NBA Trade Candidate Watch: RFAs-To-Be

With the March 25 trade deadline fast approaching, Hoops Rumors is taking a closer look at players around the NBA who are candidates to be moved this month, breaking them down into several categories based on their age, contracts, on-court value, and other categories. Today, we’ll zero in on players who will be eligible for restricted free agency at season’s end.

Players eligible for restricted free agency make for interesting trade candidates. On one hand, they generally don’t make a ton of money, making them tricky to include in a deal for an impact veteran whose salary must be matched. And many RFAs-to-be will require a significant investment when their contracts expire in a few months, which reduces their trade value.

Conversely though, if a team is unsure about its willingness to match an offer sheet for an RFA-to-be during a coming offseason, or if it knows that player isn’t in its long-term plans, it can make sense to explore the market in the hopes of getting something for that player, rather than letting him walk in a few months for nothing.

In one of 2020’s biggest trade deadline deals, the Timberwolves acquired Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez, then signed them to multiyear contracts as restricted free agents a few months later. In 2019, the Mavericks did the same with Kristaps Porzingis.

Who are the likeliest candidates among this year’s RFAs-to-be? Let’s dive in and take a look…

The top RFAs-to-be:

It’s a safe bet that the players in this group will do well for themselves in free agency this summer. Collins should get a maximum-salary offer or close to it; Robinson could command Davis Bertans– or Joe Harris-type money; and Ball and Markkanen have flashed enough of the upside that made them lottery picks to entice a team to make a big multiyear commitment.

The Hawks, Heat, Pelicans, and Bulls will have to decide how much they’re willing to pay to retain their respective players. If they’re worried the price tag will exceed their comfort level, trying to work out a sign-and-trade in the offseason could work — they could also match a summer offer sheet in the hopes of trading the player down the road. But it might be wise to gauge what they could get at this month’s deadline.

Of these four, I think Robinson is probably the least likely to be moved at the deadline — it would only make sense for the Heat to trade him if it’s part of a package for a star, and I don’t expect that sort of star to be available this month.

Ball, and Markkanen are more interesting trade candidates, though I won’t be surprised if the Pelicans and Bulls ultimately don’t feel as if the offers on the table are strong enough to accept. Rival suitors may believe they’ll be able to poach Ball or Markkanen away from their current teams with an aggressive offer sheet, lessening the need to give up assets for them now.

Trent is a key part of the Blazers’ rotation and one of the team’s top outside shooting threats, but it’s unclear if the team will be eager to invest big money in another guard. He’d be an appealing trade chip in a package for an impact player.

Collins is the most intriguing case in this group. Although the Hawks weren’t comfortable going up to the maximum salary when they discussed an extension last fall, I could see them matching a max offer sheet this summer to make sure they don’t lose him for nothing. If a team really wants Collins, now may be the time to make a play for him.

The wild cards:

The first six names in this list are former second-round draft picks or undrafted free agents whose solid play has put them in line for significant raises on their next contracts. Those raises could come from their current teams, but it’s unclear whether they’re all part of the long-term plans for their respective clubs.

Graham, for instance, may be the odd man out in a backcourt that now features LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier. Nunn has been in and out of the Heat’s rotation since last year’s playoffs, raising questions about whether he’s viewed as a long-term fixture in Miami.

Horton-Tucker was a preseason star in December, and while he’s been just okay during the regular season, he’s just 20 years old and has plenty of potential, so he’ll be a popular target in free agency. It remains to be seen whether the Lakers are committed to keeping him as part of an increasingly expensive roster.

Mykhailiuk is a talented young shooter, but he wasn’t acquired by the Pistons’ current front office, and GM Troy Weaver has almost entirely turned the roster over since he arrived — Mykhailiuk could be the next player shipped out.

Davis recently had domestic assault charges against him dismissed, but the Raptors’ front office may not view that outcome as an exoneration. That case could factor into the club’s enthusiasm for a new long-term deal with Davis.

The one player who doesn’t quite fit in this group is Monk. A former lottery pick, he looked for a long time like a disappointment at the NBA level and a player who wouldn’t be part of the Hornets’ future, but that changed, beginning in late January.

In his last 16 games, Monk has averaged 16.9 PPG with a .436 3PT%, and is making a strong case to receive a $7MM+ qualifying offer that seemed extremely unlikely just a few weeks ago. Presumably, Charlotte would still trade him in the right deal, but he has more value than just a salary throw-in now.

The players who probably won’t even become RFAs:

This group is made up of players who are technically eligible for restricted free agency but probably won’t receive qualifying offers, and will instead become unrestricted FAs.

In some cases, these guys may end up as salary-matching filler in a deadline trade — the Sixers, for instance, could include Ferguson in a package to acquire a player who would actually see regular minutes. Ditto for Wilson and the Bucks.

Ntilikina and Jackson may still have a small amount of value if there are teams out there that believe they can get more out of these former first-round picks than their current clubs have. Ntilikina has at least shown he can defend at the NBA level, while Jackson is only a couple years removed from knocking down 35.5% of his threes as a regular rotation player (19.9 MPG) across 81 games.

Dennis Smith Jr. would have been included in this group as well, but he has already been dealt to a new team, with the Pistons auditioning him in advance of his free agency.

The full list of potential 2021 restricted free agents – including Josh Hart, Zach Collins, and others – can be found right here.

Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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