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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
A large section of the NBA fanbase swears up and down that the offseason drama is every bit as compelling—if not more so—as the on-court action.
Those folks are closing in on a banner summer.
It’s not even July, and two massive dominoes have already dropped. The Los Angeles Lakers joined the championship chase with the Anthony Davis addition. The Utah Jazz jumped up the contending ranks with Mike Conley.
If those deals weren’t enough, the draft doused most corners of the hoops world with the sweet nectar of unbridled optimism.
Somehow, things could get a lot more hectic from here. We’re just scratching the surface when it comes to potential plot twists, so we have assembled the 10 best storylines ahead of free agency and ranked them based on their possible impact on the league at large.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
With Anthony Davis and Mike Conley off the market, Bradley Beal is by far the most interesting trade candidate—even if the Washington Wizards say he’s no trade candidate at all.
Despite the District’s posturing, a Beal deal seems the most helpful strategy for everyone involved. With John Wall sidelined by an Achilles tear and untradeable given his supermax salary, the Wizards are going nowhere fast. They need a reset, and Beal, a two-time All-Star at the peak of his powers, should be in a situation where he can impact winning.
He can hit the open market in 2021, which sounds far away but is close enough to start analyzing the risk of losing him for nothing. Had he made an All-NBA team, he would’ve been supermax-eligible this offseason. Even then, he wasn’t sure if would re-up.
Beal told The Athletic’s Fred Katz: “My biggest concern, just like I tell everybody else, is just making sure that we’re going in the right direction. … What are we gonna do here moving forward? It starts with getting a new GM and building up our team this summer.”
The Wizards haven’t settled on a new front-office head, and whoever takes the gig inherits a bloated payroll and underwhelming prospect collection. Is there any reason to believe things will be dramatically different in the next year or two? At the very least, Washington should be open to hearing what the market might bear for Beal, especially as clubs with cap space miss out on their top free-agent targets.
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So much for the Boston Celtics’ being the Eastern Conference’s powerhouse of today and tomorrow.
Their present heaviest hitters are preparing to leave the lineup. Six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving has given team officials “private and public signals that he will leave the organization in free agency,” sources told The Athletic and Stadium’s Shams Charania. Five-time All-Star Al Horford is also expected to race to the nearest exit, sources told ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Irving always seemed a flight risk, especially as his sound bites spiraled from “I plan on re-signing here” to “ask me July 1” and finally to crickets. Given the way he failed to mesh with Boston’s up-and-comers, the team could have hoped for a bit of addition by subtraction, provided Horford continued to function as its connective tissue. But if that door closes, the Shamrocks will have trouble finding another to open.
Remember Boston’s old treasure trove of draft picks? Despite opportunity after opportunity, the franchise never consolidated them for a star. Remember the safety net seemingly presented by Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? Hayward may never be the same, and both Tatum and Brown backtracked this past season.
The Celtics’ championship window is closed, and they’ll have work to do to ensure it isn’t sealed shut.
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Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
You wouldn’t expect Kyrie Irving to have trouble identifying suitors this summer. He’s one of only four players in NBA history with career averages of 22 points, five assists and two three-pointers per game. He also buried maybe the most clutch bucket in recent memory.
Yet it seems he’s not for everyone.
Assuming he’s done with the Celtics, he’ll have two bad breakups in his not-so-distant past. He’s coming off arguably the worst showing of his career, as he flatlined during Boston’s four consecutive losses to get bounced from the second round (30.1 percent shooting, 18.5 percent from range). He’s never graded as an elite passer or an especially engaged defender.
His market has been thinning for a minute. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald relayed hearing at the combine that “some teams thought to have an interest in Irving as a free agent are now a great deal more wary.” Irving then seemed bound for the Brooklyn Nets, only for Brian Lewis of the New York Post to report they “might have qualms about signing the enigmatic Irving if he isn’t bringing the injured [Kevin] Durant with him.”
Durant will make his decision “independently of anyone else, and that includes Kyrie Irving,” Adrian Wojnarowski said, so package-deal scenarios may be off the table.
Someone will want Irving to play for them and pay him a ton of money to do it. But his market is so murky that a reunion with LeBron James—the player Irving wanted to get away from two years ago—strangely seems among the likeliest outcomes.
