How LeBron to LA Will Impact 2019 NBA Free Agency
Next summer, for the first time in approximately forever, LeBron James will not be entering free agency or a contract year. But as is stated in the NBA's totally real offseason handbook under Rule No. 23, subsection L, bullet point No. 6, addendum 3Q: "From 2010 on, the month of July will henceforth be known as 'LeBron SZN.'"
Interpreted to the letter, this means everything and anything during free agency must revolve around the four-time MVP. So we're here to make sure the summer of 2019 remains about him.
More specifically, the events of next year will be linked back to James joining the Los Angeles Lakers. This is not an experiment to see how long the shelf life of his latest free-agency decision can be stretched. His relocation could have a massive trickle-down effect on the rest of the league—not just one year from now, but over the next couple of offseasons.
For this exercise, we only care about 2019 free agency. James will not be a direct participant, but he's sure as heck going to leave his mark.
LeBron: Free-Agent Magnet or Deterrent?
The Lakers have caught roughly everyone off guard with their after-LeBron moves. They did not sign another superstar free agent. Nor did they trade for Kawhi Leonard.
They re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They added Rajon Rondo. And JaVale McGee. And Lance Stephenson. And then, most recently, they scooped up Michael Beasley for good measure.
These moves are, apparently, all part of a larger plan. Though they are directionless in the interim, a series of one-year deals preserves the Lakers' long-term flexibility. Stretching Luol Deng's contract gives them a clear path to more than $35 million in space ahead of 2019 free agency, by which time James will have been putting down roots and recruiting fellow megahumans for an entire year.
Go ahead and keep those Kawhi Leonard Lakers jerseys on custom order. Or reserve space on your living room mantle for a Jimmy Butler Lakers bobblehead. If you're feeling particularly spunky, practice your shocked-but-not-really face for when Kevin Durant (player option) announces via Kyle Kuzma's burner Twitter account that he's leaving the Golden State Warriors for purple-and-gold digs.
Except, before you do all that, maybe don't. What if James isn't genuinely a free-agent magnet? What if he's instead superstar repellant? Awkward, yes, but not off-base.
Consider the facts and rumors: Kyrie Irving forced his way "out of Cleveland because he did not want to play another minute with James," according to The Athletic's Jason Lloyd. Paul George didn't even grant the Lakers a meeting in free agency after being ticketed for Hollywood more than one year earlier. And then we have the Kawhi thing.
It appears the San Antonio Spurs asked for the universe in negotiations, as ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne noted during an appearance on ESPN Los Angeles' Mason & Ireland show. The Lakers had no incentive to pay a premium for a player they believe is signing with them in 2019. But this assumes Leonard, along with other star free agents, is enamored with the chance to work alongside James.
As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe said during an episode of The Lowe Post podcast:
"Having talked to people who have been around him, I don't know that he doesn't want to play with LeBron. I don't know that playing with LeBron is a golden carrot—a golden ring that he's aspiring to. I don't know if it's anything. I don't know if it's just a situation he could take or leave, [like] it's not a plus, it's not a minus."
Whatever the end result, next summer figures to be a barometer for how much sway James has over his peers entering his age-35 season.
Toronto and Kawhi Leonard: More Than a 1-Year Fling?
Whether Leonard is turned off or indifferent to syncing up with LeBron's Lakers doesn't matter. Either way, the Toronto Raptors win.
Sources told ESPN.com's Chris Haynes that Leonard had "no desire to play in Toronto." Some around the league speculated the two-time Defensive Player of the Year would even blow off Raptors training camp, according to Sporting News' Sean Deveney.
That initial distaste for Hollywood North is apparently subsiding. ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Leonard has "started to warm to the idea that he's going to a contender" (h/t Clutch Points' Rexwell Villas). And for what it's worth, Raptors team president Masai Ujiri has heard nothing of Leonard's opposition to playing in The 6.
"[Leonard] didn't express a lack of interest to not play in Canada to me," he told reporters. "A lot of these things are everybody has their own opinion about everything...I haven't gotten that sense from Kawhi Leonard or his people, and I'm going to give him that chance when we meet face to face."
