NBA Free Agency Primer
The NBA is fascinating.
It truly has become the closest thing to a year-round sport that the U.S. has, unless you religiously follow European soccer. Much of this is because of the drama of the NBA Draft and the franchise-altering nature of NBA free agency. No other league’s free agency has so much impact on the entire landscape of the league. Sure, a top-5 player like Bryce Harper might go through free agency in the MLB, but even Harper can’t alone carry a team to the playoffs, let alone make it a World Series contender. Free agency for the NFL? Nearly non-existent. The elite quarterbacks never change teams, and the elite skill position players or defenders are traded as frequently as they move in free agency. But in the NBA, the impact of one particular player is greater than in baseball, and the movement of the top players in the league far more frequent than in the NFL.
All of this culminates in a year-round discussion as to where the top free agents will land the following offseason. So much so, that during the regular season, and even the early rounds of the playoffs the discussion still seems to be centered around where the superstars will be playing next year, rather than what they are doing for their current team this year.
Coming up, we’ll go through all the major free agents this offseason and offer a prediction for where they will land, as well as analysis as to what will likely go into their decision-making process.
Major Free Agents:
Kevin Durant - Forward, Golden State Warriors
Durant’s free agency has been a topic of conversation all season long, so much so that the Warriors seemed to worry about it at times as well. The Knicks seemed like a forgone conclusion all season, and maybe they still are. But Kyrie Irving’s apparent decision to join the Nets and a torn Achilles for Durant has thrown everything back up in the air. Talks that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have discussed playing together have become prevalent. However, it appears Irving is on his way to choosing the Nets while Durant wanted to join forces with Irving in Madison Square Garden. Durant essentially having a redshirt year while not being guaranteed to play with another star has to put the Warriors back in play. His injury (and maybe Klay’s too) put the Warriors at a disadvantage against Toronto in the Finals, and it cost them the championship.
It became clear that Durant in fact was not just a luxury, but a necessity. This sudden realization has made Warriors fans appreciate Durant like they had not before, which may give KD the sense of belonging and validation that he sought elsewhere.
Ultimately, I think Durant still opts to go to the Knicks. The idea of leading a famous franchise out of the cellar should be enticing to Durant and gives him his opportunity to be the guy. Durant has always been someone who, whether he admits it or not, listens to the critics. He was shocked there was so much hate for his decision to join the Warriors, and he doesn’t appreciate the narrative that he rode coattails to get his two rings.
Bring success back to a Knicks franchise that has been a failure for the last 20 years or so? That would end just about all the criticisms one can think of, Durant would hope.
Kawhi Leonard - Forward, Toronto Raptors
Last summer, the Raptors went for it. They traded DeMar DeRozan, who’d been their franchise player, for what possibly would be a rental, Kawhi Leonard. If the Kawhi Leonard era in Toronto was indeed a one-year rental, it was the best one ever. The Klaw, the Dynasty Stopper, whatever you want to call him, Leonard led the Raptors to their first NBA Finals and propelled them to their first championship in franchise history. Now, Leonard has a tough decision to make.
All season long, it seemed Leonard was close to a sure bet to be a Los Angeles Clipper after this season. Now, the Clippers are still the slight favorites, but the Raptors have more than a puncher’s chance. How could they not have a good chance? Leonard hit one of the most iconic shots in recent memory (and the largest in franchise history) and led the Raptors all the way to a championship. The bond that is formed in those moments is nearly unbreakable. However, it is also because of these things that no one can blame Kawhi if he leaves. He never guaranteed anything other than this year. He played as well as he has in his career, and he delivered a championship. He would be completely blameless if he were to leave.
Therefore, I think he will. Leonard is a Southern California guy. He is from Los Angeles, and he went to school at San Diego State. This might not have mattered to Paul George, but it does seem like it will matter to Kawhi.
Ultimately, the appeal of the Lakers hasn’t been there to Kawhi. He is not a flashy guy at all and wouldn’t want the added drama of playing beside LeBron and being a Laker. The Clippers make more sense. They are Southern California's young squad and won’t have half the drama the Lakers will.
Kyrie Irving – Guard, Boston Celtics
This time one year ago, it was nearly a forgone conclusion that Kyrie Irving would opt to re-sign with the Boston Celtics. A year later, it is almost a forgone conclusion that he will leave. While Irving is often hard to figure, the signs have consistently pointed to him joining the Brooklyn Nets. Knicks fans have had their moments of hope, especially when imagining Irving and Durant teaming up for the Knicks.
