The 25 biggest storylines leading up to NBA free agency

NBA.com Global on Jun 28, 2019 08:52 AM
The 25 biggest storylines leading up to NBA free agency
CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 16: Kevin Durant #35 and Kyrie Irving #11 of Team LeBron shake hands during the 2019 NBA All-Star Practice and Media Availability on February 16, 2019 at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

Welcome to the NBA angst annual known as free agency, where stress and suspense are crammed into a span of 72 or so hours, where two of the best candidates in this class come with major questions, and where most free agents who sign the richest deals of their lives will regress in performance before that contract is done.

Yes, it’s as crazy as it seems.

The reason for the blowup in importance for free agency is partly due to the buildup. The buzz in front office, media and agent circles begins a year in advance and fans are taken along for the dizzy ride. All events prior to free agency are merely appetizers to the dish. Folks are handicapping free agency in the dead of December instead of being consumed by the, you know, actual games.

Yes, in terms of interest, the needle falls this way, in inverse order: Regular season, LeBron James, playoffs, NBA Finals, free agency. And the anticipation for this summer has been no different, and in some ways more bizarre than ever.

Remember, this is a year where Kyrie Irving took the mic at a Boston meet-and-greet in the preseason and told Celtics fans that he’d be back, to much applause, and nine months, Kyrie and the fans are still on the same page: They don’t appear to want him back and the feeling is mutual.

Without further delay, here are the top 25 storylines in free agency, which begins Sunday at 6 p.m. ET (Monday, PHL time) and probably won’t end until everyone is exhausted and ready to rest up for next summer.

1. Kevin Durant. It’s down to two cities, San Francisco and New York, and the three teams in those places will pony up, despite Achilles surgery and a long rehab for a soon-to-be 31 year old. The Knicks and Nets are willing to pay him four years (at $164 million) for three years of work, or in the case of the Warriors, five years ($221 million) for four. It’s really all about what Durant wants -- continuity or something different. But when he does return, what percentage of his former self will collect those massive checks?

2. Lakers. The pending trade for Anthony Davis and pairing him with LeBron has rekindled interest in, if not respect for, the glamour franchise. Yes, the Lakers sacrificed their future for Davis, which makes it important that they aim to win now with LeBron on the clock. They cannot go to basketball war next season with just those two; that said, while they’d certainly like to add an A-list type like Kawhi Leonard, secondary stars such as Kemba Walker would make the Lakers a title favorite as well. Still in question is whether the $32 million or so (after reported trade with Wizards) that the Lakers can offer will be enough to sway a big name to make a financial sacrifice. They may be left signing a pair of C-list players.

3. Kawhi Leonard. With Durant’s injury, a case can be made for Kawhi being the cream of the free-agent crop. He’s healthy, he’s coming off a championship and as he just showed in Toronto that he can change a team’s fortunes instantly even if there’s a gap between him and the club’s next best player. The problem for suitors other than Toronto is money. When Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio two summers ago, that cost him a chance at the super max; if he bails on the Raptors as well, all told he will have lost roughly $80 million by moving twice. That’s financial malpractice by anyone’s standard. And that’s bad news for a certain team that’s only missing a star. Which leads us to …

4. Clippers. Imagine being a free agent and meeting billionaire Steve Ballmer, player-friendly coach Doc Rivers and The Logo himself, Jerry West. What other team can offer that level of clout? Plus, there’s the chance to play in LA and enjoy all the trappings of that. And the Clippers have a ready-made team with Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander along with additional money if necessary to add a second free agent. And yet, if they don’t get Kawhi, their main target, they could end up saving most of their $54 million for next summer.

5. Warriors. Did the injury create bad vibes between Durant and the Warriors? If so (and KD has been coy ever since falling to the floor), then he’ll walk. And if that happens, the Warriors are too cap-stressed to replace him immediately. Klay Thompson will test the market if the Warriors even hesitate to give him the max. Even if Thompson signs, he isn’t expected back from knee surgery until spring, if then.

6. Kyrie Irving. All road signs point to Brooklyn, and yet, where did it all go wrong with the Celtics? Irving is a different guy, and his complex personality caused plenty of ill will in Boston, first from his lack of leadership in the regular season when times got tough, then in the playoffs when he fizzled. He’s a supreme talent, no doubt, but the package comes wrapped in tiny red flags.

7. Knicks. They cleared $60 million in cap space for two big name free agents and may not get any. Was Andre Iguodala’s forecast correct when he said “nobody’s going to the Knicks?” Even if they get Durant, who’s coming with him? If they whiff on also adding Kyrie in that scenario, the Knicks better not panic and overpay Nikola Vucevic. Just spend it next summer; what’s another lost year, anyway, especially with KD on the shelf until 2020?