Chances are Leonard wasn't too thrilled about being shipped out of the country. That feeling could linger. It could eventually disappear. It could, again, have already started fading into nothingness.
The Raptors needn't care where Leonard stands. Not right now. Leonard might not actually be head-over-heels for the Lakers. Nothing else matters for the time being.
The slightest waffling on his part gives them an in—an opportunity to pitch him on the (underrated) Toronto lifestyle and becoming the spitting image of a team he wishes to wed long term.
Hooray for the Clippers?
Everything that applies to the Raptors also helps out the Los Angeles Clippers, only from a distance, and potentially more so.
Maybe Leonard's infatuation is with Los Angeles the city rather than Lakers lore, in which case ending up anywhere but those same Lakers is a win unto itself.
Some have gone as far as to declare the Clippers his preferred landing spot. As Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania said on Fox Sports' The Herd (via Sporting News' Travis Durkee):
"Around Kawhi, it's been made abundantly clear there's not an interest to go join a superteam. I don't think he's jumping for joy that LeBron James is in L.A. with the Lakers. If anything, that's going to make him look, maybe more, toward the Clippers because this is a guy that won Finals MVP against LeBron James. You think he's amped up and wants to join LeBron now? I think that's been overstated."
Having incumbent superstars cannot hurt the sales pitch—particularly, perhaps, when that superstar is someone other than James. But the Clippers, for their part, have the next best thing short of Leonard's Bird rights: a navigable path to dual-max slots.
They stand to potentially capitalize on LeBron's decision, too.
More Superstars on the Move?
Pencil the Lakers in for another superstar signing next summer. Or don't. Whatever. They can only add one A-list free agent anyway. There will be plenty to go around.
But where will they go?
Putting James in Los Angeles has not triggered a seismic shift within the Western Conference landscape. Rival players and teams should fear the Warriors and Houston Rockets and maybe even the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz before they acknowledge the Lakers' existence.
Really, James' presence in the West means less than his absence in the East.
Kudos to the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and, for at least next season, the Toronto Raptors. They're all positioned to make a (probably futile) run to the NBA Finals following the end to James' one-man dynasty. Not one of them, though, profiles as this insurmountable superpower.
The Celtics come pretty close, but somehow, a nucleus built around Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford doesn't instill the same sense of hopelessness that James incited for eight years. (Seven if you count last season's Cavaliers as a lucky anomaly, which is fine.) Even if they do, their run, not unlike the Raptors' time with Leonard, could prove impermanent.
Horford (player option), Irving (player option) and Terry Rozier (restricted) can all become free agents in 2019. Brown will be extension-eligible next summer, with restricted free agency set for 2020—by which time Hayward (player option) could join him on the open market and Tatum will be extension-eligible himself. Future expenses may coax the Celtics into quasi-dissolution.
Anyway, smart people have always wondered why more free agents haven't migrated to the Eastern Conference. Getting through LeBron would've been tough, but he's one GOAT. The Warriors were, and remain, a dynasty hitting their stride.
Removing James from the picture might finally do the trick. The East is begging for a new alpha, and the Warriors still exist.
Could Butler see a chance to realistically flirt with an NBA Finals cameo while playing for a coach who doesn't run him until the cartilage in his knee disappears? Might Klay Thompson make the Warriors' untenable tax bill lighter by deciding to test the merits of his stardom as the alpha on an East Coast squad? Will higher-end complements such as Trevor Ariza, Marc Gasol (player option), Tobias Harris and DeAndre Jordan bolt for a stacked outfit in a weaker field?
Is Leonard more likely to stay in the East, even if he doesn't stick with the Raptors? Does the same hold true for Horford, Irving, Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker? People close to Durant have, when prompted, predicted "that he will one day leave Golden State for a team that can be truly his," per Lowe. Can that same train of thought be applied to an entire conference that can be truly his?
Eastern Conference Superteams En Route?
If we operate under the assumption the Eastern Conference is more inviting to free agents, a few teams will enter next summer sitting pretty.
