huhere’s the thing about this year’s NBA free agency: there might not be a lot of unrestricted free agent movement. There won’t be a lot of major free agents out there, nor are there a lot of suitors (at the moment). At time of writing, only the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic have a significant amount of cap space.
Does this mean nothing will happen after free agency officially starts at 6pm EST on Thursday? Absolutely not, this summer should provide us with plenty of storylines whether they revolve around free agent signings, blockbuster trades or just general franchise upheavals.
1) Has the drama in Brooklyn really ended?
Potentially the biggest story of the summer might have already been squashed. Just a few days ago, it looked as if the Brooklyn Nets were about to split up as Kyrie Irving was rumored to be opting out of his $36.9m player’s option, potentially signing with the Los Angeles Lakers for the $6m midlevel exception.
Eventually, Irving whipped out the calculator and realized that this was significantly less than $36.9 million and opted in to the final year of his deal in Brooklyn. This was a relief to the Nets, who were worried about Kevin Durant asking out if Irving were to depart.
However, now that Irving has opted in, it’s still possible that the Nets could pursue a sign-and-trade with another team (including the Lakers). It’s also not impossible that Irving’s unreliability has made Durant wonder whether the whole Nets experiment is worth it. Or, yeah, and there’s also the “can Ben Simmons actually play basketball at all” question. The Nets have leapt one hurdle, but there are more to come for sure.
2) Can the Lakers improve their roster?
We can debate the wisdom of the Lakers adding Irving to their roster at all – the last time LeBron James and Irving were teammates back with the Cleveland Cavaliers it ended in a public falling out, and Irving has only attracted more controversy since then – but it would have been a defensible gamble at $6m. They also would have liked to snag John Wall after the Houston Rockets bought out the point guard, but all reports have him going to the Los Angeles Clippers.
The good news for the Lakers is that Russell Westbrook is opting into his contract. The bad news for the Lakers is that, well, Russell Westbrook is opting into his contract and he’s going to cost them $47m. The best version of Westbrook could absolutely help this team, but we haven’t seen that version of the 33-year-old in a while.
After last season’s failure to make the playoffs, the Lakers could use some major changes. But they are well into the luxury tax, and may need to get creative to pull anything off this summer. Can they unload Westbrook and get any value for him? It might not hurt to explore that option.
3) Is Jalen Brunson the answer in New York?
On draft day, the Knicks made the curious decision to skip out on the first round altogether, trading their picks in order to clear up cap space. Then they traded Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks for two second-round picks and cash for even more cap space.
The reasons, it turns out, are not all that obscure as they are preparing to offer a max contract to Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson. If they do so, it’s unlikely that Dallas will be willing to match that offer on a player yet to make an All-Star team.
It’s a high-risk move for a team that has been burnt in the past by handing out huge contracts to non-superstars. There’s a solid chance this could end up being a classic move that doesn’t make the Knicks much better, makes the Mavericks appreciably worse and ends up with Brunson stuck in an unhappy spot with an untradeable contract. In other words, a bad deal for everyone. Here in the biz, we call that “Knickery.”
4) Who exactly will be the top free agent this summer?
On the other hand, maybe the Knicks are just aware how slim the pickings are this summer. Right now, it’s not entirely certain who the top free-agent will be. Should James Harden opt out of the $47.4m he’s owed by the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s probably him. That, to put it mildly, seems unlikely considering how things poorly ended in Philly last season.
Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal could turn down his option for next year and become an unrestricted free agent. But if he does that, Washington can simply offer him a larger maximum deal than anybody else. It could be a no-brainer for him to remain a Wizard.
Likewise, Zach LaVine will be an unrestricted free agent but reports have him staying in Chicago to be the face of the Bulls (not a bad legacy move, given who else has owned that title). Beyond LaVine, we have already discussed the likely destinations of both Brunson and Wall.
The most intriguing name could be the Phoenix Suns’ Deandre Ayton, to whom the Suns have submitted a $16.4m qualifying offer. As a restricted free agent, the former No 1 overall pick could either take it – becoming an unrestricted free agent next year – or refuse it to seek a larger contract elsewhere.
Should he take the second option, the Suns can match whatever offers they get for him. One assumes that they would rather do that than letting him walk, but there’s the possibility of them working a sign-and-trade if the situation in Phoenix feels untenable (and it could be).
5) The Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics in different situations
What of our two NBA finals opponents? Well, one of them may be due for a major lineup makeover while the other could potentially be all set, that is unless they decide otherwise.
The world champion Golden State Warriors could be losing key pieces including Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr, who are all scheduled to become free agents. All three players were vital parts of their finals win over the Boston Celtics – indeed of their entire postseason run – and have certainly upped their value. Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins are also eligible for extensions, so the Warriors have a lot of decisions to make about how to spend their money.
The Celtics, however, won’t have to make any major moves with their core four of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams all under contract and Al Horford likely to return. All points indicate that they will mostly look at bolstering a thin bench rather than making huge moves, but this wouldn’t be the first offseason that they shocked the NBA.