Rosters are mostly set after this summer's free agency period, and teams are just mostly now nibbling around the edge. Aside from a couple of training-camp decisions, most players are now on the teams they will be with through at last January, as rarely do teams make mid-season changes prior to that.
Come January, though, and trade season will begin. Between then and the trade deadline at the start of February, many a player will be on notice, re-assignable at the drop of a hat as teams change and tweak directions based on the changing information throughout the first half. And then after that, in the time between the trade deadline and 1st March (a key date for player eligibility; if a player is on an NBA team's roster at the end of that day, then that is the only team they can play for in the playoffs), some veteran players every season seem to get bought out, giving back money for the freedom to choose a team better suited for their needs, often going from a lottery team to a playoff team in the process.
There follows a look at some of the players who may fall victim to the latter practice.
Jeremy Lin, Atlanta Hawks
Lin was acquired by the Hawks into cap space, without much in the way of sweetener going the other way. Normally, players traded into cap space are either very good or highly unwanted, and with the latter, a first-round pick (or more) is usually traded with their contract as sweetener. Not so with Lin, onto whom the Brooklyn Nets stuck only a 2025 second-round pick in moving him to Atlanta. Lin is an unlikely Hawk, a now-veteran reserve point guard without upside or team control on his contract, who nevertheless replaces Dennis Schroeder as a more harmonious, cheaper alternative to push Trae Young's career along.
Perhaps the answer to Lin's perceived value lies in the secondary revenues he creates; by virtue of his Chinese heritage and the size of their increasingly passionate fanbase, Lin yields a ton of merchandise and apparel sales for whichever team he is signed to. However, by the time the trade deadline passes, all those Hawks Lin jerseys will already have been bought. Assuming he has only negligible trade value (which he will unless the Hawks are prepared to use him to take on salary, which would be highly out of character and out of kilter with the rest of the moves they have made of late), he becomes a logical buyout candidate. On a team not intending to win anything any time soon, what incentive is there to keep him?
Kenneth Faried, Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll, Brooklyn Nets
Acquired by the Nets along with picks in the deal that the Lin-acquiring Hawks should have done, Faried is an always-productive NBA player who has unfortunately lapsed into passed-around territory on account of both the size of his contract and the stagnation of his game. The Manimal was a valuable power forward back when power forwards who could not shoot jump shots were worth having, but while the game has developed around him, he has never developed his game, and a potential pairing with Nikola Jokic gave up far too many points defensively to ever work.
Carroll meanwhile is coming off a very strong bounce-back season for the Nets, posting career-highs in points, rebounds and assists one year after being acquired by the team in a salary dump. With this in mind, and considering the fact that his $15.4 million salary is expiring after this season as well, Carroll might have value in trade to a playoff-competitive team looking to shift a bad contract while also getting a player upgrade, even if only as a rental. (Think along the lines of Solomon Hill from New Orleans, or Brandon Knight from Houston.) Nevertheless, if the deal is not there, or if the Nets decided they would rather have the savings themselves for their own machinations next summer, Carroll becomes a buyout candidate on account of the fact that he will have suitors, which means money can be saved on a player likely leaving anyway.
The same is likely true of Dudley, albeit to a lesser degree. Acquired in the summer in yet another salary dump (coming paired with a lightly protected 2021 second-round pick on account of being a bit more expensive than Darrell Arthur, Dudley barely played for the Suns last year, appearing in career-lows of 48 games and 686 minutes. And when he did play, the always-slow Dudley looked particularly slow, unable to do much to get open or finish offensively and struggling to get to the spot defensively. But what Dudley is known for is an excellent basketball IQ, and of being able to read and call out plays, even if he cannot much be involved in defending them any longer. Veteran benches could always do with a wise, unselfish, heady and vocal player on their deep bench; the Nets could do so, too, but as Dudley's earning window closes quickly, he may well want to spend the time he has left on a contender.
