Way-Too-Soon Predictions for 2019’s Top NBA Free Agents

Way-Too-Soon Predictions for 2019’s Top NBA Free Agents

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    The cash-strapped austerity of 2018 NBA free agency is gone, and looming on the horizon is a richer, more robust 2019 scenario that should propel the news cycle and create massive, star-level turnover.

    Come July, nearly half of all players in the NBA will be free agents, and nearly half of the league’s 30 teams will have significant salary-cap space. Several big-market clubs are in line to have multiple max-salary slots open. Throw in a projected cap jump in 2020 that will take each team’s figure up to $118 million, per Kaelan Jones of SI.com, and you could see many clubs spending even more freely, knowing they’ll get extra breathing room the following offseason.

    Get ready for the leaguewide landscape to shudder as notable names either ink megadeals to stay put or strike out for new territory (perhaps with friends in tow).

    With such a free-for-all ahead, guessing where the biggest names will land feels like a fool’s errand. So let’s get foolish.

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    If Kevin Durant opts out of his current deal after the 2018-19 season, he’ll be able to sign a new contract with the Warriors worth $221 million over five years. So for all the growing uncertainty about his future, made more pressing by KD’s general inscrutability and the cap space that’ll be sitting unused in New York and Los Angeles, he may not be that much of a flight risk.

    Because no one has turned down a five-year max like the one Durant could get from Golden State.

    There’s a first time for everything, of course, and Durant may decide he’s ready for a new challenge following the Warriors’ (probable) third straight title. Perhaps KD will determine he’s proved enough in Golden State and take less money on a shorter deal to try his luck elsewhere. But if the Dubs present an offer worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars—one that’d allow him to continue chasing rings—it’s hard to imagine him passing on the opportunity.

    Aside from wanting to retain one of the greatest players in NBA history, the Warriors will be motivated by the 2019 opening of their new arena in San Francisco. Surely they’ll want Durant in uniform and inked to a fresh deal as they usher in a glistening new era.

    In the interest of team-building, Durant has left money on the table in each of his last two negotiations with the Warriors. He’s got enough cash to last several lifetimes, but if he’s interested in maximizing his earnings on what may be the last major deal of his career (he turns 30 in September), the Warriors can pay him substantially more than anyone else.

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    There could have been several reasons the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t swing a deal for Kawhi Leonard after signing LeBron James.

    Maybe the San Antonio Spurs were never interested in packages that included picks and young players. Maybe general manager R.C. Buford is one of those executives irrationally committed to not trading stars within the conference. Maybe Gregg Popovich nixed a deal because he didn’t want Lonzo (and LaVar) Ball potentially diluting the Spurs’ well-established culture.

    Then again, maybe the real reason Leonard is set to spend a season with the Toronto Raptors is that the Lakers knew they were going to get him in 2019 anyway. If they were sure of that, giving up assets never made sense.

    If that’s how it plays out, the Lakers are betting on James extending his prime far longer than most stars; it’ll have to last until Leonard arrives in a year. It also makes 2018-19 a throwaway, non-title-chasing year. That’s certainly how James tried to frame it in his media-day comments to reporters, in which he repeatedly shot down talk of pressure or championship aspirations.

    The Lakers are just waiting. They’ll get their guy without sending away pieces of their core. As long as James is still near the top of his game in 2019-20, he and Leonard could form the most potent one-two punch in the league.

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    You really can’t do much better than an anonymously sourced rumor in Business Insider, which means we should remain skeptical until more information arises, but the idea of Kyrie Irving winding up with the New York Knicks at least passes the smell test.

    Think about it: Irving has never been afraid to leave a successful situation, as his trade request in the summer of 2017 proved. He’s also seen the dynamics in Boston change over the last several months, as Jayson Tatum has become the long-term franchise cornerstone—with Jaylen Brown right there beside him. Irving is a transcendent offensive player, but if he senses he’s no longer the undisputed alpha with the Celtics, well, it wouldn’t be the first time he extricated himself from a second-banana situation.

    This time, it’ll be even easier. Because if he opts out of his deal, he’ll be a free agent with his choice of destinations. No trade demand required.

    The Knicks will have plenty of cap space, a hopefully healthy Kristaps Porzingis returning after taking most or all of the 2018-19 season off to rehab his torn ACL, an almost-certain top-five draft pick and the ability to add another significant free agent alongside Irving.

    It may be impossible to snap the Knicks out of their decades-long run of dysfunction, but Irving could be irrationally confident enough to think he’s the man to do it. Just imagine if he’s right. In that scenario, Irving, who put the Knicks on his list of acceptable trade destinations last summer, could become an almost messianic figure in New York.  

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Kyrie Irving told ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan he hasn’t discussed future plans with Jimmy Butler since the two played together for Team USA in 2016, which, of course, he did. If Irving and Butler are hatching plans, it doesn’t benefit either of them to admit it, least of all Irving, who should want to avoid rocking the boat for a contending Celtics team.

