Predicting Where NBA's Top Free Agents Sign This Summer
On the NBA beat, all we do is look ahead. That's why discussing where the top 2018 free agents will land this summer feels perfectly normal in late February.
This list features the players who'll have the biggest impacts on the teams with which they sign. They're also the guys who'll attract the most coverage this summer. The big names include free agents of all sorts: opt-out candidates, the restricted and, most intriguingly, the unrestricted.
Keep in mind that the destination options are limited. Sure, if you assume all 30 clubs renounce every free agent and clear their cap holds, you get 14 teams with more than the minimum to spend. But once you start factoring in those holds and other obligations, the number of squads with meaningful scratch is smaller.
"Right now, there are just seven teams expected to have significant cap space next summer," ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Bobby Marks reported Feb. 5. "Last year, 10 teams had significant space. In 2016, more than 25 teams had at least $10 million in room."
That financial squeeze complicates things and could forcing marquee players to stay put when they'd rather leave, to take shorter deals when they'd prefer longer ones or to even consider opting into the final year of their contracts.
It's going to be a weird summer. Here's how it might play out.
Quick note/prediction: We left out Nikola Jokic, who is absolutely a top free agent but who'll sign a max deal with the Denver Nuggets five seconds after they decline his 2018-19 option and make him a restricted free agent July 1. It's done. There's no intrigue on that one.
Current Team: Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant sacrificed some cash last summer to facilitate the Warriors' retention of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, but eventually, he's going to get his market value. What's interesting is that he'll have to wait another year to cash in.
Bet on KD to opt out and re-sign with the Warriors on a one-plus-one deal with another opt-out clause, just like the one he inked in 2017. After opting out again in the summer of 2019, he'll sign a full max deal with Golden State for five years and $217 million.
The fallback option is for him to opt out and go with a four-year contract worth around $160 million this summer.
He plays a major role on a perennial title contender without alpha-dog pressure (thanks to Stephen Curry's presence). What's not to like?
Lock it in. Durant isn't leaving the Warriors.
Future Team: Golden State Warriors
Current Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
The whispers about Los Angeles have been out there for months—some created out of whole cloth and others nudged along by LeBron James' own actions.
He's buying a house in Brentwood! It's a dead giveaway!
SB Nation's Tim Cato chronicled the whole deal, and it's fair to say the Los Angeles Lakers have something to offer James.
What they don't have, though, is a realistic chance to win a title next season—even if they add another max superstar alongside James. After they traded two rotation options to James' Cavs, the Lakers must still gut their roster to clear space this summer. Would James be convinced that a core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, another max-level star and he could compete for titles...or even make the Finals in the loaded Western Conference?
I'm leaning toward "nah."
Cleveland remains James' best option for sustained championship-chasing, as long as we exclude the possibility of him latching on to a club like the Warriors or Houston Rockets, which we absolutely should. Kevin Durant was right when he called rumors of a James-to-Golden State move "bulls--t."
The frenzy of deals the Cavs pulled off at the deadline added cash to their books, built a much more sensible on-court mix and, above all, showed James the organization remains serious about winning while he's still in his prime.
Future Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Current Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
All the same arguments that go against James joining the Lakers apply. Paul George can't reasonably expect L.A. to provide him with a roster fit for contention. But this is a situation in which years of smoke and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tampering fines suggest there's fire.
I mean, George straight up told the Pacers what he was going to do, per a June 2017 report by Adrian Wojnarowski, then of The Vertical: "All-Star forward Paul George has informed the Indiana Pacers that he plans to become a free agent in the summer of 2018 and will leave the franchise—preferably for the Los Angeles Lakers."
He said that before the Lakers had Ball and before we knew Ingram might turn out to be a quality player. Nobody had even heard of Kyle Kuzma then, and still, George was in. That the Lakers look better now only increases the chances he'll head home to L.A.
It's cheap to invoke higher authorities to verify an argument, but look: Maya Angelou and Oprah have the definitive take on this. They demand that when somebody shows us who they are, we believe them.
Paul George showed us who he is. He tipped his hand. He told us.
We should believe him.
Go ahead and disagree with Angelou and Oprah if you want. I'll be over here on the right side of history.
