Updated Predictions for NBA's Top Free Agents

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 1, 2018

Updated Predictions for NBA's Top Free Agents

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    It's (almost) all happening, folks.

    While the basketball world still awaits the biggest bombshell of 2018 NBA free agency, the market nevertheless opened with several bangs.

    Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and—can you believe it?Paul George are all staying put. Trevor Ariza is off to Phoenix, DeAndre Jordan is finally in Dallas (at least, that's what the latest verbal agreement says), and Ersan Ilyasova is going back to Milwaukee.

    LeBron James still hasn't made his next decision, but that clearly isn't holding up the process. With cap space limited, clubs are spending while they can if their preferred target is agreeable.

    Despite the early rush of activity, though, several difference-makers and high-quality role players remain up for grabs. By reading the latest tea leaves and applying them to what we already know, we'll make some updated predictions about the best free agents still available.

Capela, Gordon Stay; Randle, Smart Go

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Restricted free agency is always a thorny proposition, and this year's marketplace could be particularly prickly given the nearly leaguewide dearth of spending money. With cap space at a premium, clubs could be wary of tying up funds on offer sheets that don't necessarily deliver new players. And free agents may not want to "cash in" when the demand pool is this shallow.

    "Most league executives expect a cool market for restricted free agents, which could lead to a few of them ... signing one-year qualifying offers and entering unrestricted free agency next summer," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote.

    Lowe mentions Marcus Smart as a candidate for that route. If he is, that means free agency came nowhere near his expectations. In May, he set his worth at "more than $12-14 million," per ESPN.com's Jackie MacMullan. Even if the market offers less money, Smart still looks like a flight risk, as the Boston Celtics are crowded in the backcourt and need to maintain flexibility for more expensive offseasons to come.

    Julius Randle looks less obtainable now than he did when the market opened, since the Los Angeles Lakers' superteam hopes weren't enough to produce Paul George. But L.A. remains in the hunt for LeBron and could chase DeMarcus Cousins, too. The longer Randle sits on the back burner, the more likely it becomes that his age (23), pedigree (2014 No. 7 pick) and versatility make him someone else's offseason priority.

    It's harder to envision Clint Capela and Aaron Gordon in new digs.

    In November, Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said he'd be "very surprised if [Capela] doesn't become, if not the best center in the league, one of the best," per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. Since Capela's play has only strengthened that belief since, Houston will probably match whatever offer he receives.

    Gordon is 22 years old, 2014's No. 4 pick, coming off his best season and possibly built perfectly for the modern game. He has way too much potential for the star-starved Orlando Magic to cut him loose.

Warriors Add Tyreke Evans

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    The Golden State Warriors are winning again.

    Their offseason success started on draft night, when Jacob Evans fell in their laps as a versatile defender, shot-maker and ball-mover. It's carried over into the signing season, both for what they've done (extending Steve Kerr, keeping Kevin Durant) and what others have failed to do (Lakers missing out on Paul George, Rockets watching Trevor Ariza walk).

    External free agency should deliver at least one more victory, maybe more if someone like Jamal Crawford takes a minimum offer. Golden State has the taxpayer mid-level exception to work with, which is only for $5.3 million but costs the club $22.5 million due to the tax hits (via USA Today's Sam Amick). If that money is spent, then it must produce an impact talent.

    Tyreke Evans would fit that description.

    At 6'6" and 220 pounds, he looks like a Warriors wing. He also answers their do-everything demand. Last season, he gave the Memphis Grizzlies 19.4 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds a night. He also converted 39.9 percent of his long-range looks, a number that should give Golden State confidence he can step in as a second-team spark, secondary shot-creator and capable sniper.

    Amick reported hearing buzz about Evans and the Warriors, while also relaying that the organization employs Evans' former agent (general manager Bob Myers) and trainer (scout Lamont Peterson). Given the budget constraints, Evans would rank as something close to a best-case scenario signing.

DeMarcus Cousins Re-Signs with Pelicans

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    DeMarcus Cousins was a no-brainer max-contract candidate before he ruptured his Achilles in January. While it's no longer clear what the right length and amount of his next deal should be, he still stands as a no-brainer keeper for the New Orleans Pelicans.

