Ranking Top NBA Free-Agency Destinations in 2019
Arrivederci, 2018 free agency. So long. Farewell. Goodbye. It has been real—sometimes too much so. Have fun in retirement.
Now, on to 2019 free agency.
All right, all right, all right: We're not quite there yet. A lot can happen between now and next summer. The best destinations will be jostling for position all season. The pecking order for curb appeal will change. Plus, some aren't even ready to move on from the 2018 offseason quite yet.
But our obligation extends beyond people who live only in the moment and Rodney Hood's family tree. Teams are planning for 2019 free agency. They've been planning for it. Why can't we?
Cobbling together a definitive ranking of next year's most desirable landing spots can be tricky this far in advance. This power structure is based on cap projections and roster makeups that may undergo significant alterations over the next 11 months.
Bear this fluidity in mind as we cupid shuffle our way through the most appealing locales. Market drawing power mattered as always, but basketball fits and cap-sheet flexibility took precedence.
Nos. 10 to 6
10. Phoenix Suns
Getting max space will be harder for the Suns after they extended Devin Booker, but not impossible. Stretching or trading Brandon Knight while dealing Dragan Bender and/or Marquese Chriss would drum up superstar money.
Phoenix isn't known for poaching A-listers, but this situation will pique attention around the league for top-shelf and second-tier talent if Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson and Elie Okobo close 2018-19 trending in the direction of the pre-James Harden-trade Oklahoma City Thunder.
9. Chicago Bulls
Declining Jabari Parker's team option would leave the Bulls with max room. Whether that matters depends entirely on the developmental arcs of Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.
Bringing back Parker would not torpedo the Bulls' wiggle room, but it'd be difficult to squeeze in a non-point guard unless they're cool with bringing Carter, LaVine, Markkanen or Parker himself off the bench.
On a related note: File Chicago under the "Most likely to try to overpay Terry Rozier in restricted free agency" section.
8. Indiana Pacers
Another year, another effortless route to more than $50 million in cap space for the Pacers.
Victor Oladipo should attract fairly big names if he provides an adequate encore to last season's detonation. If the Pacers are closer to the 48-win feel-good story than not, they should devote every fiber of their existence to stealing Jimmy Butler (player option) or Khris Middleton (player option).
7. New York Knicks
Putting the Knicks this high is a gift. They will not piece together max space without jumping through a bunch of pricey hoops, and their pull with established superstars rests on Kristaps Porzingis' post-recovery performance as well as the development of Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina.
New York's best hope of cracking the top five—and potentially the top three—lies with eking out two max slots. Reassess their standing if they figure out how to reroute the final two years and $37.1 million on Tim Hardaway Jr.'s contract.
6. New Orleans Pelicans
This is subject to change if the Pelicans encounter an Anthony Davis trade request. He'll be one year out from free agency next summer (player option in 2020-21) and would force their hand if he rejects the designated veteran extension they're most definitely going to offer.
At the same time, the Pelicans are in line for long-awaited breathing room. Renouncing Nikola Mirotic while dumping Solomon Hill (expiring in 2019-20) and one of E'Twaun Moore (expiring in 2019-20) or Julius Randle (player option) would clear the way for Middleton or Butler money. That much coin equates to serious clout if Davis is committed for the long haul.
Also: New Orleans, though a small market, is right up there with Toronto as one of the NBA's most underrated cities.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
Incumbent talent isn't going to act as a big draw for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Tobias Harris is a fantastic scorer but not a star. Lou Williams is an efficient volume scorer but also not a star. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be good—just not attract-stars-as-a-sophomore good. Danilo Gallinari is the perfect running mate for players who wish to play without their partner in crime for at least 20 games every year.
Stare at the Clippers' setup long enough, and their roster looks like a makeshift mishmash, mostly by design.
Harris, Patrick Beverley, Marcin Gortat, Wesley Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Luc Mbah a Moute and Mike Scott all come off the books next summer. Avery Bradley ($2 million partial guarantee), Jawun Evans (team option) and Sindarius Thornwell have non-guaranteed salaries for 2019-20. Sam Dekker and Milos Teodosic are owed qualifying offers Los Angeles probably won't tender. Williams will be hypertradable once his restriction lifts later this month.
