Free-Agent Rankings: Top Potential Players for 2019

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2019

Free-Agent Rankings: Top Potential Players for 2019

0 of 10

    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Free agency has officially become one of the NBA's primary draws—a separate sport itself that lives in the land of hypotheticals and, oftentimes, the distant future. 

    For some franchises and fanbases, these summertime sweepstakes are the preferred path to title contention. Building through the draft or via trades is secondary. It has reached the point where teams, both incumbent and rival, plan and plot for a player's free agency years in advance.

    Anthony Davis, for instance, is scheduled to hit the open market in 2020 (player option). The New Orleans Pelicans will never let him get there. If he doesn't sign an extension over the offseason, they'll probably ship him elsewhere, perhaps to a suitor of his choice that turns his free agency into a non-issue—sort of like (spoilers!) Jimmy Butler's situation with the Philadelphia 76ers.

    This is to say: It is never too early to rank the upcoming summer's top mercenaries. If anything, as reinforced by the Davis circus, this exercise is overdue.

    Everyone with a path to free agency in 2019 is eligible for inclusion. It doesn't matter if they're unlikely to switch squads, decline player options or have their salaries guaranteed. Rankings will be impacted by age, injury history, 2018-19 performance and the on-court value we can expect from each player over the life of his next contract.

10. Al Horford

1 of 10

    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 33

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted (player option)

    2019-20 Max Salary: $38,150,000

    Al Horford may get played out of his pole position. Age is seldom kind to anyone, he's shooting under 36 percent from downtown, and DeMarcus Cousins' return from his devastating Achilles injury looms.

    For now, Horford is good enough to keep his place. Cousins needs a sample size with his new team before getting the benefit of the doubt given the gravity of his injury, and Boston's big man remains one of the league's premier gap-fillers.

    What Horford lacks as a box-score spectacle, he makes up for with universal dabbling. His three-point shooting is down, but his jumper isn't broken. The threat of his range gets leveraged into dribble drives off up-fakes, and his passing out of the post is divine.

    His defensive mobility is aging well. Boston allows fewer points per 100 possessions without him, but that says more about the bench. He can still quarterback a top-shelf defense in the half-court and is comfortable rotating into space to guard smaller players.

    Horford's numbers may keep on falling, but his consistent across-the-board presence is in no way under siege. He has never relied on explosion to get by, and his impact is not predicated upon getting buckets.

    This will be the third consecutive season in which he clears seven rebounds, three assists, one block and one three-point make per 36 minutes. Kevin Durant is the only other player with the same streak.

    Whether Horford exercises his player option is interesting matter. He shouldn't get the max or even match his expected $30.1 million salary on the open market. But a three- or four-year deal that guarantees a larger haul over the long term appeals to everyone in their mid-30s.

    Teams to watch: Boston, Dallas, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers

    Next 10: 11. DeMarcus Cousins (unrestricted); 12. Nikola Vucevic (unrestricted); 13. Eric Bledsoe (unrestricted); 14. Marc Gasol (player option); 15. Paul Millsap (team option); 16. Julius Randle (player option); 17. Malcolm Brogdon (restricted); 18. Thaddeus Young (unrestricted); 19. D'Angelo Russell (restricted); 20. Nikola Mirotic (unrestricted)

9. Tobias Harris

2 of 10

    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 27

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2019-20 Max Salary: $32,700,000

    Certain league executives believe Tobias Harris is "so valuable" that they "think they should use one of their max slots on him" in free agency, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. Don't laugh. Or sneer. This is neither funny nor presented in vain.

    Front offices are going to be more conservative with their spending if they strike out in the superstar tier. Teams are not going to dole out big-money pacts willy-nilly after the summer of 2016. 

    Harris' next deal is among potential exceptions. He isn't a max player in a vacuum, but he profiles as a top consolation prize for anyone who misses out on the A-listers. Most of the biggest names are bound to stay put, and only a select few teams will capitalize on the players who window shop. The list of jilted suitors will grow if other megastar alternatives, like Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker, get the bag from their current digs. 

    Theoretically, then, Harris could turn into one of this summer's top two or three most gettable marquee acquisitions. And that would invariably give way to a bloated bidding war.

    It helps that he's a fit for all timelines. He doesn't turn 27 until July, so a four-year agreement won't take him past his age 30 season. Rebuilding squads can talk themselves into meeting his price tag, and contenders with cap space will value him as a second or third wheel.

    Plus, Harris has cut loose as a driver and shooter over the past couple of years. He gets to the line at a reasonable clip, takes and makes enough pull-up jumpers to bend defenses and provides spot playmaking in the half-court. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and James Harden are the only players averaging more than 20 points per game with a better true shooting percentage.

