Breaking Down Every Top NBA Free Agent's 3 Best Landing Spots
It seems like we write this every year, but NBA free agency may soon shift the entire basketball landscape.
It's not just that this class of hoopers-for-hire has at least a handful of potential fortune-changers. It's also that most of these star players seem likely to at least consider finding a new home.
We won't know for a few months whether any will take the plunge, but we know enough about these situations to identify potential landing spots.
Our focus is only on the elites, which we feel is a six-player tier. We've ranked them by their free-agent value—accounting for production, growth potential and ability to fit different systems—and broken down their best three options on the open market.
6. Jimmy Butler
Best Landing Spot: Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers aren't a perfect fit for Jimmy Butler (player option). They could use more shooting and fewer ball-dominant players around him.
But they look like the best option available to him. He doesn't need to be the primary scorer, but he'll get all the crunch-time chances he wants. He forms an elite defensive tandem with Joel Embiid, and his nonstop motor makes him an open-court asset alongside Ben Simmons.
This isn't a lock, but Butler and Philly both initially planned for this to be a long-term relationship. Save perhaps for their falling flat in the second round, it's tough to see anything happening that would give either party a major reason to reconsider.
Plan B: New York Knicks
Sporting News' Sean Deveney reports Butler's exit is regarded as "the most likely outcome" for Philly's offseason. If Butler splits, Deveney writes the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers are all possibilities.
The 'Bockers appear the most appealing of that bunch. They can add two top-flight free agents—like maybe Butler's "favorite player who's not myself," Kyrie Irving—which the Nets aren't doing unless they let their only All-Star, D'Angelo Russell, go. New York's Eastern Conference status could be its leg up on L.A.
The current, unfinished version of the Knicks may not look like a logical choice, but add a second star, another blue-chip prospect (or maybe an established star acquired with that draft pick) and a summer of seasoning for the youngsters, and you start to see how Butler could have a New York state of mind.
Plan C: Indiana Pacers
Butler might disagree, since his initial list of preferred landing spots included only clubs from New York or L.A. No offense to the Circle City, but it's not in the same market tier.
That said, the hoops fit looks phenomenal. Indy had this season's third-best defense without Butler and with Victor Oladipo (knee injury) missing more than half the campaign. Put those two on the perimeter while Myles Turner patrols the paint, and Indy might prove impenetrable.
5. Klay Thompson
Best Landing Spot: Golden State Warriors
Over eight NBA seasons, all spent by the Bay, Klay Thompson has won three titles, booked five All-Star trips, broken multiple records and entrenched himself in the best-shooting guard discussion. Why would he want any of this to change?
"I love coming to work every day because I realize this is a special group and a special time to be a Warrior," Thompson said, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell. "... You just want to stay on the train as long as you can."
Thompson couldn't find a better backcourt mate than Stephen Curry nor land in a system that fits him better than Steve Kerr's. Even after dropping to a third option following Kevin Durant's 2016 arrival, Thompson has averaged 20-plus points each of the past three seasons (running his streak to five).
He wants to be a Warrior for life, and who can blame him?
Plan B: Los Angeles Lakers
Even as the second option, this is maybe a 0.0001 percent-chance scenario.
But just to play along, Thompson's elite three-point stroke—already 16th in career makes and 13th in percentage—would play perfectly alongside LeBron James. Plus, Thompson is an L.A. native, and his father, Mychal, is a former Laker and current radio broadcaster for them.
It won't happen, but you can see how it would work in an alternate universe.
Plan C: Brooklyn Nets
The Nets dig the long ball, launching the fifth-most threes this season. They also boast three different drive-and-kick artists in Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, who averaged a combined 3.1 drive-and-dish dimes.
If Thompson was somehow forced to look beyond both Golden State and L.A., he could do a lot worse than Brooklyn.
4. Kemba Walker
Best Landing Spot: New York Knicks
Kemba Walker is a little tricky, since most clubs with a point guard vacancy aren't in position to compete right away. Even this proposed situation has possible snags, since the Knicks might begin their summer chasing Irving, which would push Walker to the back burner.
