The NBA season came to an end when the Raptors finished off the Warriors in the NBA Finals, but that only signaled the start of the real season. With the NBA Draft complete, the real intrigue begins at 6 p.m. Sunday night when the doors are swung open to the free agent market.
This summer free agency includes as star-studded a cast of characters as has ever been on the market. But with injuries and intrigue shifting the game of musical chairs no one — including team executives seems to know where the pieces will stop. Here is out best guess at how it shakes out, predicting landing spots for 10 top free agents.
But the game doesn’t stop there. The Knicks have the most cap space in the league available — approximately $70 million — and if they can’t navigate their way to convince Kevin Durant to join on they will have to spread the dollars out for short term deals that keeps the flexibility for their rebuilding dreams in place. Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks are desperately hoping to keep their contending pieces in place with Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon all free agents and all players they would like to keep around Giannis Antetokounmpo.
While the Raptors put together a championship season on the court in Leonard’s only season with the team, that effort has paled in comparison to the efforts of the city of Toronto to convince him to stay from the KaWine and Dine promotion along with offers of just about every other free perk from unlimited Uber rides to a penthouse condo. He certainly could afford his own meals, but the sentiment is in the right place and he has been photographed in a Blue Jays jersey on a vacation in Barbados that may or may not have been a gift from a Toronto tourism agency. Now, is it enough to convince him not to return to Southern California, where he grew up and will be conducting all of his meetings? Maybe not. Still, the Raptors cannot only offer him $190 million over five years now, $50 million more than any other team, but the best financial move would be a short-term deal in Toronto and then a super max deal in 2021. It all makes sense to remain in Toronto, but the lure of hometown, a contending team and the hard sell of Steve Balmer may be too much to resist. PREDICTION: CLIPPERS.
Even if he is rolling around NewYork with a scooter to protect his surgically-repaired Achilles and will be sidelined for the entire upcoming season he remains the best hope for the Knicks. They are one of four teams — along with the Nets, Warriors and Clippers — that he is considering and all will be willing to offer up a max contract. The Warriors can give him an extra year and an additional $57 million and nothing makes more sense than staying put, ensuring his future with an uncertain recovery, allowing him to ease into his second year back without the added weight of carrying a franchise. But his interest in the Knicks and Nets seems real and his decision could hinge on which of the two, both with the space to add a second star, can partner him with that piece.
PREDICTION: GOLDEN STATE.
From championship sidekick to LeBron James in Cleveland, Irving forced his way out to Boston and his turn as the star and veteran leader went sour quickly. Now, just months after taking the microphone and declaring his intention to stay in Boston for the rest of his career — and a commercial with his dad backing that up — Irving is on the way out. But he isn’t without his suitors and the Nets are believed to be the favorite to grab him, which could provide the impetus for a second star to join him in Brooklyn. The Knicks remain interested and like the Nets hope to pair Durant and Irving.
While Thompson may have wondered for a moment after suffering a torn ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals if his free agency would be affected there was no need for the added stress. The Warriors have made it clear that they will offer him the full five-year max and keep the Splash Brothers together as the team heads to a new arena in downtown San Francisco. His only stress remains that he was left off the All-NBA team costing him the ability to sign a super max deal.
PREDICTION: GOLDEN STATE.
One of the stranger free agent paths. Walker has spoken openly about his affection for Charlotte and even talking about a willingness to sacrifice a little money for the fifth year, but after qualifying for the super max the Hornets are reportedly only offering $170 million (I know, only). That’s close enough to the four-year, $140 others can offer that a course has opened out of the only team he’s played for. Sources say he already has informed Charlotte of his intention to go to Boston. The Celtics emerged as a favorite to grab him to replace Irving.
The 76ers swung the deal for Butler with the intention of keeping him alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but he remains a highly-recruited target. The Rockets have openly floated trade possibilities to bring him to Houston, LeBron James would like him to sign on with the Lakers and there remain whispers of an Irving-Butler pairing somewhere. PREDICTION: LA LAKERS.
Think the Knicks might wish they worked a little harder to appease Kristaps and his family now that the salary cap space might not turn into stars? The Mavericks now have the chance to cement Porzingis in place as a running mate for Luka Doncic with a five-year, $158 million max deal and are believed willing to do so even after he missed the entire season while rehabbing from a torn ACL.
Nothing is as puzzling as the Celtics quick deconstruction from a contender for a title to one that will almost certainly lose two foundation pieces in Irving and Horford. There may be no more underrated star in the NBA than Horford and his two-way skill set would be a perfect complement to the young Mavs core. PREDICTION: DALLAS.
While the 76ers would like to keep their team intact, the trio of free agents — Harris, Butler and JJ Redick — are all attractive to other teams. While Harris might not be offered the max, the chance of losing Butler makes it more important for the 76ers to keep the low maintenance forward in place.
While the Lakers’ interest in returning Russell to the team after his resurgence in Brooklyn has been hyperventilated over, it would take a big chunk of their cap space to reunite. The Knicks could use him as a fallback. There has been plenty of smoke over the possibility of the Minnesota Timberwolves pairing Russell with Karl-Anthony Towns, giving them the No. 1 and 2 picks in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Timberwolves are currently over the cap so unless they can make moves, it’s not a fit. His restricted free agent status also clouds the picture, but no team needs him more than the Suns.