A Way-Too-Soon Look at 2019's Top NBA Free Agents

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 14, 2018

A Way-Too-Soon Look at 2019's Top NBA Free Agents

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    Do you think 2018's free-agency period has been fun? 

    Already, LeBron James spurned the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers to join the Los Angeles Lakers. DeMarcus Cousins shocked the world by joining the Golden State Warriors, who didn't have to part with any incumbent All-Stars to acquire him. Paul George valued his friendship with Russell Westbrook over a chance to play for a franchise other than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Star power ruled the opening portion of the summer. 

    And yet, that's a mere appetizer before the delicious meal that is 2019 free agency. 

    This is admittedly a way-too-soon look. Plenty of these players could sign extensions and avoid hitting the open market altogether. But even if some do, the level of talent up for grabs will remain nearly unfathomable, especially if you're interested in players whose names begin with the letter "K." 

10. Al Horford

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    Team: Boston Celtics

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 33

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    Position: C

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 17.6 PER, 3.89 RPM, 182.16 TPA

    Though Al Horford will be getting up there in years, older than most bigs who continue playing at All-Star levels, he does have the type of game that should age well. Perhaps even more importantly, he's been a perfect fit within the Boston Celtics' schemes, anchoring a defense that switches everything around him and frees him to gamble in passing lanes while serving as a secondary hub on the scoring side.

    Horford has never scored a lot of points. That was true during his first season with the C's (14.0 points per game), and he trailed Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris in 2017-18. It'll remain true in 2018-19, and that won't change moving forward as he seeks out what could be the final long-term deal of his largely underappreciated career. 

    But this center's value goes so far beyond the scoring column, especially now that he's hitting 42.9 percent of his triples while taking 3.1 per appearance. He can shoot. He can pass. He can defend multiple positions. He can lead the fast break. He can do basically everything other than score in volume, and that versatility ensures his continued standing among the league's best. 

    Other Players to Watch: Eric Bledsoe (unrestricted), DeMarcus Cousins (unrestricted), Goran Dragic (player option), Tyreke Evans (unrestricted), Marc Gasol (player option), Tobias Harris (unrestricted), DeAndre Jordan (unrestricted), Kevin Love (player option), Paul Millsap (team option), Julius Randle (player option), Terry Rozier (restricted), Myles Turner (restricted), Thaddeus Young (unrestricted) 

9. Khris Middleton

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    Team: Milwaukee Bucks

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 28

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    Position: SG/SF

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 17.4 PER, 1.4 RPM, 23.93 TPA

    Khris Middleton will be in the midst of his athletic prime when given the opportunity to decline a player option and hit the open market. That means it's time to cash in, as he'll likely earn far more than the $13 million he could opt into while remaining with the Bucks.  

    That's not to say Middleton will depart Brewtown. He remains an ideal counterpart for Giannis Antetokounmpo, able to score in off-ball scenarios while assuming some ball-handling responsibilities and continuing to play lockdown defense.

    This swingman might not be a prototypical three-and-D candidate, but his remarkable shooting success from mid-range zones still allows him to put up points with a laudable combination of volume and efficiency. 

    Throughout the 2017-18 season, only 16 qualified players scored at least 20 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 57 percent. Middleton was among that group even while assuming hefty defensive responsibilities on a nightly basis, which was part of the reason the Bucks outscored their foes by an additional 5.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. 

    That's already a laudable combination of skills, and Middleton still seems to be trending upward. 

8. Kemba Walker

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    Team: Charlotte Hornets

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    Position: PG

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 20.6 PER, 3.81 RPM, 179.48 TPA

    After providing basketball fans with years of speculation about whether the Charlotte Hornets would trade him to jump-start a rebuild or continue running it back in a fruitless attempt to escape the NBA's version of purgatory, Kemba Walker will finally get a chance to make a unilateral decision in the summer of 2019. 

    If he wants to keep trying with the Hornets, he'll surely receive an opportunity to re-sign at a pricy figure. If he wants to escape and seek less purple pastures, he'll be clear to do so. 

    Walker will be moving out of his prime prior to the start of 2019-20, and a long-term contract would take him past that magical 31st birthday that seems to have sparked declines in so many floor generals throughout the sport's history. But with his pick-and-roll ability and (relatively) newfound sharpshooting prowess, he could stave off Father Time for a while longer. 

    Though this 1-guard hasn't developed into a defensive ace or a passing maestro, he picks apart defenses with his ability to control the offensive flow in the league's pet set. Not only does he score 1.03 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler to sit in the 92nd percentile, but he's also a deft pocket passer on the move who can keep adversaries awaiting a feed, a pull-up jumper or a quick burst to the basket.

    Whichever route they choose to cover, he can capitalize in another. 

    Walker remains, without question, one of the league's best point guards, even if he only has a pair of All-Star selections to his name. 