    For starters, they aren't going to find a better option. They're short on spending money, and it's not like many players are on the same plane as a healthy Boogie, anyway. Yes, his post-Achilles future is murky, but his recent past has been remarkable.

    Before the injury, Cousins had compiled a stat line of 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.2 threes, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game last season. Focusing on only the points, boards and assists, only five other players had ever hit those marks. Tack on either the steals or blocks, and it was only Cousins and one other player. Use the threes or both the steals and blocks, and Cousins stood by himself.

    He's immensely talented—a 6'11", 270-pound bulldozer who can somehow create, shoot and slide around the perimeter with ballerina footwork. He also might form the ideal frontcourt combo with the 6'10" Anthony Davis, as both players' size and versatility could make them the perfect counters to the Association's small-ball movement.

    That said, there are more obvious reasons to picture Cousins with Pelicans again.

    Davis wants him back, per Marc Stein of the New York Times. So does recently extended head coach Alvin Gentry, per NOLA.com's Josh Katzenstein. Oh, and Wojnarowski reports (via NESN.com's Dakota Randall) Cousins is "very likely" coming back "on what might be a two-year deal." The Lakers' presence in the sweepstakes could drive up Cousins' price, but not enough to scare off the Pelicans.

LeBron James Lands in Philly

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    Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    The Lakers looked like they were in the red zone—maybe even at the goal line—and advancing toward the summer's biggest score. But with George staying in OKC and not even granting L.A. a meeting before doing it, suddenly the Lakers' wild dreams appear in jeopardy of being dashed.

    George isn't coming. If Cousins does, who knows when he'll be healthy. If Kawhi Leonard does, who knows how much L.A. will need to gut its roster to get him.

    Save for the same market advantages as always, where's the incentive for LeBron to come? It's debatable the Lakers could give him a better situation than he has with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, there's more upside in L.A., but is the 33-year-old really tying his legacy to unproven potential?

    He doesn't have to chose between proven production and growth potential, by the way. Not if he bolts for the Philadelphia 76ers, a club coming off a 52-win campaign keyed by a 24-and-under core.

    Philly scored a meeting with James' representatives, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. One of the Sixers' top selling points, per Marc Stein of the New York Times, is their belief they have "a real chance to win the Kawhi Leonard trade sweepstakes."

    The Kawhi portion of the latest rumors potentially positions Philly as the favorite. It already had a stronger duo to sell in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons than Cleveland or L.A. If Leonard joins that nucleus, James might see the long, athletic, super-skilled supporting cast he needs to conquer the Warriors.

    If James makes this as a basketball decision, he won't find a realistic landing spot with more to offer than Philly.

LeBron-Less Cavs Blow It Up

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The last time LeBron left Cleveland, the Cavs immediately plummeted out of the playoff picture and wouldn't get back into it until their prodigal son returned.

    Should history repeat itself with a second exit, they're expressing confidence that they can avoid another free fall. They wouldn't try to move pricey All-Star Kevin Love and would pursue incumbent free agent Jeff Green, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon.

    "There is no reason to go backwards," a source told Vardon.

    View this situation through something other than wine-and-gold colored lenses, though, and you might spot a million reasons to rebuild.

    Take James out of Northeast Ohio, and the Cavs' most interesting and most important player becomes Collin Sexton, the eighth overall pick in last month's draft. No matter your thoughts on his potential, we can all agree if he's the centerpiece, his club better not have a $102.3 million payroll like Cleveland does. (Oh, and that's without new deals for Green, Rodney Hood and any James replacements.)

    The Cavs wouldn't have a high enough ceiling to justify their costs. That doesn't mean everything must go the second James does, but Cleveland should instantly have ears and eyes open for offers on Love, Kyle Korver, George Hill and any other win-now pieces it can pawn off on a hopeful contender.

    Hood might be worth keeping around, though. He's young enough (25 years old, four NBA seasons) that his trajectory still points up, and his next contract could be discounted both by his restricted status and his struggles after his midseason move to Cleveland.


    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.