Dark-Horse Landing Spots for NBA's Top 2019 Free Agents

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2019

Dark-Horse Landing Spots for NBA's Top 2019 Free Agents

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    Unrelenting free-agency discussion is a fundamental part of the NBA's regular season and playoffs. Cap sheets, superstar leanings and general rumors are discussed ad nauseam without these topics ever truly becoming tired.

    Trundling through the same names and potential landing spots still gets old. For as much as speculation can turn on a whim, the league's top free agents are pigeonholed to specific scenarios.

    Kawhi Leonard is staying with the Toronto Raptors or joining the Los Angeles Clippers. Kyrie Irving is sticking with the Boston Celtics or bolting for the New York Knicks. Kevin Durant is definitely leaving the Golden State Warriors.

    Well, to hell with convention—for now, anyway. Journeying off the most well-traveled paths is more challenging and, in these times of sameness, just plain more fun.

    Devout realists needn't worry. These dark-horse destinations are not entirely off the wall. Nor are they predictions. Repeat: These. Are. Not. Predictions.

    Flight risks will not be forced, and landing spots, while sometimes extra offbeat, take plausibility into account. A train of defensible thought must lead to every selection. Fans of teams that already employ these players should not overreact. Every chosen free agent must be placed onto a new squad—unless, of course, the incumbent isn't among the established favorites to retain its star. 

    Fair warning: We're only looking at the top 12 free agents. DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol (player option) miss the cut. 

    Let's step out on some limbs.

Look, They're Not Going Anywhere

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    Al Horford, Boston Celtics (player option)

    Others are more open to Al Horford declining his $30.1 million player option than yours truly. Suitors will line up for him, and the pull to sign a new deal that guarantees more big-picture money may be strong for the then-33-year-old.

    On the flip side, many marquee players aren't signing exceptionally long deals anymore, and some admirers might be hesitant to invest three years of near-max value into an aging big man. Beyond that, if Horford does decline his player option, it feels like he'll do so as a mutual favor to the Celtics. He'd get more money over the long haul, and they'd lower his annual price point to soften the luxury-tax blows they're on course to take.

    Dark horse if he turns into a flight risk: Dallas Mavericks

          

    Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks (restricted)

    It doesn't sound like the Mavericks intend to let Kristaps Porzingis shop around this summer. They plan on signing him to a five-year, $158.1 million max deal, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.

    This blank-check stance, which was reported days before news broke that Porzingis is under investigation by the NYPD following rape allegations, tracks with what the Mavs gave up to get him. 

    Dallas sold early on Dennis Smith Jr., forked over two first-round picks and agreed to take back what's left on the contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. (two years, $37.1 million) and Courtney Lee (one year, $12.8 million). Letting Porzingis walk isn't an option, even though paying top dollar for someone working off a torn left ACL cannot be taken lightly, even more so the allegations and their outcome.

    Dark horse if he turns into a flight risk: Atlanta Hawks

            

    D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets (restricted)

    Restricted free agents are difficult to poach by design, and Brooklyn will get an assist from the market. Not many teams have desperate needs at point guard and bidding-war cap space, and Russell, despite parlaying a career year into an All-Star bid, doesn't have the body of work that'll invite max offers.

    Dark horse if he turns into a flight risk: Indiana Pacers

          

    Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

    LOL.

    Dark horse if he turns into a flight risk: Los Angeles Clippers

Potentially Flight Risks, but Probably Not

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    Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (player option)

    Khris Middleton will have a robust list of suitors—admirers ready to max him out if the Bucks won't pony up.

    Related: Milwaukee is definitely ponying up.

    Probably.

    From the salary dumps of Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson to the timing and structure of Eric Bledsoe's extension, everything about the Bucks' position implies a raging self-awareness. They now have a shot at maxing Middleton, re-signing Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and, potentially, keeping Brook Lopez without belly-flopping into the luxury tax.

    Things might change. That happens. The Bucks will have to think twice about doubling down on this core if they flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. Middleton may not care about the fifth year Milwaukee can offer and instead prioritize a more prominent role.