Bismack Biyombo and Tony Parker, Charlotte Hornets
Back with the team that drafted him after a bizarre summertime in trade (in which the Hornets were somehow able to get two second-round picks for swapping Timofey Mozgov's $16 million salary for Biyombo's $17 million), Biyombo will split time at centre with Cody Zeller and Willy Hernangomez. This is not an ideal situation for any of the three, who cannot foreseeably make for any power forward/centre combinations. As the most expensive and (amazingly!) oldest of the three, as well as the most recent and lowest-priced acquisition, Biyombo is the odd man out, the player offered rather than targeted. Hernangomez, one of the few youthful bright sparks on the team, will need opportunities on the court, and while yet another extended injury absence from Zeller would ease the rotation crunch, Zeller also needs to get good game minutes himself in order to realise his potential and/or rebuild his value on his own sizeable contract. More importantly, given how much they are paying to not go anywhere (and considering how they have so little in the way of expiring salary), the Hornets need to save money. And so if Biyombo would take a buyout and stretch, a la Luol Deng, in order to save on luxury tax this year and open up just a slither of a chance of being able to keep Walker next year, the Hornets would surely listen. Biyombo would definitely get another contract elsewhere, making it viable if unlikely at this time.
The same uncertainty surrounds Parker, and indeed any player on the Hornets' roster. After the early move to remove Dwight Howard from the roster, the Hornets then did scant little else with their offseason other than sign Parker. They had more issues to address than the backup point guard situation; indeed, the starting point guard situation, and the future of Kemba Walker, is the biggest situation facing the team right now yet thus far remains unresolved. Should it become resolved via means of trade, which is very possible, so then may that of Parker, who would have no real purpose on a team out of contention and in need of both financial savings and roster spots with which to give late-season auditions to youngsters. A buyout of Parker could help with both of these.
George Hill, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver, Cleveland Cavaliers
After LeBron's departure, the Cavaliers have had a very quiet offseason. They extended Kevin Love to consolidate his value, but have otherwise largely stood pat, and the above three remain with the team despite their large contracts. Each of these contracts runs through 2020, yet each also has a very large expiring portion on their 2019/20 salary, making them essentially expiring if so desired. This in theory also gives them good trade value, as those salaries can be used to facilitate trades. Given their inaction, it remains to be seen what strategy the Cavaliers will choose to employ to find a path back to competitiveness; right now, it appears as though the aim is to tread water until next summer. And with that in mind, if any or all of these three make it beyond the February trade deadline with the team, they all become very strong candidates for March buyouts.
Robin Lopez, Chicago Bulls
In an era of the smaller, quicker, shootier centre, Robin Lopez remains a true paint player. The very occasional pick-and-pop three-pointer he shot to begin last season was an anomalous product of necessity that will not continue; instead, this is a man who thrives through hook shots, flat yet consistent elbow jumpers, and being within arm's reach of the paint as a sneaky-reliable offensive player. Which is precisely what many contending teams may need. Chicago, however, will not be one such contender, and while there is an outside chance of them making a run at a low playoff seed next season, there is a far greater chance that this is not the roster that they will end the season with. And very few permutations of their future feature Lopez. Lopez is not a buyout candidate because he's no good - instead, it's because he is.
Wes Matthews and J.J. Barea, Dallas Mavericks
Considering they traded their 2019 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks as a part of the move up to get Luka Doncic, and thus have no real incentive to win next season (unless they are accidentally poor or heavily injury riddled and thus need to tank again to fit within the top five protection), Dallas will not be pawning players off for the sake of it. It is in their best interests to provide a culture of stability and veteran assistance, both on and off the court, to aid the first stages of Doncic and Dennis Smith. And both Matthews and Barea could be that.
That said, they also have to reconcile the reality of where the rest of the roster is. Dallas lacks for core talents beyond them two and much youth of note, and have spent a lot of money to not get far in recent seasons. Should a reasonable opportunity to save money and gain a roster spot avail itself with these two, then, a buyout is foreseeable. It is not usual Dallas MO, but then, nor was the Doncic trade.
