In the modern NBA, teams can no longer afford to only worry about a player leaving when he hits free agency.
No, in this day and age of trade demands and super-team formation, with what has become known as pre-agency, teams recruiting their own players has become a day-by-day, monthly and yearlong process.
Because if a team’s star is unhappy in his current situation, he can easily hold the franchise hostage until they finally acquiesce to his demands and trade him. We’ve seen example after example of it recently.
As such, we have ranked the 15 players whose pre-agency periods most intrigue us. For our purposes, we’re not including soon-to-be restricted free agents since teams are still in control of those situations, considering they can match any offer sheet their guys sign.
1. ANTHONY DAVIS, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The perfect example of a team flubbing a player’s pre-agency has littered the NBA news waves lately in the drama between Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.
After displaying patience for over six-and-a-half seasons with the club, Davis finally decided this year that enough was enough and publicly requested a trade. And after looking through some of the moves general manager Dell Demps has made during his time running the team…
…it’s hard to fault Davis for seeking greener pastures.
At the end of the day, New Orleans had every chance to build a winning roster around Davis – one of the top players in the league and a perennial MVP candidate – and failed to do it. Sure, other factors were also at play, such as ill-timed injuries and the rise of the Golden State Warriors out west, but overall, the Pelicans simply made too many poor decisions regarding the construction of their roster, and will pay the price for it with Davis’ imminent departure.
Davis is eligible for an extension this summer, but fully plans to hold off on re-signing with whoever acquires him until the 2020 offseason, when he’ll be a free agent. Considering he’s almost 26 years old and just now entering his prime, it makes sense why Davis feels it is currently the right time to make a move and find his next long-term home; had he waited until the expiration of another max contract with New Orleans, he wouldn’t have been able to hit free agency again until his 30s – a mistake Kevin Garnett admits he made and Davis is looking to avoid.
2. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE BUCKS
A team in a similar situation to the Pelicans of a few years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks will look to avoid making the same mistakes their Western-Conference counterparts made with their generational superstar.
Thus far, though, Milwaukee seems to be hitting their own pre-agency out of the park.
Not only has Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into an MVP candidate, the Bucks have also done a great job of building a strong roster around him (landing Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic come to mind). And not just that, they also had the fortitude to get rid of former Milwaukee head coach Jason Kidd when things were clearly headed south (but before they got too bad), and hire Mike Budenholzer, who will receive heavy Coach of the Year consideration in 2018-19.
Following this season, Antetokounmpo has another two years and $53.3 million left on his deal, which will expire right before his age-27 season. He’ll be eligible for the designated veteran extension in the summer of 2020, when the Bucks will be able to offer him – if current cap projections prove correct – a ridiculous five-year, $235.5 million contract, provided he makes an All-NBA Team in either of the next two seasons, a borderline certainty.
And if the Bucks continue to push the right buttons as they have been for the last year-plus, drama should be avoided with the Greek Freak’s pre-agency.
3. DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers have had moments of light contention in the past, but as of now, they very much appear to be on the same page.
Back in October, Lillard told The Athletic that he’s happy in Portland, and feels that it’s where he “needs to be”:
“He struggled this summer dealing with the Blazers’ first-round playoff sweep to New Orleans, which he considers ‘one of the worst things of my career.’ There are still moments that trigger his irritation, where he feels underappreciated and misunderstood. ‘I could easily be like, man, I want to go here, I want to be here, I don’t owe anybody anything, this is what I want to do,” Lillard says. ‘But I’m different.’ … And he knows that his is a story bigger than basketball. ‘Everything can fall on my shoulders; I can be blamed,’ Lillard said. ‘My feelings ain’t hurt because I know I’m in the right place. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. Like the true impact and looking at the larger picture? I’m where I need to be.’”
Like Antetokounmpo, Lillard is eligible for an extension in the summer of 2020, one that could prove quite rich, depending on if he’s able to achieve All-NBA distinction in either of the next two seasons.
Lillard will be 28 during the 2019-20 campaign, so it’s nearing time for him to consider his future, because after his next max contract, he won’t get a chance for another until his 30s. However, considering his feelings towards the city and organization he currently plays for, it doesn’t appear Lillard has eyes for anywhere else at the moment.
