The internal struggle of NBA free agency is real—or will be once the calendar flips to July. Come summer, a top-heavy class will have to battle with impulses that can lead players in competing directions.
Some will follow their hearts, be it to their ancestral roots, back to the teams with which they've thrived in the past or toward reunions with friends and former running mates. Others will go with their heads to situations where their on-court aspirations, individual and otherwise, will be best served.
Many more will take the money and run—or, in plenty of cases, stay, since incumbent teams can offer the most. NBA careers are short, so it makes sense that players would wring out the largest paydays possible before they retire in their mid-to-late 30s.
This year's class could feature overlap between hearts, heads and wallets among the top free agents. Here's a look at which way the biggest unrestricted free agents may lean in the summer of 2016.
*Restricted free agents are excluded, since their fates are ultimately decided by their current franchises.
Heart: Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James' heart has always been in his hometown of Akron in Northeast Ohio. In announcing his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers two years ago, he made that clear right off the top in his essay, as told to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins:
Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. ... People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.
Since then, James has backed up his words with bold action in the community. As The Undefeated's Jesse Washington detailed, his commitment to Akron deepened immediately:
One month later, he rebranded his Wheels for Education charitable program — which had grown from 250 to 1,000 kids, and from offering free bikes to free college — with the additional name I PROMISE. ...
He’s promising to push kids — some of whom can hardly read — all the way to college, to defeat a societal problem more devastating than any Steph Curry jump shot.
James hasn't promised to stay in the Buckeye State as a free agent, but he's made it clear that for him, home is where the heart is.
Head: Cleveland Cavaliers
James has all the basketball reasons he needs to stay in Cleveland. His Cavs are a virtual lock to crack their second straight NBA Finals and extend his personal streak to six in a row.
This could be just the beginning of Cleveland's second coming with James. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are under contract until 2020. So is Tristan Thompson. Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye are both locked in through the 2017-18 season.
The Cavs could still come up short in the Finals against either the Golden State Warriors or Oklahoma City Thunder. But no team offers James a more viable and reliable path to the championship, out of the weaker Eastern Conference, than Cleveland.
Wallet: Cleveland Cavaliers
Like any incumbent club, the Cavs can offer James more money over more years than any competitor.
Chances are, he'll do in July what he did last summer: decline his player option for next season, sign another two-year deal with an opt-out and jump back onto the market a year later, when the salary cap explodes again.
Not that James needs the cash. His lifetime deal with Nike could be worth north of $1 billion, as Maverick Carter, LeBron's business partner, intimated to GQ's Mark Anthony Green.
But if further fattening his bank account is a primary objective, signing in Cleveland (long term or in the alternative scenario presented above) is the best way to ultimately do it.
Heart: Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant isn't LeBron James. Home is not where Durant's heart is, at least as far as professional basketball is concerned, per The Vertical's Chris Mannix:
Durant isn't bound for Washington, friends say, because … it's Washington, it's home, and, like so many athletes, Durant isn't all that keen on returning to play in the city in which he grew up. Friends, family – some real, some claiming to be – all come out of the woodwork in those situations, and Durant, who has tightened his inner circle considerably in recent years, isn't interested in dealing with them.
Instead, Durant seems to have planted his emotional flag in OKC. He speaks often, because he's prompted often, of Russell Westbrook, his superstar teammate with the Oklahoma City Thunder, as his brother. He's been the backbone of the Thunder franchise since it fled Seattle in 2008. He's given millions to the surrounding community, including the $1 million donation he made to the American Red Cross in the wake of the tornado that leveled the town of Moore, Oklahoma.
Oklahoma City may not be Durant's hometown by birth, but he's set down enough roots there to make it more relevant to his free agency than Washington will ever be.
Head: Golden State Warriors
If the Thunder come up short in these Western Conference Finals, Durant may have to turn farther west to find the championship that has thus far eluded him.
In early February, The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Warriors were "significant front-runners" to sign him if he decides to bolt OKC this summer. As Woj wrote then: "Durant has always been looking for reasons to stay. He adores the Oklahoma City community and holds a fondness for the franchise, but Durant is chasing championships...chasing a legacy."
The same holds true today, with Durant hoping to help his Thunder bounce back from a devastating Game 2 loss in Oakland, California. Should the Warriors prevail, they would remain the most daunting obstacle between Durant and the title he so covets.
That isn't likely to change anytime soon. Stephen Curry will be a free agent in 2017 but doesn't seem keen to leave. Klay Thompson is under contract until 2019. Draymond Green is locked in until 2020.
If Durant can't beat 'em now, he may not have much choice but to join 'em if he wants to hoist a Larry O'Brien Trophy of his own.
