The season is done. The draft is over. Now begins the NBA’s silliest season. With free agency set to open at 6 p.m. ET on June 30, this week is going to be filled with reports and rumors about who’s headed where and what stars are potentially teaming up.
Here are several of the biggest storylines in free agency to watch:
1. Lakers‘ salary cap gymnastics
Assuming the Pelicans do not agree to push back the Anthony Davis trade to July 30, the Lakers, as of now, have between $23 million and $27 million in cap space depending on whether Davis accepts his $4 million trade bonus. That’s short of the $32 million and change they need to offer the full max to anyone with less than 10 years of NBA experience, but they can still technically get to that spot by trading off the contracts of Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones.
We’ll see if they can do that by July 1.
Otherwise, the Lakers will either have to convince a max free agent like Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker or Jimmy Butler to take less than the max (unlikely), or build their team out with smart role-player acquisitions. If it’s the latter, they have to do a better job than they did last summer. They need shooting. They need versatile defenders. With or without the max, they have enough money to address at least some of those needs.
2. Decisions, decisions, decisions
As expected, Kawhi Leonard has reportedly opted out of the final year of his contract, which officially makes him a free agent. Most people around the league believe Leonard’s decision comes down to two teams: The Raptors and the Clippers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the Raptors are starting to look like they have the inside track.
If Leonard returns to Toronto, you could argue the Raptors deserve to be the favorite to win the title again next year. If he doesn’t, would that signal the start of a rebuild in Toronto? Kawhi stands to make or break a couple franchises this summer with his decision.
Everything changes because of the torn Achilles that will keep Kevin Durant out all of next season. Before that happened, it really felt like his leaving Golden State was a virtual certainty. It may still be. But the Warriors are sitting there with a five-year, $221 million max deal that nobody else can offer, and suddenly, for a guy with enough uncertainty to deal with right now in terms of his health and rehab and how long it will be until he’s back to his old self (if ever), that security might look pretty good.
This idea that the Warriors would consider signing Durant to the five-year max with an agreement to then trade him is actually pretty interesting. It would get Durant the five years and $221 million that nobody else can offer him, and it would get the Warriors some assets for a player they were going to lose anyway. It would even help the team that eventually trades for Durant in that they would have him under contract for an extra year.
Let’s say you’re the Knicks. If you sign Durant this summer, you’re paying him $38 million to not play next season, and you only have him for three seasons after that. If the Warriors sign Durant, depending on when the trade actually happens, they pay the bulk of next year’s salary, and by time New York gets him, he’s ready to play in 2020-21 and under contract for a full four years.
It’s something to think about.
Most reports have Kyrie Irving leaving Boston, with the Nets being the favorite to sign him. That said, there are reportedly some people in the Nets’ organization that would be uneasy about paying Kyrie a max contract if a second star isn’t coming with him. Because let’s be honest: Kyrie has not proven he is a guy who can lift a franchise on his own, either on the court or in the locker room.
The Nets got themselves closer to having a 30-percent max spot and a 35-percent max spot available with their draft-day moves and the trading of Allen Crabbe to the Hawks. They already have enough for two 30-percents guys (less than 10 years experience). Brooklyn’s pie in the sky is Irving and Durant, which they are right on the cusp of having enough money to do. The catch is they’d have to let all their own free agents walk, including D’Angelo Russell. Lot of moving parts here.
Walker made third-team All-NBA and is thus eligible for a five year, $221 million super-max extension from the Hornets. The most another team can give him is four years, $160 million. That’s a lot of money to give up to leave Charlotte, but how badly does Kemba want to win?
Walker is not a first-tier free agent, but he’s not second-tier either. He’s between the Kawhi-Durant level and the Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton level. Probably on par with Jimmy Butler. If you were to pair Kemba with another star, that team would be really good. Kemba on his own — unless the situation were perfect with a ton of really good roles players — doesn’t quite move the needle, if only because we’ve seen what that looks like in Charlotte.
3. Will the Knicks strike out?
There was a time when people were all but penciling in two max free agents on the Knicks, led by Durant. To say the feeling around that has changed would be an understatement. At the end of the day, it’s still New York, and the Knicks still have two max slots. Don’t rule out some big names signing there.
If that doesn’t happen, the Knicks have said they don’t intend to commit big money to second-tier free agents. and will instead look to build out their roster with short-term deals that will allow them to be big players over the next few summers as well. For a team and fanbase that had let itself dream on Durant and one other max free agent plus Zion Williamson, so strike out on all three would be a gut punch.
4. Sixers to keep core intact?
The 76ers were one rim-rolling Kawhi Leonard game-winner away from taking the eventual champion Raptors to overtime in Game 7. For all the talk about how their talent doesn’t seamlessly fit together, talent is still talent, and the Sixers are a lot closer to championship contention that is often portrayed if they run it back with the same core.
But will they keep Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick? If they let Butler go and keep Harris and Redick, they would have in the neighborhood of $25 million in cap space. That’s sizable room to bring in some new pieces, preferably shooters to space the floor for Ben Simmons — who, by the way, is eligible for a max extension starting July 1. Is Philly ready to commit?
5. What will the Warriors look like?
Obviously this starts with Durant and his decision. Klay Thompson is also a free agent, but he is expected to sign a four-year, $190 million extension. Either way, the Warriors will be without Durant all of next season and Klay will miss much of the regular season, and this team doesn’t have much room to add players outside their own roster.
That makes DeMarcus Cousins very, very interesting. Did Cousins show enough to get a sizable offer from another team? He was pretty good in the last few months of the regular season. He tore his quad in the first round of the playoffs and we never really got to see him at full strength on the big stage. He came through pretty big for Golden State in a handful of Finals games after rushing back into its depleted lineup.
Can the Warriors make a good signing with their mid-level exception? If Shaun Livingston doesn’t retire, will they pick up his full $7.6 million for next season contract, or will they pay him his guaranteed $2 million and let him walk? The difference between picking up Livingston and not could be having less than $6 million to offer a mid-level exception (MLE) player and $9 million, which changes the level of player you can go after.
The Warriors have to stretch every dollar they have available to put a team around Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala that can remain in the upper crust of the Western Conference until Klay gets back on the court.
6. What happens with D’Angelo Russell?
As mentioned above, Russell stands to be the odd man out if the Nets get a line of two max free agents. But that might not happen, and Russell has made it known he wants to be in Brooklyn.
If he leaves, a lot of teams will be interested — including, perhaps, the Lakers. Wouldn’t that be something? The Jazz were thought to be a team that would make a lot of sense for Russell, but they just traded for Mike Conley. Phoenix and Orlando both need a point guard. Dallas is a sleeper with the ability to create just under $29 million in cap room, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
7. Pelicans moving full speed ahead
The Pelicans are suddenly one of the most intriguing teams in the league. They’re set up to be a solid team right now — their potential starting lineup is Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Jahlil Okafor, with this year’s first-round picks Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and they still have close to $20 million in cap space.
Imagine that team if they re-sign Julius Randle.
Given what they went through with the Anthony Davis mess and the haul they brought back from the Lakers, the Pelicans are a team that has everyone’s attention, both for their options for moving forward and what they already have in place.