In a league in which superstar salaries have been skyrocketing and teams value every precious dollar under the tax apron, the excitement during this year's NBA free agency, which begins Aug. 6, may resemble fireworks more often associated with a trade deadline.
The Celtics have popularized the sign-and-trade as much as any franchise. Who can forget the largest trade exception ($28.5 million) in league history that Boston netted in exchange for Gordon Hayward last summer? The trend has begun to sweep across the NBA, and it seems this offseason could indeed become the summer of the sign-and-trade, especially as the majority of the league's contenders face limited financial wiggle room to improve their rosters.
"Not only are they capped out, but you look at the lack of assets to play with," said one team personnel staffer. "What do the Lakers do? What do the Clippers do? What do the Bucks do? The Nets have no picks to trade."
Let's not forget Kevin Durant technically didn't sign with Brooklyn in 2019. After the superstar made his intentions of joining Kyrie Irving at Barclays Center known, Golden State then pounced on an opportunity to not lose Durant for nothing. And once it became clear D'Angelo Russell had no chance at returning to Brooklyn, the Warriors provided the young point guard with a maximum contract offer and the grandest stage of all: playing for a dynastic team in the purported middle of their title window. Russell and Durant were actually signed-and-traded for each other.
"Sign-and-trades work because all parties benefit, because all parties have to agree," said another team cap analyst. "And it allows the player, in theory, to make more money than they could otherwise make with a team that doesn't have cap space."
The only catch: Teams can't receive players in a sign-and-trade if it would push them over the tax apron—a threshold of approximately $6 million above the luxury tax that serves as a hard cap for teams. This limitation will affect several contenders moving forward, especially as Milwaukee and Brooklyn navigate their massive payrolls.
Back in March, both Los Angeles teams pursued acquiring Kyle Lowry. Now, it appears each team remains interested, and both would need to acquire him via sign-and-trade.
The Kawhi Leonard whispers will continue until he's re-signed. It's unclear how Leonard's surgery to repair a partially torn right ACL will impact his free agency, but plenty of teams will remain interested in landing his services.
League insiders still discuss how the Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler was purportedly ranked high on a list Leonard provided Clippers brass during his free agency in 2019 before Los Angeles landed Paul George. Those same voices also noted to Bleacher Report a string of messaging from Dallas in recent weeks about their interest in Leonard.
But the Clippers are hard-capped until the start of the new league year, and re-signing Leonard would likely push them into tax territory next year. They will only have so much space to further operate. And after strong playoff runs, Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum likely won't return on the minimum contracts they played under this season. Jackson's re-emergence during the conference finals in particular could open up a sign-and-trade opportunity for the Clippers to net some draft capital or another player back, should the veteran leave for a more lucrative situation.
Can Lakers Flip Schroder for...Something?
Before the March 25 deadline, the Lakers discussed trade packages with Toronto that centered around Dennis Schroder for Lowry. And Lakers brass are indeed expected to continue searching for another creator in the half court, whether it's Lowry or another ball-handler who can ease the playmaking burden for LeBron James.
With Schroder notably declining the Lakers' four-year, $84 million offer earlier this year, sources confirmed to Bleacher Report, it has opened the door for Los Angeles to explore sign-and-trade opportunities this summer. The point guard appears to be looking for a greater role and a bigger payday, neither of which the Lakers seem willing to provide. Schroder also happens to be the best trade chip Los Angeles holds to upgrade its roster.
League sources expect Chicago and New York to emerge as Schroder suitors, and both could be conducted via sign-and-trade—although Knicks certainly have the cap space to sign him outright. New York will likely have north of $50 million to spend this summer. Meanwhile, Los Angeles continues to gauge rival teams' interest in Kyle Kuzma, sources told B/R, although Schroder does carry a higher trade value around the NBA.
Philly's Only Shot at Another Superstar?
Even Philadelphia—in possession of more first-round capital than the aforementioned contenders—would currently need to complete a sign-and-trade for Lowry or another high-impact veteran playmaker to join the 76ers. It's said Lowry would welcome the chance to play for his hometown team, and the veteran floor general has long been a favorite of Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.
