Biggest 2019 NBA Free Agency Flight Risks

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2018

Biggest 2019 NBA Free Agency Flight Risks

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Before you ask or claim the contrary: No, it is not, in fact, too early to look at the NBA's list of marquee flight risks for 2019 free agency.

    Loads of stuff can happen between now and next July and blah, blah, blahdy, blah. Who cares? The NBA is a transactions league. Way-too-early primers are the industry standard. And consuming them in tandem with a grain of salt should be second nature. Embrace this brave, new, next-move-please world.

    Flight risks always exist in abundance when looking one year into the future, so we're narrowing the scope to the free agents worth the biggest damns.

    A super-secret panel of basketball think-tankers (me) convened in parts unknown (my makeshift treadmill desk) and spent way too much time (this is actually true) ranking the top 25 free agents within a thrice-encrypted file coded to self-delete by the time you finish reading this explainer (it was a Google spreadsheet).

    Every realistic flight risk has been plucked from that pool. Restricted free agents not named Terry Rozier missed the cut because their futures are at the mercy of their incumbent teams. Ditto for Paul Millsap and his club option. Anyone who probably won't decline his player option (think Marc Gasol) or won't actively seek to leave his current digs (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tyreke Evans, Thaddeus Young, etc.) is also absent.

    This discussion is reserved mainly for those who could bolt despite their employers' best efforts to convince them to stay. 

Honorable Mentions: Warriors Free Agents

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    DeMarcus Cousins

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 29

    Free-Agency Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks, 47.0 percent shooting, 35.4 percent three-point shooting

    2017-18 Advanced Stats: 22.6 player efficiency rating (PER), 3.66 RPM, 200.03 TPA

    DeMarcus Cousins isn't so much a flight risk as a predetermined goner. The Golden State Warriors do not own his Bird rights and won't have cap space next summer. The most they can offer him is 120 percent of this upcoming season's salary, which would check in around $6.4 million.

    Something has gone hopelessly wrong with Cousins if he's opening up Chase Center with the Warriors in 2019-20. 

                 

    Kevin Durant 

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 31

    Free-Agency Type: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks, 51.6 percent shooting, 41.9 percent three-point shooting

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

    Certain people within hugging distance of Kevin Durant believe "that he will one day leave Golden State for a team that can be truly his," according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. Approximately 29 of the NBA's teams hope these quasi-confidants aren't talking out of their gluteus maximus.

    Leaving the Warriors after a third straight title—because, yes, the Dubs are going to win a third straight title—would be poetic. Many will consider Durant's hardware cheapened by the circumstances under which he obtained it, but he'll have the requisite number of Larry O'Brien Trophies and Finals MVP awards to do what he wants without having to spend too much time defending himself via burner Twitter accounts.

    Put another way: Golden State should maybe, kind of, in some way be concerned. Durant is an enigmatic fellow. He might seek the sort of airtight validation that only ending the New York Knicks' 40-something-year championship drought can give him. 

    Then again, by next summer, the Warriors will have his full Bird rights, an open-ended title window and the allure of playing in a new arena. They should get at least another one-plus-one commitment from Durant. 

                    

    Klay Thompson

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 29

    Free-Agency Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 48.8 percent shooting, 44.4 percent three-point shooting

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

    Face it, we already know how Klay Thompson's situation will play out: with a below-market deal or an extension that saves Golden State's billionaire owners tens of millions of dollars while ensuring the team's place atop the NBA isn't compromised by Durant's potentially wandering eyes.

Boston Celtics Point Guards

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    Kyrie Irving 

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 27

    Free-Agency Type: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 49.1 percent shooting, 40.8 percent three-point shooting

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

    Kyrie Irving appears to be enjoying his time with the Boston Celtics. His future is no longer tethered to LeBron James' team-hopping, and he played harder on defense last season than in any other of his career.

    The Celtics still entered the summer "scared" that he could leave during free agency, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Mannix (via NBC Sports Boston). They have a right to be. 

    Irving has never seemed to equate career worth and purpose with championship pursuits. He already has a ring, and he forced his way off the Cleveland Cavaliers when they held an annual pass to the NBA Finals.  

    Abandoning the Celtics would be different. Their future isn't as fragile or as seemingly sunk. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and their still-superior stash of draft picks give them a line to title contention that transcends Al Horford's prime and whatever version of Gordon Hayward they get post-injury. 

    Boston, unlike Cleveland last summer, is sitting pretty. But again: Who knows how much that resonates with Irving. The same goes with the fifth-year trump card only the Celtics can offer. Guaranteeing himself five years and $189.7 million could mean something in light of his knee problems, but a four-year, $140.6 million pact with another team won't seem like a stark drop-off if he has another megadeal's worth of basketball in him.

    Rumors of Irving's interest in playing with Jimmy Butler are to be taken seriously, per Lowe. The Celtics will not have the juice to acquire him outside of a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves if that's whom Irving fancies above all else. The Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers have the ability to carve out room for both.

                               

    Terry Rozier

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 25

    Free-Agency Type: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 39.5 percent shooting, 38.1 percent shooting

    2017-18 Advanced Stats: 15.1 PER, 74.45 TPA, 1.22 RPM

    Terry Rozier assured himself a robust market with his performance following Irving's knee injury.