    Let's be real: If teams are going to overpay anyone, it might as well be a scorer with first-option chops. 

    Teams to watch: Chicago, L.A. Clippers, Sacramento, Utah

8. Kristaps Porzingis

3 of 10

    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 24

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2019-20 Max Salary: $27,250,000

    Kristaps Porzingis is almost impossible to place within this discussion. 

    He's too young to bounce out of the top 10 entirely. Torn ACLs are no joke, but they are more matter-of-fact than DeMarcus Cousins' ruptured Achilles. And if we assume a full recovery, Porzingis deserves to be higher.

    A 7'3" skyscraper who bangs in threes, faces up off the dribble, protects the rim and hangs in space is the frontcourt dream. Joel Embiid (in progress) is the only other player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, two blocks and one three-pointer per 36 minutes through his first three seasons.

    At the same time, Porzingis cannot get a total pass. The first portion of his career is littered with injuries, and he, like Cousins, needs to get some post-recovery outings under his belt.

    That isn't happening anytime soon. Porzingis has resumed non-contact on-court activity, but the New York Knicks aren't planning to reevaluate his progress again until mid-February, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley.

    Bankrolling his next contract will not come without risk. Even if he returns before the end of this season and picks up where he left off, the thought of shelling out max money should give the Knicks pause. And yet, in the end, they won't have a decision on their hands.

    Another team will offer Porzingis a four-year max. Barring a catastrophic setback in his rehab, the Knicks have no real negotiating power. They can match the market or let him walk for nothing. That isn't an actual choice.

    Teams to watch: Atlanta, Dallas, L.A. Clippers, New York

7. Khris Middleton

4 of 10

    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 28

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted (player option)

    2019-20 Max Salary: $32,700,200

    Khris Middleton finds himself in Tobias Harris' boat. He isn't max-contract material, but a lack of superstar movement should help him secure something close to the full boat.

    Only the Milwaukee Bucks can get away with offering Middleton a sub-$30 million salary. A four-year max from another team fetches him about $140.6 million. They can sling four years and $146.5 million or tack on a fifth year that inflates the value of his contract without paying top-most dollar. (For what it's worth, a five-year max from Milwaukee pays Middleton $189.7 million.)

    The Bucks are clearly bracing for this in some form. Offloading Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson, in addition to having Mirza Teletovic's cap hit wiped from their books, leaves them roughly $21.2 million below next season's luxury-tax line while carrying holds for Middleton ($19.5 million), Eric Bledsoe ($22.5 million) and Malcolm Brogdon ($2.9 million). This effectively gives them the tools to re-sign all three and remain below that $132 million threshold.

    Granted, it will be close. Pencil in Middleton for a max salary, and the Bucks are around $9 million under the tax. They'd need Bledsoe and Brogdon to cost a combined $33.4 million in 2019-20—their cap holds, plus that $9 million—to remain a non-taxpayer.

    How much the Bucks are willing to spend on core preservation is an issue for another day. The point is, they're preparing as if Middleton specifically will solicit max and near-max overtures. They're not wrong.

    December struggles have butchered Middleton's efficiency this season, but he's still a hot commodity. Though Milwaukee doesn't want him guarding the toughest assignments, he is almost positionless at the defensive end. His offense strikes a nice balance between complementary shooting and from-scratch creation.

    Close to 27 percent of Middleton's looks are coming as spot-up threes, on which he's shooting an admittedly unimpressive 36 percent. Pull-up treys account for another 21.8 percent of his attempts, and he's putting down nearly 40 percent of them.

    Cake in his end-of-2018 slump, and Middleton continues to keep good company. Just six other players are eclipsing 20 points, four assists and three made triples per 36 minutes: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker.

    Teams to watch: Dallas, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Sacramento

6. Kemba Walker

5 of 10

    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 29

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted (player option)

    2019-20 Max Salary: $32,700,000

    Kemba Walker is no consolation prize. He's among the 20 or 25 best players in the game. The degree to which he carries the Charlotte Hornets is important context when assessing his turbulent shooting percentages.

    Still, starting point guard vacancies are hard to come by right now. The market may dictate Walker be treated like a backup plan rather than a primary target. 

    Most of the squads with more obvious voids—Chicago, New York, Orlando, Phoenix—don't have the championship windows (as of now) to overspend on an undersized floor general whose next deal will take him into his mid-30s. Many of the teams that could be looking to change things up—Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, San Antonio—won't have the cap equity to get him without dumping salary.

    Charlotte can hope this translates to tepid interest. It won't. Walker might sign later than the other heavyweights, but enough win-now spenders have room under the cap and in the rotation to drive up his price tag if they emerge empty-handed from the about-to-be-revealed tier of superstars.