The executive traded for Lowry when he was the GM in Houston back in 2009. And Morey's ongoing conversations exploring a Ben Simmons trade notwithstanding, Lowry would provide an optimal creator alongside Joel Embiid in the Sixers' half court offense with or without Simmons remaining in Philadelphia long term.
Danny Green's unrestricted free agency has been mentioned by league personnel as another potential sign-and-trade opportunity for Philadelphia, should the veteran desire to play elsewhere. Green was a valued member of Doc Rivers' rotation, yet there's an expectation the swingman will draw significant interest from several playoff teams, and his next franchise could feasibly send another rotation piece back to Philadelphia—just like when Miami exchanged Josh Richardson for Jimmy Butler back in 2019.
Dinwiddie, Oubre S&T Markets
Sources tell B/R part of the reasoning for Brooklyn keeping Spencer Dinwiddie past the trade deadline was the Nets' ability to sign-and-trade their combo guard for another piece in their star-studded rotation. Dinwiddie could also return to the Nets.
Kelly Oubre offers the same path for Golden State. And the list of interested parties for both players seems to keep growing, with Dallas, New York and Miami among the teams being mentioned for each talent. New York's surplus of cap space (at least $50 million in room) makes it unlikely the Knicks would send out any assets back to their crosstown foe, and Dallas would need to cobble together several contracts to match the expected $16-22 million salary range front office figures project for Dinwiddie and Oubre.
Miami could send either Goran Dragic or Andre Iguodala back in either scenario. Both players have team options for the 2021-22 season, therefore Miami would need to exercise those options in this hypothetical. And if Golden State or Brooklyn simply lost Oubre or Dinwiddie, let's say to Dallas for a three-year, $60 million deal, there's a scenario where the Mavericks could send back a future second-round pick and in turn create a trade exception for the Warriors or Nets just like Hayward and Boston a year ago.
Bucks' P.J. Tucker?
Milwaukee is also depleted of most meaningful future draft capital after splurging for Jrue Holiday last summer. And they flexed smart cap creativity in their deadline deal to acquire P.J. Tucker.
The Bucks could very well re-sign Tucker. They hold his Bird rights, so they're allowed to go over the cap to re-sign him. But awarding Tucker the $12 million average annual salary he sought back during negotiations with Houston, sources said, will push Milwaukee's expensive roster way over that pesky tax apron.
Perhaps the Bucks could now benefit from more tricky tinkering with Tucker's free agency.
His role in this Bucks Finals run, including checking Kevin Durant and Trae Young, should certainly help Tucker's quest for a richer deal. A cap-conscious front office such as Milwaukee's would likely attempt to net some future draft capital or an established player in return.
Brooklyn has maintained an interest in Tucker dating back to the Nets' James Harden trade talks. Miami also discussed adding Tucker in variations of the Heat's negotiations for Victor Oladipo, sources said. Add the Lakers, Warriors, Nuggets and Jazz as teams that could vie for Tucker's services too. Minnesota, led of course by former Rockets executive Gersson Rosas, has coveted Tucker dating back to the 2020 draft, sources said, and the Wolves have continued searching for front court improvements.
Atlanta Hawks and John Collins
Atlanta may end up with the biggest sign-and-trade of the offseason. As we've previously reported, John Collins' extension conversations last fall fell nearly $30 million short of the contract value the young forward desires. It certainly felt notable that Hawks owner Tony Ressler had this to say during a recent press availability: "I'm not sure we're going to be able to keep every single player that we want to keep. Pretty good bet, pretty good assumption we will not."
If Atlanta's front office maintains the belief that Collins is not a max-contract player, league sources expect a sizable market of rival suitors to emerge. Dallas has long been mentioned as a potential landing spot for Collins, and Minnesota has recently been mentioned as a team to monitor in the Wolves' ongoing quest for a 4 man—which has certainly also included overtures for Simmons.
NBA team building has morphed into an arms race of acquiring talent, and that level of competition has inspired more ingenuity from team executives. This offseason is shaping up to be another dizzying stretch of player movement. Brace yourselves for the summer of the sign-and-trade.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.