Which NBA players are on the move ahead of the start of free agency?
As the clock ticks toward 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, a flurry of moves have already been made. That included during draft night, when the New York Knicks added three future first-round picks after a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder and a three-team trade with the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets.
The Knicks were at it again a few days later, dealing Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks to Detroit in a move that cleared $19 million in salary cap space. New York is now able to make an overwhelming offer to free-agent guard Jalen Brunson once free agency opens, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon.
A trio of deals went down in the days leading to the draft: The Thunder acquired JaMychal Green from the Denver Nuggets, the Dallas Mavericks traded for Christian Wood in a deal with the Houston Rockets, and the Portland Trail Blazers got Jerami Grant from the Pistons.
What else is in store throughout the rest of the offseason? ESPN NBA insider Kevin Pelton is grading all the biggest moves.
PRE-FREE AGENCY DEALS
Denver Nuggets: C-
More than anything — even the luxury tax implications, though we’ll get to them — this deal looks like the Nuggets are betting on the health of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., both of whom are slated to return from long-term injuries next season.
With this trade, Denver goes from having a backup point guard in Morris capable of starting (he started 74 of his 75 games played last season with Murray sidelined following ACL surgery) and a combo wing in Barton capable of sliding to small forward to replace Porter to a depth chart that looks awfully thin at both positions.
If Murray and Porter are the players we saw in 2020-21, adding Caldwell-Pope alongside them could strengthen the Nuggets’ best five-man lineup. If they miss extended periods, Denver is less equipped to replace them, pending additional moves this summer.
On the positive side, Caldwell-Pope looks like a great fit with the Nuggets as the new version of what Gary Harris once was in Denver. He’s developed the “3” part of the 3-and-D equation, hitting 39.5% of his 3-pointers over the past three seasons at moderate volume (5.3 attempts per game in 2021-22).
Caldwell-Pope is also a capable on-ball defender, allowing the Nuggets to cross-match him and Murray, putting Caldwell-Pope on the better opposing guard. Using Second Spectrum tracking data and my analysis of lineup data, 29% of Caldwell-Pope’s individual matchups last season were against players who primarily saw action at point guard, as compared to 18% for Barton.
Although Barton and Caldwell-Pope have similar size (Barton is listed an inch taller but 23 pounds lighter), Barton has been much more likely to play small forward over the course of his career. Lineups with Caldwell-Pope at small forward will be a bit small to match the West’s bigger combo forwards, taking away a bit of lineup versatility for coach Michael Malone.
Additionally, Denver undoubtedly downgraded in the point guard half of this trade, but this could be a precursor to adding another this summer. The Nuggets have been linked to Vasilije Micic, the MVP of the last two EuroLeague final fours, whose NBA rates are held by the Oklahoma City Thunder. If so, however, that means paying $4.7 million to the well-traveled Smith (who could suit up for his record 13th NBA franchise if he sticks with the Nuggets) as a third point guard.
All of which brings us to the financial element. After completing this trade, Denver begins free agency right at the projected luxury tax line by virtue of saving nearly $5 million in salary on the heels of the recent trade shedding JaMychal Green‘s $8.2 million.
Because the Nuggets have just 11 players under contract, including first-round picks Christian Braun and Peyton Watson, they’ll surely go into the tax to start the season by filling out the roster. Given what’s at stake for Denver with two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic in his prime, I hope the Nuggets plan to reinvest some of the savings by either using the projected $6.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception or their trade exception (which will grow to Morris’ $9.1 million salary if they take in Smith using the slightly smaller exception generated in the Green trade) to add forward depth.
Behind Porter, whose history of back injuries makes his return from surgery more complicated than Murray’s more straightforward ACL rehab, Denver has only Watson, the 30th pick who played sparingly in his lone season at UCLA. Aaron Gordon can slide to small forward as well, but the Nuggets don’t have enough power forward depth to cover that spot without any contributions from Gordon.
Until we see what Denver has in store in free agency, it’s tough to know exactly what to make of this trade. Still, shedding salary and not getting much value in return for Morris makes this look like a losing move.