Meanwhile, Lakers fans filled with hope during the season as it became publicly known that Irving and his former teammate LeBron James had reconciled and were on good terms. This seemed to center around Irving struggling to find the right way to lead the Celtics as Boston underperformed all season long. However, it just doesn’t seem like Irving would be willing to play second fiddle to LeBron, even if he does appreciate him more. The mended relationship is more an understanding between two people than a desire to reunite.
There are just too many recent signs pointing to a Kyrie Irving-Brooklyn Nets relationship. The Nets initiated it by doing a salary dump with the Atlanta Hawks to get Allen Crabbe off their books. Then, in maybe a more obvious sign, Irving ditched his longtime agent to sign with Roc Nation, which is founded by Jay Z, who has ties to the Nets. As mysterious as Irving has been at times, there is no mystery here. Kyrie Irving will be a Brooklyn Net.
Klay Thompson – Guard, Golden State Warriors
It would be shocking if Klay Thompson does not return to Golden State. Some have tried to say Thompson could go elsewhere, but as long as the Warriors offer the max, Thompson will absolutely stay. This, of course, is crucial as the Warriors have no idea what Kevin Durant will do and will have no cap flexibility regardless of being able to sign just one or both.
It’s a dire offseason for the Warriors as the decisions of Durant and Thompson loom while both nursing major injuries that will keep them out most, if not all, of next year. Thompson has embodied the Warriors spirit, however, coming back in to make two free throws after tearing his ACL.
Whatever is done this offseason will go a long way to determining if the Warriors dynasty is dead, or if it might return for one last reign of terror on the league once their two stars recover.
Jimmy Butler – Guard, Philadelphia 76ers
Things in Philly didn’t quite go according to plan for Jimmy Butler. His role decreased having to play off the ball while Ben Simmons handled, and he took fewer shots because of Joel Embiid. These things will play a major factor in a decision for a guy who has always seemed to be displeased with the various situations he’s played in throughout his career.
Running it back with Philly would probably be the best thing if Butler wants to stay in championship contention. But maybe he would favor a big role with the Knicks as he waits to see how they can add to the team the next few seasons with cap space and draft picks.
Maybe Butler takes a little less money and heads to the Lakers to team up with LeBron and Anthony Davis on a team that will be NBA Finals or bust. Some reports even have Butler being intrigued by the Heat and the allure of playing in South Beach for Pat Riley.
Whatever the case, Butler’s decreased role and attitude problems have caused his status to drop to more of a tier-two free agent with Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton, rather than a top-tier free agent such as KD and Kawhi.
Ultimately, I think Butler makes a surprise decision to join the Miami Heat. I think Butler will trust Pat Riley to put a competitive team around him while making Butler the centerpiece of the franchise rather than a nice accessory like in Philly.
Kemba Walker – Guard, Charlotte Hornets
He isn’t the most valuable player in the league. He isn’t the best player available in free agency. But Kemba Walker will have the greatest impact on a single franchise this offseason. If the Charlotte Hornets lose Kemba in free agency, they will have a myriad of problems with no solutions. The Hornets would still have no cap room, mired in bad contracts.
They would have no young talent, which means no roads to an exciting young player to take over for Kemba. And they have a draft pick at No. 12, which is not conducive to finding a star in the draft. All of this will lead to terrible attendance, likely the league’s worst, and a franchise with a steep and tumultuous rebuild ahead. This will weigh on Kemba.
His heart is still with Charlotte; he has been ever-appreciative of the organization that drafted him and has become very comfortable with being the face of the Hornets. But Kemba is smart, and he knows because of Charlotte's bad contracts that the Hornets can’t build around him for a couple more years. He also knows that Charlotte can offer an extra year on a deal and pay up to 80 million dollars more because of his All-NBA selection qualifying him for the supermax contract.
The other potential suitors for Walker are the Knicks and Mavericks, and at least from the Dallas angle, Mark Cuban has been adamant about adding a player of Walker’s caliber. It is also thought that the Knicks could be enticing because of the big stage that New York provides, especially if New York can pair him with Kevin Durant.
It is a nearly impossible head vs. heart decision. But, again, Kemba Walker is smart, too smart to ignore the seemingly hopeless situation in Charlotte.