    Keep a close watch on the Sixers, Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz. Walker is a nice fit for their backcourts, and not one of them will find much purpose in saving their cap space.

    Of course, any outside interest in Walker stands to be a moot point—nothing more than a bargaining chip. The Hornets have shown no signs they're open to moving him, per the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. Hitting reset remains their most prudent move, but they cannot let him walk without compensation. 

    Figure on Charlotte tendering Walker a five-year deal without hesitation. That won't guarantee his return, but it comes pretty damn close. Remember: He's coming off what ended up being a wildly underpriced four-year, $48 million extension. The money matters. If he leaves for greener pastures, it'll be on a shorter-term max that gets him back into free agency after two or three seasons. 

    Destinations to watch: Charlotte, Indiana, Phoenix, Utah

5. Klay Thompson

6 of 10

    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 29

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2019-20 Max Salary: $32,700,000

    Kevin Durant is the Golden State Warriors' foremost concern this summer. He has to be. He's a top-three player and considered a bigger flight risk than Klay Thompson.

    The Knicks keep coming up in discussions about Durant's future, per The Athletic's Frank Isola—though, ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski pumped the brakes on that idea in a December conversation with 90.7 WFUV (h/t Nets Daily). And let's not forget his awkward early-season kerfuffle with Draymond Green. That situation will matter regardless of how Golden State finishes this year.

    None of which affords the Warriors license to write off Thompson's own return as a formality. Sure, if they peddle a five-year max, he isn't going anywhere. But they cannot risk isolating him—especially when Durant has no interest in being wined and dined.

    "Because I want to dictate the environment that I want to be in," he told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. "So it's just like, you know, you can't give me the bells and whistles and be like...I would rather rather see what you do on a day-to-day basis."

    Golden State's recruitment of Durant is taking place right now, over the course of this season. Some additional wooing will be necessary, because duh. But ample energy should be expended on reminding Thompson how important he remains to this dynasty. 

    Other teams are going to come in hot. It doesn't matter whether the Warriors consider him worth a max deal, or if his declining three-point percentage and mid-range love affair hold for the rest of 2018-19. Plenty of suitors will ascribe superstar importance to his all-time shooting and one-on-one defense.

    Thompson is receiving the max from someone, and even if the Warriors are prepared to offer it (they should be), they better hope he doesn't get the itch to lead his own team or escape the dramatics tethered to a dynasty's spotlight.

    Teams to watch: Golden State, L.A. Lakers, Philadelphia, Utah

4. Jimmy Butler

7 of 10

    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 30

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted (player option)

    2019-20 Max Salary: $32,700,000

    Jimmy Butler's free agency is set to be the non-event of the offseason, exceeded in ho-humness only by, maybe, the player who juuust outranks him.

    Sources told Wojnarowski at the time of the Butler trade that the Sixers "fully expect" to re-sign him this summer. They should. Butler doesn't make a huge stink about getting off the Minnesota Timberwolves if he's not smitten by the prospect of a Bird-rights deal. Their failure to renegotiate and extend his contract is part of the reason why he went full tour de force in the first place, according to The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski.

    Philly must enter a serious tailspin or incur a first-round belly flop to screw this up. Even then, a combination of eight percent raises—other teams can offer five—and a fifth year puts the Sixers firmly in the driver's seat.

    So, too, does their capacity to flesh out the roster with another high-profile acquisition. They will have more than $17 million in space if they renounce all of their own free agents except for Butler and T.J. McConnell. That number will sniff the $30 million marker should they renounce the latter and dump their first-round pick and Markelle Fultz without taking back salary. 

    Failing an exhaustive pursuit of maxish space, the Sixers have the goodies to broker a blockbuster trade—namely picks, prospects and the ability to soak up extra salary this summer. Another star acquisition is not out of the question.

    Butler throws a wrench in the uneventfulness if he's dead set on teaming up with one of this year's other free-agency headliners. He and Kyrie Irving have interest in playing together, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. But the list of teams within feasible reach of dual max slots is shorter than short. 

    The Sixers needn't lose sleep over Butler's foray onto the open market. How well his four- or five-year max deal ages is, at this point, the larger concern. 

    Teams to watch: Brooklyn, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Philadelphia

3. Kyrie Irving

8 of 10

    Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 27

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted (player option)

    2019-20 Max Salary: $32,700,000

    Yes, Kyrie Irving is listed over Jimmy Butler. It has happened. Embrace it.

    Butler has a case as the better player now. But he and Irving are going to sign for the same rate. Money being equal over the next four or five seasons, it makes sense to roll with the player who is almost three years younger and hasn't played for Tom Thibodeau twice.

