NBA buyout guide: Who are the best players likely to reach mid-season free agency, and where will they go?
As a general rule in the NBA, the buyout market is only as good as the trade deadline that preceded it. While it’s hardly unheard of for teams to waive veterans they’ve kept all season, it’s not exactly the norm. Even if a losing team has a veteran on an expiring contract, they typically choose to keep that player if he’s a locker room fit, and when they are, such players aren’t always eager to leave in the middle of the season anyway.
No, the best buyout candidates are almost always forced onto the market through trades. These are players that may have been genuine contributors on their prior teams, but were traded as salary ballast in a bigger deal to a franchise that doesn’t need them. When that happens, the player offers to forego a portion of his salary — often whatever amount he’ll make on a prorated minimum deal with somebody else — in exchange for the right to find a new team via free agency.
We just had one of the most active trade deadlines in years, and as such, we’re headed for one of the more active buyout markets in recent memory. Let’s take a look at some of the most likely candidates to receive buyouts in the coming days and where they might land once the dust settles.
We’ve known a Westbrook buyout was coming since before he was traded. When Wednesday’s deal with Utah was just a mere rumor, Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported that the Jazz would likely buy out Westbrook upon arrival. Expect news on that front shortly, and we’ve already covered a few possible destinations in depth here.
Thus far, reports have tied Westbrook to the Clippers and Bulls, though those Clippers reports came before the team added Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland at the deadline. It’s unclear whether those moves would change things. More pressing for Westbrook is the deluge of bad press he’s received since getting traded. One source described him to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin as a “vampire” in their locker room. He had a heated exchange with Darvin Ham on Tuesday. He had one with Phil Handy earlier in the season. The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Jovan Buha reported that there were members of the organization that thought they might need to waive him, and that “the coaching staff struggled with Westbrook’s unwillingness to be held accountable for his play.”
Teams are going to be wary of adding a personality like Westbrook to their locker room so late in the season. Someone is going to do it, and the Clippers, based on his preexisting relationship with Paul George and the fact that he wouldn’t have to leave Los Angeles, are probably the favorites. But signing him is a significant risk, one that no team will take lightly.
The Athletic’s Shams Charania is reporting that the Hornets are likely to buy out Jackson after acquiring him Thursday, and we already have an idea of where he’s headed. Haynes reported that Jackson will likely be in contact with the Suns if he gets his buyout, and the fit makes plenty of sense. All four of Phoenix’s top guards have dealt with injuries this season, and Phoenix is desperate for depth after trading a big chunk of its roster to land Kevin Durant.
Of course, the Clippers let him go for a reason. His scoring is down significantly and he’s shot just 33.3 percent on 3-point attempts over the past two years. Factor in his size and defensive limitations and it’s fair to wonder how much Jackson can still offer a playoff team. Fortunately, the Suns have so much top-end talent that they should be able to cover Jackson’s weaknesses fairly well.
Another team to watch? The Denver Nuggets. Jackson is atop their buyout wishlist, according to the Denver Post’s Mike Singer, and the veteran point guard grew up in Colorado Springs. Denver’s backup point guard slot is suddenly wide open after the Nuggets sent Hyland to the Clippers, so don’t be surprised if they swoop in and grab him before Phoenix does.
Danny Green is an intriguing buyout target for the same reason he might not get bought out at all: he fits everywhere. Green’s 3-and-D skillset could help any team, and he’s a highly regarded veteran teammate. The Rockets didn’t buy out Dennis Schroder last season, so they may not buy out Green now. If they do? Keep an eye on two of his former teams, the Lakers and 76ers, as destinations that could use him in their rotations.
Keep in mind, however, the 35-year-old Green has only played three games since coming back from of a torn ACL. There’s really no way of knowing how much he still has left in the tank, but given the minimal cost of buyout additions, there are going to be plenty of teams eager to find out.
Patrick Beverley looked almost unplayable early in the season, but he’s found his shot over the past two months or so, draining 42.6 percent of his 3-pointers over his past 25 games. He’s not the defender he once was, he’s lost a ton of foot speed, and he fouls far too often. But there’s also no denying that he’s a defensive culture setter who can still help teams in smaller doses.
Orlando is probably too far out of the playoff race to justify keeping him, so expect him to hit the buyout market shortly. If he does, his former team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, instantly become the favorites to re-sign him. He grew into a fan-favorite there last season and reports from earlier in the season indicated that he’d like to return.
Here’s one of our few non-trade candidates. Kevin Love was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season, and he started off the season similarly effective. He’s shooting a meager 36.8 percent from the field since the beginning of December, though, and he has recently fallen out of the rotation. Couple those struggles with his career-long defensive issues, and it’s not hard to see why Cleveland might be ready to move on. The Action Network’s Matt Moore reported that Love could be a buyout candidate.
Love is a franchise icon. If he wants to stay in Cleveland, the Cavs will happily keep him. If he wants to play elsewhere, they’ll likely accommodate him. If he does hit the open market, the Lakers make some sense given his UCLA roots and former partnership with LeBron James. However, the Lakers just traded for two big men, so it’s unclear how interested they’d be in adding another. How about Denver as a fallback option to the newly acquired Thomas Bryant? Love’s passing would allow them to maintain a shred of stylistic continuity when Nikola Jokic goes to the bench. The 76ers also badly need another backup big man, though they’d prefer a traditional center to a power forward like Love.
The Clippers were John Wall’s escape from Houston eight months ago. Sending him back there on deadline day was almost cruel, but fortunately for Wall, he’s unlikely to remain there. Without a $47 million contract standing between him and free agency, the Rockets will likely grant him his buyout fairly quickly.
But here’s the real question — can Wall still play? The Clippers signed him to generate rim pressure and push the pace. He did neither effectively, nor did he defend at anywhere close to his peak levels or shoot acceptable percentages. At this point, Wall probably can’t help a contender, but, hey, the Wizards are always open to new forms of mediocrity. Why not re-sign Wall and sell some tickets and jerseys in the middle of yet another lost season?
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Washington is working on a buyout with Will Barton, and that’s not especially surprising considering his performance this season. His numbers are down across the board and he’s largely been out of the rotation lately. He was a valuable starter last season in Denver, however, so some team would surely give him another chance at rotation minutes.
A Denver reunion would make plenty of sense, but sadly, the Nuggets cannot reacquire Barton until one year has passed since they traded him. That leaves teams in need of a bit of bench ball-handling. How about the Mavericks? They have two elite ball-handlers in Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic, but very little beyond those two. Barton could provide a bit of valuable insurance.
Charania reported that the Pacers will buy out Serge Ibaka, and that should suit him just fine. He wanted to be traded by Milwaukee so he could find consistent playing time, and now he’ll have his chance to do so. That doesn’t mean he’s going to have a line of eager potential employers, however. Ibaka has barely played this season. The Bucks didn’t use him much last season either, and the Clippers moved him in a cap dump at the 2022 deadline.
Ibaka is among the best 3-and-D centers of the past decade. That’s a rare and valuable skill set. He can probably still shoot 3s. If he’s going to find a new team, he’s going to have to convince them that he can still defend. That’s going to be no easy task for a 33-year-old big man that hasn’t put much of a highlight reel over the past year.