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The people with all the power in NBA free agency

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Sometime between now and the 2020 NBA draft on Nov. 18, the league should lift the monthslong transaction moratorium, allowing its annual round of offseason chaos to officially begin.

There are many things the NBA will need to sort out over the next few months, from the salary cap rules governing next season to where games will be played to whether fans will be in attendance. Those negotiations and conversations with public health officials are an immediate priority for commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts.

But teams are also getting ready to navigate the unpredictable roster shuffle that hits the league every offseason. It’s been more than eight months since the most recent NBA trade and more than 15 months since the last big move of the 2019 NBA offseason, when Russell Westbrook was dealt for Chris Paul. That silence will end quickly.

To preview what’s to come, and where the real transaction power is held, here’s our list of the people who will be making the biggest decisions this offseason, all their options and the potential fallout.

Option 1: Sign a supermax extension

There is no more impactful decision this fall than if the reigning two-time MVP chooses to sign the five-year extension he will be offered at the start of free agency by the Milwaukee Bucks. That would cement the Bucks as title contenders well into the 2020s.

But it would also alter the plans of the teams hoping to lure Giannis Antetokounmpo away. The Toronto Raptors won’t be as scared by an offer to unrestricted free-agent point guard Fred VanVleet that could damage their cap sheet. And the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks could look to bolster their rosters now with long-term money that previously would have been unpalatable.

Don’t expect an immediate spending spree if Antetokounmpo re-signs — the 2021 class will still have star power, and the league is carefully navigating pandemic finances — but his potential availability will keep some teams in wait-and-see mode until he signs his next contract.

Option 2: Hold off on a decision until 2021 free agency

Multiple sources have emphatically said Milwaukee will not look to trade Antetokounmpo if he passes on the extension. Instead, the Bucks will try to improve their roster and use the next year to show Antetokounmpo why he should stay.

Waiting would give Antetokounmpo maximum leverage over Milwaukee over the next 12 months. If the Bucks are willing to add to their payroll to improve the team — something ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported they are — Milwaukee could chase a significant upgrade in trades (despite being short on prime assets).


Victor Oladipo and the Pacers’ front office: The expiring deal

Option 1: Pursue an extension

With one year left on his contract, Victor Oladipo looks like a possible extension candidate. But finding a number that makes sense for both sides won’t be easy.

The Indiana Pacers can offer an extension beginning at 120% of Oladipo’s salary for the 2020-21 season — a deal that would start around $26 million, a few million per year below what he could sign on a max contract next offseason as an unrestricted free agent. Oladipo, who suffered a torn quadriceps tendon in January 2019 and then struggled upon returning this year, could want to come back next season and try to prove he’s still the All-NBA player he was in 2018.

Option 2: Gauge trade options

There is a reason Oladipo’s name has been mentioned for months as a possible trade target. Having just one year left on his deal puts the Pacers in position to potentially lose him for nothing — something a small-market team would always prefer to avoid. And the financial landscape of both the league as a whole and the Pacers specifically (with long-term money already committed to Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis) has rival teams wondering if they will be willing to spend to keep Oladipo.

But any trade talks here will be complicated. Oladipo’s play was uneven after returning from injury this year, and given his history, those concerns would transfer to a new team.

Option 3: Wait it out

Even if this leads to Oladipo walking in a year, it could be the path that makes the most sense for both sides. The Pacers likely won’t trade Oladipo for a low-value package just to move him. Waiting would give Indiana a chance to see what this core looks like at full strength before reevaluating things at the 2021 trade deadline, and would give Oladipo a chance to show he’s back to who he was pre-injury.

Fred VanVleet: The best available free agent

Option 1: Re-sign in Toronto

The Raptors have two primary goals this offseason: re-sign guard Fred VanVleet, and do so without eating into their max cap space for 2021 too much.

According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, any VanVleet deal around four years and $80 million should keep Toronto in the superstar race next offseason. But things get dicey if the Raptors start competing with bigger offers for one of their most important players.

Option 2: Join a rebuilding team

Two years ago, VanVleet bet on himself in free agency, signing a two-year, $18 million deal that he far surpassed in terms of on-court value. Now he enters free agency as possibly the best unrestricted player with a chance to relocate. The teams swimming in cap space — such as the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks — missed the playoffs, so VanVleet could be choosing between taking a little less to play in a winning situation or a little more to try to turn around one of those teams.

In both Detroit and New York, he could be a culture-setter in the middle of a rebuild. Atlanta has designs on taking a big step forward next season, and having a secondary creator, shooter and defender next to Trae Young makes a lot of sense.


Travis Schlenk: The GM with money to spend

Option 1: Commit to long-term additions

Rivals teams expect Atlanta to look to make substantial improvements this offseason. If the Hawks can add depth around their young core of Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Clint Capela, they can enter the suddenly competitive playoff mix in the Eastern Conference.

With $42 million to spend, general manager Travis Schlenk can make competitive, long-term offers that most teams won’t be able to top. The Hawks won’t find a proven star in this class, but there are good players — including VanVleet, Davis Bertans, Danilo Gallinari and Joe Harris — who could add much-needed shooting and defense.

