It's never too early to play NBA matchmaker. This offseason, marquee names are set to hit the open market as unrestricted free agents. Executives, players and fans will keep tabs on Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving this summer.
Although Durant and Leonard have their focus on an NBA title on opposing ends of a Golden State Warriors vs. Toronto Raptors series, that doesn't stop the chatter among league circles concerning potential landing spots.
The Boston Celtics took an early playoff exit after losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games during the Eastern Conference semifinal round, which gives Irving extra time to think about his next destination or an extended stay with a storied franchise.
At this stage, it's all speculation when discussing where the top free agents could sign in the coming weeks. Let's take a look at the latest buzz in the media and slot the star players with a team.
F Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (Unrestricted)
The Warriors tied the series with the Raptors on Sunday, and Durant could win his third NBA title. If he does, what's left to prove with a superteam in Golden State? Let's say the two-time champion falls short; we could also say the dynasty ran its course.
Durant joined the Warriors to win rings, and he accomplished that in his first two years. Win or lose in the NBA Finals, the 30-year-old can chase a bigger challenge. Perhaps that's pursuing more titles with a new team without multiple stars around him.
At this point in his career, Durant doesn't have to worry about retiring without achieving the ultimate goal. Also a two-time NBA Finals MVP, he can make a career move that puts a new stamp on a Hall of Fame-worthy career. The 10-time All-Star could show the championship road goes through him, taking another team to the Promised Land.
Durant doesn't have to elevate a club from the ground level like the New York Knicks, though. He can remain in the Western Conference and sign with the squad that unexpectedly pushed the Warriors to six games this year: the Los Angeles Clippers.
According to Sam Amick of The Athletic, the Clippers have taken measured steps to lure Durant to Los Angeles:
"Their owner, Steve Ballmer, spent some quality time with Durant's agent and business manager, Rich Kleiman, when he appeared on his ESPN show, The Boardroom. He made the savvy move of accepting an invitation to speak at the Nike global sports marketing meetings earlier this season as well, with key Durant associates on hand that day to hear the riveting speech from the man whose wealth far surpasses any other owner."
Durant would become the focal point of a starless Clippers team that won 48 games and claimed the eighth seed this year. With him, head coach Doc Rivers should have a 50-plus-win squad in contention for a top-four seed in the conference.
Few analysts predicted the Clippers would reach the postseason, especially after trading forward Tobias Harris, who led the club in scoring, to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Clearly, Rivers knows how to optimize talent, and he's respected around the league. Durant should fare well under a head coach who's capable of putting his players in position to flourish.
Prediction: Durant signs with the Clippers
F Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors (Unrestricted)
Leonard's decision may hinge upon the Raptors' performance in the NBA Finals. An upset victory could encourage him to stay in Toronto and build upon the team's success. He can also find it difficult to walk away from a squad that pushed the Warriors to seven games and lost in a tight contest.
Nonetheless, Leonard didn't choose Toronto. The San Antonio Spurs dealt him after he requested a trade last June. Now free to sign with a club of his choosing, the three-time All-Star can join a team that pursued him last year.
According to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes, the Clippers held Leonard to high regards as a priority target while the Spurs prepared to unload him. Los Angeles' interest hasn't faded; the franchise looked into purchasing rights to his "Klaw" logo, per New York Times' reporter Marc Stein:
"The Los Angeles Clippers are said to have quietly looked into the feasibility of purchasing the portion of the rights to Leonard’s "Klaw" logo that is still owned by Nike...such an acquisition would theoretically enable them to bestow full control of the logo upon Leonard as part of their anticipated free-agency pitch meeting with the Toronto superstar."
Following the above scenario, with Durant signed, Ballmer can pitch a dual-star team to Leonard. Two superstars with a prolific scorer off the bench in Lou Williams and a roster full of high-end role players like guard Patrick Beverley, forward Danilo Gallinari and center Montrezl Harrell could propel the Clippers to the top of the Western Conference.
Prediction: Leonard signs with the Los Angeles Clippers
G Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics (Unrestricted)
Like Leonard, Irving didn't choose his destination. He requested a trade, and the Cleveland Cavaliers sent him to Boston in August 2017.
At the end of this season, Irving didn't seem fully engaged with the Celtics. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor tapped into his sources concerning the guard's low spirits behind closed doors:
"Sources around the team told me that Irving's persona has changed, too: He's become disengaged and detached from those around the team. There is talk that Irving's friendships on the team start and end with Tatum, with whom he shares an agent. Two sources peg Irving's change in demeanor to early February, around the time he was asked about the possibility of joining the New York Knicks next season."
As a team, the Celtics' on-court performances embodied their best player's demeanor, nonchalant at times and going through the motions during the regular season. In February, forward Marcus Morris questioned the team's toughness and pointed to a lack of cohesiveness:
Boston swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round but couldn't shift into high gear against the Bucks. It's difficult to envision Irving re-signing with the Celtics after the club took a step back with his return to the court for the playoffs.
Herd w/Colin Cowherd @TheHerd
"It's between Brooklyn and the Lakers... I was told in the last 24 hours Kobe has been recruiting Kyrie in particular, to get him to the Lakers. Everything I've heard I would still expect Kyrie is going to go to Brooklyn... He just bought a place in South Orange." — @RicBucher https://t.co/HICrTPushl
As Colin Cowherd noted, Irving grew up in New Jersey close to Nets when they played in the Meadowlands.
Irving played with LeBron James but eventually wanted out, and though he apologized to his former teammate, the six-time All-Star may not want to stand in The King's shadow again.
Irving and D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt would keep the ball rolling in Brooklyn after they reached the postseason for the first time since the 2014-15 campaign. The former's arrival may put the Nets on the radar of preferred destinations for other stars in the league.
Irving averaged 23.8 points and 6.9 assists per game while shooting nearly 49 percent from the field and 40 percent beyond the arc during the 2018-19 term. He could be marketed as the centerpiece for an upstart squad in the Eastern Conference.
Prediction: Irving signs with the Brooklyn Nets