    Through 13 starts to close the regular season, he averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.0 assists while hitting 37 percent of his threes. His erratic finishing around the rim persists with uncomfortable volume, but he had more than a few trademark moments during Boston's playoff run—including a total Eric Bledsoe obliteration in the first round.

    Unless Rozier signs a team-friendly extension, eschewing restricted free agency altogether, his future with the Celtics will remain decidedly up in the air. Irving will command max money next summer, and Marcus Smart just inked a four-year, $52 million deal.

    No way, no how, is Boston paying all three of its point guards market value. One of them won't be on the roster in 2019-20. Maybe Irving signs elsewhere in free agency. Maybe Smart gets traded once his restriction lifts in January. Or maybe Rozier leaves because the other two have not.

Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 30

    Free-Agency Type Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 47.4 percent shooting, 35.0 percent three-point shooting

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

    Jimmy Butler does not seem long for Minnesota.

    This has nothing to do with him turning down a four-year, $110 million extension, according to Darren Wolfson of 5 Eyewitness News. That's just good business. The Timberwolves can offer him a four-year, $146.5 million deal or a five-year, $189.7 million pact if he waits until free agency.

    Nor does this have anything to do with the recruiting efforts of Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Butler would be a great—great—fit with the Denver Nuggets, but they're not on course for max cap space. They'd need to decline Millsap's team option, renounce Trey Lyles and grease the wheels of a Mason Plumlee dump to get in superstar range.

    This feeling of inevitability has everything to do with Butler and his apparent unhappiness with Minnesota's non-geezers. 

    Citing Karl-Anthony Towns specifically, a source told the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley that Butler has grown "frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates." This came less than a month after Sporting News' Sean Deveney heard that Butler had problems with Andrew Wiggins' "work ethic and his approach on the defensive end of the floor."

    Witnessing leaps from both youngsters could change things. Counterpoint: It might not. Towns, 22, is already ridiculously good. Taking issue with him, even though he's more Wiggins than Butler on defense, speaks to a larger issue—one the Timberwolves are not equipped to solve.

    Minnesota will have zero cap space next summer if it carries Butler's hold and, as expected, signs Towns to a max extension. It will take some deft maneuvering just to access the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. 

    Left alone, the Timberwolves project as a solid playoff team. The same can be said for roughly nine to 10 other Western Conference squads. That number climbs to 11 if you believe in the Dallas Mavericks, and it doesn't include the league-of-their own Warriors.

    Which is to say, Minnesota isn't anything special. Barring major steps forward from Towns and Wiggins or surprise breakouts from rookies Keita Bates-Diop or Josh Okogie, that won't change. So with Butler genuinely hoping to play beside Irving, per Cowley, the Timberwolves effectively need to become something they're not.

Tobias Harris, Los Angeles Clippers

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 27

    Free-Agency Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 46.0 percent shooting, 41.1 percent three-point shooting

    2017-18 Advanced Stats: 17.1 PER, 1.25 RPM, 40.36 TPA

    Tobias Harris turned down an $80 million extension from the Clippers, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge.

    "Nah, I'm good," he presumably said before ever asking whether this was a three- or four-year offer after seeing how much the Orlando Magic gave Aaron Gordon ($80 million) and the Chicago Bulls paid Zach LaVine ($78 million) in their four-season agreements.

    Rebuffing the Clippers' overtures is a smart decision by Harris. Teams will trip over themselves for a dude who can get buckets from both forward spots and has honed a reliable three-point stroke. Harris' improved outside shooting has crimped the frequency with which he reaches the foul line, but he makes up for it with spot pick-and-roll initiation and plug-and-play usage.

    Twenty-four players are clearing 18 points and two assists per 36 minutes on 37 percent shooting from beyond the arc since 2014-15. Harris owns the lowest usage rate of the bunch. He verges on universal-fit status at the offensive end.

    Netting max money should be out of the question. More teams will have cap space, but Harris does not have the cachet of a Butler or Thompson. 

    What he lacks in star power, though, he makes up for in variant appeal. He won't turn 27 until after free agency (officially) begins. Both win-now and rebuilding admirers alike can talk themselves into bankrolling his next three or four years at peak price points.

    Owning Harris' Bird rights will help the Clippers. He is an ideal get for a franchise flirting with the line between ground-up transition and postseason ambition. But Los Angeles is on the fast track toward more than $60 million in room if it renounces all its own free agents. The right over-the-top offer could scare away the Clippers in the event they're dual-superstar hunting or contemplating a full-tilt reset.

    Basically, what I'm trying to say is: Harris will probably extract near-max money from the Sacramento Kings.

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 28

    Free-Agency Type: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 46.8 percent three-point shooting, 31.4 percent three-point shooting

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

    Kawhi Leonard is this year's Paul George—that superstar rental playing for a team he's destined to leave in free agency.

    Good news, though, Toronto Raptors fans: George re-upped with the Oklahoma City Thunder on a four-year deal. Consensus opinions are overrated.