Option 2: Look at short-term improvements

The alternate route here is bypassing an extension for Collins (waiting to re-sign him until he’s a restricted free agent after this season) and getting the best possible players now on one-year deals. That would allow the Hawks to walk into next year’s free agency with a full max salary slot and attempt to recruit a star after what they hope is an impressive season.

Clippers and 76ers: The high-pressure disappointments

Option 1: Count on a new coach and new results

The LA Clippers were the favorites to win the NBA title for most of the season before sputtering out of the playoffs in the second round. The Philadelphia 76ers hardly ever saw their projected starting lineup on the court together.

That could cause both teams to say that the only change they needed to make was on the bench — where Tyronn Lue replaced Doc Rivers in Los Angeles and Rivers replaced Brett Brown in Philadelphia.

Option 2: Big moves

Both teams are under intense pressure to win, making them candidates to pursue roster changes before the season tips, though dramatic overhauls will be complicated.

In Los Angeles, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard almost certainly aren’t going anywhere. And after the trade for George last summer, the Clippers don’t have many assets to send out. They could try to combine players such as Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Ivica Zubac in deals, but it’s tough to trade veteran role players for impact talent. They could also try to execute sign-and-trade deals for Marcus Morris and/or Montrezl Harrell, but the math there is tricky.

In the East, can the Sixers find a taker for Al Horford and balance their roster? Will they consider moving on from Josh Richardson, who has one year left on his deal? Will Ben Simmons play point guard, like he has most of his career, or power forward, like he did in the Florida bubble before suffering a season-ending knee injury? And if Simmons is at the 4, where does Philly find a point guard? The answers to any of those questions could lead to roster changes in Philly.


Bob Myers and Sean Marks: The allure of more star power

Option 1: Win-now moves

As my colleague Brian Windhorst is fond of saying, “Winning a championship means never having to say you’re sorry.” We’ve seen teams go all-in on star power in each of the past two summers and win it all. The Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets could find themselves with similar opportunities this offseason.

For Bob Myers, Golden State’s president of basketball operations, that would means trying to use the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft and the lightly protected future first-rounder from the Minnesota Timberwolves (along with the bloated contract of Andrew Wiggins) to add another high-level player to a core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. For Sean Marks, Brooklyn’s general manager, that means potentially dangling a package including the Nets’ enticing young talent — Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen — to add a third star alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Option 2: Build for the long haul

In the NBA, there is always the possibility some star player shakes free whom no one is expecting, but right now there isn’t an obvious trade target for either team.

That is especially true for Golden State, which is unlikely to trade an asset like the No. 2 pick in the draft for a moderate upgrade. If there isn’t an obvious deal now, the best bet for the Warriors might be to simply make their pick, bide their time and see what opportunities pop up.

Brooklyn, on the other hand, already has plenty of nice complementary pieces for Durant and Irving — a formula we just saw work for the champion Lakers. With Durant and Irving both signed for multiple years, the Nets have time to see what they have before trading their young players.


Sam Presti and David Griffin: The playoff bubble teams

Option 1: Embrace a rebuild

Last summer, both Sam Presti (the Oklahoma City Thunder general manager) and David Griffin (the executive vice president of the New Orleans Pelicans) had franchise players requesting trades to relocate to Los Angeles. Both turned those situations into huge hauls of young talent and draft assets.

They could attempt to do the same this year, though the returns shouldn’t be as big. After trading for Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, Presti could try to extract further value by flipping them this offseason. Paul’s bloated contract (he’s owed roughly $85 million over the next two seasons, including a $44 million player option in 2021-22) could make moving him difficult, but also should lower OKC’s asking price. Gallinari is an unrestricted free agent, but because of the lack of available cap space on good teams, he could be a candidate for a sign-and-trade deal.

Griffin has a decision to make about Jrue Holiday. One of the league’s best defensive guards, Holiday has one year left on his deal, and in an offseason when there isn’t a lot of star power available, he could fetch a nice return for the Pelicans, allowing them to fully commit to building around Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

Option 2: Maintain playoff contention

If Paul and Holiday stay put, both teams will hope to again remain in the playoff chase. Oklahoma City might have difficulty doing that if the team doesn’t retain Gallinari, but given the lack of clear suitors for him this offseason, the Thunder might be able to re-sign him and try to flip him down the road.

Meanwhile, New Orleans was the favorite to be the eighth seed before things went sideways in the bubble — and the Pelicans will be confident they can make a run at a playoff spot next season if Williamson is healthy and Holiday is still on the roster.

Option 1: Commit long term

After teaming up with LeBron James to win a championship in his first season in Los Angeles, it’s hard to envision Davis going anywhere when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this fall. Assuming he does re-sign with the Lakers, Davis will have a choice to make: sign a short-term deal — one or two seasons — or a full four- or five-year max contract.

If Davis chooses the long-term route, the Lakers can more easily plan around his salary commitments, as they look to both bring in more stars in the future and to supplement the roster next season.

Option 2: Go the short-term route

A shorter-team deal shifts the power dynamic in Davis’ direction. If he signs a two-year deal, that would allow him to sign a max contract for the most money — 35% of the salary cap — in 2022. A one-year deal would allow him to align with James, who can also become a free agent after next season.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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