Here is every squad with open-ended access or a clear route to max space in 2019:
- Atlanta Hawks
- Brooklyn Nets
- Chicago Bulls (Jabari Parker's team option has to go)
- Indiana Pacers
- New York Knicks (stretch Joakim Noah, waive Lance Thomas, renounce everyone not named Kristaps Porzingis)
- Philadelphia 76ers
Throw the Cavaliers into this mix as an honorable mention. In the event they don't take on long-term money this season, Kevin Love's free agency (player option) and partially guaranteed salaries for George Hill, Kyle Korver and JR Smith could end up getting them nearly $50 million to burn.
Brooklyn looms large here. Butler and Irving are serious about playing together, according to Lowe. The Nets have the available workarounds to afford them both.
Durant has an admirer in every team, but the Knicks are "absolutely planning their offseason around him," once again per Lowe. They'll jump through the hoops necessary to bankroll his max if he gets the itch to spurn the Warriors and their new arena for a crack at the kind of immortality only ending a four-decades-and-counting title drought can bring.
Philly has deliberately maintained its flexibility after failing to land George, James or Leonard. The opportunity to join a more seasoned Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons should call to someone—especially when the Sixers retain the trade assets to acquire another star.
Atlanta is Atlanta. Chicago is a wild card. Indiana is the hipster basketball-fit sleeper in everything. (Looking at you, Klay Thompson.)
An Uptick in Long-Term Gambles?
James is playing the long game by joining the Lakers. He might turn into a trendsetter, just like he did by leaving Cleveland for Miami in 2010. Nodding to the Warriors' continued existence, other prime-time names could seek out teams built to outlast their dynastic chokehold.
Some destinations to consider on this front:
- Atlanta Hawks: If Trae Young turns into Stephen Curry lite, who knows?
- Brooklyn Nets: Dual maxes is nothing to sneeze at, and head coach Kenny Atkinson runs a star-friendly offense.
- Chicago Bulls: Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and maybe max space could get real interesting real quick.
- Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr. and the potential for $60 millionish in cap space? Yes, please.
- Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker's max extension complicates matters, but they can crawl to around $35 million (or more) if they stretch or trade Brandon Knight and aren't married to Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.
- Sacramento Kings: I know, I know. But they have a shot at $60 million in space themselves if Willie Cauley-Stein isn't part of their future. They'll squeeze out even more if they dump some combination of their five team options.
The Clippers can technically be here, too. But they may not be rebuilding after distancing themselves from the Lob City era. Except they could also be rebuilding. Yet they might not be rebuilding. Unless they are, in fact, rebuilding.
A Rise in Basketball-Fit Signings?
The reverse of what James did could also take center stage. With him playing on a squad that, for now, doesn't forecast as one of the league's five best, stars and impact players may rush to find the best cap-rich basketball fits—market be damned.
Teams to watch here:
- Brooklyn Nets: Yes, again. Not for effect, but because, seriously, the Nets could be en vogue before long.
- Denver Nuggets: Declining Paul Millsap's team option, renouncing Trey Lyles and greasing the wheels of a Mason Plumlee dump gets them awfully close to Jimmy Butler money. Just saying.
- Indiana Pacers: If Victor Oladipo once again performs like a top-20 player, look out. Indy has the means to dredge up more than $50 million in room.
- New Orleans Pelicans: Renouncing Nikola Mirotic while shedding Solomon Hill (expiring in 2019-20) and one of E'Twaun Moore (expiring in 2019-20) or Julius Randle (player option) clears the way for a max star from the non-KD division. That'll mean a whole lot if Anthony Davis is leading the charge.
- Philadelphia 76ers: Duh, ad infinitum, times forever.
- San Antonio Spurs: Waiving Pau Gasol while jettisoning Marco Belinelli (player option) and Patty Mills (two years, $25.7 million) would fast track them toward $30 million in space, with the capacity to eke out more.
- Utah Jazz: Renouncing Ricky Rubio and waiving Derrick Favors and Raul Neto gets them Durant money. Choosing between Favors and Rubio gets them Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton money. The Jazz would put the Rockets, Warriors and, yes, Lakers on notice either way.
Get Siri or Google or Alexa or whoever handles your social calendar to block off next July. Free agency stands to get weird.