But if he's willing to wait, the NYC native could see major potential in a homecoming. The Knicks have the flexibility to chase multiple stars, meaning he could go from having Jeremy Lamb as his sidekick to filling the Robin role with Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard or Butler. Not to mention, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox may all have higher ceilings than any of the Hornets' youngsters.
The Big Apple's bright lights aren't for everyone, but Walker would be literally at home under Gotham's gaze.
"[Madison Square Garden] is a special place. The Knicks are a special team," Walker told reporters in August. "Of course I was a Knicks fan growing up. Always rooted for the home team. ... I really can't see myself in a Knicks jersey—only because I've only been in one jersey. I really don't know."
As long as he's fine with not being the Knicks' first choice, they should be his.
Plan B: Indiana Pacers
There aren't many lines connecting Walker to the Circle City, but there probably should be.
Walker needs a top-shelf scorer to help relieve his burden. Oladipo knows the feeling. Get where this is going?
Indiana, a low-key destination this summer, could make a convincing argument for the top spot on this list. The Pacers have the funds to afford Walker, the defenders to mask his shortcomings, an opening at point guard and the opportunity for all the offensive touches he can handle. What's not to like?
Plan C: Dallas Mavericks
Wait, no Charlotte Hornets? Sorry, Buzz City, but for as much as Walker wants to stick around, there are myriad basketball reasons for him to bolt and never look back. If the Hornets couldn't build a playoff team while he was providing All-Star production on one of the NBA's best bargain deals, how can he expect them to do so once he's collecting max/near-max money?
It's best if he seeks out greener pastures—maybe with a team rostering Luka Doncic, a 20-year-old who's filling stat sheets at a historic rate, and Kristaps Porzingis, a 23-year-old who stands 7'3", splashes threes at nearly a 40 percent clip and protects the paint.
Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer sees Dallas as the biggest threat to lure Walker from Charlotte. We're slightly less bullish on the fit since his timeline might be ahead of the team's, but the Mavs could help themselves by making him a 12:01 a.m. priority come July 1.
3. Kyrie Irving
Best Landing Spot: Boston Celtics
Irving (player option) sparked a viral fire in early February when he told reporters, "Ask me on July 1," about his free-agency decision, which many perceived a reversal of his preseason commitment to the Celtics. But his media session went far beyond that sound bite, and a lot of it, as relayed by MassLive's Tom Westerholm, should give Bostonians reason to believe:
"I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what we have in terms of our pieces. That's what excited me a lot about the beginning of the season was the opportunity to come into this season really just doing what we planned on doing, set a goal and go after it and then see what happens at the end of the season. That was the plan before and that's still the plan now. Obviously Boston is still at the head of that race. That's just where it stands."
lf Irving could handpick his supporting cast, would it look like the Shamrocks'? Probably not.
But let's say he joins Durant or Butler in New York or L.A. Could that tandem carry a club's ceiling higher than Boston's already reaches? Jayson Tatum is 21 years old, Jaylen Brown is 22 and Gordon Hayward is still finding his form after his devastating leg injury in October 2017. The Celtics are heavyweight contenders right now, yet they're likely nowhere near as good as they could be soon.
Irving will be hard-pressed to find a better on-court situation.
Plan B: New York Knicks
Depending on your preferred source, you might see this as Irving's inevitable landing spot. It makes sense on several levels, even if it's second on the list.
If Irving joins the Knicks, he's not going alone. If Durant is along for the ride, New York suddenly has one of the Association's best duos. If it's Butler, Irving would have more established star power than he does in Boston, and stars are kind of important to NBA success. New York also has enough prospects and draft picks it could consolidate in trades for more win-now talent.
Would that make the Knicks better than the Celtics are now? That's hard to say. But the 'Bockers would be rockstars in the league's biggest market and a brutal postseason draw for anyone.