    Leonard's soap opera admittedly seems more tenuous than George's situation. Sources told ESPN.com's Chris Haynes that the star had "no desire to play in Toronto" before the San Antonio Spurs officially shipped him away. That probably still holds true, but the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is at least willing to rep the Raptors for now.

    "[Leonard] didn't express a lack of interest to not play in Canada to me," team president Masai Ujiri 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."

    Cautious optimism is fine. The Raptors have a good thing going with a healthy Leonard. They should rival the Celtics for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed and might be, on paper, the toughest theoretical matchup for the league-lording Warriors.

    Still, Ujiri isn't one to kid himself or his team. He didn't acquire Leonard under the guise the Raptors have more than an outsider's chance of retaining him. 

    This move was more about wiping DeMar DeRozan's deal from the books (three years, $83.2 million) and alleviating the obstacles standing between Toronto and a from-scratch rebuilding. Gaining up to a year of face time with a top-five player in the process falls somewhere between happy accident and planned bonus. 

    And by the way: Jordan Brand intends to part ways with Leonard, according to ESPN.com's Nick DePaula, who also noted his relocation to Toronto "could complicate things from a marketing perspective, on top of the existing questions about Leonard's level of interest in being a pitchman."

    Leonard and his camp's apparent thirst for lucrative endorsements exacerbates this uncertainty. Toronto is a fantastic market, but setting up shop outside the United States represents a major risk for someone who hasn't showcased exceptional self-promotional instincts or a strong social media presence. He may need the in-built security of a more celebrated city to increase his off-court revenue streams.

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 28

    Free-Agency Type: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46.6 percent shooting, 35.9 percent three-point shooting

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 17.4 PER, 23.93 TPA, 1.40 RPM

    The Bucks have a certain obligation to Khris Middleton after letting Jabari Parker walk for nothing. Avoiding the tax this year implies they'll be more open to paying it next year, when Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) will be joining Middleton in free agency.

    Middleton is the biggest flight risk of the tricycle. Bledsoe could fetch serious money, but point guard remains a tough position to crack. Most starting vacancies lie with rebuilding teams who won't pay top dollar for a then-29-year-old floor general. Squads operating on immediate timelines are typically set at the 1, devoid of cap space or both. Bledsoe's list of suitors may be shorter than expected. Brogdon isn't the type of player Milwaukee will lose sleep over either way.

    Re-signing Middleton will be harder—or rather, more expensive.

    He will quickly become the contingency plan for buyers who whiff on Butler, Durant, Leonard and Thompson. Smart teams—cough, cough, cough the Utah Jazz, cough, cough, cough—will make him their immediate focus and try ripping him off the open market before the bidding wars commence.

    Max money is a reach. One front office could feel particularly reckless, but lobbing more than $30 million per year Middleton's way invites indefinite mediocrity. Something north of $20 million annually is reasonable, if not especially likely. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote:

    "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."

    Will the Bucks pony up for Middleton? That's difficult to say. Giannis Antetokounmpo's free agency is sneaking up on them (2021), but keeping Bledsoe and Middleton without cannonballing into the tax will take a minor miracle. Color his future in Milwaukee shades of to-be-determined until the Bucks get a better idea of whether they're a viable fringe contender. 

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 29

    Free-Agency Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 43.1 percent shooting, 38.4 percent shooting

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

    Kemba Walker should be the biggest flight risk among top-25 free agents. Because he should be finishing 2018-19 with a team other than the Charlotte Hornets. Because they should be rebuilding. Which should mean they won't shell out near-max money for a 6'1" point guard less than one year out from his 30th birthday bash.

    And yet:

    "As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it," Walker told The Athletic's Michael Scotto. "I'm a Hornet, and I’m planning on being a Hornet for a long time, so, yeah, I'm not sure about that [New York]."

    Why wouldn't Walker count on remaining with the Hornets? They have been (inexpertly) delaying an unavoidable overhaul for years. This summer alone they took on Timofey Mozgov's money to etch out additional room under the tax; signed 36-year-old Tony Parker to a multifrigginyear deal; cut bait with Treveon Graham, a serviceable 24-year-old wing; and acquired Bismack Biyombo as a basketball-value play.

    Skip ahead to next July, and it would not be surprising to see the Hornets almost-maxing Walker and securing their future in mediocrity's sub-basement. (Just to be clear: This has more to do with Charlotte's books than Walker, who is better than not-so-clever "Kyrie Lite" designations suggest.)

    Putting Walker here at all is an investment in his basketball intelligence. He has to know the Hornets are entire galaxies away from title contention. He's working off a below-market deal, but plenty of teams will have cap space. Around one-third of the league will enjoy a relatively effortless path to max room, with a few other could-be spenders like the Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans lurking on the horizon.

    Starting point guard gigs are tough to come by for players approaching 30 who deserve serious coin. Walker's departure is not a given. But he has a better shot at gleaning aggressive offers than Bledsoe, Ricky Rubio or D'Angelo Russell (restricted). 

    Bake in the somewhat-unlikely, not-entirely-impossible chance the Hornets submit to the inevitable, and Walker may have already sought out a home by this time next year.

      

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.