From the Wizards’ perspective, this move continues to spin the Russell Westbrook trade forward in ways that enhance the team’s depth. Caldwell-Pope, who came from the Lakers as part of the return for Westbrook, has now turned into a pair of potential starters for Washington.
Given Kyle Kuzma came directly from the Lakers, and Kristaps Porzingis was acquired in part for a player (Spencer Dinwiddie) added via sign-and-trade expansion of the Westbrook deal, you can trace four-fifths of the Wizards’ likely starting five to that transaction.
Morris in particular fills a need the Wizards have had since trading Westbrook. Dinwiddie didn’t prove a fit at point guard next to Bradley Beal, but Morris’ skill set should better complement Beal — under the assumption Beal will re-sign with Washington in free agency.
Because of Morris’ strong 3-point shooting (39.5% last season, right at his career mark), he doesn’t need the ball in his hands when Beal is operating with it yet can take ballhandling and distribution duties off Beal’s plate. Although he’s proven a capable starting point guard, the two remaining years on Morris’ contract ($9.1 million this season, $9.8 million in 2023-24) pay him more like a backup, which is a boon for the Wizards.
Meanwhile, Barton is a more natural fit at small forward next to Beal. My biggest concern from Washington’s standpoint is that Barton likes to operate on the ball more than Caldwell-Pope, which could be difficult to manage with Beal and power forward Kyle Kuzma already looking for those touches. Still, Barton showed in Denver he could operate in a role with moderate usage, and he too is an off-ball threat, having hit 2.2 3-pointers per game at an above-average clip last season.
Financially, the Wizards could add the extra salary in this trade without issue. Presuming Beal signs on starting at his maximum salary (a projected $42.7 million), Washington will still be more than $10 million below the estimated luxury tax line with 12 players under contract. The Wizards could still use the bulk of their non-taxpayer midlevel exception to add another ball handler behind Morris.
As was the case with the Westbrook trade, this one doesn’t necessarily make Washington a playoff team. However, it’s a sensible deal that upgrades the Wizards in the short term without costing them anything down the road — a no-brainer from their standpoint.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reporting on Tuesday that the Knicks are “strong favorites” to sign Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson after NBA free agency opens on Thursday was an indication New York had something in the works.
To make the offer in excess of $100 million that MacMahon reported is widely anticipated, the Knicks had to move either Burks or Noel. Instead, they traded both, which could signal more additions for New York in free agency. The Knicks won’t necessarily need all $29.4 million in projected cap space they’d currently have if they renounce the rights to free agent Ryan Arcidiacono to sign Brunson to a deal that large.
Instead, trading both Burks and Noel offers a couple of possibilities. First, New York could still waive veteran Taj Gibson, if only as a precursor to re-signing him to a similar contract using the room exception. Moving Gibson into the room exception would give the Knicks somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million in cap space to use after signing Brunson, depending on his first-year salary.
Alternatively, New York could add Brunson without ever creating cap space at all. Sending out Burks and Noel allows them to make this a three-team trade with the Mavericks for Brunson, which would benefit Dallas by creating a trade exception for part of Brunson’s salary and allow the Knicks to keep Gibson and have access to their projected $10.4 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception as well as the biannual exception.
As The Athletic’s John Hollinger pointed out, New York could even structure the trade to create an exception for Kemba Walker‘s $9.2 million salary because the deal struck on draft night sending Walker to Detroit has not yet been finalized.
The Knicks accomplished all that at a relatively low price for moving $19 million in salary. The Pistons get back their own 2023 second-round pick, which will likely be in the top half of the round, but the protected Miami Heat pick has little value even if it does convey. We can debate the merits of New York potentially paying Brunson so much — I’m more optimistic than most — but the Knicks did a skillful job of getting out of last summer’s commitments to Burks and Noel in order to try free agency again.
Detroit Pistons: B-
Evaluating the Pistons’ side of this move requires considering a pair of viewpoints. First, was this better than using the team’s cap space in free agency? I’d say probably yes, once Detroit added Jalen Duren via last week’s deal with New York and a move for fellow center Deandre Ayton in restricted free agency made less sense for the Pistons.
