NBA free agency begins Thursday at 6 p.m. ET, but a number of stars have already made some big-money moves.
Despite speculation of a sign-and-trade deal, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving opted into his $36.5 million player option for the 2022-23 season. But although his decision removes the possibility of Irving leaving the Nets via free agency this summer, questions will continue to surround his future in Brooklyn.
John Wall, who was slated to make $47.4 million after exercising his player option with the Houston Rockets, has reached a buyout with the team and plans to join the LA Clippers, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon.
How are the latest deals impacting the NBA landscape? Kevin Pelton is breaking down the biggest signings, opt-ins and contract extensions.
Westbrook will pick up $47.1M option with Lakers
It came as no surprise when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Westbrook plans to exercise his $47.1 million player option for 2022-23. It would have been impossible for Westbrook to realistically recoup that value in free agency at age 33.
Dating back to the news conference introducing Darvin Ham as their new head coach, the Lakers have publicly been planning for Westbrook to be back and looking for a more complementary role that offers a better chance of success.
A Westbrook trade is still possible, but the Lakers would likely have to dip into their two tradable first-round picks (in 2027 and 2029) to incentivize a team to take his salary now.
A buyout like the one the Houston Rockets struck with John Wall would make less sense for the Lakers, because Westbrook’s expiring salary could become more attractive at the deadline to a team looking to shed long-term contracts.
Zubac extends with Clippers
Facing a Wednesday deadline whether to exercise Ivica Zubac‘s $7.5 million team option or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, the Clippers chose Door C: replacing the option with a three-year, $33 million extension (as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski) that will keep Zubac under contract long-term.
What’s most interesting about that decision is the Clippers declining the team option instead of building an extension off it, a decision that will be costly this season but allows them to avoid the potential of Zubac getting a bigger offer next summer. Instead of $7.5 million, Zubac will make a minimum of $10.2 million, a raise that will cost the Clippers many multiples more in luxury-tax payments.
Based on the Clippers’ current tax level, assuming John Wall gets the $6.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception, Zubac’s extra $2.7 million would mean about $12.5 million more in taxes — something that could still increase if the team re-signs forward Nicolas Batum for more than the veterans minimum.
For all the focus on the Golden State Warriors‘ spending last season before they won the title, the Clippers might nearly match the Warriors’ payroll in 2022-23 after extending both Zubac and forward Robert Covington.
From a basketball standpoint, paying Zubac more doesn’t have an alternative cost for the Clippers aside from subjecting him to trade restrictions regarding extensions for the next six months.
This extension is an illustration of why the NBA’s Helen Lovejoy-style hysteria about whether free-agent conversations happen before June 30 is misguided at best and actively harmful to both teams and players at worst. In order to strike a deal like this, both the Clippers and Zubac have to get some sense of what the market would look like for him.
Preventing players and teams from gauging that interest is actively trying to promote worse decision-making that ends up with one side or the other regretting deals struck legally leading up to free agency.
Timberwolves keep Prince out of free agency
The Minnesota Timberwolves took care of one key piece of business in free agency two days ahead of time by agreeing to a two-year extension worth $16 million with Taurean Prince, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Prince was the only free agent of note from a Timberwolves team coming off an overachieving season that culminated in a hard-fought first-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Because Minnesota has one of the league’s cleanest cap sheets, the Timberwolves could afford to re-sign Prince and still have more than enough room under the luxury tax to use their non-taxpayer midlevel exception, as noted by ESPN’s Bobby Marks. In a marketplace where few playoff contenders have that much to offer, that could yield a quality reserve or reasonable starter for Minnesota, most likely in the frontcourt.
Down the road, the non-guaranteed second year of Prince’s contract (as reported by The Athletic) allows the Timberwolves to maintain flexibility for the summer of 2023. With guards Patrick Beverley and D’Angelo Russell in the final seasons of their contracts and a team option for backup guard Malik Beasley, Minnesota could create max-level cap space to reshape the roster around stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.
Alternatively, if the Timberwolves want to keep things together, they can retain Prince at a reasonable contract for a second season. In his first season in Minnesota, Prince averaged 17.1 MPG primarily off the bench after being acquired in a deal struck on draft night. His .589 true shooting percentage was a career high, and Prince saw regular action at both forward spots, supplying valuable versatility.
Wall plans to join Clippers after reaching a buyout with the Rockets
After a year spent on the sideline, Wall is set to return to NBA action after completing a buyout with the Houston Rockets on Monday that will give back $6.5 million of the $47.4 million he was set to make in 2022-23, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon.
With ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting that Wall is headed to the LA Clippers, he can make up that money using their taxpayer midlevel exception, worth a projected $6.4 million. Wall heads to a contender in a destination market that has a need at point guard.
After trading Eric Bledsoe before the deadline, the Clippers had only starter Reggie Jackson as a traditional point guard the rest of the season, though they’ll also add 2021 second-round pick Jason Preston to the mix after Preston missed his entire first NBA campaign due to ligament damage in his right foot that required surgery.
When Wall was last on the court, he was serving as an offensive focal point for a limited Houston team in 2020-21. Wall had a career-high 32% usage rate, while his .503 true shooting percentage was his lowest since 2011-12. We’ve never seen Wall surrounded by as much supporting talent as he’ll have with the uber-deep Clippers, who also welcome back Kawhi Leonard to rejoin Paul George.
To some extent, that could highlight Wall’s weakness as a shooter. He hit 32% of his 3s in 2020-21, right near his career mark. However, Wall has typically been much more accurate on the kind of catch-and-shoot attempts he’ll get with the Clippers, hitting those at a 38% clip during the camera tracking era (back to 2013-14) per Second Spectrum data.
Additionally, Wall can take advantage of the Clippers’ talent by serving as more of a pass-first point guard. He’s always been a dazzling playmaker who excels at finding teammates in the corners. From 2013-14 through 2016-17, his prime years, Wall set up a league-high 1,063 corner 3-point attempts according to Second Spectrum stats. Only LeBron James set up more on a per-possession basis during that span.
It will be interesting to see how well Wall holds up defensively on a contending team. The Rockets’ defensive culture was nonexistent in 2020-21, and Wall will be asked to be much more competitive at that end of the court. How well Wall holds up will primarily determine just how much he plays for the Clippers.
Kyrie decides to opt in with Nets
There are, however, still plenty of ways the Irving-Brooklyn relationship could play out over the next year.
Irving could continue working with the Nets toward an agreeable long-term contract. As ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes, Irving is eligible for an extension through June 30, 2023, as a player in the final year of his contract. It’s possible the two sides could revisit negotiations during the season if Irving is healthy and productive.
Alternatively, Brooklyn could still trade him. In some ways, Irving exercising his option makes a trade easier than trying to find a mutually agreeable sign-and-trade deal if he became a free agent. Sign-and-trade restrictions would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for Irving to be traded to a taxpaying team such as the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent.
In a worst-case scenario, where the Nets are ready to move on from Irving entirely by midseason, his expiring contract could allow them to take back longer-term deals from a team looking to create salary flexibility.