    Still, we know Butler wants out of Minnesota, and we know the Knicks were on his initial short list of landing spots where he’d sign an extension, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Pumping the brakes, USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt offered this note in the aftermath of Butler’s trade request: “Hearing that Jimmy Butler’s interest in Knicks was overstated. His main goal is to win sooner rather than later.”

    OK, sure, but this doesn’t change anything. It just means Butler wants to go somewhere he can win this year. That could be anywhere. We’re talking about the 2019-20 season, which is when maybe the Knicks will have a healthy Porzingis, several developing young players and Irving.

    In the East, that’s a winner.

    We’ve been down this road too many times in recent seasons to deny the fact that star players talk to one another about teaming up. It happened with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh nearly a decade ago. It happened with Kevin Durant and the Warriors. Maybe it’s happening now with Irving and Butler.

    Either way, the Knicks can move some things around and clear two max slots for Irving and Butler. This isn’t some pipe dream. It can really happen. And since we went into this exercise prepared to be foolish, we’re predicting it will.

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    It’s admittedly exciting to imagine Klay Thompson spreading the floor alongside LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard (whom we sent to L.A.). Thompson’s father played for and continues to work with the franchise, and insofar as a player’s hometown still constitutes pull, Thompson’s Los Angeles roots are worth considering.

    Then again, here’s Thompson responding on Warriors media day when asked if he’s curious about testing free agency: “Not really. When guys go into free agency, they’re looking for situations like mine. I’m content.”

    You don’t get straight talk like that from most players, but this sentiment has been a constant refrain for Thompson.

    In August, he told Mark Medina of Bay Area News Group: “Contract negotiations are way down the line. But I think we all have the same interest. I would love to be here for the rest of my career.”

    Thompson has previously talked about taking a discount to stick with the Warriors, who’ll be luxury-taxed beyond belief if they keep this core together. Knowing that, it’s hard to imagine the shooting guard playing anywhere else.

    Finally, as was the case with Durant, Golden State should be incentivized to keep Thompson around for the 2019 opening of the new Chase Center. If the Dubs win it all this year, they’ll open a new arena with a shot to collect four straight titles for the first time since the Celtics did it from 1963-66.

    Both parties, the Warriors and Thompson, seem to have their incentives aligned on this one.

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    In assembling a roster with roughly 39 quality NBA players, it’s fairly clear that the Los Angeles Clippers are trying to win as they prep themselves for a new era, one likely defined by major free-agent acquisitions in 2019. That means they won’t shy away from proven talent at market prices if the fit is right, and Al Horford basically fits anywhere.

    Why the Clippers?

    For starters, based on this exercise so far, they’ve hypothetically missed out on the five best free agents available, which leaves Horford as the new top target. It’s been a long time since L.A. has operated without the space-cramping presence of a conventional center, so Horford would be an ideal, modern upgrade. He could lighten the facilitation load on youngster Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, anchor a top defense and allow the Clips to play a more up-to-date, versatile style on both ends.

    Even though he’ll be 33 by the time he hits free agency, Horford should remain highly effective. His game is skill-based, so a decline in athleticism won’t be as big of a deal for him as it would for other players his age.

    As a bonus, keep the Dallas Mavericks in mind. Assuming DeAndre Jordan looks for a new spot after his one-season stint in Dallas, pairing Horford with Luka Doncic would create an intelligent playmaking tandem while also giving the Mavs a veteran presence to replace Dirk Nowitzki, who’ll almost certainly retire after his 21st season.

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    Best-guess time: DeMarcus Cousins will sign with the Washington Wizards.

    Cousins and John Wall played collegiately together, and two years ago, Cousins discussed the possibility of a Kentucky reunion, telling reporters: “[Do we] talk about playing with one another? Is that your question? It’s come up.”

    Washington would have to count on Dwight Howard opting out of his two-year deal for this to make sense, and it’s almost certain Otto Porter Jr. or Bradley Beal would have to go—depending on Cousins’ salary demands. Faint as it is, there’s at least an outline of a possible Cousins-to-Washington future.

    Really, though, there’s no way to know when Cousins will return to the court this season, how he’ll look when he does, what he’ll command on the open market, who’ll be willing to pay it and whether (regardless of the results of his image rehab with the Dubs) anyone wants old-school centers at anything above the mid-level exception anymore.

    Basically, we know nothing about how Cousins’ season and free agency will play out.

    And what if things go badly?

    Suppose Cousins doesn’t return until February and looks about like you’d expect a hulking center coming off Achilles surgery to look, which is to say “horrible.” Then imagine he gets frustrated by the lack of playing time or can’t cope with his diminished physical abilities. What if there’s a blowup on the floor or in the locker room and the league gets wind that Cousins can’t play but that he also hasn’t changed his demeanor?

    This might be a situation when, a year from now, Cousins comes nowhere close to belonging on a list of top free agents. Or, only slightly more encouraging, he’ll find himself sifting through a handful of dispiriting minimum offers.

    Good luck to anyone forecasting Cousins’ future. From here, it’s impossible to get a clear view.

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