4. PAUL GEORGE, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Because Paul George is coming off a summer in which he re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder on a four-year, $136.9 million contract, there’s not much drama in this one. George does have a player option on the final year of his deal, 2021-22, worth $37.9 million, but it doesn’t seem like OKC will have to worry much about George and his future with the club.
The All-NBA wing is playing the best basketball of his career at the moment, averaging 28.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per contest, and, just as importantly, he gets along wonderfully with Russell Westbrook, who he’ll be spending the next years of his career with.
If the duo didn’t get along, or if George showed hesitancy in re-signing with the Thunder last offseason, then his pre-agency could be one to look at more closely. But because the dynamic of the team seems to be in great shape, there won’t be much for Oklahoma City to worry about regarding George, at least not for the foreseeable future.
5. RUDY GOBERT, UTAH JAZZ
Still just 26 years old, Rudy Gobert is just now entering his prime as a member of the Utah Jazz.
Gobert is currently in Year-2 of a four-year, $102 million contract with Utah. At the time of the contract signing, the French behemoth made the following comments regarding his future:
Obviously, things could change, but with how stable the Jazz seem to be from top to bottom, and how comfortable Gobert appears to be in his role of do-the-dirty-work big man for Utah, it’s doubtful there will be any drama in this pre-agency.
The next time Gobert will be eligible for an extension with the Jazz will be in the 2020 offseason, and we fully expect him to sign it as soon as the opportunity arises. That is, as long as it’s for the max, which Utah’s front office undoubtedly knows he deserves.
6. BRADLEY BEAL, WASHINGTON WIZARDS
If we take team stability into consideration, Bradley Beal’s pre-agency may be one to watch.
We say team stability due to John Wall‘s Achilles injury, which is going to keep him out for at least another year, if not longer. That leaves Beal as the Washington Wizards’ lone All-Star, and because of the way the team’s books are set up, that won’t change anytime soon. Washington did well to get Otto Porter’s bloated deal off their books, but if they want to keep the pieces they landed in the Porter trade – Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis – they won’t be left with any extra cap space next summer.
Would it be farfetched to think Beal, hitting his career peak now, could feel frustration towards the idea of having to carry a team with a low ceiling like Washington’s on a nightly basis for years to come, and prefer a way out?
It wouldn’t be surprising whatsoever to see Beal become the next superstar to request a trade, though, for now, things are silent on that front. To the Wizards’ credit, Beal seems to be fully bought into what’s going on in Washington.
However, as we all know, in the NBA, that could change in a heartbeat. Especially after another year of futility, as Beal gets another year closer to the expiration of his contract. We’ll see what happens when the Wizards try to negotiate an extension with the two-time All-Star come the summer of 2020.
7. DRAYMOND GREEN, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
By all accounts, Draymond Green and the Warriors are in a good place at the moment.
That’s after some turmoil between Green and impending free agent Kevin Durant earlier in the season, where the duo had a blowup go pretty public, which led to the team suspending Green for a game. Regardless, all parties involved have seemed to get past it.
Green’s pre-agency should be one without drama.
If Golden State offers him an extension at or approaching the max in 2019, the Michigan State product will likely take it without a problem. It’s if they don’t and try to get Green to take a deal at a lower price that things could get interesting.
Nevertheless, those negotiations will likely take place at the appropriate time; Green almost certainly won’t make a fuss about his next deal before he’s eligible to sign an extension.
8. VICTOR OLADIPO, INDIANA PACERS
Playing in the state where he achieved college stardom and for one of the most stable, and competent, front offices in the league, Victor Oladipo would be hard-pressed to find a better location to spend his prime.
As such, there should be next to no drama as we approach the summer of 2020, when the Indiana Pacers will be able to offer Oladipo a wealthy extension. And even if there were, for some reason, issues between Oladipo and the team, he would struggle to find leverage in making any sort of demands considering the injury he just suffered and how long it’s projected to keep him out.
Regardless, things between Oladipo and Indiana seem to be in a very healthy place, so this pre-agency should be a relatively quiet one.
9. DEMAR DEROZAN, SAN ANTONIO SPURS
DeMar DeRozan, one of the most low-key stars in the league, and the San Antonio Spurs, typically one of the most drama-free organizations, appear to have a quite stable relationship in their first year together.
