6 Bold Predictions for 2018 NBA Free Agency
If we learned anything from last year's free agency, it was that reality is bold enough.
Gordon Hayward left the Utah Jazz for the Boston Celtics, Paul Millsap joined the Denver Nuggets, Kevin Durant took a massive paycut and Dion Waiters got $52 million (FIFTY-TWO MILLION!!!) from the Miami Heat.
Based on all that, whatever we predict here probably won't measure up to the wildness that actually ensues.
We'll do our best, though, singling out some macro ideas and forecasting unlikely outcomes for specific players in 2018 free agency. We'll get out on some limbs and bounce around a little, hopefully angling more toward bold and less toward absurd. No promises, though.
The Rich Will Get Richer
It's too early to be entirely sure how much cap space each club will have. The number of teams with significant cash to spend (we'll say in excess of $10 million) will be somewhere between five and 10, depending on whose rights get renounced, whose cap holds stay or go and which options get picked up.
The Athletic's Danny Leroux figures the number will be nine.
Even if everyone with a chance to free space maximizes it, we're still only looking at a third of the league getting meaningfully involved in free agency. And many of those organizations will be in the early stages of rebuilds—not exactly enticing for big names looking for a payday and a winning environment.
This, then, will be a landscape where quality role players won't get many chances to be overpaid by bad teams. In turn, we should expect to see contenders get immense value for the mid-level exception.
Why is this bold?
Because the NBA's lottery incentive structure is set to change in the wake of a non-competitive epidemic that prompted Commissioner Adam Silver to send all 30 teams explicit anti-tanking "we're watching you" memos in February. Because the season began with a handful of teams in the championship conversation, another mass with virtually no shot to reach .500 and precious few in the middle. Because the NBA views the equivalent of basketball income inequality, the clustering of haves and have-nots at the financial poles, as a real problem—one it has taken steps to correct.
And despite all that, I'm saying we're still going to see the gap widen.
Let's use Danny Green as an example.
He's got a $10 million player option for next year with the San Antonio Spurs. Under normal circumstances (when more teams have money to spend), he'd decline that option in a heartbeat and seek out a multiyear deal worth at least $15 million per season. A fantastic two-way weapon with championship pedigree would typically have no shortage of suitors clamoring to pay him.
But this year, he's more likely than ever to pick up that option and stay with the Spurs or decline it and lock in the MLE, which will range from $5.3 to $8.6 million per year for three or four years, depending on a team's tax status.
Either way, because the scope of suitors is so much narrower, Green and other potential free agents like him are more likely to stick with or join winners. Because if you were in his shoes and could take the MLE from Golden State or something like $30 million over three years from the Bulls, you'd sign with the better team, too.
It's also possible this logic extends even further, with quality free agents punting on multiyear deals altogether, signing for a one-year minimum with a contender and getting back into the mix when there's more money available in 2019.
The Pelicans Get This Right
This is only a bold prediction because the New Orleans Pelicans have such a consistent history of getting things wrong.
Sure they drafted and maxed out Anthony Davis. And yeah, we're seeing their faith (and investment) in Jrue Holiday rewarded. But this is also an organization that has traded away every first-round pick since selecting Anthony Davis in 2012. And up until AD—enabled by the absence of DeMarcus Cousins—went supernova in February, the Pels looked like an organization ticketed for the NBA's dreaded middle once again.
It's hard to have faith in New Orleans' organizational decision-making.
But the logic behind letting Cousins walk in free agency (that's the "getting it right" part) is strong enough to persuade any organization—even one with as many bad recent decisions as the Pelicans.
Maxing out a big man who clogs the floor for Davis—one coming off an Achilles tear who also has a history of locker-room negativity and unreliable effort/conditioning—would be a disaster. And while retaining Boogie on a lowball, short-term deal that exploits the weak market might sound like a good idea, try imagining how Cousins, independent of the massive question marks surrounding his injury, would perform if he felt slighted by a below-market or short-term deal.
There's really no scenario in which keeping Cousins makes sense.
New Orleans will see that, and it will let Cousins move on.
LeBron James Stays Put
General manager Kobe Altman remade the Cleveland Cavaliers roster at the trade deadline, and on paper, the overhaul was nothing short of alchemy. Real lead-into-gold stuff.