Marcin Gortat, L.A. Clippers
Gortat is a Clipper now by virtue of an early-offseason trade that saw him sent from the Wizards (where he was openly unhappy) in exchange for Austin Rivers. But although he started the full 82 regular season games last year, and the year before that, and the year before the year before that, Gortat's days as a starting NBA centre going forward are probably done. His impact finished significantly last season, as his long-declining defence took another hit, and his finishing abilities and stamina went too. This is not to say that he is no longer an NBA calibre player, though, and were he to be a free agent again, then, just like many other interior players on this list, he is good enough to merit work. The Clippers have an incredibly deep if starless roster, and could stand to parse it down somewhat, which may open up buyout talks for Gortat - there exists the possibility that they use his 2019 expiring as a vehicle for taking on assets in a salary dump, but, considering that they are also in play to potentially become a Kawhi Leonard-fuelled super team, this seems to be very unlikely.
Lance Thomas, New York Knicks
Although Thomas has now managed seven years in the NBA as a defensive-minded combo forward, who has become a decent-enough open shooter in that time, last season was not his best. The 40.7% three-point shooting drew the eye, but there was very little statistical output or impact on the game elsewhere, and the shooting was on a very low volume. That said, Thomas at his best has a end-of-the-rotation role as a Dante Cunningham, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute type, and if he would like to pursue that on a competitive team down the stretch of the season, the Knicks would surely facilitate that in order to save some money on his otherwise oversized contract. The very same Houston Rockets team that we theorised as being a good home for Luol Deng could perhaps find themselves a Deng-lite here.
Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic
Having dispensed with all of the anointed 'core' players in their previous rebuild with the possible exception of Nikola Vucevic, the Magic have yet to identify much in the way of a new core beyond perhaps the recently re-upped Aaron Gordon (for whom the extended sign-and-trade must be remembered as a possibility). Now aged 27, Ross is probably past being considered a part of it, and more important here is the fact that his six seasons in the NBA have all been pretty much exactly the same. The only difference is that he spent most of the last one injured; beyond that, Ross has been the same player who has developed little beyond the niche he fitted into from day one.
That said, Ross when healthy is a decent and useful player with the en vogue skill of shooting; he is a decent piece for Orlando to have, but considering his contract expires after this season, there is a foreseeable chance that he is bought out for the final third and joins a contender. It would make sense for him to do so, as an audition on a contender would do wonders for his earning power.
Trevor Ariza, Tyson Chandler, Troy Daniels and Darrell Arthur, Phoenix Suns
A few years in the doldrums have seen the Suns try out various young players, looking to identify core players, while also trying to flank them with veterans who can create the right culture and play with sufficient positional IQ to be able to help on the court as well. The results have been on the wrong side of mixed, though, and so as another era begins after their work on draft night, a few veterans remain on the team with little to tie them to the team for the year.
Arthur is only with the team as filler, swapped out for Jared Dudley above purely so as to be able to give the team enough room to trade for Richaun Holmes. He may add some value to the team as a veteran three-and-D frontcourt option, but in a front court with all of Holmes, Ryan Anderson, Deandre Ayton, Dragan Bender and T.J. Warren (assuming his future is mostly at power forward, which it should be) in it, that role will be so small as to be very dispensable. The same is true to a lesser degree of Chandler, a good player for a long time who can still rebound and move despite his age, although that same age makes him a very good buyout candidate. Considering the lack of roster space right now, and the assumed need to sign De'Andre Melton, either or both of these may happen sooner rather than later. To sign Melton will need both roster spots and cap space; the minimum salary exception and cap room mid-level exception, the two things remaining available to be used here, are both limited to a maximum of two years.
In the backcourt and on the wing, while Ariza was brought in on a one-year deal for a huge amount of money precisely to be a stabilising hand on a team short in all areas last season, it is nonetheless only a one-year deal. If things should go badly again on the court this season, Ariza, very much into the back half of his career, may seek to cash out and join a contender. If they see no chance of him returning next year, Phoenix might let him if he gives back the right amount. And as for Daniels - despite being a good shooter on one of the league's worst shooting teams, he just isn't all that helpful.
