2018 NBA Free Agency: Predictions for Top Stars Expected to Hit the Market

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 20, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) moves the ball around Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oakland, Calif., Monday, Dec. 25, 2017. The Warriors won 99-92. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

It sounds crazy to say this ahead of an NBA free-agency period likely to feature some of the Association's juggernauts like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but it's true—no one should expect a summer spending frenzy.

Frankly, there isn't enough money to go around.

"Right now, there are just seven teams expected to have significant cap space next summer," Brian Windhorst and Bobby Marks wrote for ESPN.com. "Last year, 10 teams had significant space. In 2016, more than 25 teams had at least $10 million in room."

Even the current number of seven might be misleading. Several of the clubs with the wiggle room to take on salary are committed to years-long rebuilding projects—the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, for instance—making them both less likely to spend and less appealing to possible targets.

But that doesn't mean the 2018 offseason will be a snoozer. There are still difference-making free agents up for grabs, and our crystal ball provides some clarity on where they could land.

                               

Free-Agency Predictions

LeBron James

Ohio's finest remains the singularly most dominant force in the sport. As such, any of his free-agency ventures should not be taken lightly.

Even though hopeful employers can't start their recruiting pitches for a few more months, several cities are already vying for the King's services. Fans in Philadelphia and Los Angeles have taken to billboard advertisements in hopes of luring the four-time MVP.

There might be some merit behind those efforts. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported, "I've consistently heard from multiple league sources that LeBron currently has only four teams on his list: the Cavaliers, Lakers, Rockets, and 76ers."

All of them should appeal to James in some fashion.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are his hometown team, a club he carried to championship heights just two seasons back. The Houston Rockets are this season's winningest squad and the employers of James' banana-boat buddy, Chris Paul. The Philadelphia 76ers are catapulting out of their multiyear tank job and reaping the rewards of The Process through Joel Embiid's All-Star ascension and Ben Simmons' Rookie of the Year bid.

But the Los Angeles Lakers have a rich history to sell, and a prominent member of that history is doing the selling—five-time-champion-turned-leading-executive Magic Johnson. James, a well-versed student of the sport, won't take their interest lightly.

L.A. bolstered its chances in the trade-deadline deal—ironically enough, with Cleveland—involving Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye. By brokering that blockbuster, the Lakers created a path to two max-contract slots.

In other words, the Purple and Gold can pitch James not only on their current players, but also on a second max recipient to-be-named-later. Since the current core is showing clear progress—12-8 since the start of February—and the roster can be enhanced by another star joining the fold, the Lakers might be too tempting to pass up.

Prediction: LeBron James signs with Lakers

                         

Paul George

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

All apologies to Russell Westbrook and the card-carrying members of the Oklahoma City Thunder fanbase, but All-Star swingman Paul George is the second part of the Lakers' grandiose plan.

George, as you've been told a thousand times, is a native of nearby Palmdale, California. He also grew up "idolizing" Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, per USA Today's Sam Amick.

That's part of the reason the George-to-the-Lakers free-agency smoke is as thick as L.A.'s smog.

But the more pertinent part of this narrative comes from the eight-year veteran himself.

He's been a transparent target of the Lakers for what feels like years, to the point the franchise was hit with a $500,000 tampering fine for vocalizing that interest.

At any point, George could have killed this plot line by declaring a lack of interest in the franchise. He's done the opposite instead.

Last summer, Adrian Wojnarowski, then with The Vertical, reported that George informed the Indiana Pacers he intended to leave in 2018, "preferably for the Los Angeles Lakers." Mind you, this was mid-June 2017, before Lonzo Ball joined the club, Brandon Ingram took a leap and Kyle Kuzma became a household name.

Fast forward to February, and George was asked about the possibility of a homecoming. While he didn't commit to anything, he left the door wide open.

"Of course, L.A. is home, so that's always going to draw the attention," George told ESPN's Rachel Nichols. "But we'll see. I won't rule anything out."

To be clear, free agents should welcome as many options as possible. That gives them maximum leverage at the negotiating table. Not to mention, it would make for an easy return to the Oklahoma City Thunder should they suddenly realize their potential and embark on a lengthy playoff run.

But everything from OKC's inconsistent play to the deep-rooted L.A. connection makes George look like a future Laker.

Prediction: Paul George signs with Lakers

                              

Kevin Durant

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 17: Paul George #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 17, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Is it disrespectful to list Durant third here when he might be the league's second-best player?

No, not when his free agency appears almost certain to be devoid of drama.

As Durant told The Athletic's Anthony Slater, he isn't leaving the defending champion Golden State Warriors:

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12:  NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors speaks to the media after winning the NBA Championship in Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 12, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, Ca
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

So much for leverage, right?

But ask yourself, why would Durant want to go anywhere else? Exactly—he wouldn't.

"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?" Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "Lock it in. Durant isn't leaving the Warriors."

Prediction: Kevin Durant re-signs with Warriors

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