Future Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Current Team: Houston Rockets
Much may depend on how the Rockets' playoff run goes, but it's difficult to imagine it concluding before the conference finals. That'll be a deeper run than CP3 has ever made, and even if failing to win a title would be disappointing, it's tough to imagine Paul leaving in free agency.
More than that, the Rockets could retain him for far less than the max.
Because how robust, exactly, do you think the market for a 33-year-old point guard is going to be?
When you consider almost all the teams with enough money to give Paul a reasonable offer are nowhere near contention—looking at you, Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets—the landing spots practically disappear.
The Philadelphia 76ers are an intriguing option, but would they really splash cash on Paul when they've got Ben Simmons to handle the rock, Markelle Fultz returning someday and an age window that doesn't make a lot of sense for a late-career, injury-prone option?
Specific predictions like this are a recipe for disaster, but let's do it anyway: Paul returns to the Rockets on a two-year deal with a player option for a third for less than $100 million total.
Future Team: Houston Rockets
Current Team: New Orleans Pelicans
The DeMarcus Cousins situation is one of those rare instances when something looks simpler up close than it does from afar.
Zoom out and take the dispassionate view, and you can see the myriad considerations that would factor in to the Pels' decision on re-signing Cousins.
He's a dynamite individual talent with a history of locker-room discord-sowing and on-court immaturity. He hasn't won, but he produces like a winner.
He suffered a torn Achilles, an injury that effectively rules out a full return to form.
He works well with Anthony Davis, but signing him to a huge deal would prevent the Pelicans from adding surrounding talent...and the team is already painfully short on that resource. Yet letting him walk could lead to Davis' dissatisfaction and eventual exit.
"Our relationship is strong," Cousins told NBA.com's Shaun Powell. "It's one thing to be good friends when you're on separate teams, and it only gets better when you're on the same team. We stay on the same page. We're good."
That's a lot to think about, right?
Up close, within the organization, it's got to be easier:
We have Cousins, we can pay him more (and for an extra fifth year) than anyone, and we know we can't replace his talent via free agency because we never sign big names and couldn't pay marquee talent even if we wanted to.
So, we can't let him go.
Future Team: New Orleans Pelicans
Current Team: Houston Rockets
Ah, the pleasures leverage of restricted free agency!
The Rockets will sit back and watch Clint Capela hit the market, knowing they can match any offer he gets. Considering the dearth of spending power out there, Houston should be feeling pretty good about its chances to retain one of the league's top young centers at a discount.
If Capela draws a max offer sheet, expect the Rockets to match it.
In his age-23 season, Capela is averaging 14.5 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks with a league-leading 65.7 effective field-goal percentage. He's not a perfect player, but he is perfect for Houston's system. A slithery roller to the rim who can elevate for lobs, Capela is aces at the limited tasks he's assigned. On defense, he's an effective rim protector with the foot speed necessary to bother ball-handlers on switches.
There's a chance Houston could replace some portion of Capela's contributions for far less money. That should be a consideration if a max-matching situation arises.
But when head coach Mike D'Antoni says things like this after watching Capela go for 23 points and 25 rebounds, it's clear the Rockets believe they've got something special: "I expect that from him almost every night. He can do it. He's that good."
Future Team: Houston Rockets
Current Team: Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon's improved three-point shooting this season means he's still got a chance to be a modern two-way cornerstone. Even while increasing his volume (5.9 long balls per game from just 3.3 a year ago), Gordon's accuracy rate from distance is up to 35.0 percent, easily a career high (he's never eclipsed 29.6 percent).
Add to that a developing ability to create his own looks, boundless athleticism and the profile of a multiposition defender, and Gordon has lots to offer.
He's a prospect worth keeping around.
But the Magic regime isn't the one that drafted Gordon, and it showed how unsentimental it could be when it dealt Elfrid Payton for a second-round pick at the trade deadline. When a new front office takes over, the urge to clean house can be tough to resist.
According to Sean Deveney of Sporting News, the Suns, Mavericks and Pacers figure to pursue Gordon in free agency.
Someone should hand Gordon a max offer sheet, and though Orlando should match it, it's difficult to be certain it will.
