With NBA’s moratorium lifting, league’s focus now shifts to restricted free agents

The NBA’s moratorium period of the offseason concludes Thursday, allowing pens to reach paper across the league, and therefore marking the first opportunity for restricted free agents to sign an offer sheet from a rival team. A restricted free agent could have agreed to terms since the bell rang at 6 p.m. ET Friday just like players on the open market. You can bet Austin Reaves, Miles Bridges or Grant Williams would have responded to a four-year, $100 million overture from, for instance, San Antonio. But the fact such an offer sheet couldn’t be officially signed until Thursday, before that player’s incumbent team then has 48 hours to consider matching, certainly dissuaded front offices from making an aggressive pursuit in this year’s restricted class.

Reaves and Bridges have already come off the board. Without that lucrative offer above the four-year, $56 million Reaves took to return to the Lakers, the Arkansas product was always heading back to Los Angeles. Bridges surprised many league observers by agreeing to the one-year, $7.9 million qualifying offer the Hornets had to extend to keep him restricted.

The qualifying offer is usually just a formality, not a dollar figure most players ever consider. It does allow a potential exit ramp for a touted young prospect, however, should negotiations with his current club go awry, and a chance for someone such as Bridges to reach the open market as an unrestricted free agent the following year. The fact Bridges missed the entirety of the 2022-23 season after a domestic violence incident that took place on the eve of his originally scheduled restricted free agency last summer, of course, clouds any evaluation of his play in terms of contract value.

There was plenty of talk of Bridges drawing several offers of around $30 million annually, perhaps from the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and even the Memphis Grizzlies, before news broke regarding Bridges’ allegations of assault.

Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington (25) celebrates after a basket against the Dallas Mavericks during an NBA basketball game on Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
Restricted free agent P.J. Washington and Charlotte appear to be far apart in contract talks. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)

One year later, it’s no surprise a similar market didn’t materialize for Bridges, who was seeking upward of $25 million in average annual value from the Hornets this July, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Charlotte and Bridges’ representation were far enough apart in negotiations that Bridges swiftly took the qualifying offer not even 24 hours into free agency. Bridges, who pleaded no contest to a felony domestic violence charge in November 2022, could have waited. There’s recent history, such as Lauri Markkanen in 2021, of a restricted free agent lingering on the market deep into the summer and ultimately landing a strong opportunity through sign-and-trade. Maybe that will be the end result for P.J. Washington’s own restricted free agency with the Hornets, as he also appears far apart with Charlotte in his contract talks.

Bridges and his representatives went so far as asking Charlotte to pull the qualifying offer, sources said, to reach the open market now. Washington’s unsettled negotiations with the Hornets seem a little more complicated. As Marc Stein reported on his Substack, Washington wants well north of the $12.4 million mid-level exception, in the range of four years and $80 million, sources said. The similar contract Keldon Johnson signed with the Spurs last summer has become some form of a benchmark for starter-level players’ rookie extensions and second contracts across the league — note that’s the same number Dillon Brooks drew from Houston. Not every deal is created equal in terms of guaranteed money and various bonuses, but for Washington to get that type of payday, he may have to hold out for a sign-and-trade chance like Markkanen eventually found with the Cavaliers.

Dallas has been the only team to emerge as a bona fide landing spot for restricted free agent forwards. The Mavericks, though, appear more focused on wing defenders than a versatile big man such as Washington. The two names most often connected to the Mavericks have been Williams and Blazers forward Matisse Thybulle, after another top target in Brooks went on to sign with Houston.

Chris Haynes of Turner Sports reported Wednesday that Thybulle intends to sign an offer sheet from the Mavericks. Dallas, according to league sources, has valued Thybulle at a number slightly below the full mid-level. That salary, though, would be in the ballpark of where Portland, on the precipice of trading franchise face Damian Lillard, would seem positioned to match for a young player who some talent evaluators still believe has untapped offensive potential. The Blazers also acquired Thybulle at the February trade deadline, when teams typically pursue players they don’t plan to let walk, even if their All-NBA lynchpin requests a trade.

Williams doesn’t have a clean route to the Mavericks, either. Matching an offer sheet at the mid-level could give Boston over $40 million in additional tax payments, but the Celtics would have until the trade deadline to find ways to navigate under that tax threshold. Back during extension talks in the fall, Williams was hoping for roughly $15 million in average annual value, league sources told Yahoo Sports, while the Celtics were more comfortable extending Williams closer to a $12 million salary. Now any rival suitor — forgetting the Spurs’ outstanding $25 million-plus in cap space — seems limited to attaining Williams in that mid-level price range. If Dallas or some other interested party hopes to pay Williams a number the Celtics won’t consider matching, they will need to look into sign-and-trade avenues.

Williams’ situation may not be immediately resolved once the moratorium concludes. Sign-and-trades are never as simple as meets the eye with complicated salary-matching rules and other stipulations, plus the required cooperation of a team — in this case the Celtics — helping a rival gain one of their own players and wanting something of value in return.

For all the trade smoke swirling around the league this past weekend, there doesn’t appear to be a clear next deal coming down the pipeline. NBA personnel are still waiting to see what the Spurs accomplish in order to meet the salary floor, which is 90% of this season’s salary cap. There are other ongoing ideas like New Orleans looking to move Kira Lewis Jr., sources said, while continuing to gauge the market for Jonas Valančiūnas’ expiring contract. The blockbuster talks to move Lillard or Sixers All-Star guard James Harden haven’t progressed in significant fashion.

Even the rising noise about Toronto forward Pascal Siakam has seemed to quiet. The Hawks and Raptors have discussed various concepts to send Siakam to Atlanta in recent weeks, sources said, however those conversations have not generated any forward progress of late. Elsewhere with the Hawks, there continues to be optimism among league personnel familiar with the situation that Atlanta will come to terms on a contract extension for All-Star guard Dejounte Murray.

The Raptors have a lot left to determine after losing Fred VanVleet to the Rockets. Toronto did add Dennis Schröder as a replacement, and the Raptors, sources said, had also expressed interest in Bulls restricted free agent guard Ayo Dosunmu. It remains to be seen if Toronto will conduct further business to overcome the loss of its starting point guard.

The final restricted free agent on the board is Sixers reserve center Paul Reed. By all accounts, Philadelphia intends to bring back Reed and that interest is mutual.

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