    For the time being and given everything the Bucks have done, it doesn't seem either party will wind up facing this kind of fork-in-the-road moment.

    Dark horse if he becomes a flight risk: Indiana Pacers

             

    Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

    Orlando is not necessarily in pay-whatever-it-takes mode after it kept Nikola Vucevic past the trade deadline. Shelling out near-max money for bigs outside the Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns tier doesn't really fly unless you're already a contender.

    That actually works in service of the Magic. They shouldn't face fierce competition for Vucevic—at least not to the extent they let him walk for nothing. Few teams with cap space are in the market for centers, and even fewer can justify burning All-Star money on a big.

    Dark horse if he turns into a flight risk: Los Angeles Lakers

Jimmy Butler (Player Option): New York Knicks

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    Jimmy Butler? To the New York Knicks? That's not exactly Kevin Durant to the Knicks. Nor is it supposed to be.

    Team owner James Dolan can gush confidence all he wants. The Knicks do not have the basketball cachet of a free-agent hotspot. They're appealing because they're in New York, insofar as superstars want the acclaim attached to ending a championship drought that spans nearly five decades.

    The Knicks must prepare for their dream scenario—the arrival of Durant and Kyrie Irving—to go awry. Really, they need to prepare for the likelihood they emerge from this summer's superstar sweepstakes empty-handed. Cap space is undefeated in April, May and often June. Not July.

    Landing Butler isn't a strikeout scenario. He entered this year as one of the NBA's top 10 or 12 players. He retains that ceiling, at least for a couple of years, on a team with fewer equals.

    Instead, this is more a vote of confidence in the Knicks' cap space. They cannot bank on an offseason free from error, but the flagrancy with which they fast-tracked themselves to dual-max slots counts for something. They couldn't give up their only All-Star without airtight assurances from at least one headlining free agent. (Right?)

    Let's say that player isn't Durant. He has "nothing to do with the Knicks," after all. Maybe Kyrie "Ask me July 1" Irving is the name off which they've based all their decisions. And if he comes to town without Durant, Butler is instantly in play.

    League sources told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe last July that Irving and Butler are serious about playing together. Butler made it known to the Minnesota Timberwolves he wanted Irving when the point guard hit the chopping block in July 2017, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.

    Pretty much everyone is fixated on the prospect of Irving following Durant to New York. That's not a given. Durant is more wild card than readable. Anyone who might leave a dynasty for a tougher undertaking has to be.

    The Knicks will have to pivot if Durant doesn't follow the rumor mill's bread crumbs. Leaning into a gradual rebuild is out of the question unless they're spurned by every big name (which is possible). They've ascribed too much value to their cap space. And fortunately for them, they're one of the few teams that can capitalize on the respect so obviously shared between Butler and Irving.

Kevin Durant (Player Option): Golden State Warriors

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    Speaking of Kevin Durant abandoning Golden State...What if he doesn't?

    That the Warriors are a viable dark-horse pick speaks to just how many people believe Durant already has both feet out the door. As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote:

    "Rival executives will tell you, without hesitation, that Durant is bound for the Knicks; that [Kyrie] Irving is likely to join him; that [Kawhi] Leonard likes the Clippers; that [Jimmy] Butler might choose the Lakers—unless he chooses the Nets. Of course, they all might stay put. (Well, except for Durant. Virtually everyone believes he's leaving the Warriors.)"

    July forecasts are subject to caveats and asterisks so far in advance, but the Durant noise is a different beast. The chatter has survived an entire regular season—a months-long period known for capsizing convenient narratives.

    Perhaps the Knicks aren't, in all actuality, favorites to land Durant. That doesn't change the overarching feeling: The Warriors don't seem like favorites to keep him. Never mind Durant's November dustup with Draymond Green. That confrontation was borne from Golden State's precarious standing with KD, not the other way around.

    Again: What if something changes? 

    Durant may want to build his own thing now, but feel-good vibes are strong when celebrating titles. His priorities might shift on the heels of a third championship. He may want to go after a fourth consecutive title—a feat not seen since the 1960s-era Boston Celtics.

