Oh, what a difference a few days can make. The NBA’s proposed transaction window, expected to begin on June 22, was originally meant to serve as an insurance policy. Teams could restock their benches with an extra player or two to protect against potential injuries or coronavirus infections, but their outlooks weren’t supposed to fundamentally change.
Enter Kyrie Irving. The Brooklyn Nets guard has led a push to reconsider resuming the season in the Orlando bubble in the name of depriving fans of a potential distraction while social justice reform has so much momentum. Dwight Howard agrees with him. Other players are concerned about infection, hotel accommodations and being separated from their families. Positive COVID-19 tests are skyrocketing in Florida. The NBA is not expected to punish players who choose not to join their teams at Disney.
Where once teams might have viewed the transaction window as a chance to fortify a roster leak or two, many will now be forced to reconstruct their entire rotations. If key players opt out of Disney, the free agents that are currently available might have to play real postseason minutes for teams they weren’t even a part of before this pandemic.
As a refresher, let’s go through the biggest available names. Eligibility and roster-size rules remain unclear. The latest reporting, from The Athletic’s Shams Charania, indicates that players who were on an NBA or G League roster within the past two seasons will be available to join teams. With that in mind, here are the players to watch as teams rebuild their rosters heading into Disney.
The lottery ticket
Look, anyone who’s made it to this point without finding a team is a free agent for a reason. This is not peak DeMarcus Cousins. It might not even be the compromised version we saw in Golden State a year ago. Less than a year will have passed between Cousins tearing his ACL and the beginning of games at the end of July, so there’s no telling how healthy he will be, and even if he can play, his fitness probably isn’t ideal. With only eight seeding games, there isn’t exactly much time for him to get back up to speed.
But how often are 29-year-old four-time All-Stars available in the lead-up to the playoffs? Any team that has a roster spot it doesn’t know what to do with would be doing itself a disservice by not at least considering Cousins. He’s a lottery ticket. His defensive flaws are going to be so great that he probably won’t be able to contribute, but on occasion, he might just be able to do what he did for the Warriors in Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals. An 11-point, 10-rebound, 6-assist performance can swing a Finals game, and Cousins is the only player available capable of doing that.
With Howard potentially sitting out and JaVale McGee a coronavirus risk thanks to his preexisting asthma, all eyes will turn to the Lakers. If they decide to bring in another center, Cousins makes by far the most sense. He spent the entire season on their sideline, and has experience playing alongside multiple current Lakers, including Anthony Davis.
If the Lakers pass, his intel from spending the season in their walls could be valuable for someone else. The Clippers gave Joakim Noah a 10-day contract just before the shutdown. Would Noah’s contributions really outweigh everything Cousins could tell the Clippers about the Lakers? They may not be desperate enough to go down that path, but someone could be.
The professional scorer
There is an important distinction to be made. Johnson was waived by the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 21, one day before the season began. He did not play in the NBA during the 2018-19 season. However, Bobby Marks and Adrian Wojnarowski’s report for ESPN suggests that players will be eligible to join new teams if they were on training camp rosters, which would make Johnson eligible. However, without a finalized deal, the possibility that such a caveat is ultimately limited to players who were on rosters during the season still exists. The devil will be in the details for Johnson.
Johnson hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2017-18 season, but that doesn’t mean he’s been idle. He was named the MVP of the BIG3 after leading the Triplets to a championship in his debut season. There is no telling what condition he is in at the age of 38, but Johnson acquitted himself extraordinarily well the last time he took the professional court. Any team needing bench scoring should look Johnson’s way.
In a world in which every player has fallen out of game shape, shooting theoretically becomes basketball’s most valuable commodity. Fortunately, free agency has it in all shapes and sizes. Looking for a wing to space the floor in bench units? Crabbe is a 38.7 percent career 3-point shooter. Need a big to draw rim protectors away from the basket? That’s what Ryan Anderson was made for!
It should be noted that the bigger names here all struggled in their most recent appearances. Crabbe made only 30.3 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. Anderson has made only 22.2 percent across the past two seasons. Even Tolliver fell to 32.2 percent after years of being steadily above average. The only sniper that looked the part this season was Broekhoff, but his 40.3 percent career mark from behind the arc is less impressive given the 144-attempt sample size. You might be able to steal a few bench minutes from this group, but nobody here is capable of much more than that.
The point guards
Given the outsize importance of point guard offense, grabbing a spare ball-handler makes sense for virtually any team with a roster spot. Isaiah Thomas is well past his Brinks truck days, but there were signs of life in Washington. Shooting over 40 percent on 4.7 3-point attempts per game is nothing to sneeze at. Few teams are defensively equipped to protect Thomas, but those that are should consider him as a spark-plug. He isn’t his old self, but he isn’t the shell of the 2017-18 season either.
Trey Burke is the less famous, but likelier healthier, version of Thomas here. He has never defended well at the NBA level, but can score relatively efficiently. He lost out on minutes to Raul Neto and Shake Milton in Philadelphia, but could provide steady offense for a needy team in Orlando.
Johnson has the opposite problem. He’s slipped defensively, but can still hold his own on that end of the floor. His issue is a glaring lack of offense. Across 515 minutes in Phoenix, he posted -0.2 Offensive Win Shares while shooting 38 percent from the field and just under 29 percent from behind the arc. Knee issues have slowed him down, but he never shot below 35 percent on 3-pointers in his entire Miami Heat tenure. He didn’t suddenly forget how to shoot in Phoenix. If he’s healthy, he could be a sneaky addition.
The old guard
Once upon a time, there would have been a line around the block for Nene or Gasol. That time is long gone, and at this point, it isn’t clear if either is healthy enough to play. Gasol is recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, while Nene has been dealing with a hip injury and didn’t suit up for a single Houston Rockets game (though, in fairness, the unorthodox structure of his contract didn’t exactly help).
It’s been a few years since either has been able to give a team meaningful playoff minutes, but younger teams could benefit from their veteran presence. If the Lakers open up a roster spot for any reason, Gasol has already stated his interest in a potential reunion.
While some of the players listed were included largely ceremonially, Shumpert and Bell are not only capable of helping teams, but actually did so this season. While Shumpert’s shooting remains troublesome and he’s lost enough athleticism to prevent him from contributing much else offensively, he gave the Nets 13 fairly strong defensive games when injuries decimated their backcourt. Bell was largely absent from Minnesota’s rotation this season, but his offensive limitations are the biggest reason why. Minnesota has gone all in on shooting. Bell is not a shooter.
He is a rarely switchable center, and any team looking for any extra big man with scheme versatility should consider bringing him aboard. Shumpert’s defensive value is a bit more generic, but hey, pretty much any team could benefit from a few extra minutes from a stout wing.
Smith, Crawford and Stephenson all spent the season off of NBA rosters. Given the conflicting reporting, it is not yet clear whether they will be eligible. If the window extends back two seasons, as recent reporting suggests, they will indeed be available.
But given the relatively meager pool of available talent and the relatively large need teams could have depending on who is and is not willing and able to venture down to Florida, expanding eligibility makes plenty of sense. Crawford scored 51 points in his last NBA game. Smith has been out longer, but his shooting should allow him to function within most rosters, and the Lakers worked him out before the pandemic. Smith is an agent of chaos, and teams with strong supporting infrastructures can always take advantage of a bit of chaos.