NBA Teams with Most on the Line During 2019 Free Agency
NBA free agency is one of those magical times that inspire a sense of renewal.
Possibilities abound, and even the most downtrodden teams can rest their hopes on nailing the right signing—one that will change their fortunes. It's refreshing.
But it's also terrifying. Especially if you're one of the teams on our list, each facing franchise-altering summers that hinge on the frenzy of player movement during those first few days of July. As superstars make their decisions, dynasties and superteams will blossom...or wilt.
Many of these teams have been looking forward to free agency all season. Some, in contrast, have probably been dreading it. All of them will head into the most critical part of the 2019 offseason with a ton on the line.
Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon are all ticketed for free agency this summer. If their exits deplete the Bucks' talent pool enough to frustrate Giannis Antetokounmpo, the likelihood that he re-signs in 2021 might diminish. But Milwaukee should be able to retain all three at reasonable rates and, most importantly, Antetokounmpo is still under contract for two more seasons. That the Bucks already locked down Eric Bledsoe with a $70 million extension suggests there may be minimal drama on the way.
As long as Giannis is around, the Bucks aren't facing the same kind of stakes as our top five teams.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clips walked the line expertly this season, staying competitive in the present while building for the future. Now, if they land Kawhi Leonard, they'll complete a total overhaul in only two seasons. Remember, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan represented this team's core as recently as June 2017.
The New York Times' Marc Stein wrote in February: "A genuine confidence about their Kawhi chances emanates from the Clippers every time I'm around them. They obviously can't say it for public consumption, but the sense I get is that the Clippers see themselves as the favorites for Leonard."
Land Leonard, and the Clips will find themselves right in the thick of the West's top teams. If they miss out, they'll still have cap flexibility, incoming picks and young talent. Not a bad place to be.
This is basically the flip side of the Clippers' situation, as the Raptors head into free agency with the chance to lose Leonard. If they do, it could trigger a more extensive change that includes moving veterans like Kyle Lowry or Marc Gasol (who'll almost certainly opt in to the final year of his deal; conventional centers heading into their age-35 seasons simply can't do better than the $25. 6 million Gasol is due next year).
Of course, if Toronto stays the course after Leonard's exit, it'll still be competitive. Lowry, Gasol and Serge Ibaka provide veteran savvy while Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby present the cheap, team-controlled upside plays contenders need.
Worst case, the Raps move on from Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka (all of whom are on expiring deals in 2019-20) and pile up assets to fit around Siakam and Anunoby.
Golden State Warriors
On one level, the idea of Kevin Durant leaving the Golden State Warriors in free agency is intriguing.
Might there be something refreshing about returning to the days when Stephen Curry was the team's alpha and omega while Klay Thompson and Draymond Green filled their roles alongside him? Wouldn't it be a quaint throwback to the days when everybody loved the plucky Warriors, led by their gunslinging point guard?
Of course, there's also a less whimsical framing of a potential KD exit: It would be a catastrophic dynasty-ender.
Sans Durant, the Warriors would become mortal again. They'd have to prioritize re-signing Thompson, likely to a max deal, and then look a year down the road to Green's 2020 free agency.
It's not like the Warriors will have the flexibility to replace Durant with another max-level star if he leaves. Depending on what they do with Shaun Livingston and Alfonzo McKinnie's non-guaranteed 2019-20 salaries, they'll still have a minimum of $82 million committed to seven players next season.
If they guarantee deals for Livingston and McKinnie, they're looking at around $92 million for nine guys—and that's before Thompson's new deal vaults them way over the cap.
You can never discount the possibility that Golden State general manager Bob Myers has unimaginably bold contingency plans. He added Durant to a 73-win team, after all. But make no mistake: The Warriors face a real turning point in free agency—one that could determine how much longer their run of dominance lasts.
The Philadelphia 76ers' trove of draft assets, accumulated during The Process, are basically gone. Sure, they've got a bunch of second-rounders coming their way over the next few summers, but there are no high-value picks inbound unless the Sacramento Kings win the lottery—in which case the top overall pick would convey to Philly.
That means this summer's free agency is about retaining the talent on hand, rather than adding it to an existing core. This is a significant change from the Sixers' operating procedure of the last several years.
Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick will all hit free agency (Butler via his player option), and the first two could command max contracts. Considering the Sixers surrendered Miami's 2021 first-round pick and promising rookie Landry Shamet in the package that returned Harris, it seems highly unlikely that they'd scrimp on the 26-year-old's next deal.
Letting Harris and, to a lesser extent, Butler walk would be an enormous waste of resources. If Redick bolts, Philadelphia will be even shorter on shooting.