Wallet: Oklahoma City Thunder
As appealing as the Warriors may be to KD from a basketball standpoint, OKC is where Durant should lean if money becomes the deciding factor. As Zach Lowe detailed for Grantland last June:
Durant could sign a one-year deal, re-enter free agency when the cap leaps to $108 million in the summer of 2017, and ink a mega-max at that 35 percent level. Durant would rake in about $40 million more going that route than by signing a long-term contract deal next summer.
Technically, Durant could rake in a similar windfall by signing a short-term deal in Golden State, but getting there would be trickier. Allow Lowe to explain:
That team -- say, the Warriors -- would not have Durant's Bird Rights in the summer of 2017, when the cap is projected to approach $110 million. Durant's maximum salary will leap with it, and without Bird Rights, the Warriors wouldn't be able to go over the cap while re-signing Durant, as teams typically can in bringing back their own guys. Instead, they'd have to open up something like $35 million in room to re-sign him.
TL;DR: If money matters most to Durant, he'll stay in OKC to make as much as he can.
Heart: Orlando Magic
At first blush, the thought of Dwight Howard returning to the Magic Kingdom is a strange one. He left Orlando on acrimonious terms, marked by trade demands and an infamously awkward encounter at one of Stan Van Gundy's press conferences.
But the Magic have been terrible since Howard departed, finishing each of the last four seasons in the lottery. Howard, meanwhile, has lost plenty of his own luster—first during an ill-fated stint with the Los Angeles Lakers and then as James Harden's misused sidekick with the Houston Rockets.
In late March, Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher suggested Howard could seek a second tour in Orlando.
"I loved Orlando," Howard told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. "I loved the city, but at that time, I didn't feel winning was a priority."
Results aside, much has changed for the Magic on that front. Rob Hennigan, not Otis Smith, is running the front office. According to the Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins, Frank Vogel will be the team's fourth head coach since Van Gundy's ouster.
Those shifts could clear the way for Howard to follow his heart back to central Florida. Then again, he may no longer be so inclined to let those whims win the day.
"I can make sure going forward that each and every decision I make is not based on emotion," Howard told ESPN. "I let my emotions get the best of me."
Head: Portland Trail Blazers
According to ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins, the Portland Trail Blazers are on Howard's preliminary list.
Basketball-wise, Howard could hardly ask for a more perfect fit. As much talent as Mason Plumlee flashed during Portland's Cinderella-ish playoff run, the Blazers could still use a bigger presence at center on both ends. And with Meyers Leonard ticketed for restricted free agency, they must be careful about how they spend money on that spot.
In Howard, the Blazers would add one of the league's most reliable finishers to a team featuring two of the top pick-and-roll ball-handlers in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Portland could use Howard's expertise in that regard. According to NBA.com, the Blazers' roll men ranked 20th in efficiency. Howard, in turn, would benefit from the added looks he'd get from Lillard and McCollum while letting those two serve as the faces of the franchise.
Together, this trio would give Portland a foundation from which to build on this year's postseason push while getting Howard as far away from the mess in Houston as possible.
Wallet: Charlotte Hornets
Per Watkins, Howard would also consider signing with the Charlotte Hornets. He's familiar with Steve Clifford, who coached him in Orlando and L.A. and would be joining an up-and-coming team that could use fresh blood at center with Al Jefferson headed into free agency.
But Big Al's expired deal points to the real draw here: Charlotte's desire to make a splash in free agency and willingness to spend toward that end. In 2013, the team gave Jefferson a three-year, $40.5 million deal. The following summer, the Hornets threw a max offer sheet at Gordon Hayward, which the Utah Jazz matched, before signing Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal worth more than $27 million.
Howard would be the first true marquee signee for Charlotte under owner Michael Jordan—just in time for the Hornets to (maybe) host the All-Star Game, no less. Given their track record, the Hornets would probably be the most apt to max Howard out, if only to show the rest of the league that the Queen City is the place to be.
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Heart: Los Angeles Lakers
Say what you will about Stephen A. Smith, but he may have a point when it comes to DeMar DeRozan's future. As he recently said on ESPN's First Take, via Lakers Nation's Ryan Ward:
He’s made it very, very clear that he wants to be in L.A. He has family out there. He’s from out there. He wants to be in L.A. He wants to wear the purple and gold, and if there’s a way for it to happen...DeMar DeRozan will be in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform next season.
Like so many Angelenos his age, DeRozan's Lakers fandom is tied to his love and appreciation for Kobe Bryant. DeRozan commented after Bryant announced his retirement in November, per CBS Sports' James Herbert:
He meant everything. I try to emulate, learn so much from him ever since I was a kid. Watching every single game growing up in Los Angeles, having a chance to get with him and learn from him and from conversations even when I was in high school [to] playing against him, competing against him and being in big games with him.
