The NBA Finals are set to begin this week, and that means that free agency is right around the corner. Questions abound regarding the timing of the offseason and the 2020-21 salary cap, but there are still plenty of players who will need a new contract in the coming months.
Given the disjointed nature of the 2019-20 season, it will be interesting to see how much recency bias plays into teams' decisions regarding free agents. Will they evaluate players based on their pre-hiatus performance, or will they take a closer look at how they played during the restart?
With that in mind, here is a look at several players who have either helped or hurt their free-agent stock based on their bubble performance. For the purposes of this exercise, we'll assume that most players will elect to pick up their options given the uncertain nature of the NBA financial situation.
Free-agent stock raised
Most of the talk surrounding Dragic to begin the season was about his transition to a bench role. That's generally viewed as a demotion, but Dragic put up better per-36 minute numbers this year than he did during his All-Star season of 2017-18, while shooting 37 percent on 7.3 3-point attempts per game. As if that weren't enough, the 34-year-old has taken his game to new heights after becoming a starter in the bubble due to Kendrick Nunn's positive COVID-19 test. Dragic has led the Heat in scoring during their underdog run to the NBA Finals, and has become the offensive closer down the stretch, hitting countless clutch shots.
For teams wondering whether Dragic had enough left in the tank, they've gotten their answer.
The bubble didn't as much boost VanVleet's stock as confirm what we already knew -- that he's a legitimate star capable of being a consistent key component on a championship-caliber team. VanVleet's incredible improvement during the regular season translated to the playoffs, where he averaged 19.6 points, 6.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game on 39 percent 3-point shooting. Locking him up to a long-term deal will likely be a high priority for the Raptors this offseason.
Ibaka's stock was already on the rise after a great regular season, but it was only cemented with a brilliant bubble playoff run with the Raptors. He averaged nearly 15 points and eight rebounds while going 23-of-45 (51 percent) from 3-point range in the postseason. Ibaka also proved that he can still be an effective rim protector, averaging 1.3 blocks per game in the playoffs after a career-low 0.8 per game in the regular season.
The Raptors can head in a few different directions this offseason, but they'll likely have to put up some decent cash if they want to keep Ibaka after his strong bubble performance.
Grant has a $9.3 million player option for next season, but it's safe to assume he'll seek a better deal in free agency after becoming an essential part of the Nuggets' miraculous postseason. Grant's 3-point shot wasn't as consistent during the restart, but he averaged double-figures in the playoffs while taking on the task of guarding explosive offensive players like Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James on a nightly basis.
As evidenced by his career playoff-high 26 points in a Game 3 win over the Lakers, Grant is clearly just scratching the surface of his offensive potential. His two-way future is tantalizing, and he'll likely be compensated accordingly this offseason.
With a serious lack of depth on the wing, the Blazers needed Anthony to step up, and he exceeded expectations during the Blazers' exciting run to the postseason. Anthony had played well with the Blazers pre-hiatus, but he took things to another level in the bubble and proved that he's capable of being some form of the "Olympic Melo" everyone hoped he'd transition into in the latter stages of his career. Anthony shot 47 percent from the 3-point line in seeding games and 42 percent on about four attempts per game in the team's first-round loss to the Lakers. He averaged 1.286 points per possession on unguarded catch-and-shoot 3-pointers during the series, good for the 66th percentile according to Synergy Sports Technology.
Anthony also proved that he's still a reliable option when you need a bucket, averaging 1.286 points per possession on post-ups in the postseason, second only to Ibaka for players with at least 10 qualifying possessions. At 36, he probably won't get a lucrative multi-year deal, but he proved that he can still be an important offensive player on a playoff team and that he's willing to adjust his role to what the team needs.
Green signed with Houston about a month before the COVID-19 hiatus and became essential to the Rockets' small-ball concept as one of the team's tallest players at 6-8. He played well in 10 games before the shutdown, but got even better in the bubble, averaging 14.5 points in seeding games and 11.6 points and five rebounds on 43 percent 3-point shooting in the playoffs. It appeared that the 34-year-old's career might be nearing an end when he was cut by the Jazz on Christmas Eve, but his performance with the Rockets should entice them, or another team, to offer him a solid deal.
Free-agent stock lowered
There's no price tag you can attach to the leadership and stability that Millsap has provided during the Nuggets' improbable run to the Western Conference finals, but he hasn't done himself any favors with actual on-court production. After averaging a solid 11.6 points and 5.7 rebounds during the regular season, Millsap's playoff production has been sporadic at best -- nonexistent at worst -- with averages of eight points and 4.7 rebounds. More concerning for prospective suitors is his 3-point accuracy, which dipped to 34.1 percent in the playoffs after he made a blistering 44 percent of attempts during the regular season. The Nuggets' net rating was 10.6 points better with Millsap on the floor during the regular season, but during the postseason they were minus-4.3.
Millsap can clearly still help a team and should have plenty of offers, but this postseason has proven that he can't be a reliable component of a playoff offense.
For the last few seasons, Whiteside has been viewed largely as an "empty stats" type of player, putting up big numbers sometimes to the detriment of team success. You can make the same argument this season, but Whiteside's stats in his first season with the Trail Blazers (15.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, 62 percent field goals, league-leading 2.9 blocks per game) were some of the best of his career. That could have led a GM or two to convince themselves that Whiteside deserved another big contract, but those fleeting thoughts likely disappeared after Whiteside's bubble performance.
With the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, we got to see what Whiteside looked like in a limited bench role -- and it wasn't pretty. As usual, he had spurts of impressive play, but other times he was played off the court due to his defensive limitations and was subdued offensively due to his lack of versatility. Whiteside seems like he needs to play big minutes to have a serious impact, and there just aren't many teams out there looking for a traditional starting center.
The 32-year-old Gallinari put up great numbers in a rare healthy regular season for the Thunder this year but ran into some serious issues in the playoffs. Maybe it was just a bad matchup against the Houston Rockets, but Gallinari all but disappeared for large stretches of games throughout the seven-game series. His scoring average dropped from 18.5 points per game in the regular season to 15 in the playoffs, and his decline in efficiency was catastrophic -- going from 44 percent from the field and 41 percent on 3-pointers during the regular season to 41 percent field goals and 32 percent on 3-pointers.
Gallinari experienced similar struggles last postseason as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers (35 percent field goals, 30 percent 3-pointers), so prospective front offices might think twice about breaking the bank for the 6-10 forward if they're looking to make a deep playoff run.
Whether it was because of having to leave and return to the bubble for a death in the family or simply bad playoff matchups, Harrell never quite looked like himself in Orlando. The Sixth Man of the Year averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in the regular season, but saw those averages plummet to 10.5 points and 2.9 rebounds in 13 Clipper playoff games. More concerning, however, was his poor defense, which limited his minutes against strong offensive centers like Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic, even Boban Marjanovic. Harrell gave up 19 points in 16 minutes guarding Jokic, 13 points in seven minutes guarding Porzingis and 19 points in 14 minutes guarding Marjanovic, according to NBA.com matchup data.
A significantly undersized center at 6-7, Harrell failed to contribute enough offensively during the postseason to make up for what he was giving up on the other end. The Clippers will likely re-sign Harrell and give him the significant salary bump that he's earned, but he might not get the offer he was hoping for after a career-best regular season due to his disappointing playoff performance.