In the end, the new braintrust will have to realize it can't let a 22-year-old phenom like Gordon go.
Future Team: Orlando Magic
Current Team: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers got what they could for Paul last summer and somehow, incredibly, punted on Blake Griffin after they signed him to a nightmare deal. Granted, they're responsible for that egregiously bad contract, but shouldn't we celebrate a team's willingness to analyze a situation, acknowledge it got it wrong and reverse course?
Point is, these Clippers, led in some capacity by Jerry West and, critically, not led by Doc Rivers in the personnel department, feel rationally cutthroat (in a good way).
That applies to DeAndre Jordan, who'll find it difficult to command big offers if he opts out. Capela is younger and better. Cousins has greater upside. He's the third-best center on the market—at best.
So, Los Angeles can play hardball without it seeming like a bluff. The Clips have already shown us they'll wave goodbye to entrenched talent via trade, so Jordan has to know they'll do it in free agency if they have to.
More broadly, Los Angeles isn't going to spend on an old-school center's post-prime career. That means Jordan is going to land someplace else, and the Mavericks, who came mighty close to securing his services in 2015, feel like the best bet.
They're still a weird mix of vets and young players, and Jordan would be a fine pick-and-roll partner for Dennis Smith Jr., taking pressure off the point guard by drawing attention as he rumbles down the lane.
Let's call it a two-year deal worth $40 million. That ought to be enough to justify him opting out of the final year and $24.1 million left on his contract.
Future Team: Dallas Mavericks
Current Team: Milwaukee Bucks
The Bulls aren't scared of torn ACLs. That much we know.
So in addition to Zach LaVine, who looks good coming off that injury, why shouldn't they add Jabari Parker, who's had a pair of blown ligaments?
Parker, notably, is a Chicago kid. And while it's never wise to base a free-agency prediction on the hometown angle, it's at least a small factor here. The larger components are the Bulls' clean books; need for a young, scoring forward to pair with Lauri Markkanen; and, perhaps, a willingness to overspend.
Parker cut off extension talks with the Bucks before the season, and longtime Milwaukee reporter Gery Woelfel relayed what may have caused the breakdown: Parker wanted a five-year max contract.
The Bucks were right to balk at an ask like that, and even after seeing Parker show flashes of his high-scoring prowess upon his return, they should be wary of earmarking huge dollars for a one-way talent with an injury history who also happens to be duplicative with resident megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If Antetokounmpo winds up as a full-time center down the road, that's great. The fit issue's solved. But it's impossible to justify Parker's reported asking price under any circumstances.
Chicago's in a different place than Milwaukee. It's still building, and it hasn't already doled out a big contract to another young star. That's not to say paying Parker the max (or anything close to it) is a good idea, but it's easier to see the Bulls pulling the trigger.
A hefty offer sheet from any team with significant cash should result in Milwaukee waving goodbye.
Future Team: Chicago Bulls
Current Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Isaiah Thomas has the right attitude about his free agency.
"I'm looking to sign a long-term deal this summer, but anything can happen," Thomas told Powell. "I can't control it and can't worry too much about it."
There's no way Thomas will get a significant multiyear deal. For comparison's sake, Lou Williams has severely outplayed him this season, and the extension Williams signed with the Clippers was for a lower average annual value than the mid-level exception.
Thomas may not get that much, especially with plays like this on his Lakers reel.
That said, Thomas can't be as bad as he's been this year. A top-five MVP finisher can't lose it so abruptly, even when there's a significant injury involved, right?
Somebody's going to take a chance on a short-term contract, but it's tough to imagine who. Thomas now carries a label, fair or not, of being a locker-room disruptor. So, it's tough to see a contender signing him, particularly after his uncompromising style rubbed many Cavs teammates the wrong way on the court.
The Pacers have several partially guaranteed deals for next season and a bench that could use some juice. If Thomas is willing to accept second-fiddle status behind Victor Oladipo, it's not so hard to imagine Indy using its mid-level exception on him—or signing him to a contract like the two-year, $20 million pact it gave Darren Collison in July.
Future Team: Indiana Pacers