Because of that, this pre-agency should also be a quiet one. DeRozan isn’t the type to cause public spectacle, he’s the type who goes to work every night and does his job without bringing attention to himself.
DeRozan has two years left on his deal after this season, with the second year containing a player option on it which DeRozan could exercise to test free agency for one final big payday. He’ll be 31 at that point, so it’ll likely be his last chance to receive anything approaching a max-level contract.
10. STEVEN ADAMS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Like DeRozan, Steven Adams is a laidback player who almost assuredly won’t cause much of a stir in his pre-agency.
The Kiwi big man is playing some of the best basketball of his career at the moment, and with another year to go until he can sign an extension, we fully expect to those negotiations to go down quietly, behind closed doors, and to be announced without prior notice.
That’s simply the way Adams operates.
11. CJ MCCOLLUM, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Having to share the backcourt with a fellow ball-dominant, high-usage bucket-getter like Damian Lillard could wear on some shooting guards, and make them want their own backcourt to man.
That doesn’t appear to be the case with CJ McCollum, though:
McCollum sounds perfectly content sharing the load with Lillard as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, and considering the team is having a good amount of success with the star duo at the two guard spots, that doesn’t look like it’ll change anytime soon.
12. LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, SAN ANTONIO SPURS
At one point, it looked like LaMarcus Aldridge was headed for an interesting pre-agency as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Originally, he didn’t acclimate well to his fit as a member of Gregg Popovich’s club, and was open to finding a way out.
Regardless, Popovich and Aldridge were able to hash things out, and now, the star big man appears happy in San Antonio.
As such, we don’t expect any more drama between the two sides moving forward.
Aldridge will be a free agent the summer of 2021, when he’ll be in his mid-30s. He should still garner a good amount of interest then, though, as Aldridge is still putting up great numbers as a member of the Spurs and because his game should age nicely.
13. ANDRE DRUMMOND, DETROIT PISTONS
Andre Drummond has two years left on his deal, with a player option on the second year.
There’s been next to no scuttle regarding Drummond and any sort of unhappiness with the Detroit Pistons, so this pre-agency probably won’t have much action.
That is, unless the Pistons, whose books are a bit bloated at the moment, decide to try and make room in their cap space by shipping Drummond, a big man with elite level rebounding and finishing abilities. Drummond may have two All-Star appearances to his name, but the fact that Detroit has missed the playoffs two out of the last three years might hint that he’s not the kind of player you can build around. Plus, with Blake Griffin around and performing at an elite level, the Pistons may have less of a need for another high-priced big man.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Detroit try and move Drummond or Reggie Jackson once the trade market opens back up this summer. Pistons executive Ed Stefanski not denying that the team looked into moving a member of their core three players at the deadline sort of spoke volumes:
14. MIKE CONLEY, MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Mike Conley made it clear at the recent trade deadline that he’s happy as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, and would prefer not to have to move anywhere else.
So unless Memphis goes back on their decision not to move him, it’s looking like Conley will spend the rest of his career with the Grizzlies. Conley will next be a free agent in 2021 and by that time, he’ll be 33 years old. Regardless, his game isn’t predicated upon athleticism, so his ability to produce should age nicely.
15. KYLE LOWRY, TORONTO RAPTORS
Kyle Lowry wasn’t happy with how the Toronto Raptors handled the DeRozan departure, nor was he surprised to hear his name mentioned in trade rumors at this past deadline.
Nevertheless, Lowry made it clear he’s happy in Toronto, and would prefer not to move:
“Lowry, a Philadelphia native and former Villanova star, had 17 points in the first half and finished with 20. He seemed unfazed by a report from Sports Illustrated that Toronto had offered him to Memphis as part of a trade package for Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. ‘I personally want to be in Toronto,’ Lowry said. ‘I’ve never asked for a trade. My goal is to try to win a championship here, and that’s what I want to do.’”
Lowry is eligible for an extension this summer, and if Toronto is determined to sign him to one, at the surface level, it seems like Lowry would re-sign without much of a problem.
But could Lowry still be bothered by how Raptors president Masai Ujiri went about the DeRozan trade? And if so, could that affect how potential extension discussions go?
We can’t totally rule that out either.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.