Impactful Free Agents:
Tobias Harris – Forward, Philadelphia 76ers
Harris proved to be a very versatile scorer in his time with LA and Philly. He won’t be the best player on a great team, maybe not even the second-best, but his versatility would be very impactful in the postseason. A reunion with the Clippers could happen, especially if Kawhi Leonard resigns with Toronto, and a return to Philly is also very well in play for Harris.
Khris Middleton – Guard, Milwaukee Bucks
Middleton has gradually improved over his time with the Bucks into a reliable, all-star caliber player. The Bucks are willing to go over the luxury tax according to their ownership, which is rare for Milwaukee. Middleton should be a priority and expected to return to the Bucks.
Nikola Vucevic – Forward/Center, Orlando Magic
Vucevic has been talked about very little in comparison to his fellow second-tier free agents. Maybe it is because of the assumption that Orlando will be able to resign him, but Vucevic is a really good big man.
He has consistently been a double-double machine, and he averaged a career-high 21 points and 12 rebounds last season for the Magic. Look for the Pacers to be a potential challenger to Orlando for Vucevic.
DeMarcus Cousins – Center, Golden State Warriors
Cousins’ free agency will be fascinating for two reasons. Will DeMarcus value playing time and the chance to stuff stats on a bad team? Or will Cousins opt to look for some sort of long-term security given his two significant injuries? It does seem incredibly unlikely that he will return to the Warriors. A team like the Suns may make sense for stats, although they have their big man in DeAndre Ayton. The Lakers may want to add him as a cheap option but they need guards, not big men. Others will have cap space, but between attitude and the lack of confidence in how much Boogie will be able to give because of his injuries, it’s tough to say what team will take a flyer on him and for how much.
D’Angelo Russell – Guard, Brooklyn Nets
It’s pretty simple for D’Angelo Russell. If the Nets don’t sign Kyrie Irving, he’ll be brought back. If Irving does join the Nets, they will likely let him walk and make him an unrestricted free agent. Russell has broken out as a Net, getting past the rough start he had in LA. The teams that could be interested in him are teams in need of a point guard, such as Utah or Phoenix.
Al Horford – Forward, Boston Celtics
Make no mistake, the Celtics will want the veteran leadership and steady production Horford provides to return in the wake of what was a disorganized and chaotic 2018 season. However, it appears that ship has sailed. After opting out of his contract, Horford was expected to work on a long-term extension with the Celtics. Fast forward a few hours, and talks between the Celtics and Horford have ceased with the Celtics believing Horford already has a good idea who he will be signing with. It will have to be someone with serious cap space, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it was Brooklyn, where he would team up with Celtics teammate Kyrie Irving, or maybe the Knicks to ensure they at least get one solid player capable of playing in 2019-2020.
Harrison Barnes – Forward, Sacramento Kings
Barnes is a late addition to the 2019 free agency class, as many expected him to opt into his near $30 million dollar contract for next season. However, it appears Barnes favors a new long-term deal that pays him slightly less up front to the insecurity of needing to play well next year to warrant another big contract. The Kings should still be the heavy front-runner to re-sign him, but look out for a team with cap space like Indiana that is in need of more offensive options as they look for ways to become more of a conference finals contender.
Julius Randle – Forward, New Orleans Pelicans
Julius Randle had a breakout campaign for the Pelicans as he showed more ways to score than he ever did with Lakers, even shooting the 3-ball at a modest clip. Randle’s high motor and ability to be an athletic big who now can space the floor should have teams very interested in the Kentucky product. An array of options should be on the table for Randle, from bad teams looking for solid young players to contending teams in need of a less-than-max-contract guy who is still improving.
Other Free Agents with Value:
JJ Redick – Guard, Philadelphia 76ers
Malcolm Brogdon – Guard, Milwaukee Bucks
Brook Lopez – Center, Milwaukee Bucks
Marc Gasol – Center, Toronto Raptors
Danny Green – Guard, Toronto Raptors
Bojan Bogdanovic – Forward, Indiana Pacers
The future of the NBA is sure to be altered in the coming month with this kind of firepower in 2019 free agency. Teams will go from playoff teams to true championship contenders and vice versa, maybe even the next dynasty will be born. No one really knows, and that is the great thing about the NBA offseason.
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