Conservatively speaking, if they keep their own pick (lottery protected to the Boston Celtics) and some of their cheaper non-guarantees, the Clippers will be on track for more than $50 million in room. That number can explode and land closer to dual-max territory if they find takers for the expiring deals of Gallinari, Williams or Montrezl Harrell.
Combine that cash with the Los Angeles market, and the Clippers are golden. Granted, they may want to bring back Harris. They offered him an $80 million extension he turned down, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge. That's perfectly fine.
Los Angeles can retain Harris and dredge up money for a max-contract veteran. And while the depth chart won't have a superstar magnet in place, betting against Jerry West, who remains heavily involved with the front office, is a nincompoop's wager.
Flexibility sells on its own, and the Clippers will have more maneuverability in 2020 if they cannot get off Gallinari's contract before next summer. Plus, as ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright noted during appearance on the Back to Back podcast (h/t Def Pen's Rob Lopez), the Clippers at one point usurped the Los Angeles Lakers as Kawhi Leonard's preferred trade destination. That puts them on the map in more ways than one, the most important of which is their ability to sell Hollywood outside the taxing LeBron James experience.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Two first-round picks in next year's draft (probably) and cap space? The Brooklyn Nets done changed, yo.
To be sure, this isn't an evolution anew. The Nets' appeal is only just starting to align with a seasonslong process.
General manager Sean Marks has spent more than two years amassing assets anywhere he can find them—from overseas, in the free-agency rough, in the Bulls' backyard, between the couch cushions, etc. Head coach Kenny Atkinson, meanwhile, has installed a nitrous-powered, mostly egalitarian offense that gives everyone the green light to shoot, push the ball up the floor and, in many cases, dabble in half-court initiation.
Brooklyn has rated first and sixth, respectively, in possessions per 48 minutes over the past two seasons. Last year's offense finished second in three-point attempts per 100 possessions, behind only the Houston Rockets. No player has averaged 30 minutes per game during the Atkinson era. DeMarre Carroll came closest with 29.9 last season.
Rival players pay attention to this stuff. They will notice the Nets' emphasis on player preservation and family-matters gestures. They will see value in their penchant for maximizing and salvaging careers on the margins (Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris) or on the downswing (Carroll).
It will take more than that to woo the Butlers and Kyrie Irvings. Brooklyn has it.
Caris LeVert is going to be really good. Jarrett Allen might be Clint Capela with better ball-handling skills and three-point range. Any one of the Nets' contract-year projects could hit. Dinwiddie has shades of Mike Conley in the way he manages games. D'Angelo Russell has that superstar moxie on offense. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is Mbah a Moute-level three-point volume away from catching more buzz as a playmaking 4 who defends almost everyone.
Cut all this with a clear path to more than $30 million in space, and the Nets are sitting pretty. Feasible access to multimaxes, which would include renouncing Russell's restricted free-agent hold, is their trump card over New York's other basketball team. And they shouldn't have their sights set on the Butlers and Irvings of the open market. The Nets should actually be hot for Butler and Irving themselves, who are serious about playing together, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.
3. Utah Jazz
Unless the Denver Nuggets decline Paul Millsap's team option and decide to push the cap-space bill, the Utah Jazz will begin next summer as free agency's consummate "I care about basketball fit" destination.
Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell are begging for a switchy wing to complete their terrifying two-way machine. Utah has a few quality options now, each of whom offers a different finishing touch: Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, Royce O'Neale, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. Summer league zealots are free to stan for Grayson Allen as the fifth wheel, too.
But what if the Jazz could add a fringe star wing to the party? Like a Harris or a Middleton?
Or what if they adjusted their lasers from stun to kill and targeted a superstar wing? Butler, Leonard (player option), Kevin Durant (player option) and Klay Thompson are all quintessential fits and will be available.
Opening up the necessary money won't be hard. Waiving Favors (non-guaranteed) and renouncing Rubio would get the Jazz Durant money. Keeping one of Favors or Rubio would still leave them enough scratch to pitch Harris and Middleton.
Convincing marquee names to eschew a pair of teams in Los Angeles and New York, plus ones in Chicago and Philadelphia, will be the toughest part of the process. As of now, the Jazz have the basketball juju to make it happen.
