Who are the biggest teams and players to watch when NBA free agency hits?
1. Which team will you be watching most closely?
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: The Celtics. They still have plenty of assets with which they can make some noise, and depending on what LeBron decides to do, this could be the time to go all-in. Kawhi Leonard is obviously out there, but the notion of dealing away someone like a Jaylen Brown to get him is a scary one for Boston fans, for obvious reasons. It may not even require something of that magnitude to put the Celtics over the top, though.
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN senior writer: The Lakers. They find themselves in the epicenter of the pre-free agency vortex with absolutely no idea how it will end up when the room stops spinning. Kawhi wants to go to L.A., but Gregg Popovich isn’t down with that, so will LeBron go there without him? Paul George has had his eye on L.A. for two years now, but will he go if LeBron decides not to?
And what if someone slaps a lucrative offer sheet on restricted free agent Julius Randle in the meantime? What does that do to the team’s cavernous cap room? Is it already time to move on from Lonzo Ball if LeBron does come? Will they need to give up prized youngsters Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma?
Or should the Lakers just be patient and wait to strike in the summer of 2019? So many questions, and so few answers … and it feels a bit like an all-or-nothing proposition.
Bobby Marks, ESPN Insider: It has to be the Lakers — their management will be aggressive, targeting LeBron James and Paul George in free agency and perhaps Kawhi Leonard on the trade front. The cap-clearing trade at the deadline set the stage for the Lakers to sign two players at max salary or roll over the cap room to 2019 if they miss out on their targets. Will the Lakers show patience if they miss out?
One key question: Is the young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart a drawing card? If so, and those players stay with the team, James and/or George could have a tough time getting past the likes of Golden State and Houston next postseason.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN senior writer: Philly. The Sixers have so many options. With their cap space and contender status, they can go after essentially any free agent on the market. Or they can keep the core of their team together by re-signing their guys.
My advice: Don’t just focus on LeBron. They need as much shooting as they can find.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: The Lakers. From a team standpoint, the Lakers can run free agency because they’re not dependent on anyone else to create cap space to sign not just one but two max players. Now the players have to agree to that, of course, and they may well not. But for the first time in years, the Lakers have more than just history and their market to sell to star players.
2. Which dark horse teams will you have your eye on?
Marks: The Mavericks jump-started the offseason with the aggressive trade to move up in the draft and acquire Luka Doncic. The trade signaled that Dallas is not content in a full rebuild, as evident by the lightly protected (top-5) 2019 lottery pick sent to Atlanta. With holes at power forward and center, Dallas could be a landing spot for players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Derrick Favors. The Mavericks could have up to $27 million in room.
Herring: Portland. Kind of seems like the Blazers need to do something to shake up the composition of that team, which is too reliant on its lead guards and has far too much money committed to its wing players. Jusuf Nurkic‘s free agency will be interesting to watch — he’s decent, but he likely isn’t the answer and would drive the team’s salary figure even higher.
MacMullan: The Phoenix Suns. Yes, the same Suns that were cellar dwellers in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. But newly appointed coach Igor Kokoskov adds instant swagger — and accountability — on defense. Deandre Ayton is aboard. So is Mikal Bridges, one of the best 3-and-D players in this draft. Plunk them next to professional scorer Devin Booker and add French point guard Elie Okobo, who has the ability for lightning-bolt offensive explosions, and the Valley of the Nones has some appeal again, not to mention cap room.
The future is suddenly intriguing. Enough to lure DeMarcus Cousins, or to overpay Clint Capela with an offer sheet? At least now it’s actually a plausible scenario.
Pelton: Particularly if Thaddeus Young declines his $13 million player option, the Indiana Pacers have an interesting opportunity to add to the core of a playoff team. As our Bobby Marks noted, Indiana will be one of just two playoff teams with cap space.
I’m also curious about which center Dallas prioritizes after getting Luka Doncic.
Windhorst: Phoenix. The Suns have cap space and look poised to make a run at a veteran free agent or two that they can pair with their young kids. They want to win now, and it’s a buyer’s market. Could be a surprise name they go after and land.
3. Which non-LeBron free agent are you watching most closely?
MacMullan: Easy one: Cousins. You just never know where Boogie Fever will take you: to his locker room, where he might engage in fisticuffs with a teammate (Donte Greene), to the court, where he might engage in verbal warfare with his coach — pick a day, any day, when George Karl was calling the shots from Sacramento’s bench — or my personal favorite, when he dropped 55 points and 13 boards just after he was fined $50,000 for berating a Sacramento Bee reporter, got ejected for spitting out his mouth guard, then was un-ejected after the refs realized he didn’t actually do it on purpose.
