Potential Landing Spots for Top 2019 NBA Free Agents
Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are key members of the Milwaukee Bucks who could hit the open market this summer, and the former is even coming off the first All-Star appearance of his career. Marc Gasol, Al Horford, DeAndre Jordan, Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and so many other notable names might join them, dancing with suitors before inking contracts that ensure their locations for the NBA's 2019-20 campaign.
But this upcoming free-agency class is so overstuffed with elite talents that none of the aforementioned men register as top-10 players who could soon become available. We'll worry about their landing spots another day, as we're only concerned with the proverbial cream of the crop for the time being.
Yes, that means Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are under the microscope. So too are Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and others who routinely represent their conferences during the midseason festivities.
We just have one special rule.
Many of these players will return to their current organizations during the hottest months of the year. Kristaps Porzingis, for example, probably won't be leaving the Dallas Mavericks after they moved to acquire him midway through the current calendar. But for the purposes of this exercise, re-signing with your current employer is illegal, with absolutely no exceptions.
We're only curious about where these top-tier free agents would land if they had to throw on a new uniform for the 2019-20 campaign. Even if that's not always realistic, it does help inform us about the possibilities during the inevitable summer frenzy.
After all, not everything goes according to the initial plan.
Jimmy Butler: Indiana Pacers
Though Jimmy Butler may be hard to pry away from the Philadelphia 76ers this summer, it won't be for lack of trying once the 29-year-old swingman inevitably turns down a player option worth $19.8 million. He may have suited up for three different franchises during the last three seasons, forcing his way off the rosters of both the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, but that doesn't mean he's anything less than a max-level contributor.
He just...needs to find the right location.
If that's not Philadelphia, which has figured out how to maximize his two-way skills in recent outings, it's another organization that will squeeze out his defensive potency while letting him thrive in what's primarily an off-ball setting. Better still, it's a franchise with a hard-nosed identity that can handle his intensity, replete with promising players who have become battle-toughened during their brief NBA careers.
In other words, the Indiana Pacers are perfect.
They've quietly stockpiled enough money to make him a Godfather offer on the open market. If they renounce Kyle O'Quinn, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans while letting Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison walk, they can open up nearly $50 million in financial flexibility. Keeping some of those incumbents and making a play for a talent like Butler is well within the realm of realistic possibilities.
Now, just sit back and imagine Victor Oladipo joining Butler on the wings with Myles Turner patrolling the paint behind them. The Pacers already rank No. 2 on the defensive-rating leaderboard, and they may well climb into the pole position with yet another premier talent in place, especially when he can rely on the team's depth and the Oladipo-led scoring attack, allowing him to conserve more energy for his havoc-wreaking endeavors.
DeMarcus Cousins and Klay Thompson: Los Angeles Lakers
DeMarcus Cousins and Klay Thompson have combined to make nine All-Star appearances during their prolific professional careers, but the Los Angeles Lakers are aiming higher than this. They'll likely make plays for Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard when they're not trying to steal Anthony Davis away from the New Orleans Pelicans.
This, while quite the haul for almost any NBA organization, could reasonably be viewed as settling for lesser talents. And yet, it's not particularly difficult to envision it becoming reality.
With the exception of LeBron James, the Purple and Gold have had trouble landing marquee free agents in the past few years. Paul George decided to spurn his hometown franchise in favor of remaining with the Oklahoma City Thunder, with whom he's now pursuing the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Kawhi Leonard gave no indications he'd like to throw on this Tinseltown uniform before the San Antonio Spurs traded him to the Toronto Raptors. The examples go on.
What happens if the Lakers' first few rounds of offers are rebuffed, then the Pelicans don't bite on the package that couldn't tempt them into movement before this season's trade deadline? If Los Angeles fails to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart may continue to struggle moving the NOLA needle enough to land one of the Association's most precious prizes.
At that point, signing a center with plenty of enduring upside—one who's starting to prove he can rekindle his dominant, pre-Achilles-tear form with the Golden State Warriors—may well be the best outcome. Add a legendary shooter still firmly in his prime who played high school ball in California and is no stranger to being linked to the Lakers, and you're cooking with gas.
It may be inconceivable to consider the Splash Brothers splitting while they're currently questing toward a third consecutive date with the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but that's the premise under which we're operating for this article; top-10 free agents can't stay in place.