There’s no urgency for Detroit to make a splash in free agency. The Pistons will have plenty of cap space again next summer, as their young core won’t get appreciably more expensive at least until rookie contracts for Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart expire after the 2023-24 season. Although Burks and Noel have two years apiece remaining on their contracts, Detroit inherits team options on both players.
Getting back their own second-round pick helps the Pistons if they spend another season in the lottery. They already missed out on the No. 32 pick in 2021 and this year’s No. 33 pick due to long-ago trades. And it’s entirely possible if Burks and Noel play well in Detroit and demonstrate they’re healthy that they’ll have value leading up to the deadline.
The other relevant question is whether the Pistons got enough here in exchange for helping a New York team that had no choice but to dump salary in the next couple of days. That answer is less clear. Even with players like Burks and Noel, who have value on the court, teams with cap space have typically extracted a premium in situations where another team needs to create some in a hurry.
It’s possible Detroit suffered because of the high number of other teams with the ability to take on contracts. The Oklahoma City Thunder can still do so using cap space until the new league year begins and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s contract extension kicks in, while the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic could be in a similar position of looking to add picks rather than current free agents.
Given that context, I think this was a positive move for the Pistons, if not the home run we saw on draft night.
New York was at the center of a series of trades during the first round of Thursday’s draft that not only created additional cap space but also boosted its stock of future first-rounders for moves yet to come.
Although the three trades were technically separate, let’s discuss them together with New York as a focal point.
New York Knicks get:
2023 first-round pick (from Detroit via Oklahoma City; top-18 protected)
2023 first-round pick (from Washington, via Oklahoma City; top-14 protected)
2025 first-round pick (from Milwaukee, via Detroit; top-four protected)
Charlotte Hornets get:
2023 first-round pick (from Denver, via Oklahoma City and New York; top-14 protected)
Three 2023 second-round picks (via New York, Utah and Dallas or Miami)
2024 second-round pick (via New York)
Oklahoma City Thunder get:
Ousmane Dieng (No. 11 pick in 2022)
New York Knicks: B+
Let’s start with the cap piece of this for the Knicks. Shedding this year’s No. 11 pick (with a cap hold of $4.5 million) and Walker (due to make $9.2 million in the final season of his contract), New York has gone from entering the draft projecting right around the $122 million cap estimate to suddenly having a modest amount of room.
If the Knicks waive Taj Gibson, whose $5.16 million salary for 2022-23 is non-guaranteed, they could create $16 million in cap room while retaining Bird rights to re-sign unrestricted free agent Mitchell Robinson. That leaves New York one key move away from an offer that could make the Dallas Mavericks think twice about re-signing guard Jalen Brunson.
By trading either Alec Burks or Nerlens Noel, the Knicks would create more than $24 million in cap room, enough to make Brunson a four-year offer well north of $100 million. Given Burks recently underwent foot surgery (as first reported by Fred Katz of The Athletic) while Noel was limited to 25 games last season, that will likely require additional draft compensation. That’s where the future picks New York added might come in.
In exchange for the No. 11 pick, the Knicks got three 2023 first-rounders from Oklahoma City with varying degrees of protection. The one they flipped to the Hornets, originally from the Denver Nuggets, is easily the most likely to convey next year but has the least upside. It will probably be a pick in the 20s, requiring New York to add in many of the team’s future second-rounders to get the No. 13 pick from Charlotte.
Subsequently, the Knicks flipped that 13th pick and Walker to the Pistons for the 2025 Milwaukee first-round pick Detroit acquired in yesterday’s reported deal sending Jerami Grant to Portland.
Ultimately, New York comes away with three future first-rounders in exchange for the No. 11 pick, four second-rounders and Walker. The Knicks seem to be betting on two things: the possibility that some of those picks become more tantalizing as the protections on the Detroit and Washington first-rounders diminish over time, and that pushing the picks into the future preserves their trade value.