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The Milwaukee Bucks’ 2018-19 breakout was mesmerizing. Behind an unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo and smart strategic adjustments by head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks bullied opponents to the league-leading tunes of 60 wins and a plus-8.6 net rating.
But there’s a literal price tag on that success, and it’s steep enough to thwart Milwaukee’s ascension.
The Bucks had seven players average nine-plus points in the postseason. Only two of them have fully guaranteed contracts for next season: Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Nikola Mirotic are all headed for free agency. George Hill will likely meet them there, as only $1 million of his $18 million salary is guaranteed.
Middleton, who made his All-Star debut this year, could command the max or something close to it. The rock-solid Brogdon could command a top-dollar offer sheet, either to tie up Milwaukee’s funds or take one of its critical perimeter pieces. Lopez and Mirotic are supersized shooters; they should have loads of interest. Hill’s shooting, defense and experience could attract any team with win-now intentions.
Next year’s Bucks won’t look like this year’s group. Milwaukee must ace the decision-making portion of the process, not only identifying which players are most critical to keep, but also finding the perfect price. As difficult as it is climbing to the top, staying there is the biggest challenge.
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This summer has a chance to be transformational for the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers. Each has either two max-contract slots or the capacity to create them, plus massive market advantages to chase the sport’s biggest available stars.
All three are expected to get a look from Kevin Durant. Both Big Apple-based teams have held pole position at different times in the Kyrie Irving sweepstakes. The Clippers kept close watch on Kawhi Leonard all season and appear in a two-team race for his services with the Toronto Raptors. Players like Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris have appeared as possible targets for one or more.
Sign one of these players, and it instantly boosts the club’s credibility. Add more than one, and suddenly championship hopes shift from pipe dreams to obtainable goals.
Then again, this summer has more squads with spending money than stars worth major investments. It’s a near-certainty at least one of these clubs comes up empty, and it’s possible all three strike out. Should the market’s brightest stars head elsewhere, these organizations must be extra cautious about overspending on free agency’s second and third tiers.
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Draft night can mean different things to different teams. For the Philadelphia 76ers, this talent grab was all about dollars, as in maximizing their buying power ahead of what could be a wildly expensive summer. They arrived at the talent grab with five selections in hand and then left it with only two prospects after a series of trades.
“We need flexibility,” general manager Elton Brand told reporters. “I need every dollar that I can get, so that’s what a lot of those trades are about—making sure we have enough money so we can go into free agency and get the players we need.”
Brand’s wording is interesting. While the Sixers have long seemed most likely to pursue their own free agents—namely, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris—Brand at least sounds open to looking outside the organization. Maybe it’s semantics, or maybe Philly is thinking outside the box. Word leaked this team could get a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, and even if it’s a long shot, it still shows there are opportunities beyond running it back.
That said, keeping this core intact sounds pretty enticing, provided the Sixers are as willing to break the bank as they say. They struck two major midseason trades this past year, barely had practice time to familiarize the group with another and still came within an unlucky bounce of perhaps escaping the conference semis, and then who knows?
With the presumed exodus out of Boston, Leonard’s uncertainty looming over Toronto and Milwaukee’s having so many key pieces heading to free agency, this could be Philly’s chance to take control of the East. But it’ll cost a pretty penny to do it.
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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Houston Rockets backcourt partners and max-salary centerpieces James Harden and Chris Paul can’t get seem to get along. While the Rockets have pushed back against some of these reports, the quotes about Houston’s high-priced pairing are about as worrisome as they can get.
“Chris wants to coach James. James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me,'” a source told ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon.
“There’s no respect at all, on either side,” a source told Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill. “They need to get away from one another. Chris doesn’t respect James’ standing in the league, and James doesn’t respect the work Chris has put in to this point.”
Goodwill’s source described the relationship as “unsalvageable.” It sounds combustible at the very least.
And that’s not the end of Houston’s problems. Extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni have had more on-again, off-again twists than a high school romance. All non-Harden players have been made available in trades, per Adrian Wojnarowski. Somehow, the Rockets are even planning a run at Jimmy Butler, per Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, who they probably can’t afford on the financial books or in the locker room.