A Ball-Thompson-Ingram-James-Cousins lineup might not provide the full-fledged star power for which the Lakers are currently hoping. It's still a brutally effective quintet complete with two-way potential and plenty of floor-spacing ability.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving: New York Knicks
Kevin Durant is tired of talking about his upcoming free-agency decision, which essentially seems to boil down to a pair of options: remaining with the Golden State Warriors or jetting for the New York Knicks. Kyrie Irving is tired of talking about his upcoming free-agency decision, which essentially seems to boil down to a pair of options: remaining with the Boston Celtics or jetting for the New York Knicks.
See how easy my job is here?
Staying in place is illegal under our hypothetical set of rules for top-10 free agents, and that leaves these two superstars teaming up in Madison Square Garden. Yes, that means the Knicks' gamble—trading Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks for a return headlined by Dennis Smith Jr.—would pay off, as they're using their copious cap space to land two of the NBA's most coveted commodities.
As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale explained while laying out the path for New York to acquire these two free agents and trade for Anthony Davis to create a Big Three, the finances aren't too tricky, even if the Knicks land the top pick in the lottery and end up with a cap hold for Zion Williamson:
"Maxing out both Durant and Irving requires close to $70.9 million in cap space. If they renounce all their own free agents while carrying salaries for Williamson ($9.7 million hold), Damyean Dotson ($1.6 million non-guarantee) and Allonzo Trier ($3.6 million team option), they're looking at around $67.9 million in spending power.
"Durant and Irving could shave a little off the top of their salaries to preserve New York's asset base, or the Knicks have to make another move. Renouncing or trading Trier would get them within $500,000 of the magic number. Offloading Frank Ntilikina's $4.9 million salary opens more than enough room."
Failing to land that No. 1 selection in the 2019 NBA draft would throw a wrench into the Big Three plans, but it would actually make the Durant-Irving pursuit easier.
"New York's world gets shattered if the No. 1 pick goes elsewhere," Favale goes on to write. "Lower cap holds on later selections would make it easier to dredge up Kyrie-KD money, but assembling Davis trades around RJ Barrett, Ja Morant or Cam Reddish may not beat out whatever the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and other teams are still dangling."
All that matters here is the possibility. The appeal of this pairing speaks for itself, even to the most casual observers of the Association.
Tobias Harris: Brooklyn Nets
Assuming Allen Crabbe doesn't turn down an $18.5 million player option while the organization jettisons Treveon Graham (non-guaranteed contract) and Shabazz Napier (team option), the Brooklyn Nets could easily go into the 2019 offseason with only $45.4 million allotted to Jarrett Allen, Crabbe, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, Caris LeVert and Dzanan Musa. (That number falls even further if Crabbe does the unthinkable.)
They can play the cap-space game with anyone, and this big-market franchise is quickly gaining appeal as it pushes closer to ending a playoff drought. Upside sprawls all over the roster, ranging from Harris' shooting to Dinwiddie's driving prowess to LeVert's scoring ability to Allen's interior defense.
Bringing back D'Angelo Russell on an expensive contract is a must, especially now that he's on the heels of a breakout season and his first All-Star appearance. But that still leave the Nets operating with plenty of financial flexibility and a glaring hole at power forward. Even if Kurucs can handle that role in shorter spurts, Brooklyn should instead look to an established option who could open up the window for immediate contention in the Eastern Conference.
Tobias Harris would fit perfectly.
Not only can he supplement the backcourt scorers with his shot-creation skills from either forward position, but he's a gifted spot-up threat who'd fit nicely alongside both Dinwiddie and Russell. Luring him away from the Philadelphia 76ers might be tough, but money shouldn't be an issue for a franchise with a rebuilding timetable into which Harris, still only 26 years old, fits rather nicely.
Given his well-rounded skill set, the man who began the 2018-19 campaign as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers would mesh with almost any team throughout the NBA. He's that malleable, and his talents are that coveted in today's space-it-out schemes.
But the Nets provide the perfect balance of youthful upside, present-day success, available money and market appeal. As free-agency players, they may not be on the same tier as the Hollywood squads or their fellow franchise from the Big Apple. They're not far from earning that status, either.
Kawhi Leonard and Kristaps Porzingis: Los Angeles Clippers
If the Los Angeles Clippers can trade Danilo Gallinari into cap space (a painful but necessary step after his resurgent season), they'd open enough room to hand out two maximum contracts and still have some money left over to flesh out the rest of the roster. After all, they'd have just $25.2 million committed to the incumbent players: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet and Tyrone Wallace.
That's not a group of names to sniff at, either.