Keeping them all, though, will be costly.
"We gave up a lot to get Tobias and Jimmy on our team," Sixers owner Josh Harris told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. "We think they're exceptional talents. We're going to try to keep them. We know we are going to have to pay these guys in an appropriate way. We get it. It's expensive."
The Sixers can go over the cap to keep their own free agents, but according to Sean Deveney of the Sporting News, there's a scenario where the 2020 cost to roster Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons (extension-eligible this summer), Harris and Butler reaches $125 million. Retaining Redick and filling out the rest of the roster would plunge the Sixers deep into the luxury tax and keep them there for years to come, likely triggering the dreaded repeater penalty if they linger there for multiple seasons.
If Philadelphia flames out early in the playoffs, maybe the looming financial commitments will be easier to avoid. But, if this Sixers core does something special, it'll be hard to justify breaking it up over money. Even if it's a lot of money.
That's a lot to think about in one summer.
There is a non-zero chance that the Boston Celtics will emerge from 2019 free agency without Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, both of whom have player options they'll likely decline for 2019-20. Irving can lock in a max deal, and Horford, 32, should take this last chance to secure a substantial multi-year contract.
If those two are gone, it's almost impossible to imagine Boston trading for Anthony Davis. Doing so would cost them Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, several draft assets and considerable salary filler. And let's not forget that Davis would hardly be itching to re-sign with a Celtics team that, suddenly, boasted Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart as his top running mates.
In this doomsday scenario, Boston probably wouldn't even want to trade for Davis, considering the likelihood that he'd leave this stripped-down version of the Celtics via free agency in 2020.
It's also possible Boston will re-sign Irving and Horford, trade for Davis and build the next great super team.
The distance between those two possible outcomes is immense, which makes this coming free-agent period among the most consequential in Celtics history.
They can either add a superstar and spark a dynasty, or fall back beneath the East elites as they rebuild around Tatum, Brown, Hayward and the protected first-rounders they've got coming (eventually) from the Clippers and Grizzlies.
Los Angeles Lakers
It's difficult to come up with a greater basketball sin than wasting what little remains of LeBron James' prime, and the Los Angeles Lakers are already guilty.
They squandered James' age-34 season by surrounding him with a supporting cast that everyone with sense immediately recognized as ridiculous—populated by non-shooters, ball-stoppers and precious few defenders.
This summer represents the Lakers' last real shot at redemption or, to continue the conceit, repentance.
As a starting point, Anthony Davis must come aboard via trade. From there, the Lakers need to haul in every able-bodied shooter available on the free-agent market. If there's a third star willing to come to Los Angeles (which seems unlikely because James is the only one the Lakers have signed in recent offseasons), all the better.
Whatever the cause of this season's failure to launch—grossly incompetent player evaluation, a team president blinded by his own mystique, the inherent chaos accompanying James and Klutch Sports—it all has to change, fast.
James' best years are already over. His mileage is obscene. His body, sturdier than anyone's who has played as long as he has, will only continue to break down.
If the Lakers don't surround him with the talent he needs to pursue a championship (or at least make the playoffs, for crying out loud!), they'll have failed James, the league and every fan who wants to see one of the greatest players of all time play meaningful games before he's too washed to impact them.
New York Knicks
Because it seems to be the only way they know how, the New York Knicks will try to build a winner backwards.
Instead of starting with stable ownership, installing steady management and employing a coach with a clear system...instead of creating a functional culture and exercising patience, they'll start with stars and figure the rest out later.
Though New York's approach hasn't worked in the past, there's a kernel of sense to it: Elite talent is a prerequisite to NBA success. It's just that we've so often seen the Knicks (a) confuse points-per-game averages for elite talent, and (b) fail to surround that talent with a sensible plan or support system.
This is how you wind up with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire as the key figures in a doomed enterprise—one that probably would have turned out far better had head coach Mike D'Antoni been allowed to run his demonstrably successful system.
That was the better part of a decade ago. Flash forward to now, and the setup feels familiar.
The Knicks cleared oodles of cap space this season and can add two max players. Tea leaf readers and the speculatively inclined see Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as the likeliest signees. Those two are certainly more appealing than past Knicks targets, but even if we agree that adding two high-level talents to the husk of an organization isn't the best way to do things, the Knicks are so far down the road on this approach that it has to work out.
Owner James Dolan, the constant in New York's two decades of futility, is confident it will.
If it doesn't, the Knicks will have piles of money to spend on non-superstars like, say, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker. Considering the machinations required to get to this point, that outcome would represent a massive disappointment.