What better way for DeRozan to pay his respects to his childhood idol than to attempt to fill the shoes Bryant leaves behind and help lead the Lakers back to prominence?
Head: Toronto Raptors
Even if the Cleveland Cavaliers sweep the Toronto Raptors out of the Eastern Conference Finals, DeRozan might be best served staying put.
The Cavs, unlike the Warriors with Durant, won't have much flexibility to bring on another max-level player, not with LeBron due another hefty raise. The Miami Heat could be Cleveland's toughest competition going forward, but they are already stocked in their backcourt with Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade, assuming the latter returns.
The Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers could all rise up under the right circumstances and could each carve out enough cap space to sign DeRozan in July. But none of those teams won 55 games and cracked the conference finals.
And none of those options offer the chemistry, both on and off the court, DeRozan has concocted alongside fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. As the Toronto Star's Doug Smith noted in January, their friendship has played a part in the Raptors' recent success:
It’s obvious they like each other — they are likeable men, so why wouldn’t they? — and they trumpet that fact as a key reason the Raptors have been more consistently excellent over the past 2 ½ seasons than they ever have before and a big reason why they’ve rattled off a franchise-record 11 straight victories.
Breaking that up this summer wouldn't move DeRozan or the Raptors any closer to knocking James from his perch atop the East.
Wallet: Los Angeles Lakers
The Raptors can pay DeRozan more than anyone else, but will they want to?
If they max him out, they'll essentially be stuck with a team that, like everyone in the East, can't get by LeBron. Toronto doesn't have better options in-house, but it does have potential replacements nonetheless. Terrence Ross is a superior three-point shooter, and Norman Powell flashed some two-way talent as a rookie.
The Lakers, meanwhile, won't blink if they have a chance to bring DeRozan back to his roots. According to ESPN's Zach Lowe, they're "prepared to offer him a max deal starting at $25 million per season."
Whatever money DeRozan might leave on the table in Toronto, he could make up a solid portion of it on his next shoe deal. As The Vertical's Nick DePaula laid out: "If he were to land in L.A. or another major market, DeRozan could expect to get shoe-deal offers worth three times the current range of less than half a million dollars that he's earning from Nike."
That wouldn't close the gap entirely, but if the Lakers wind up offering more money than the Raptors anyway, the extra shoe money would make for some sweet icing on DeRozan's free-agent cake.
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Heart: Orlando Magic
Al Horford didn't grow up in Florida, but he did come of age in the Sunshine State. He won two national titles during his three years at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Should Horford join the cap-flush Orlando Magic, he'd move within 100 miles of his old stomping grounds. According to Sporting News' Sean Deveney, Horford and the Magic have "mutual" interest in aligning this summer. And as Deveney noted, he could do so while reuniting with fellow Gator great and impending free agent Joakim Noah.
For a player who hasn't yet come close to winning it all as a pro, the allure of going back to school (or close to it) might be too much to pass up.
Head: Houston Rockets
After all the times LeBron James has stymied him, Horford might prefer to escape the East entirely.
Per Deveney, Horford is "the Rockets' top-line goal in free agency," with Ryan Anderson also on the list. In Houston, Horford would be hitching his wagon to the 26-year-old James Harden, as opposed to the 31-year-old Paul Millsap in Atlanta.
Granted, a future next to Harden might give Horford more headaches than he'd endure in Atlanta. But Horford has long been lauded for his locker-room leadership—something that's been sorely lacking, at least from the stars, in Space City.
Horford's all-around talent would mesh well with Houston's fast-paced, quick-trigger approach. If he can whip the Rockets into shape behind closed doors, Horford might also help bring out the best the Rockets have to offer on the court.
Wallet: Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks might not want to lavish Al Horford with anything close to a max contract. He'll turn 30 in early June, which means a long-term deal could leave the Hawks on the hook to pay Horford around $30 million per year into his mid-30s.
If the rumblings around the trade deadline were any indication, Atlanta may think it best to move forward without him. It's possible the Hawks already peaked with Horford last season, when they won 60 games and the Cleveland Cavaliers swept them out of the Eastern Conference Finals.
On the other hand, Horford has been integral to the Hawks' steady success. Before the team drafted him third overall in 2007, Atlanta hadn't hosted playoff basketball in eight years. Since then, the Hawks haven't missed the postseason.
There's something to be said for being consistently competitive for almost a decade. Keeping that string going in a football-crazy town could be worth the Hawks' while, even if it requires Horford receiving a monstrous contract.
Heart: Charlotte Hornets
Hassan Whiteside won't have to venture far from home to find a team that could use his talents. In fact, he could walk to Time Warner Cable Arena, where the Charlotte Hornets play, from the gym where he worked out prior to his NBA comeback.