Zach Randolph, Iman Shumpert and Kosta Koufos, Sacramento Kings
The Kings's strategy last summer to pair their young talents with savvy veterans on reasonable contracts did not work, and has mostly been disbanded. Vince Carter has already walked as a free agent, George Hill was traded to the Cavaliers for nothing of note just to be free of his deal, and although Randolph remains, his position must be vulnerable. Randolph can still play - it is not as though he had vital mobility to lose, and the Shaqtin' A Fool-calibre three-point shooter of his past gave way to career-highs in attempts, makes and percentage last season, which if continued gives him some offensive value into his late 30s. Yet even if he does have a few seasons as a replacement-level offensive option still to give, there is not much reason to give them here in Sacramento.
Shumpert, the filler contract received back in the Hill deal, has yet to play for the Kings after a season riddled with injury. Even when healthy, he looked to have lost a lot from his peak, and only his contract binds him to the team still. If Shumpert and his agent can find another suitor, that can soon be fixed. Conversely, Koufos has been with the team for three years, is their second-longest tenured player (a mere two weeks behind Willie Cauley-Stein), is their second-best player if measured by PER (a mere 0.1 points behind Willie Cauley-Stein), and is their second-best player if measured by VORP (a mere 0.3 points behind Willie Cauley-Stein). These are all reasons why Koufos, a good and useful player, should be traded if possible. But if not, the buyout may happen.
Alec Burks, Utah Jazz
The Jazz should be good this year, thus making Burks something of an anomaly on this list. Rarely does the highly likely playoff team (which a strong, disciplined, defensive and deep Utah team should be even in the ever-improved Western Conference) have a possible buyout candidate - they are normally the ones looking to take on the depth. Nevertheless, there is an outside chance at such an eventuality in the case of Burks, a player who looks to have been squeezed out of a place with the Jazz. Burks's knack for the acrobatic teams with his knack for the absurd to make for quite the enigma, someone far from reliable on the court (or indeed in his ability to even take the court considering his myriad injuries of late), but who, on a good day, can make a big impact once on it. He is the closest thing the league has to a second Lance Stephenson. And Lance Stephenson can be helpful.
Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith and Jodie Meeks, Washington Wizards
Smith at the five spot and Meeks at off-guard represent deep bench depth for the Wizards, yet there is a reason both have been pushed out. In theory, both are shooting options on a team that could use some of those, particularly in the front court, but Smith lost his shot last season, and although he was relatively healthy all year, he barely featured in favour of two power forward line-ups. Meeks meanwhile featured a lot, but scored his fewest points and recorded his worst VORP since his rookie season, eight years ago. Troy Brown and Austin Rivers have been acquired to provide wing options for a reason, and while they are not the decent shooters that Meeks (normally) is, there is not enough in it to grant Meeks an automatic spot alone. With both players on expiring contracts and the Wizards considerably over the luxury tax thresholds, both seem unlikely to finish out these contracts; if they are not salary dumped, they will surely be bought out, and it is very likely they will actually endure both.
Mahinmi by contrast is not expiring, yet he like Biyombo above is a decent candidate for a Deng stretch. It is too late to stretch his salary for this season, and considering that doing so would have kept him on the books until 2023, it would not have been a good outcome for anyone involved other than the dodging of 2018/19 tax dollars (something that can be done in other ways if required, albeit with difficulty). He does however also have a large $15,450,051 salary for next season, fully guaranteed. It is already a large salary for a player who does not do many things, yet it is further made cumbersome by the fact that the Wizards have as-near-as-is $92.5 million committed already to John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter alone. At a time that they need to be financially prudent and to free up some spending money to improve a team that already looks fairly capped out, they are paying $15.5 million to a limited reserve. So if Mahinmi is prepared to give any of that back in order to speed up the stretching of his contract that seems quite likely to happen next summer anyway (and allow him to join a different, better team while remaining salary neutral), the Wizards will probably listen.