In practice, the principal additions—George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson—haven't vaulted the Cavs into the stratosphere.
That's why those whispers about LeBron James leaving, perhaps for the Los Angeles Lakers, feel more and more credible. And in light of Cleveland's struggles to reach elite status, you'd think LBJ's exit would actually be more likely than not at this point.
I'm here to say he's staying, which feels dangerous and potentially regrettable for the reasons mentioned.
But if Altman rebuilt the roster on the fly once, maybe he can do it again. And maybe this time, he'll tweak it in ways that produce lasting changes. It's also worth noting that even with the Sixers and Celtics rising, and the Raptors looking built to last, the easiest road to the Finals is still in the East.
James has seen Altman's ambition and resourcefulness in action. And even if the moves didn't work out as well as many thought they would initially, he should have confidence in his new GM's ability to make something out of nothing. Toss in the loyalty angle, the uncertainty of a young team in L.A. and the desire to avoid the Warriors and Rockets until the last possible stage of the playoffs, and there's a decent case to stay.
Admittedly, the longer you think about James, Paul George and the Lakers' young talent running wild, the more "bold" feels like "ridiculous." LeBron is bound to be tempted, but...good! We're not here to play it safe with the predictions.
The San Antonio Spurs Look Vastly Different
The three key figures in San Antonio's last championship-winning backcourt rotation will all be gone.
Manu Ginobili will retire because he's 40, and all good things must come to an end. There will be much mourning.
Tony Parker, whose deal expires after this year, will also retire and finish his career with French pro club ASVEL. He owns the team and straight up telegraphed his plans (albeit on a slightly longer timeline) when he bought it in 2014: "I am going to play in the NBA for five or six more years, and I will play my last season with ASVEL," he told Sportando. "My dream is to play the season with ASVEL in the new arena."
Danny Green will take somebody's mid-level exception after opting out.
And, boom, you've got a backcourt populated by Dejounte Murray and...who knows?
Kawhi Leonard's future is far too cloudy to discern, and Gregg Popovich's mindset following the tragic death of his wife during this year's playoffs mean the shakeups could be even grander.
But for now, this is bold enough. Because when you predict anything changing in San Antonio, which has been incomprehensibly steady for 20 years, it qualifies as a leap.
The Sixers Don't Add a Superstar...And That's Good!
It's hard to resist imagining a big name occupying the Sixers' considerable cap space.
James, Leonard, George, the mystery superstar of your choice—everyone would seem to be in play this offseason for a young, exciting team that has legitimately arrived as a contender.
But the Sixers already have their superstars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and they've seen firsthand the benefits of a deep roster during their season-ending surge. Buyout additions Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova transformed the offense by putting deadly shooting everywhere and stretching defenses to the limit.
Expect that to inform Philadelphia's free-agent thinking.
With just under $25 million to spend, the Sixers have to retain or replace Belinelli, Ilyasova and Redick. If they don't, an offense that has hit a new level in the playoffs won't have the shooting that enabled the downshift.
Philly should chase Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and wings of his ilk, try to retain Redick and see what other shooters are available. That'll mean spreading cash around rather than dumping it all on one free agent in a single heap.
Sometimes, being practical is bold.
The Class of 2014 Strikes Out
Aaron Gordon, Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Elfrid Payton and everyone else from the 2014 draft class who hasn't already signed a rookie extension is eligible to ink new deals in restricted free agency this summer.
And nobody's getting the max.
Joel Embiid (good!), Andrew Wiggins (bad!), T.J. Warren (what?) and Gary Harris (also good!) are already under contract on extensions. Embiid and Wiggins are set to start earning the max in 2018-19, but that's where the huge payoffs will end.
For this prediction to be wrong, it'll only take one team overpaying a 2014 draftee. But the free-agent landscape means fat offer sheets will be hard to come by, which means incumbent teams have more leverage than usual. Not only that, but nobody on that list other than Capela has proved anything on a big stage. If you squint hard, maybe Aaron Gordon has the most upside.
But broadly, none of the guys up for new deals project as superstars.
It's going to be a disappointing summer for the class of 2014.