7. Jimmy Butler

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 30

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    Position: SG/SF

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 23.7 PER, 6.39 RPM, 216.4 TPA

    At this point, can we safely rule out an extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves or a decision to opt into the $19.8 million potentially owed to him during his age-30 season? Maybe he'll get traded during the remainder of the current offseason or at some point in 2018-19 before inking a long-term pact that never allows for the emergence of free-agency pursuits, but it sure doesn't seem like that's coming with his current employers. 

    Throughout the offseason, a pattern of despondence has taken center stage in the Jimmy Butler universe and not just because, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell, he already turned down an extension for four years and $100 million. 

    Recently, as shared by Cycle's Thomas Duffy, the swingman liked an Instagram comment pushing him and Kyrie Irving to join the New York Knicks in the 2019 free-agency period. That comes after he liked multiple Instagram comments linking him and the San Antonio Spurs, and we can't forget about reports from Sporting News' Sean Deveney that he didn't particularly enjoy suiting up alongside Andrew Wiggins. 

    Oh, and according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times"A league source said Butler, who has been frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates—specifically Karl-Anthony Towns—does not intend to sign an extension with the Timberwolves."

    Maybe all of this means nothing. But it hints strongly at an emerging pattern, and it's not like a 30-year-old version of this two-way star will be lacking big offers when he hits the open market. 

6. Klay Thompson

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    Position: SG

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 16.1 PER, 1.81 RPM, minus-31.2 TPA

    Regardless of what comes to pass with the long-rumored extension, Klay Thompson doesn't seem as if he'll be leaving the Golden State Warriors anytime soon. Even if organizations like the Los Angeles Lakers and Knicks attempt to woo him with tempting visions of max money, he should recognize that he's got a good thing going in the Bay Area and is vital to the Dubs' continued success. 

    In fact, two factors make it easy to overlook just how excellent his deep shooting has become. 

    First, Thompson has morphed into a well-rounded player. He's still not great off the dribble—and it's amazing how frequently he must look down to watch that ball-handling process for himself—and doesn't rebound or create shots for others. But his ability to stifle studs on the defensive end and constantly assume tough assignments makes him a distinct two-way threat.

    Second, he has the luxury of teaming up with Stephen Curry, who consistently overshadows the 2-guard's own perimeter prowess. 

    And yet, the numbers speak for themselves. 

    Throughout all of NBA history, only 27 qualified players have taken at least six triples per game and connected at no worse than a 40 percent clip. Just seven have done so multiple times: JJ Redick (twice), Rashard Lewis (twice), Irving (twice), Peja Stojakovic (three times), Ray Allen (three times), Curry (six times) and Thompson (six times). 

5. Kristaps Porzingis

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    Team: New York Knicks

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    Position: PF/C

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 20.4 PER, 2.61 RPM, minus-21.92 TPA

    Kristaps Porzingis may be coming off an ACL tear that could leave him unable to play for large portions of the 2018-19 campaign, but that won't prevent the Knicks from buying into his long-term abilities.

    Already, general manager Scott Perry is thinking along those lines, as relayed by Marc Berman of the New York Post: "We'll continue to stay in touch with Kristaps. He's part of our long-term plan. We'll figure out at the appropriate time in terms of when we get into that negotiation. We're comfortable where we are with him, and we'll work together with his representation to figure something out."

    This process has to happen. Even with intriguing prospects such as Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox on the roster, Porzingis is the unquestioned centerpiece in Madison Square Garden, capable of impacting the proceedings as only a unicorn can. The 22-year-old might display a few too many ball-stopping traits at this early stage of his career, but he's still a devastating mid-range force with legitimate three-point range who can protect the rim as well as anyone. 

    That last part isn't hyperbolic. 

    Nineteen players in 2017-18 appeared in at least 10 games and faced no fewer than five shots per contest at the rim. Porzingis, as you might expect, was among them. He (49.2 percent), Paul Millsap (49.3 percent), Joel Embiid (52.4 percent), Jakob Poeltl (53.6 percent) and Anthony Davis (53.8 percent) were the stingiest among that group. 

4. Kyrie Irving

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    Team: Boston Celtics

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    Position: PG

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 25.0 PER, 2.39 RPM, 239.45 TPA

    Listing Irving ahead of Porzingis is a risk. 

    If the New York big man returns to form and shows no ill effects from his ACL tear, he'll likely jump ahead of this floor general in the pecking order. Not only is he roughly three years younger, but his versatile skill set is also a bit more valuable in today's NBA, even as Irving has made distinct defensive strides under the supervision of Boston head coach Brad Stevens. 

    But that's not really a negative. We're now rattling around in the realm of true elites, dealing with top-20 assets still playing out their prime years. Picking between Irving and Porzingis is a luxury many franchises would love to endure while both are making All-Star squads in the Eastern Conference and competing to earn All-NBA recognition. 

