OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and the growing power of NBA ‘pre-agency’

After spending six and a half seasons as teammates on the Toronto Raptors, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam find themselves on parallel tracks yet again in their departures from the franchise.

Each will likely hit unrestricted free agency this summer (Anunoby by declining a player option in New York, Siakam by the completion of his current contract in Indiana) and thus face the challenge of evaluating the open market, and more specifically their place in it. Incidentally, it appears that Anunoby and Siakam — not to mention their former and current teams — took a look at the landscape and made their moves early for one reason or another.

It can be easier logistically and/or in terms of assets to make the trade sooner rather than later, often for everyone involved. Acquiring a player before their contract is up takes the sign-and-trade restrictions out of play entirely, plus the current collective bargaining agreement contains a lot of flexibility for matching salaries in trades when all players are already under contract, particularly when both teams are under the second apron, as everyone was in the Raptors’ trades with the New York Knicks (for Anunoby) and Indiana Pacers (for Siakam). Instead of a pressure-packed summer negotiation that opens the door for a tampering investigation if it happens too quickly, the dominoes lined up for player and team.

For the players, they are essentially using “pre-agency” instead of free agency in a similar vein to James Harden making his way to the Clippers earlier in the season, albeit with far less drama. After all, it stands to reason both Anunoby and Siakam would, and potentially still can, be one of the top targets for cap space teams, an intriguing group headlined by the Philadelphia 76ers. But there are plenty of other suitors who either wield cap space themselves, could open up more spending power through other deals or acquire them via sign-and-trade. Even if rival teams cannot have outright negotiations with players, their agents could have at least a rough idea of who would be interested in July at this point.

There are many reasons a player would prefer pre-agency to free agency. The most straightforward is to make their way to a franchise that could not easily acquire them in the ensuing offseason, either more rigidly because they are over the luxury tax apron and cannot acquire someone via sign-and-trade or more generally because they do not have the spending power to bring them in without significant sacrifices. This appears to be the case with Anunoby and the Knicks; New York did not possess a clear path to sufficient cap space this summer, so bringing in Anunoby would have required negotiating a costly sign-and-trade with the Raptors, who would have had a massive amount of leverage.

Another rationale is that the two sides connecting earlier allows each side time to evaluate the fit and potentially keep the other’s eyes from wandering. For example, the Pacers could have wielded cap space in 2024 and potentially prioritized a different free agent over Siakam, possibly abruptly narrowing his market in the summer. With the January trade, they put themselves in a superior position to retain the forward than if they were just another suitor this summer.

While there are no binding obligations between the Knicks and Anunoby or the Pacers and Siakam, both acquiring teams sacrificed enough resources to make it clear they do not envision their new forward as a rental. In Siakam’s case, there had been reporting about his unwillingness to commit to re-signing with the Sacramento Kings leading to their departure from negotiations with the Raptors, so it is clear players have a voice in this complicated tightrope. It stands to reason there is at least a general understanding between the players, their representation and their new team of what a next contract could look like and a willingness from both sides to eventually (*wink wink*) come to an agreement to a contract on those terms or within a range. (For those less familiar, that preceding language is to avoid punishment for tampering or circumventing the collective bargaining agreement, though it is also true that any such understanding is non-binding for both sides, and we have seen both players and teams break that expectation in the past.) This is even more glaring in Anunoby’s case, as one of his agents, Sam Rose, is the son of Knicks’ president Leon Rose. It stands to reason there could be some meeting of the minds between those two in particular.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, pre-agency can also benefit the team trading away a player. Think about the Raptors over the last year. They retained Fred VanVleet at the 2023 trade deadline, then lost him to the Houston Rockets in free agency for zero compensation. Here, they were able to add important pieces that will both help their team now and moving forward while also streamlining their cap sheet and refilling their coffers with draft picks. This situation also included another key wrinkle, as Immanuel Quickley is about to hit restricted free agency himself and the Raptors having match rights gives them much more control. They also get a half-season window to evaluate the fit of Scottie Barnes, Quickley, RJ Barrett and Jakob Poeltl ahead of an important offseason in which they could either wield modest cap space or retain pending free agents and use the nontaxpayer midlevel exception. That is extremely valuable for Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office even if their own 2024 draft pick is likely headed to the Spurs.

It is important to note that pre-agency does not always produce the widely expected results, even if it is very likely. The most prominent example of it backfiring is Dwight Howard with the Lakers, as they acquired him from the Magic in a massive four-team deal one season before his unrestricted free agency, but that year went poorly enough that Howard left for the Rockets as a free agent. That sort of dramatic reversal of fortune can happen, though it’s more of an exception than the rule.

While Siakam and Anunoby are the two most logical pre-agency players who could have been moved at the 2024 trade deadline, other viable candidates include Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan and potentially lower-tier free agents like Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie and Washington’s Tyus Jones. DeRozan is particularly fascinating because some of his potential destinations, such as the Lakers, are not particularly viable as sign-and-trade partners but work beautifully with pre-agency, so we will have to see how it all shakes out.

It is not a new phenomenon, but the decreasing value of cap space because of veteran extensions appears to be leading to an increase in both the value and use of pre-agency compared to free agency. It will never work for everyone, but it’s another massive consideration for general managers no matter their franchise’s place in league hierarchy at a given moment.

(Photos of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam: Brad Penner / USA Today)

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