Plan C: Los Angeles Lakers
Irving and LeBron James spent three seasons together with the Cleveland Cavaliers, making three Finals trips and capturing the 2016 title. While Uncle Drew eventually asked for a divorce, he's since reconnected with King James and will reportedly give the Lakers a meeting in free agency.
James and Irving were electric the first time. Most sequels aren't as good as originals, but it's possible this would be an exception.
2. Kawhi Leonard
Best Landing Spot: Los Angeles Clippers
No offense to the Toronto Raptors, but they can't change their locale. Leonard (player option) is a Riverside, California, native who we keep hearing wants to get back to his warm-weather home.
He also wants to contend for the crown, which sounds wildly ambitious for the Clippers but could seem logical soon.
They could ink Leonard and a second star like Durant or Butler without costing themselves Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Landry Shamet. They could build a future-focused trade for Davis that doesn't disrupt too much of the core.
These might be long shots, but remember, the Clippers already appeal to Leonard simply by their location. If that alone puts them on an equal plane with the Raptors, L.A.'s upside might seal the deal.
Plan B: Toronto Raptors
In March, TSN's Josh Lewenberg reported the Raptors were growing "increasingly confident" about re-signing Kawhi.
And they should be.
They've checked every box they could. They had the third-best net rating in the regular season and have the postseason's second-highest scoring differential. They have employed him as a focal point but also cooked in enough rest time to keep him fresh. They have established vets (Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol), up-and-comers (Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet) and a front office that has proved it will aggressively pursue talent.
If this were strictly a basketball decision, Toronto would probably be the destination. But once you account for the outside influences, the Raptors slide into a close second place.
Plan C: Los Angeles Lakers
L.A. is L.A., right? And you'd think playing with LeBron would have its perks.
But it seems Leonard isn't keen on playing with James, and the Lakers might struggle to reach Leonard's competitive side given how they wilted in the second half.
1. Kevin Durant
Best Landing Spot: Golden State Warriors
Media scrutiny aside, Durant's move to the Dubs has been everything he could have wanted and more. His first two seasons delivered two titles, two Finals MVP awards and two All-NBA selections.
Even if Durant (player option) joined a finished product, he found ways to make it better. He can thrive within the offense or be the ultimate bailout when it malfunctions. He ran the ninth-most isolations (and finished them at an 86th-percentile rate), so it's not like that weapon goes unused. But he also fired up a couple of spot-up shots each night (finishing those plays in the 99th percentile), showing how the system can work for him.
As a 7-footer with a guard's mobility and a center's length (7'5" wingspan), he can be the ideal weapon for their switch-everything defense when he's engaged. But Golden State has enough stoppers that he can also use the defensive end to catch a quick breather if needed.
Durant insists he doesn't know his next landing spot, meaning his personal whiteboard is likely fluid. It all depends on his priorities, which he's free to set how he chooses. But if this is a basketball decision, he will not find a better fit than the Warriors.
Plan B: New York Knicks
If Durant ends up in the Empire State, he's probably going alongside Irving. It's possible the pair will team with Davis or Zion Williamson, too, not to mention any veteran ring-chasers excited by basketball's newest superpower.
Winning one title in New York would likely mean more to Durant's legacy than all the rings he could acquire in Golden State. He'd not only help construct a contender from the ground up, he'd also give the league's biggest market its first NBA championship in nearly 50 years.
"If he could bring a title to New York, that's going to catapult him with [Michael] Jordan and LeBron, I would think," Knicks great Clyde Frazier said, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.
Durant's business partner, Rich Kleiman, surely wouldn't mind the move. He's a native New Yorker and lifelong Knicks fan.
Plan C: Los Angeles Clippers
If Durant doesn't stay with Golden State or go to the Garden, the Staples Center is the next destination of choice.
While he'd have his pick between the Lakers and Clippers, it might be more about playing with James or sharing the floor with the Clips' second star addition. As dominant as LeBron has been, he's 34 and just completed the most injury-riddled campaign of his career. The 30-year-old Durant might opt for a younger co-star like Leonard (27), Irving (27) or Butler (29), while also appreciating the Clips' blend of veterans and youth.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.