Theoretically, this should be the Rockets’ time to rise as injuries and free agencies threaten to tear down the Golden State Warriors. But if Houston’s in-house issues are as bad as reports say, this could be a self-inflicted failure to launch.
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For the better part of five seasons, the Golden State Warriors were the NBA’s sole certainty.
While many speculated 2019 free agency might put at an end to that—or at least strip away some key pieces—the injury bug wouldn’t even wait that long. It struck down both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in consecutive Finals games, as the former ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 and the latter tore his ACL three nights later.
Each is now ticketed for a lengthy absence and perhaps an uncertain future beyond, as Durant’s 30th birthday is behind him and Thompson’s is coming next season. Not to mention, both are entering the open market where, despite the injuries, they will collect generational fortunes.
The Warriors are expected to offer both full five-year max contracts, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. As long as they don’t pinch pennies, Thompson is a lock to stay. Durant, though, is unpredictable. Anything can happen, including a virtual delayed sign-and-trade. Windhorst broke down the possibility on Get Up!, saying the Warriors could give Durant the full max, rehab him back to health and then work with him on a trade.
Change is coming to Golden State. The question is how this championship core can respond. As long as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are upright, the Dubs won’t go down without a fight. But their stranglehold on this league has undeniably loosened.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
Kawhi Leonard hasn’t shifted his focus to free agency yet. He’s still on the post-championship diet of alcohol and desserts, a celebratory “feast” fit for the third player to win Finals MVP for two different teams.
Sooner than later, though, he’ll have to decide where he wants to write the next chapter of his career. The entire NBA landscape will feel the impact of his decision.
There isn’t a more powerful two-way force in the game. He’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who just scored the third-most points in postseason history while flirting with a 50/40/90 slash (49.0/37.9/88.4 to be precise).
Any team would be incredibly fortunate to have him. It sounds like only two have a realistic shot.
“The Clippers are poised to be able to lure him from Toronto,” Adrian Wojnarowski said on Get Up! “This will be a Raptors-Clippers fight down to the end.”
If the Southern California native heads back home, the Clippers suddenly jump into the contending conversation. If he doesn’t, they’re probably fighting for one of the West’s final playoff spots again. Should he stick with Toronto, the Raptors should be favorites to escape the East again. Should he bolt, they could look to dramatically lower their roster’s age and price in an aggressive rebuild.
One way or another, Leonard will impact the title race. It’s hard to fathom this isn’t the biggest storyline going, but multiple superstars remain more powerful than one.
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No matter how much public posturing suggested otherwise, the Los Angeles Lakers were never going to practice patience with LeBron James. His 35th birthday is coming in December. If he’s still chasing that certain six-ringed ghost, he’s running out of time to expand his ring collection.
Acquiring Anthony Davis was a huge step in the right direction. He’s a former point guard who sprouted to 6’10”, which has created a near-flawless blend of perimeter skills and interior force. The 26-year-old has a career 27.42 player efficiency rating; that only trails James and Michael Jordan on the all-time leaderboard. Davis is arguably the top teammate James has had, and this immediately becomes the league’s top tandem.
“They may be title favorites now,” NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh wrote. “… This league runs on superstars. A James-Davis partnership alone is powerful enough to give them the inside edge to the NBA Finals.”
L.A.’s ceiling is tremendous, but its floor isn’t set with so much of the roster in flux. Of course, another win to spin that is saying the Lakers aren’t done shopping. Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus notes the team will likely have between $24 million and $32 million, depending on the particulars of the Davis deal. That could net this club a difference-maker, or at least a couple of complementary pieces.
The Lakers’ wish list should start with Kawhi Leonard, who is a long shot but a perfect on-paper fit as a rugged defender and three-level scorer. Kyrie Irving might be Plan 1-B, as he can create his own shot and consistently convert catch-and-shoot triples. Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and even former Lakers D’Angelo Russell could sit a shade further down the list, perhaps followed by an amalgamation of high-level role players.
While it’s unclear what L.A. can afford and whom it may attract, the fact that it’s building around James and Davis almost guarantees the final product will be fascinating, almost certainly elite and firmly entrenched in (or atop) the championship chase.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.