Part of the appeal of NBA free agency is that it’s an unscripted drama. This year’s free agency figures to be as unpredictable as any, with superstars coming off championships and career-altering injuries.
Once the dominos start falling, who knows where it they will all land. As ESPN’s Ryen Russillo said on the most recent Habershow episode, it’s anyone’s guess where Kawhi Leonard will go. He’s the first domino.
Beyond that, seven teams -- New York, Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans, Dallas and Boston -- have max cap space or close to it. Throw in that the two biggest markets, Los Angeles and New York, each will likely be likely fighting over the same players, and you have what promises to be an absolute Wrestlemania-like brawl.
Because I’m a sucker for punishment, let’s run through the top 10 free agents (I’m already assuming Kristaps Porzingis stays in Dallas) and predict where they go this summer. If I’m wrong about any of these (err, when), be sure to ignore this and move along with your life. If I’m right, definitely share this piece with everyone you know.
Let’s take a stab at it ...
1. Kawhi Leonard
Where he signs: Toronto Raptors
The Clippers were considered frontrunners as early as last July, but then the Raptors decided to change all that by trading for the small forward and winning the 2019 NBA Finals. Solid plan, I’d say.
The guess here is that Leonard prioritizes his health and re-signs on a one-plus-one contract with Toronto and its medical staff that kept him healthy and fresh, while also putting Leonard in line to land a potential $250 million deal in the summer of 2021 (for more on that, check out this week’s BIG Number!). After forgoing the supermax by forcing a trade out of San Antonio, will he once again pass up a chance to secure the bag? Toronto has to feel good about their chances. He may want to move back home to Southern California at some point, but a one-year deal with a player option for a second season gives him that flexibility.
2. Kevin Durant
Where he signs: Golden State Warriors
League-wide chatter had pegged Durant as NYC-bound all season long. Then his Achilles gave out in the Finals and changed the entire equation. Returning to the Warriors is far from a lock, but they are the only team that can guarantee a full five-year contract, which is no small thing after suffering perhaps the most devastating injury in the sport.
Durant could still head to the Big Apple this summer, either for the New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets, but he could also land there halfway through his rehab. If Durant decides he wants to be in New York long term, the Warriors could sign Durant him to a five-year deal and wait until December 15 to trade him to his destination of choice (league rules prohibit sign-and-trades on five-year deals, but it technically isn’t a “sign-and-trade” if they wait until mid-December to make the move). That would give the Warriors some assets in return rather than let him walk for nothing as well as get Durant his fifth-year guarantee. If Durant truly wants out, such an agreement would be mutually beneficial.
3. Kyrie Irving
Where he signs: Brooklyn Nets
Really, who knows with Irving. The only thing related to Irving that I’d be willing to bet on is that his next Instagram post will blow my mind with its wokeness. Irving is notoriously elusive and hard to read, but the Nets’ cap-clearing moves this summer suggest that they expect a marquee free agent (or two) to come their way.
The comments out of Boston have appeared to cement the notion that he’s packing his bags and leaving the team. Joining Brooklyn seems more in line with his free-thinking sensibilities than the bigger spotlights in LakerLand and Madison Square Garden.
4. Kemba Walker
Where he signs: Boston Celtics
There were whispers earlier this week that Boston had become the frontrunners to lure Walker away from Charlotte. While that may end up as a smokescreen to force Charlotte to pony up max money, Boston’s emergence could be a blessing in disguise for a Charlotte franchise in desperate need of a rebuild.
Yes, the Hornets could offer Walker a fifth year and about $80 million more than any other team, but to what end? My sense is that Charlotte could let Walker go to a better winning situation and “do right by him” as the Hornets franchise hits the full reset button.
5. Klay Thompson
Where he signs: Golden State Warriors
I didn’t see Thompson leaving Golden State in the first place. Now his torn ACL makes it even more difficult to envision him leaving the team that drafted him on such a sour note.
The Warriors have the ability to offer him Thompson a full five-year maximum contract worth about $190 million and the expectation is that they’ll fork that over to retain one of the best players to ever suit up for the franchise. If that offer is on the table, we should see a quick agreement at the outset of free agency.