It’s unlikely any one of the three picks New York landed will be as good as the two the team traded away, but the Knicks have given themselves multiple bites at the apple and more currency to offload salary ahead of next week’s start to free agency.
Detroit Pistons: A-
This seems like a nice piece of business for the Pistons, who were able to convert a semi-distant first-rounder of uncertain value into a sure late lottery pick at the cost of taking on Walker’s $9.2 million salary. Detroit could yet save a bit of that amount by agreeing to a buyout with Walker, something ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the team would look to do.
For now, adding Duren and Walker leaves the Pistons with more than max-level cap room. Depending on whether the team exercises options on the contracts of guards Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson, Detroit could still re-sign restricted free agent Marvin Bagley III before offering a max-level deal to a player with six or fewer years of experience.
The question remains who that player might be. Adding another center in Duren to 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Stewart suggests it might not be Phoenix Suns restricted free agent Deandre Ayton. And if the Pistons really had designs on Brunson, they probably wouldn’t help New York clear space for an offer to him.
That seems to point toward Hornets forward Miles Bridges, also a restricted free agent, as Detroit’s top target if the team goes the max offer route rather than using cap space to take on additional contracts to add draft picks.
Oklahoma City Thunder: B-
When Oklahoma City’s taking Ousmane Dieng at No. 11 was first floated, the natural assumption was the Thunder would move up one spot from the No. 12 pick the team already owned. Instead, Oklahoma City kept both picks (the latter used on Santa Clara guard Jalen Williams) and relied on some of the team’s plentiful future first-rounders to nab the intriguing Dieng.
To some extent, the Thunder probably continue to suffer from the low marginal value of each additional future pick. That makes Oklahoma City more willing to overpay from a value standpoint and other teams more likely to demand massive hauls in return for their picks.
At the same time, the Thunder also get a lot more certainty about their return. Because of their protections, the Detroit and Washington picks are unlikely to convey any time soon and plausibly might not before expiring in 2026 (Wizards) and 2027 (Pistons), respectively, when they convert to second-round picks. So Oklahoma City cashing in on them now is reasonable.
Charlotte Hornets: C+
The return for Charlotte here doesn’t look great. The Hornets both move their first-round pick back a year and presumably move down in the draft to where the Denver pick will fall as compared to this year’s 13th selection. None of the four second-round picks Charlotte also got from New York seem likely to make up that value. The Knicks’ own picks are most likely to fall in the top half of the round but still unlikely to be much higher than 40th.
On the plus side, the Hornets were still able to get the center they presumably wanted all along (Duke’s Mark Williams) with the 15th pick. Additionally, shedding the 13th pick does save a bit of money for Charlotte to match a potential offer sheet (possibly from Detroit) for Bridges. Retaining Bridges is probably more important to the Hornets’ future than maximizing this pick.
How can Melton help the Philadelphia 76ers? The Sixers acquired Melton, the most valuable current NBA player to be traded during Thursday’s draft, from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for the No. 23 pick and injured wing Danny Green.
David Roddy (No. 23 pick in 2022)
Philadelphia 76ers: B+
Four years ago, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey took Melton with the No. 46 pick, envisioning him playing alongside James Harden for the Houston Rockets. That never came to pass because Melton was traded to the Phoenix Suns two months later before ever playing in Houston. Now, after a stop in Memphis where Melton established himself as the kind of impact defender Morey surely expected, that plan will finally play out in Philadelphia.
Playing off the bench for the Grizzlies, Melton developed into a reliable shooter (39% from 3-point range the past two seasons) who offers one of the league’s better combinations of rebounds, steals and blocks from the backcourt. Melton is stretched a bit as a lead ball handler but won’t likely have to play that role much for the Sixers alongside Harden and Tyrese Maxey. Meanwhile, his shooting differentiates him from new teammate Matisse Thybulle, also an ace perimeter defender.
From Philadelphia’s standpoint, Melton’s descending contract (which pays him $8.25 million in 2022-23 and $8 million in 2023-24) was surely appealing. The 76ers could rightfully believe Melton is far better (and younger; he’s still just 24) than anybody they could have signed by using their non-taxpayer midlevel exception this summer.