    Remove their trajectory from the equation, and Irving still has an immediate argument. He is decidedly better as a finisher and shot-maker, both off the bounce and on the catch, and his defense since joining the Boston Celtics is not-crappy enough to minimize Butler's trademark advantage.

    Average together Irving's ranks in eight different catch-all metrics, and he grades out as a top-five player this season, per the Hardwood Knocks podcast's Andrew Bailey. Butler creeps just inside the top 30. This isn't everything, but it's something. 

    Anyway, Irving's free agency is shaping up to be similarly boring. He pledged his allegiance to Boston back in October and has since, somehow, become even more indispensable to the offense.

    The Celtics are scoring a team-high 14.6 points per 100 possessions fewer when he's off the court. That discrepancy has only grown, to 15.2, since their offense took a turn for the better at the end of November and pales in comparison to last year's differential (minus-8.8), when they didn't have Gordon Hayward.

    Unless Irving has the urge to sync up with Butler or another superstar, and he doesn't want that superstar to be Anthony Davis, he isn't going anywhere.

    Teams to watch: Brooklyn, Boston, L.A. Clippers, New York

2. Kawhi Leonard

9 of 10

    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 28

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted (player option)

    2019-20 Max Salary: $37,200,000

    Major props to the Toronto Raptors for tilting Kawhi Leonard's future in their favor. They are lording over the Eastern Conference and, for now, the rest of the NBA and can offer him more money than any other team. They've essentially made it so he cannot leave while spinning his departure as a basketball or financial decision.

    But these victories, however critical, do not assure the Raptors of anything. Leonard is very much a flight risk, if only because Toronto is not Los Angeles. As Wojnarowski noted on ESPN's Woj and Lowe (via RealGM):

    "They can't change the geography. They can't change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this. Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this."

    This comes as a gut punch but is by no means a death knell. The Raptors knew the stakes when they traded for Leonard. They understood they were working from a position of deficit. They're doing their darnedest to flip the script, and it just might work.

    Toronto is even better off if, as ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright noted in July on the Back to Back podcast, Leonard doesn't want to play with LeBron James. That would displace the Lakers from consideration and leave only the Clippers, a team with an interesting foundation in place, but one that's more than a Kawhi Leonard away from title contention.

    Here's where we insert the disclaimer that everything can change in a year. Leonard could be fine joining forces with James, building his own thing with the Clippers, staying with the Raptors or even angling for a super-duper team with the Sixers. 

    Teams to watch: L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Philadelphia, Toronto

1. Kevin Durant

10 of 10

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 31

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted (player option)

    2019-20 Max Salary: $38.2 million

    Kevin Durant's placement is not up for grabs. He is, without question, this offseason's top prize. The next three, four, even five years of his career will still feature him crashing MVP races and contending for top-five-player brownie points.

    Whatever team signs him is an instant contender, almost irrespective of how far away they are preceding his arrival.

    Warriors owner Joe Lacob entered the season confident the organization would re-sign Durant. His bravado is not misplaced.

    After playing on a series of what amount to placeholder deals, Durant has to at least be somewhat seduced by the five-year, $221.3 million contract that Golden State can offer. For all the blowback he has received since spurning Oklahoma City, butting heads with Draymond Green and holding the Warriors hostage with his one-season deals, he no doubt recognizes the inherent cachet and comfiness of fronting a perennial contender and enduring dynasty.

    Then again, is Durant really Golden State's frontman? Stephen Curry is widely panned as the more valuable player, and his legacy won't include a bandwagoner footnote. He was with the Warriors from the beginning. He is (mostly) why they busted out of the NBA's scrap heap at all.

    That shadow, that caveat, isn't going away. Durant could win the next five league and Finals MVPs, and the Warriors would still be seen as Curry's team. It is neither right nor wrong.

    Leaving grants Durant the opportunity to reverse, if create, a franchise's fortunes on his own—hence the buzz surrounding the Knicks. Their decades of incompetence is the selling point. The Clippers are also sending executives to watch Warriors (and Raptors) games left and right, per Windhorst. Their longstanding run as Los Angeles' younger, less-relevant basketball stepsibling is an underdog tale waiting on its savior. (The founding fathers of Lob City weren't it.)

    Cherish what this summer has in store. It is one of those rare occasions when the best player available likewise ranks as the biggest flight risk. And it comes on the heels of a 2018 offseason in which the best player alive, LeBron James, was the same exact thing.

    The difference between the two, and what ultimately makes Durant's case more intriguing: His free agency is more than a dead-heat between two teams.

    Teams to watch: Brooklyn, Golden State, L.A. Clippers, New York

         

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Dec. 31. 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.