Williams is an established scoring force off the pine, capable of competing for Sixth Man of the Year during any given season. Harrell has become a Most Improved Player contender, using his indefatigable motor and perpetual anger at the rim to find great success on both ends of the floor. Gilgeous-Alexander, Robinson and Shamet are all in the midst of promising rookie seasons and could emerge as long-term keepers.
Now, add Kawhi Leonard and Kristaps Porzingis into the mix. The Clippers could potentially create an opening quintet comprised of Gilgeous-Alexander, Shamet, Leonard, Harrell and Porzingis, which would be one of the league's most ferocious defensive units while still featuring plenty of offensive options. And that still leaves Williams, Robinson and any other offseason additions leading the charge for the second unit.
As Tim Bontemps wrote for ESPN.com in January: "The popular opinion among league executives six months before Leonard makes his decision is that he'll choose between the [Toronto] Raptors and the Clippers. If it comes down to those two teams, the chance for Leonard to come home and to stay away from snow could be the Clippers' strongest argument."
Porzingis is the wild card, mostly because the Dallas Mavericks have appeared so externally confident in their mutual future. But in this exercise, the big man can't re-sign with the team to which the New York Knicks traded him midway through the 2018-19 campaign.
He's definitely getting max money after showing so much potential as a new-age stretch 5 with elite rim-protection skills prior to his ACL tear in 2017-18. He's definitely going to a team that can immediately compete for something of significance. He's definitely landing alongside another star in the unlikely event that he departs from Luka Doncic's side.
The Clippers, assuming they're also getting Leonard, check all the boxes with ease.
Nikola Vucevic: Dallas Mavericks
As plenty of centers have found out the tough way in recent offseasons, the market for traditional big men is dwindling.
Fortunately, Nikola Vucevic isn't really a traditional center these days, as he's proved during the first All-Star campaign of his career. Though he's a deft scorer from the blocks who thrives when he's allowed to operate as a back-to-the-basket behemoth, he's also a stretch 5 in the truest sense, capable of spacing out the defense with swish-happy shooting from a number of different locations. In fact, he's one of just three 5s—and one of just 21 overall players—adding value from each jump-shooting zone.
Vucevic's 38.6 percent shooting on 2.9 deep attempts per game should immediately make him a coveted commodity. But which organization needs a pivot and has the money necessary to pony up with a near-max contract?
We're already taking the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers out of the running because they're signing even more notable players with their hypothetical cap space in this exercise. The Dallas Mavericks, however, are losing access to Kristaps Porzingis and opening up a void alongside Luka Doncic.
Think about what Vucevic might be able to do with a high-quality point guard opening up easier opportunities for him—a luxury he hasn't experienced during his breakout seasons with the Orlando Magic. The pick-and-roll/pop possibilities are endless alongside the Slovenian wunderkind, who would also benefit from having another efficient go-to scorer easing some of the defensive pressure he faces on a nightly basis. That Vucevic has also become a passable defender who understands how to leverage his size is only gravy.
If the Mavericks don't bite, the Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls could both become intriguing options. But they fall into a second tier because the former already has plenty of bigs on the roster and the latter is further behind in its rebuilding schedule.
Either way, Vucevic might be the rare center with some options on the open market if he chooses to leave the Magic this summer.
Kemba Walker: Phoenix Suns
Would Kemba Walker really consider going to a bottom-feeding organization that hasn't made much progress in the futile attempt to dig itself out of the NBA's basement? Well, he might when he realizes that the Phoenix Suns are in better shape than their 12-50 record might indicate.
Most notably, they already have quite a few core pieces locked in place. Devin Booker is an All-Star-caliber talent, and Deandre Ayton appears to be well on his way toward earning such celestial status. Josh Jackson has occasional flashes of potential, while Mikal Bridges and TJ Warren can easily be viewed as long-term keepers in the frontcourt.
Throw in a draft pick that could land Zion Williamson—or, at the very least, another top-tier prospect in the 2019 selection process—and the appeal only grows.
But something is missing. And that something is a point guard who can help facilitate growth from the many youngsters. Time and time again throughout the NBA annals, we've seen rebuilds take sudden leaps forward because a team finally finds a floor general who can serve as a steadying force and aid the development of the young men surrounding him.
Walker will celebrate his 29th birthday in May, and as a player who relies upon his wheels to create shooting opportunities in space, he might not have too many prime years left. But if he buys into the dizzying upside currently unrealized in the desert, he could view this landing spot as a long-term home with results that could rise higher than the mediocrity endured by the Charlotte Hornets.
He'll just have to suffer some losses in the short term, but that's nothing new after he could fall to just two playoff appearances in eight Buzz City seasons at the conclusion of this go-round.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.