They posted the NBA's top point differential per 100 possessions after last year's All-Star break without ever breaking out on the offensive end. They carried that momentum into the postseason, in which they dispatched the Thunder and had some of their wing defenders make life difficult on the Rockets.
Basketball visionaries will find value in playing for head coach Quin Snyder and alongside the Jazz's warm-and-fuzzy plug-and-play roster. Add one more big name to this group, and Utah will make every superpower uncomfortable even on their best day.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers could easily nab the top spot on this ladder.
Stretching Luol Deng would arm them with max money for any type of free agent next summer—including Durant. Just saying. Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma make for tantalizing superstar complements or blockbuster-trade bait. The Lakers play in Los Angeles. Their new jerseys are fire and could portend future fire.
Oh, and yeah, they have LeBron, a seemingly ageless all-time great. What's not to love?
Well, um, possibly James. He will be entering his age-35 season next year. Steering clear of his twilight could become a thing. It might already be a thing.
Irving orchestrated his exit "out of Cleveland because he did not want to play another minute with James," according to The Athletic's Jason Lloyd. Paul George never granted the Lakers a free-agency meeting after flirting with them last summer. And as Lowe explained on the The Lowe Post podcast, Leonard might view James as a deterrent or non-factor once he reaches the open market.
"Having talked to people who have been around him, I don't know that he doesn't want to play with LeBron," Lowe said. "I don't know that playing with LeBron is like ... a golden ring that he's aspiring to. I don't know if it's anything. I don't know if it just is a situation that he could take or leave. It's not a plus; it's not a minus."
George, Irving and Leonard are not a representation of the NBA's superstar body. And their distaste for James is either theoretical or inferred. It is not concrete.
Even if James is not the charmer he once was, the Lakers are fine. Their future is not solely affixed to his heyday. The youthful base they've cobbled together could culminate in two stars (Ball, Ingram) and a pair of net-plus starters (Hart, Kuzma).
Maybe the Lakers are not the automatic landing spot for 2019's biggest names. James will be getting older. His vibranium-coated muscles could start showing the faintest signs of rust. The media circus and constant title-or-bust pressure he incites might not be worth the trouble on its own. The Lakers don't need it to be. Their free-agency sales pitches are rooted in far more than "Hey, we're the Lakers, and we have cap space!"
1. Philadelphia 76ers
People will use the Philadelphia 76ers' 2018 offseason strikeout fest to invalidate this finish. Let them. They're technically not wrong.
The Sixers did not sign George. They did not land James. They did not empty the asset cupboard for Leonard. I mean, hell, they couldn't even lock down Nemanja Bjelica. Nemanja Bjelica!
Pepper in their front office drama, and they're hardly a billboard for stability. Head coach Brett Brown is the acting team president following Bryan Colangelo's, ahem, awkward departure. Jerry Colangelo, Bryan's papa, is still under contract as a special adviser, but the Sixers will not bring him back once his deal expires, according to the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps. Philly tried poaching Daryl Morey, Sam Hinkie's boi, from the Rockets but was predictably rebuffed, per the New York Times' Marc Stein.
Pretend all this stuff matters if it helps your Knicks jersey fit more comfortably. It really doesn't matter. Not in the grand scheme.
Philly is young and talented and flexible. It can carve out max space without touching its core of Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith and next year's draft pick. This roster is a Giannis Antetokounmpo trade package waiting to happen.
Failing to land a big fish this summer would not inform the future. For those who think it will, please remember that Philly, unlike most other teams, earned a meeting with James' people. That means something. James says so.
"I definitely thought long and hard about the possibilities about lining up alongside Ben and Embiid," he said, per The Athletic's Alykhan Bijani.
Next year will be a better barometer for Philly's curb appeal. This summer's class was light on gettable superstars after George and James—the former of whom did not entertain offers except from Oklahoma City. The Sixers should be commended for pivoting in a way that neither lowered their immediate ceiling nor jeopardized their 2019 spending power.
Whereas the Bulls and Knicks will be slinging hypothetical championship windows, the Sixers will be giving off Celtics vibes. Their timeline is open-ended; they're built for much later, but they're ready now.