With Melton on the books instead of Green’s non-guaranteed contract, Philadelphia will presumably now be limited to the smaller taxpayer midlevel exception. Having both that and Melton is preferable in the short term to having the No. 23 pick and the non-taxpayer exception. Melton probably won’t start for the Sixers, who presumably want more size on the perimeter, but he could finish games alongside Harden and Maxey depending on the matchups.
Down the road, Philadelphia might miss having a first-round pick on a rookie contract. The 76ers will send next year’s first-rounder to the Brooklyn Nets as part of the Harden trade and owe a top-six-protected pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder from the deal to acquire Green. That leaves Philly with just one first-round pick over the next three years.
With starting wing Dillon Brooks in and out of the lineup, Melton averaged a career-high 22.7 MPG for the Grizzlies in 2021-22 and was a key part of the team finishing with the West’s second-best record. Come playoff time, however, it was Melton’s role that was variable. He didn’t see any action during the last two games of Memphis’ first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves and played sparingly in the final two losses to the Golden State Warriors in the second round.
For now, the Grizzlies have plenty of flexibility to retain their deep rotation. Down the road, as extensions kick in for Ja Morant in 2023-24 and Desmond Bane the season after that, Memphis will have to start making some more difficult choices. This was the first such domino with Memphis choosing another player on a rookie contract (Colorado State forward David Roddy) over Melton.
In the short term, the Grizzlies will undoubtedly be weaker. Eventually they’ll surely hope to develop a low-cost replacement for Melton, nabbed from the Suns after a disappointing rookie season. Memphis has proven adept at finding contributors, but I think Melton will prove difficult to replace.
To complete this deal, the Grizzlies will have to guarantee part of Green’s $10 million salary for 2022-23, which was non-guaranteed through July 1. If the deal is completed before then, Memphis would have to guarantee a little less than $5 million of that to match Melton’s salary. The Grizzlies have more than enough cap room to guarantee the whole thing and keep Green, who suffered an ACL tear during the playoffs and likely won’t play next season, to use in trade as an expiring contract.
Grizzlies trade for No. 19 pick
Jake LaRavia (No. 19 pick in 2022)
Future second-round pick
Walker Kessler (No. 22 pick in 2022)
TyTy Washington Jr. (No. 29 pick in 2022)
Did trading an additional first-round pick to move up three spots for Wake Forest forward Jake LaRavia make sense for the Grizzlies?
Continuing a tradition under 2021-22 NBA executive of the year Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies dealt the No. 22 and No. 29 picks in the first round to the Timberwolves for the No. 19 pick. As Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian noted, every Memphis first-round pick under Kleiman except taking Ja Morant with the second pick in 2019 has come after a trade up.
Although the jury is still out on last year’s deals for forward Ziaire Williams and center Santi Aldama, the Grizzlies did well to maneuver into position to take versatile big men Brandon Clarke (2019) and Xavier Tillman Sr. (2020 second round) and have gotten huge returns from 2020 first-round pick Desmond Bane.
On the flip side, the Timberwolves undoubtedly have to feel great about picking up an extra first-round pick in exchange for moving back just three spots and sending out a future second-rounder.
Unless the second-round pick the Grizzlies are getting ultimately lands in the top handful of picks in the round, Memphis will lose it from a value perspective according to my trade value chart of what NBA draft picks are worth. No. 22 and No. 29 are worth a combined 1,550 points based on typical production for those picks above and beyond their salary, as compared to 1,120 points for the No. 19 pick.
The Grizzlies have shown they’re less concerned about maximizing value than getting their guy, a strategy that has generally worked out for them. Memphis was also well positioned to make a 2-for-1 deal. The Grizzlies entered the night with 12 players under contract and the two first-rounders plus a couple of rotation free agents (Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones) they might want to re-sign. Trading De’Anthony Melton for the No. 23 pick and injured wing Danny Green in a subsequent trade only deepened the roster crunch.