"It's just because it was two blocks away," Whiteside told ESPN's Michael Wallace. "I'd see it every day, and I think that's what it was. I thought about it. But it's a blessing in disguise because I'm here [in Miami]. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone to Charlotte? I've got a great front office, great coaches and great teammates, so everything worked out."
Whiteside seems happy on South Beach but could find out for himself if the grass is any greener in Charlotte, which is a short drive from his hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina.
The Hornets could use an upgrade at center, with Al Jefferson bound for free agency and Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky still finding themselves at the NBA level.
The Hornets, for their part, know all too well what Whiteside can do. He averaged 13.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocks and shot nearly 70 percent from the field against Charlotte during Miami's first-round triumph.
Head: Miami Heat
Whiteside, for his part, is well aware of what the "Miami Mafia" has done (and can do) for his game.
He arrived in Miami during the 2014-15 season, fresh off years spent trotting the globe and several more weeks toiling in the D-League. Since then, the Heat have molded him into a more mature player and person, one who can dominate in whatever role he's afforded—and who may be worth whatever a team can afford to pay.
They know, better than anyone, how to push the volatile 26-year-old's buttons. When the Heat demoted Whiteside to the bench this past February, he responded with 16.7 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in 29.3 minutes per game over 29 contests. Once the playoffs rolled around, he was back in the starting lineup, destroying opponents inside before succumbing to injury.
Miami has already made it clear it wants Whiteside back. Heat president Pat Riley called him the "No. 1 priority, period," per the Miami Herald's Greg Cote: "There might be players out there in free agency, but he’s 26. He’s a game-changer. State-of-the-art talent. I don’t think he’s even reached his ceiling. We think he is able to carry a team. That will take more discipline and growth. But I think he’s ready for that."
He'll have to be if he stays in Miami. With Chris Bosh's basketball career in jeopardy, the Heat will need Whiteside to be a star and figure to feed him accordingly.
Wallet: Los Angeles Lakers
Whether the Heat can afford to pay Whiteside the going rate is another story. Because he's only been with the team for less than two years, Miami can't exceed the salary cap to re-sign him.
That could be difficult for the Heat, even with the cap set to zoom past $90 million, according USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. They have a number of other free agents to attend to, with Dwyane Wade chief among them.
While Miami is busy hurdling through cap gymnastics, another team—like, say, the Los Angeles Lakers—could swoop in for his services. With Kobe Bryant and Roy Hibbert off the books, the Lakers will be armed to the teeth with cap space. And absent Hibbert, they'll have a hole to fill at center.
The Lakers have a long history of bringing in and succeeding with big men in their prime, from Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol. If L.A. feels Whiteside is the right fit for that lineage, the team won't shy away from paying full freight, especially with team executive Jim Buss' job on the line if the Lakers aren't a competitive playoff team next season.
Whiteside isn't likely to get them there so soon, but with him joining a young group featuring D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and the No. 2 pick in this year's draft, the Lakers could be on their way to building something special.
Heart: Miami Heat
By all accounts, Dwyane Wade is on much better terms with the Miami Heat now than he was last summer, when contract negotiations turned tense. This time around, he's aiming for a decidedly less testy resolution.
As Wade said during his exit interview, per the Miami Herald's Manny Navarro:
I don’t know what to anticipate. I don’t pay myself. So, I can’t anticipate anything being smooth. Like I said earlier in the year, I hope it is [smooth]. I hope everything for myself is quiet and everything works out the way I want it to, whatever that is. But, I have no control over that as much as people would think. You have no control how that is necessarily is going to go.
What Wade can control is his devotion to the Heat. He's known no other NBA team since Miami took him fifth overall in the 2003 draft. His three championships in five trips to the Finals have already distinguished him as the greatest player in franchise history.
Chicago is where he's from, but "Wade County" is clearly home for him.
Head: Cleveland Cavaliers
That said, if Wade wants to win another championship, he'd do well to team up again with LeBron James— this time in Cleveland.
James wouldn't mind.
"I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together," James told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo, D-Wade, CP—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that."
Getting the band together would likely require a pay cut for Wade as well. But if the Cavs can figure out how to flip Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, they'd be well on their way to bringing LeBron's dream to life.
Doing so would also put Wade back within arm's reach of the Larry O'Brien Trophy. At the very least, he'd be back on the "LeBron Train," bound for yet another trip to the Finals.
Wallet: Miami Heat
Wade won't find more money outside of Miami, and not just because the Heat can offer him more by rule.
As productive as Wade was during the regular season, and as much of a killer as he became in the playoffs, is any other team going to pony up $20 million for a 34-year-old shooting guard with a history of knee problems?
Only the Heat would seem likely to meet Wade's demands out of both deference to what he's done for the franchise and fear of the backlash from fans that parting ways would invite.