DeMar DeRozan free agency: Why six-time All-Star is in limbo, just like the last time he was on the market

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Three years ago, when DeMar DeRozan was a free agent, some speculated that he could take a sizable pay cut. Mere hours before DeRozan agreed to a sign-and-trade that sent him to the Chicago Bulls, Chris Haynes, then of Yahoo Sports, reported that the star wing would meet with the Los Angeles Clippers that day, even though the Clippers only had the taxpayer midlevel exception (then worth $5.9 million) at their disposal.

DeRozan had made $27.7 million the previous season with the San Antonio Spurs. The deal he ended up signing with the Bulls paid him $81.9 million over three years. And now, with DeRozan, again a free agent, seemingly in limbo coming off a season in which he made $28.6 million, I’m getting deja vu. Just like last time, there has been some reporting that he’d like to play in his hometown of Los Angeles. Just like last time, there has been some reporting that the Miami Heat would like to have him. Just like last time, he and the team on which he finished the season are ready to part ways, but there’s not much cap space out there. Will some team come out of nowhere with a sign-and-trade the way the Bulls did then?

DeRozan is willing to be “very patient,” Haynes, now of Bleacher Report said on Tuesday. Both Haynes and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said that Chicago is happy to facilitate a sign-and-trade but DeRozan could potentially sign a one-year deal instead. In that scenario, he could try free agency again next summer, at which point he might have more options. (In a sign-and-trade, the contract must be for a minimum of three years, although only the first has to be fully guaranteed.)

But what kind of one-year deal would he sign? And with whom? DeRozan will not even consider signing for the non-taxpayer midlevel exception (i.e. $12.9 million), per Haynes. The only teams that have the requisite cap space to sign DeRozan outright on a contract he’d find palatable are the Detroit Pistons (who don’t fit his timeline, have a glut of young guards/wings who need the ball in their hands and, in Tobias Harris, have already splurged on a vet this offseason) and the Utah Jazz (who don’t fit his timeline and could use its cap space to renegotiate-and-extend Lauri Markkanen’s contract in August, provided that they don’t trade him before then).

There are a couple other teams that have more than $20 million of spending power. The Brooklyn Nets will have a trade exception worth about $23 million when they complete the Mikal Bridges deal (assuming that Bojan Bogdanovic’s contract slides into the Spencer Dinwiddie trade exception), and the Atlanta Hawks will have a trade exception worth more than $25 million when they complete the Dejounte Murray deal (assuming that Larry Nance Jr. and Dyson Daniels’ contracts slide into the John Collins trade exception). Neither of those teams, however, are likely to be in the market for a soon-to-be-35-year-old scorer, unless they believe the deal is team-friendly enough that it could flip DeRozan for positive value in a few months.. (And hey, if he takes $20-25 million for one season, maybe it is.)

Ready for more salary-cap fun? Complicating matters further, any team that acquires DeRozan in a sign-and-trade would immediately be hard-capped at the first apron (i.e. $178.1 million). This is why, for example, it would not be easy for the Los Angeles Lakers to acquire DeRozan in a sign-and-trade. As things stand, the Lakers’ projected payroll after re-signing LeBron James is slightly above the second apron (i.e. $188.9 million), so, even if it was able to, say, turn D’Angelo Russell into DeRozan in a sign-and-trade, it would need to dump other salary (and/or re-engage James on the whole pay cut thing) to make it cap-legal. For the same reason, even though the Hawks have that big trade exception, they could not actually use it to acquire DeRozan on more than an $18 million salary (and paying him even that much would require waiving both Garrison Mathews and Bruno Fernando).

In other words, while there might be tons of teams that would welcome DeRozan in different circumstances, it’s unclear if anybody is going to do what it takes to get him anytime soon. While Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported Tuesday that the Heat were in the mix and expected to follow up with DeRozan, he added that there has been “no indication Miami would move mountains to sign him.” 

On Wednesday, The Athletic’s Jovan Buha reported that the Lakers are making some kind of play for DeRozan but the Heat are “viewed as slight favorites,” citing league sources. Miami can get under the first apron more easily than Los Angeles can, but it also has Caleb Martin’s ongoing free agency to worry about. In contrast, the Sacramento Kings, described by ESPN’s Marc Spears as a “dark horse to get DeRozan,” are comfortably under the first apron. The Bulls like Kings wing Kevin Huerter, per NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson, so Sacramento might be their most natural trade partner… provided that its front office believes DeRozan would be a good fit (and I have some questions about that).

Perhaps DeRozan’s reported patience will pay off, though. Even if it’s true that, today, the kind of contract he wants is “not left out there in the marketplace,” as Wojnarowski put it, it’s worth remembering that the marketplace can change. If the Jazz trade Markkanen, for example, there will be ripple effects. One of them is that they might suddenly be ready to use cap space to either sign DeRozan — I mean, somebody has to score — or, more likely, absorb salary from a team that would like to sign him (or from a team that would like to acquire him in a sign-and-trade but is too close to the apron to do so). 

The point is not that DeRozan must wait for the Markkanen situation to sort itself out before he can find a new team. It’s that, even though it seems like most of the important offseason transactions have already been made, there could still be significant movement, and that movement could affect DeRozan’s market. In late September last year, Jrue Holiday told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he wanted to be a “Buck for life,” completely unaware that he was on the verge of being traded (twice). You won’t be surprised if Brandon Ingram, Andrew Wiggins and Cameron Johnson are all moved relatively soon, will you? What about Trae Young and Clint Capela? Jimmy Butler, even? 

It’s a bit uncomfortable that DeRozan, a six-time All-Star, is once again in this predicament, waiting for a suitor to come up with a creative way to pay him what a player of his stature would typically command. But hey, it worked out last time.

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