    Irving's next big deal will likely take him into his 30s, but that also shouldn't be cause for concern.

    His historic ball-handling talent can help mask any slippage in the speed department, and his knack for tickling twine in pull-up scenarios keeps defenders even more off balance. Whether he's darting into the lane for creative finishes around the hoop or dazzling fans with rise-and-fire jumpers over the outstretched arms of bigger defenders, he simply knows how to get buckets.  

3. Karl-Anthony Towns

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    Position: C

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 24.9 PER, 4.24 RPM, 320.98 TPA

    During the early portion of July, The Athletic's Michael Scotto and Jon Krawczynski reported that the Minnesota Timberwolves and Karl-Anthony Towns were engaged in discussions about signing a maximum rookie-scale extension that would keep the uber-talented big man in the same uniform throughout the foreseeable future. This comes on the heels of head coach Tom Thibodeau telling Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, "We're just optimistic [the extension] will be done as soon as possible." 

    Towns has to be listed among potential free agents for the time being, but it would be downright shocking if he remained on this list by the onset of the 2018-19 season, much less 11 months from now. And as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes recently explained, he's absolutely worth the inevitable money:

    "In the history of the NBA, two players have totaled at least 5,300 points and 2,800 rebounds while posting an effective field-goal percentage north of 57 percent in their first three seasons. One is Towns; the other is Shaquille O'Neal. And if you want to further distinguish Towns' early-career excellence, throw in 251 made threes.

    "Those are no-questions-asked generational-superstar numbers. You don't need to look into Towns' eyes to understand he's worth a max deal."

    Towns is by no means a flawless player, and we're not just referring to his disappointing first venture into playoff competition. He's a lackluster defender with troubling instincts on that preventing side, though it's also worth noting his score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus crept into the positives in 2017-18. His passing could use work as well. 

    But when you have a generational scoring talent capable of serving as a prototypical center in today's NBA, you pay the man. It's that simple. 

2. Kawhi Leonard

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 28

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    Position: SF

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.0 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 26.0 PER, 0.81 RPM, 24.52 TPA

    Throw out any and all numbers Kawhi Leonard posted during the 2017-18 campaign—a season marred by his enduringly mysterious quadriceps malady and a fractured relationship with the San Antonio Spurs that leaves us with no idea for whom he'll play in the next go-round.

    Maybe head coach Gregg Popovich works his magic and repairs the bond. Perhaps Leonard winds up with the Toronto Raptors. The Philadelphia 76ers could spring for him. The Los Angeles Lakers might make a play. Seemingly anything could happen, even if Leonard doesn't commit to signing an extension and remains intent on exercising his player option to join 2019's open market. 

    But in any situation, we should turn back to the 2016-17 numbers to get a more accurate representation of Leonard's talents. 

    During that campaign with the Spurs, the small forward followed up his back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors by making the All-NBA First Team, representing the Western Conference in the All-Star festivities, earning an All-Defense First Team nod and finishing behind only Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the MVP voting.

    He averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while slashing 48.5/38.0/88.0. Only four players posted a superior score in ESPN.com's RPM, while six men bettered him in NBA Math's TPA.

    Leonard's path seemed to vault him into consideration for the "best player in the world" title, and he entered 2017-18 as one of the MVP front-runners before that pesky injury imp struck. So long as he shows no ill effects, he'll still be squarely in the midst of his athletic prime and ready to resume that quest moving forward. 

1. Kevin Durant

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 31

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    Position: SF/PF

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 26.0 PER, 3.61 RPM, 274.99 TPA

    Whether Kevin Durant signed a one-and-one deal with the Warriors this offseason to negotiate a full Bird extension next summer or pursue a new home after winning one more title, he'll likely remain an integral part of the free-agency picture all year. Even while moving into his 30s, he's the type of talent who forces teams to restructure their financial outlooks just for the faintest whiff of a shot at signing him. 

    Durant may never become the best player in the world while LeBron is still kicking, but he's not far from earning that title. His last two years have seen him add two rings to his jewelry collection, and he's turned up his nose at qualms with his championship crusade by earning Finals MVP for each title—strength of the other Warriors be damned.

    During the 2018 Finals, he even averaged a scorching 28.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.3 blocks and 0.8 steals per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field, 40.9 percent from downtown and 96.3 percent at the free-throw line. 

    This forward just keeps getting better. 

    The Warriors have managed to unlock defensive talents that remained hidden during his Oklahoma City Thunder tenure, asking him to vacillate between playing high-quality perimeter defense, switching onto players of all sizes and protecting the rim from the weak side. That hasn't come at the expense of his sterling offense, and he's only getting better as a confident facilitator who now looks at setting up his teammates—not always, mind you—as more than a bail-out option. 

    Durant remains the clear-cut cream of the crop. 

                                             

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.