In spite of it all, he’s a major, albeit combustible talent who, after he unfollowed New Orleans on Instagram, was linked to the Mavs, Suns and Lakers. Yet, with his Achilles rehab ongoing, the question remains: At what price?
Windhorst: There’s a handful of restricted guys who could end up in interesting situations if one of the cap teams go after them. This includes Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and Aaron Gordon. One or two of these guys figure to get an offer sheet that’ll make their teams think.
Marks: Before his injury, Cousins was in line for a $188 million contract with New Orleans. Now that five-year contract could be replaced with a two-year deal. But is that with the Pelicans or a team like Dallas?
Pelton: I guess Paul George, to the extent that his decision could affect LeBron’s, and he’s the top-five free agent whose decision between staying and going seems most uncertain to me.
Herring: Paul George is an obvious answer for a handful of reasons. But outside of him, I’m curious as to whether anyone outside of New Orleans will make a true play for Cousins. I’m very interested to see how Jabari Parker’s situation plays out. And depending on whether the Lakers hit a grand slam this summer, I’m intrigued by what it may mean for Julius Randle in L.A.
4. Based on what you expect to happen, what’s the best basketball decision for LeBron?
Windhorst: There is no perfect situation. It may come down to choosing between the future of the Lakers and the Cavs. Cleveland needs to hope home matters.
Herring: Even if James were to pair up with another star (or two) in L.A., he’d still be surrounded by a young Lakers supporting cast that might still need another year or two to develop into a championship-caliber club. Philadelphia would put him alongside Ben Simmons, who, for all his talent, hasn’t shown he can play off the ball yet. So while the Houston scenario involves a number of hurdles, it still likely represents James’ best, most realistic shot at winning a title next season.
MacMullan: The Lakers. Unless he whispers sweet nothings in Pop’s ear and hypnotizes him into letting Kawhi go, then drags along Paul George in tow, LeBron likely won’t win a title next season in Los Angeles, since Golden State’s snipers show all signs of remaining intact. But L.A. has more young talent than the Cavs, and this change of venue could be appealing to his family.
And then there’s the biggest factor: ownership. Jeanie Buss is tough, smart, savvy, compassionate and respectful of superstar talent. She paid close attention to one of the greatest owners in NBA history — her father — and took copious notes. LeBron’s frustrations with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who eviscerated him in print last time James left, are well-documented.
Pelton: In the short term, if an opt-in and trade were feasible, I would try to join the Houston Rockets because I think that presents far and away the best opportunity to win a championship over the next couple of seasons.
Marks: To stay in Cleveland on a two-year contract (one year plus a player option). Yes, the critics will ask why he would return to a team that just got swept by Golden State. But an All-Star we sometimes forget in Kevin Love, the infusion of youth with Collin Sexton and contracts that can be moved in George Hill or Kyle Korver give Cleveland the opportunity to return to an NBA Finals for a fifth straight season.
5. What’s your one bold prediction for summer trades and/or free agency?
Herring: That the Clippers will end up having a better record than the Lakers next season if LeBron decides not to go to the City of Angels. The Clips have enough cap space for one max-level star, too. They may not be able to hold a candle to the Lakers’ history, but it is still LA.
Windhorst: I don’t make predictions. But my guess is football players won’t be complaining as much about the NBA deals this summer. After three years of spending, this is a bear market.
MacMullan: My bold prediction is someone will throw a pile of money at Capela and the Rockets might have to swallow hard and let him walk. Let’s not forget that this team was one hamstring away from winning an NBA title. Capela improved by leaps and bounds (thanks, in part, to Chris Paul importing Lob City to Texas) and outplayed both Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the postseason. I’m sure he wants to stay, but again, I answer with the all-too-common refrain in free agency: At what price?
Marks: Chalk will be the theme of the NBA in July. LeBron James will stay with Cleveland, Paul George with Oklahoma City and Chris Paul with Houston. The free-agency buzz will turn to the Kawhi Leonard watch in San Antonio.
Pelton: George and Kevin Durant end up the lone players who make more as free agents than they would have by picking up declined player options. This is contingent on the cap coming in about where it’s projected, which makes LeBron’s player option slightly more than his maximum salary as a free agent.
Otherwise, I think the handful of players who declined their options will regret that decision (at least financially).