary Trent Jr. are positioned to enter restricted free agency in that same offseason. Anderson Varejao’s cap figure of $1.9 million will also exit from Portland’s books at the start of 2021 negotiations.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are under contract with the Blazers through the 2023-24 season (Lillard’s deal includes a player option for the 2024-25 season, contract details gathered from HoopsHype).

You can read the full report from Aldridge and Hollinger at The Athletic (subscription required).