At this stage of the draft, it’s awfully optimistic for a team to believe it can improve its chances of hitting on an individual pick by moving up a few spots. Although Memphis won its 2019 trade up for Clarke, three years later it now looks like the Boston Celtics got the better player in a similar draft-night move from No. 20 to No. 22, taking Grant Williams when the Philadelphia 76ers moved up for Matisse Thybulle.
From the Timberwolves’ perspective, this move looks like an easy call. Minnesota moved down three spots and still ended up with the player ESPN’s Jonathan Givony had projected to them at No. 19, Auburn center Walker Kessler. Assuming the Timberwolves planned to take Kessler either way, they were able to convert a future second-round pick into a first-rounder for nothing.
Later, Minnesota added a couple more future second-rounders to move up three spots from No. 29 to No. 26 and add Duke forward Wendell Moore Jr.
Trail Blazers get:
2022 second-round pick (No. 46)
2022 second-round pick (No. 36)
2025 first-round pick (via Milwaukee)
2025 second-round pick
2026 second-round pick
Essentially, we can think of the Grant trade as part two of the deal that sent McCollum to the Pelicans ahead of the February trade deadline. Not only did the Blazers get the future first-round pick they sent to Detroit in the McCollum trade, they also generated the trade exception used to take on Grant’s salary.
Stripping out players on expiring contracts, Portland ultimately gave up McCollum, useful reserve Larry Nance Jr. and a pair of future second-rounders in order to get Grant, wing Josh Hart, unproven youngster Didi Louzada and the 59th pick in this year’s draft. I think that combination of moves makes sense for the Blazers.
In a vacuum, McCollum — particularly the version we saw running the point for New Orleans after the trade — is likely a better player than Grant. However, Grant (who was actually born in Portland while his dad, Harvey, was a member of the Blazers) is 2½ years younger, will make $12 million less in 2022-23 and better fits the team’s needs. With the emergence of Anfernee Simons as a third ball handler and shot-maker, an athletic forward like Grant was a far greater priority.
MORE: Grade for the Pistons
2022 first-round pick (No. 26)
Dallas Mavericks: B-
Adding Wood is an interesting response to Dallas’ run to the West finals.
Presumably, the Mavericks wanted to add another big man capable of stretching the floor. They had their most postseason success with Maxi Kleber or even Davis Bertans in the middle rather than starter Dwight Powell, who did not make a 3-pointer in their postseason run.
Like Kleber, Wood is capable of filling an increasingly important role in the modern NBA: playing power forward during the regular season then sliding down to center in the playoffs as teams downsize. Wood’s ability to both make 3s (he shot a career-high 39% last season on a robust 5.8 attempts per 36 minutes, nearly as many as Kleber’s 6.3 attempts) and providing a modicum of rim protection will give Dallas coach Jason Kidd the flexibility to play him with any of the team’s other frontcourt options.
MORE: Grade for the Rockets
Protected 2027 first-round pick
Nuggets get: 2022 first-round pick (No. 30)
Two future second-round picks
Oklahoma City could put Green on the Al Horford plan and try to rehab his value by the deadline. More likely, with the Thunder expected to draft a big man No. 2 overall, Green could be traded for a player on a worse contract this summer. He might be an interesting fit with the Utah Jazz as a more mobile backup 5, depending on what other, more dramatic changes the Jazz might make this offseason.
Second, there’s the question of whether Oklahoma City got enough value here. Depending on the second-round picks the Thunder send out in 2023 and 2024, a distant first-round pick for No. 30 this year and two second-rounders doesn’t seem like a great return. That might be consistent with what we’ve seen in past deals to move up in the draft, in which Oklahoma City has been willing to overpay from a surplus of picks.
But, pending protections on the 2027 pick, the Thunder could win big betting against the Nuggets’ long-term future. By 2027, Jokic will be 32 years old and Denver’s current core could be prohibitively expensive with Jokic likely to sign a supermax extension and Jamal Murray due for a new contract. If Denver ends up a low-level playoff team or worse, Oklahoma City could get access to a quality draft pick just as the franchise hopes to hit contention with this year’s No. 2 pick entering his prime.
MORE: Grade for the Nuggets