    Maybe he just wants to play at Chase Center for a year and reassess the market next summer when there won't be as many available superstars to exacerbate what he's thinking in every single second of every single hour of every single day that precedes free agency.

    Predicting Durant's departure is the safest play when forced to choose. Think about that. Both the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers seem like better bets to win his affections than Golden State. Think about that, too. The Warriors haven't done anything wrong enough to deserve this underdog designation, but they're carrying it.

Tobias Harris: Brooklyn Nets

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    Tobias Harris doesn't feel like much of a flight risk. He certainly seems like less of a potential goner than Jimmy Butler. The Philadelphia 76ers traded for both in contract years and appear committed to paying what it'll take to keep them.

    "We gave up a lot to get Tobias and Jimmy on our team," Sixers owner Josh Harris told ESPN.com'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."

    Tunes can change. A premature playoff exit might render the Sixers less inclined to pay both players superstar money. More likely, though not especially likely, Harris may decide he wants to be more than a No. 3 or No. 4 option and join a different team.

    The list of possible destinations will vary if we assume he leaves. (Once more: Don't expect him to bolt). The Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz present intriguing fits. The Los Angeles Lakers will need a consolation prize if they're burned by one of the All-NBAers. The New York Knicks will be scrambling if their Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving fantasies get a dash of reality. The Sacramento Kings could use him if Harrison Barnes declines his player option (eh). 

    Less is made about his fit with the Nets. They need a playmaking power forward, and Harris has mastered the balancing act of scoring like a primary option and complementing ball-dominant teammates. His defense isn't steak sauce, but the Nets have pieced together a league-average Dtop-seven stopping power since the All-Star break—without a traditional mix of lockdown wings.

    And hey: Harris is from Islip, New York. Going home is typically associated with playing for the Knicks. But in case anyone hasn't noticed, the Nets are better.

Kyrie Irving (Player Option): Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kyrie Irving's apology to LeBron James for his attitude during their mutual time with the Cleveland Cavaliers has opened the door for the Lakers to ever so slightly expand their free-agent horizons.

    To be clear: The idea of these two reuniting is the longest of long shots. Boston is better equipped to contend for a title, and Los Angeles doesn't have the salary-cap equity to deliver Irving and one of his two primary basketball paramours, Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant.

    The Lakers do, however, have a line to his third BFFL, Anthony Davis. The two superstars have talked about playing together, according to The Athletic's Jay King.

    Signing Irving does not compromise the Lakers' best package for Davis. They will wake up in July with max cap space. No one believes the New Orleans Pelicans will suddenly warm to the Lakers' top trade assets, but offers built around Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, this year's first-rounder and future picks look a lot better if the Celtics aren't dangling Jayson Tatum after losing Irving. (The timing of a Davis deal matters here. Boston can be ultra-aggressive prior to free agency in hopes of convincing Irving to stay.)

    Maybe that opportunity doesn't appeal to Irving. He might not be keen on going out of his way to form another superteam, as Windhorst noted in February while speaking with Jason McIntyre of Fox Sports Radio and The Big Lead:

    "The Kyrie that I know—again, he’s a strange guy...He wants to be the A1A alpha dog on a team. And—this is pure speculation—part of the reason why I think he’s backing off committing to Boston, I suspect it’s because he’s not thrilled Boston is all excited about Anthony Davis.

    "This is a guy who had a meltdown when he didn’t get the last play of the game called for him a couple of weeks ago. The reason he bolted on a LeBron team that played in three straight Finals and won a Championship is because he wanted to be the guy in the center of the universe."

    Irving would cede touches and status to James and Davis in Los Angeles. That's different than leaving Boston to play with Durant in New York. It's even different than staying with the Celtics and endorsing a trade for Davis. 

    Still, constant media scrutiny is clearly wearing on Irving. And while he wouldn't face a dimmer spotlight in Los Angeles, he'd have at least one megastar with whom he could split the burden of attention and leadership. He isn't getting that in Boston. Not even if Davis joins him. Not like he could elsewhere.