8. Danny Ainge. Historians will pinpoint the death of a dynasty that never was on opening night two years ago when Gordon Hayward fell awkwardly. Suddenly, the bounty of picks Ainge stole from the Nets amounted to little in terms of the bottom line for the team he runs. The Celtics are recreating their identity now. Ainge should instead set his sights on Kemba Walker.

9. Raptors. If Kawhi stays, the Raptors will be favorites to emerge from the East next season. If he leaves, it won’t be a total disaster. They can play out the upcoming season, still have enough to make the playoffs, then clear a ton of space for 2020 when the deals of Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka disappear.

10. Jimmy Butler. He’s 29 and had turbulent stints in Minnesota and to a degree Chicago. He was mellow in Philly last season but he had every reason to be, with free agency approaching. Butler is a solid player yet hardly a superstar. Can he be comfortable as a lesser option on the Lakers, or the Rockets if Houston does a sign-and-trade? Big questions for any team kicking his tires.

11. Michael Jordan. The Hornets owner is on record saying he won’t pay the luxury tax for a non-contender, and if true, that means he’s offering Kemba something short of the max, at most. And even that isn’t a guarantee. If Walker leaves and the Hornets are stuck with a bad team that’s weighed down by poor contracts, then Jordan will be the goat in another sense of the word.

12. Nets. They have $60 million to spend and a solid supporting cast already in place to compliment any incoming superstar, singular or plural. Their issue lies with any pursuit of Kyrie; does that mean the Nets will part ways with D’Angelo Russell, who’s younger and would be cheaper to keep? That all depends on if the Nets sign two big free agents. If not, they may roll the dice on a Kyrie-D-Lo backcourt and hope the chemistry works.

13. Kemba Walker. He doesn’t want to leave Charlotte and he committed the negotiating sin of saying he’ll take less than the max to stay. We’ll see how devoted Walker is when other teams start to swoop. For someone who has never been to the second round, let’s see him say no to a contender who can pay good, but not great, money. Does he want to win or get paid? Can’t have both.

14. Bucks. After a 60-win uplifting season, the Bucks must cope with the free agency of Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic. It’s a sticky situation; they don’t have Bird rights for Lopez and they can’t replace Middleton with a similar talent if Middleton leaves. Above all, they must show Giannis Antetokounmpo that they’re serious about keeping the band together or at least remain a title contender.

15. Al Horford. He just left $26 million on the table in Boston by opting out. Who does that at age 33 with declining skills? This smells like an overpay upcoming.

16. Khris Middleton. He’s a floor-stretcher whose shooting range is valuable in today’s NBA. He’ll be in demand and the Bucks may have no choice but to max him out, especially if a darkhorse team like the Mavericks ($47 million in cap room) come calling with a close-enough offer for a player who played his college ball in Texas.

17. D’Angelo Russell. Can you imagine a scenario that leads him back to the Lakers? He’s a restricted free agent and no way the Nets let him walk for nothing even if they sign Irving, but still. Watch out for a massive offer sheet from the Suns, who are salivating over a possible Russell-Devin Booker duo.

18. Malcolm Brogdon. The Bucks got jumpy last spring and extended Eric Bledsoe to the tune of $17 million a season, and some scouts feel Brogdon is better, or will be in the long run. Even though point guards are plentiful, he may become the best value signing of the summer.

19. Elton Brand. The Sixers’ new GM received plenty of back-slaps last February when he rolled the dice and swapped the future for Tobias Harris. If Harris leaves in free agency and Butler follows, that trade with the Clippers backfired in hindsight.

20. Julius Randle. He improved his offense and became a solid double-double guy at age 23. He’s about to cash checks. Maybe from the Mavericks since Randle is from Dallas.

21. Klay Thompson. If the Warriors pay him, and they will, he’s staying. Nothing else to see here. Move along.

22. JR Smith and Carmelo Anthony. Wait, seriously, are the Lakers really giving this some thought a year after signing Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley?

23. Pacers. They are suspiciously under the radar as a reasonably big player in free agency. Indiana has $32 million in cap space and Victor Oladipo coming back from surgery next season. Malcolm Brogdon might be a good fit here. But they probably should save some to re-sign Bojan Bogdanovic.

24. Class of 2016. Congratulations to Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng and Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner and others who heisted the reckless GMs in the bloated summer of ’16. Someone mediocre is about to come along and sign for something more outrageous in a few days, just watch.

25. Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s not a free agent, but he’s listed here because the 2021 countdown for the new Kia MVP, alas, has already begun.

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.

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