NBA Free Agents 2018: Top Rumors and Predictions Before NBA Draft

Brian Marron@@brianmarron398Featured ColumnistJune 20, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James  wipes his face during a news conference following Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, early Saturday, June 9, 2018, in Cleveland. The Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 108-85 to win the NBA championship. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

With all of the trade and free-agency rumors surrounding several superstars, the 2018 NBA offseason is shaping up to be one of the more eventful ones in recent history as it moves towards the NBA draft on Thursday.

LeBron James obviously leads the pack here, as wherever he ends up next season drastically shifts the landscape of the NBA. As usual with these free-agency decisions, nobody seems to have a definitive lead on where he is leaning, and his deadline to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent is June 29. 

James is not alone, as many around the NBA have decisions to make heading into free agency. As a result, the rumor mill is buzzing.

     

Cleveland in Limbo

Everything starts and ends with James in the NBA, and that is especially true for the Cleveland Cavaliers as they hold their breath as he decides once again whether to leave the franchise. The waiting game seems likely to drag on again, putting the Cavaliers in a tough spot.

According to Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon, the Cavaliers will not know James' intentions before going through with their draft plan. This is especially important because the team will be picking high at No. 8 and could also be in for notable trade targets like Kemba Walker, per Vardon.

Vardon also added that James' people and the Cavaliers front office have spoken on the phone and in person but James has not been present at any meeting. 

Knowing where James stands would obviously be helpful to the Cavaliers heading into the draft. If they knew he was coming back, they would still be in win-now mode, giving them more of an incentive to use their pick in a trade for a proven star. It represents the greatest asset the team has to improve itself now, as no current roster player provides much in the way of both youth and promise.

If Cleveland knows James is leaving, it could draft a potential cornerstone player while trading off older players to gain more picks. It would signal a rebuild, but that is what happens when you lose a generational player who, at age 33, led the Cavaliers in nearly every major category this season.

The smart play here is for the Cavaliers to approach the draft, and the offseason in general, as if James will not return. He is going to be gone someday, and the team has to be prepared to effectively move forward without him. Doing so now will keep the team stabilized should he go this summer, and it helps Cleveland cut its losses.

The worst thing the Cavaliers can do is continue to build their team around James just to have him leave, which would likely produce catastrophic results with an older, mediocre team with no young talent providing hope for the future.

Cleveland should also learn from the Miami Heat's mistake and base its first-round pick around what James wants:

The Heat ended up being burned by James subsequently leaving, and Shabazz Napier became a bust who has averaged just 5.7 points over four seasons. 

Cleveland knew the current situation was a distinct possibility when it welcomed back James and signed him to contracts full of player options.

The Cavaliers should go all-out to bring James back, but they need to be smart and start building to prepare for his departure. If he comes back, then the team can make adjustments. If he leaves, at least the Cavaliers would be in a good position to start moving forward without their superstar.

     

Smart Price Tag Drawing Competitors

Any team would love to have a tough, athletic player like Marcus Smart to bring energy off of the bench and chip in offensively, and he seems to have several suitors.

Smart, 24, is set to become a restricted free agent, and he is sure to earn a raise from the roughly $6 million he would earn in the upcoming season if he accepts his qualifying offer.

If Boston fails to wrap him up before free agency opens, any team can offer Smart a contract that the Celtics would have to match to keep him.

With that being said, multiple teams are reportedly interested in going after Smart, as Yahoo Sports' Chris Mannix said Tuesday on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston (via NESN.com's Dakota Randall):

"I think there are a lot of people out there that really like Marcus Smart … Sacramento is going to get in it, I think Denver, if they can move some pieces around before free agency to clear some space, which I think they will—I think they're going to get into it. I think Indiana is a team that, depending on what happens with Thaddeus Young and his contract, I think they're going to get in it.  … Going after him is one thing, but offering $15 million per year is another. … He's going to get offered some money, but I'm not sure it's going to be an offer that Boston's not going to be able to match."

The $15 million Mannix is referring to is what Smart said he was worth after the Celtics' season ended in the Eastern Conference Finals. The guard told ESPN's Jackie McMullen (h/t NESN.com's Randall) that he's "worth more than $12-$14 million."

The Celtics are loaded with quality young talent that is entering its prime either now or in the next couple of years. Guys like Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier are going to need considerable raises, and when you mix in Gordon Hayward making roughly $68 million over the next three years with Al Horford and Kyrie Irving signed through next year, there is not a lot of room to give Smart the money he wants.

It also does not help Smart that the Celtics are not shying away from going after superstars on the trade market, as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported:

Unless Smart changes course and agrees to take less than he wants, it seems like a near certainty that he will end up hitting the free agent market. Do not expect him to get that money either, as it would put him in the same pay range as guys like Andre Iguodala and Tony Parker.

Still, teams like Indiana and Sacramento are in the top 13 in the NBA in terms of cap space, so they could definitely pay a little extra to try to bring in Smart. Should that happen, do not expect the Celtics to stretch their wallets when they clearly have bigger priorities lined up for this season and beyond.

     

Gay Moving on

It is tough to find a more underrated NBA player over the last decade than Rudy Gay.

Entering his 15th season, Gay has averaged 17.9 points over his career, including nine seasons with at least 19 points, while averaging nearly six rebounds per game.

Yet Gay has never been named an All Star and has not made an All-NBA team besides the All-Rookie team in 2007. It now appears he will be joining a new team this offseason, per Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Gay has never played in every game in any season in his career, and injuries are starting to take a toll now on the smooth forward. He played in just 57 games in his lone season for the San Antonio Spurs, producing his second-lowest career scoring output at 11.5 points per game. The year before, he played in just 30 games for the Kings.

Still, Gay will only be 32 when next season opens up. He can still score in double figures, and he averaged 12.2 points per game while playing 32 minutes per night these past playoffs for the Spurs, so he can certainly still contribute as a top bench option or low-end starter for a contender. 

No teams have been linked yet to Gay, but expect him to end up on a playoff team. The Toronto Raptors may be a good fit as more scoring depth for a team that could use a forward, and Gay already played two successful seasons there.

         

Statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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