Kawhi Leonard (Player Option): Denver Nuggets

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    Let's. Get. Weird.

    Kawhi Leonard to the Denver Nuggets is not a thing. The San Antonio Spurs talked to them about a possible trade last summer, but they were speaking with just about everyone. That's the extent of Denver and Leonard's relationship.

    This matter is complicated by the Nuggets' cap sheet. They don't have effortless access to Leonard's $32.7 million max. They'd need to decline Paul Millsap's team option, then salary-dump Will Barton or Mason Plumlee and another smaller salary to enter the ballpark.

    Sign-and-trade scenarios are on the table if the Toronto Raptors are interested in packages built around Gary Harris. They're also complicated. Leonard's outbound cap hold in these scenarios is this season's $23.1 million salary, but the Nuggets need to treat him as $32.7 million in inbound money. Toronto has to accept something like Harris and Will Barton (and picks) for Leonard and one of its non-guaranteed deals. The terms must be reworked if the Raptors want Michael Porter Jr.

    Figuring out how to navigate these obstacles won't mean a damn thing if Leonard doesn't want to play for the Nuggets. They don't appear to be on his radar. The Raptors have grown "increasingly confident" in their ability to re-sign him, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg, and the Clippers loom, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein.

    At the same time, if any A-lister is going to blow up conventional wisdom, it'd be Leonard. We cannot be sure he desires a glitzier market. His exit from San Antonio was more personal than business.

    Even Leonard's reported leanings suggest a willingness to branch out. Consider what ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne said on ESPN LA 710 in September (via NBC Sports Bay Area):

    "I've had several people say the whole 'Laker mystique' doesn't hold any appeal for Kawhi. That's not why he wanted to be with the Lakers. He wanted to be with the Lakers because they were closer to winning. Then they went out and got LeBron [James], and several people [close to Kawhi] said, 'He's not gonna like that. He's not gonna wanna play in his shadow.' But the people I actually trust in terms of [mattering] in his decision-making, they said, 'No, he still wants to be with the Lakers because they're closer to winning.'"

    If Leonard is primarily concerned with championship proximity, well, the Raptors will have his ear. But a team like the Nuggets can make a compelling case if it's willing to jump through the requisite hoops. Pairing him with Harris (barring a sign-and-trade), Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the rest of the young core is a title contender—perhaps favorite—waiting to happen.

Kemba Walker: Utah Jazz

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    Kemba Walker-to-Utah endorsements are commonplace around these parts. I wrote about it here. And here

    It makes too much sense to cease and desist now.

    Donovan Mitchell needs another player with an established floor game to alleviate his offensive burden. Walker is the ideal fit—younger than Mike Conley and a better spot-up shooter than Jrue Holiday. His so-so efficiency this year doesn't make that any less true because his role with the Charlotte Hornets verges on unfair.

    James Harden is the only player attempting more pull-up jumpers per game this season. Walker's shooting percentages will climb once he's placed beside a sustainable outlet and afforded more off-ball work. He's not dropping in catch-and-fire threes at a high clip this year, but he's converting more than 40 percent of his standstill treys since 2015-16.

    Everything we think we know about free agency implodes if Walker joins the Jazz. Big markets are supposed to rule the day. But players don't need huge cities to bolster their brands anymore, and the fifth year Charlotte can offer doesn't carry as much weight if he's interested in hitting free agency again over the next two or three calendars.

    Utah is also the one team in the league that can fancy itself a contender by signing him alone. Every other potential suitor, including the Lakers, needs to make at least one other splashy addition to reach that same spot. 

    That might matter. Walker has spent the better part of a decade as more than a lifeline to the Hornets. The chance to sync up with equals in Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, to get help in general, may resonate.

    For the Jazz's part, their path to affording Walker is pretty clean, albeit not without collateral damage. They'll have max room if they waive Derrick Favors' and Raul Neto's non-guaranteed salaries. If they want to poach Walker and keep Favors, they'll have to target a sign-and-trade. 

                   

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on April 9. 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 SLC Dunk's Andrew Bailey.