6. Jimmy Butler
Where he signs: Philadelphia 76ers
The Rockets sign-and-trade chatter doesn’t make sense unless A) Butler desperately wants to play in Houston and; B) the Rockets have everything the Sixers want in a trade. Considering their best trade asset, Clint Capela, plays Joel Embiid’s position and, unlike Al Horford or Marc Gasol, doesn’t space the floor, the Houston angle doesn’t pass the smell test.
With a potential Irving-Durant partnership on hold due to Durant’s injury and Leonard’s future in question, the Sixers should pounce on the East’s uncertainty at the top and offer Butler more than anybody else can.
7. Khris Middleton
Where he signs: Milwaukee Bucks
With reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s supermax lingering, it’s hard to imagine that the Bucks will pinch pennies and let Middleton walk elsewhere. The Bucks can offer Middleton a full five-year max contract whereas other teams can only lure him with a four-year deal.
The sensible thing to do is to bring Middleton and restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon back, but stranger things have happened in the NBA. The bet here is that Middleton settles in around $150 million over five years, more than he can get with another team.
8. D’Angelo Russell
Where he signs: Phoenix Suns
For the first time since they traded Eric Bledsoe to the Bucks about 20 months ago, the Suns get a real point guard, right? Right? On draft night, the Suns passed up an opportunity the chance to draft Coby White or trade up for Darius Garland. Instead, they traded back and selected Cam Johnson at No. 11. Presumably, the Suns still believe in point guards.
Phoenix brass still needs to clear some money to carve out the $27.3 million max-level for Russell, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to get there. At 23 years old, with playoff experience under his belt, Russell makes more sense for a younger team like Phoenix than a title-chaser like the Lakers. Devin Booker gets not just a point guard to share the ball, but Russell is one of his close friends. Happier times in Phoenix. I think.
9. Tobias Harris
Where he signs: Philadelphia 76ers
There are some whispers around the league that Harris might not want to be the No. 4 option anymore, but that talk rings hollow to me. Harris took a grand total of eight more field goal attempts than Butler in the playoffs (175 to 167), good for second-most on a loaded team that took the eventual champs to the final seconds of Game 7.
The expectation here is that the Sixers run it back, with Harris re-joining Butler and J.J. Redick in the city of Brotherly Love. In this hypothetical free agency universe, the Sixers will have as good of a chance to win the East as anybody -- including the Toronto Raptors.
10. DeMarcus Cousins
Where he signs: Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have about $28 million in cap room even with Porzingis on the books, so they’ll have some money to chase players in that second or third tier of stars. The question is whether the Mavs make a long-term play or sign him Cousins for one year at, say, $20 million.
With a 20-year-old Luka Doncic and a rehabbing Porzingis, signing Cousins might seem like a big risk for a team that won 33 games last season. But the Western Conference is wide open and the Mavericks have missed the playoffs for three straight years. Something tells me Mark Cuban has another one up his sleeve.
Surprise signing: Brook Lopez, Lakers. A Lakers reunion! Even though the Lakers carved out $32 million in cap space by trading three players to the Wizards, I still think they could fill out the roster with its room rather than snag a marquee free agent.
Signing guys like Danny Green and Lopez may be better fits for Davis and James, especially if they don’t want to play the four and five full-time, respectively. Lopez coming back to the Lakers after former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson let him walk in 2018 free agency is a story fit for the Hollywood silver screen.
Surprise trade: Kevin Love to the Blazers
Back at the trade deadline, I proposed a Love-to-the-Blazers trade centered around C.J. McCollum. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And the Blazers are probably thrilled it didn’t, considering McCollum and Damian Lillard led the team to the Western Conference Finals.
With that said, I think the Blazers would be wise to capitalize on the Western Conference’s upheaval and strike a deal for Love. After returning from foot surgery last February, Love averaged 18.3 points and 11.4 rebounds in just 28.3 minutes per game in the 15 games following the All-Star break. Though Zach Collins will likely be off the table, I could see the Cavs biting on a deal centered on Mo Harkless, Meyers “25 by halftime” Leonard, 23-year-old Skal Labissiere and a future protected first-round pick. Love comes back home to Oregon and the Cavs get more rebuilding assets to surround Garland and Collin Sexton.