NBA Teams Destined for Disaster in Free Agency
Several NBA fortunes will change in free agency.
They won't all be for the better.
In fact, there will almost assuredly be more losers than winners. The demand for stars easily exceeds the supply, and the numbers get thrown further out of whack when multiple stars join forces.
Free-agency losses are suffered on different fronts. Some teams will have created max-contract room only to be denied by max-contract talent. Others will commit max money to lesser players and hamstring their future. Still others will see their elites head elsewhere and their ceiling subsequently collapse.
While optimism reigns supreme at this point on the hoops calendar, free agency will prove disastrous for the following five clubs.
The Boston Celtics are the NBA powerhouse that never was.
On paper, this should have been this past season's strongest team in the East. In reality, they were a chemistry experiment gone wrong, crawling to fourth place in the conference and being gentlemanly swept out of the second round.
On paper, this could be the summer's biggest winner, as it has a chance to trade for Anthony Davis and re-sign Kyrie Irving. In reality, Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler hears Boston thinks Irving is gone and "is not operating like a team focused on Irving and Davis." SNY's Ian Begley also reported hearing a "low" probability of Irving's return.
Would an Irving-less, Davis-less future be the worst thing for the 2019-20 Celtics? That's debatable. Irving flamed out of this postseason in unspectacular fashion (30.1 percent shooting his final four games) and earned failing marks in the leadership category. Davis can enter the 2020 free-agency market and may not consider Boston a long-term option.
But if Irving bolts and Davis doesn't arrive, the franchise could refashion its focus around 22-year-old Jaylen Brown and 21-year-old Jayson Tatum. Who knows what impact that might have on Al Horford (player option), Marcus Morris (unrestricted free agent) or even Gordon Hayward (overpaid the next two seasons).
If Irving is the only subtraction, the Shamrocks will remain a playoff participant but drop from the contending ranks without significant internal improvement. Should the highly coveted Morris and 33-year-old Horford opt for greener pastures, there's a non-zero chance a nucleus of Tatum, Brown and Hayward—none a top-75 performer by ESPN's real plus-minus—falls short of the 2020 postseason.
That would be a stunning turn of events for a club that just this fall seemed guaranteed to enjoy elite status for the foreseeable future.
Stuffed between the proverbial rock and a hard place, the Charlotte Hornets find themselves trudging toward a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't offseason.
On one hand, how could the Hornets ever picture a future without their all-time-leading scorer, Kemba Walker? He's an in-prime, three-time All-Star who just made his initial All-NBA appearance. He's one of only six players—all household names—to average at least 20 points and five assists each of the last four seasons. He might be their only connection to casual fans.
On the other hand, he's never been the best player on a really good team and only twice been the top option for a playoff participant. He turned 29 last month and next month is eligible for a five-year, $221 million supermax commitment from this already cash-strapped club. Giving him that kind of coin might mean signing up for (more) years of overpriced mediocrity.
This is an organization-shaping puzzle, and it may be impossible to solve, as Scott Fowler wrote for the Charlotte Observer:
"The Hornets are in a terrible spot here, thanks to a cascading series of lousy draft picks and bad contracts (all of which had nothing to do with Walker). Now, they either must give about 35 percent of their entire salary cap to the best player in franchise history — but one who would be 34 years old when the contract ends — or else wave goodbye to their all-time leading scorer with no compensation, and then field a team that would struggle to win 30 games next season."
The free agencies of Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky (restricted) are far less significant but might be just as messy. Lamb could be the latest contract-year mirage, or maybe he's a former lottery pick who finally figured things out. Kaminsky somehow looked both expendable and necessary at different points last season. Neither player will be easily priced.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks' mantra for the 2019 offseason sounds so simple it just might work: Create two max-contract slots, and they will come.
There's a non-zero percent chance they can ink a pair of elites and make a blockbuster move for Anthony Davis. Different prognosticators have indicated Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could become Gotham's next dynamic duo, and the pair might be potent enough grab hold of the Eastern Conference.
But the 'Bockers have been down this road before and disappointed in how it ends. Already, their luck seems to be trending down—as much as free-agency outlooks can change before the market opens.
The Brooklyn Nets might've taken the lead in the Irving sweepstakes. Kevin Durant might decide to stay with the Golden State Warriors. The Knicks have assets to offer for Davis, but with no Zion Williamson, they don't hold the trump card.
New York is in the discussion with multiple stars. It pulled a lot of strings to get here, none bigger than the all-in trade of former centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis.
The next part of the process, though, is outside the organization's control. If Durant and Irving want to come, great—you roll out the red carpet as soon as possible. But if they don't...maybe you're left with the Carmelo Anthony-Amar'e Stoudemire reboot. The Knicks aren't entering the championship discussion by adding one or two of Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker and/or Tobias Harris.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers splashed into last summer cannonball-style, landing LeBron James on the first day of free agency.
But they've mostly misfired with the rest of the roster since and still haven't found a second star to slot alongside the 34-year-old. The clock is ticking, or maybe a more apt description is alarm sirens are blaring.
Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times said on The Sedano Show that James could soon search for the exits if L.A. can't deliver an All-Star sidekick (via CBS Sports' Brad Botkin):
"I'm hearing that if they whiff on free agency, and if they whiff on a trade, which I don't know how likely that is, but if that happens, they've got big trouble with LeBron. I mean the LeBron era could be over before it starts here.
"... I heard this for the first time yesterday, somebody very connected said 'You know what, if they whiff, LeBron's going to say either I'm out of here or get me out of here, or the Lakers just might as well just get him out of here.' So this is huge."
The Lakers have the cap space to sign a second star, but they may not be the first choice for any elites. They have the assets to make a compelling offer for Anthony Davis, but the New Orleans Pelicans shot down virtually everything they had at the deadline.
If L.A. can't get a Plan A target, does it break the budget for a Plan B? Would that be enough to pacify James or, more importantly, get this club anywhere close to contending? Disaster doesn't seem a strong enough word for the Lakers' worst-case-scenario summer.
The Toronto Raptors have done everything in their power to convince Kawhi Leonard to stay.
They sent one of his teammates to the All-Star Game (Kyle Lowry). They added an impact player at the trade deadline (Marc Gasol). They developed a Most Improved Player award finalist (Pascal Siakam). They made their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.
If Leonard makes a purely basketball decision, Toronto might top his list.
But once accounting for the family and lifestyle portions of this choice, the Raptors start fighting external forces that may prove insurmountable.
"They can't change the geography," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said in December (via RealGM.com). "They can't change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this. Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this."
Leonard, an L.A. native, has a clear path back to Cali if he wants it.
The Los Angeles Clippers are a Danilo Gallinari trade away from holding a pair of max slots, meaning Leonard can handpick his running mate. That input might be even more valuable than it sounds given the inconsistencies of his supporting cast in Toronto. Beyond that, Leonard and All-Star X already have built-in support from the likes of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet.
If Leonard leaves, the Raptors could crumble. Rebuilding would be inevitable, meaning Danny Green could follow Leonard out the door while general manager Masai Ujiri scrambles to send out high-priced vets like Lowry and Gasol.
To be clear, Toronto has given Leonard plenty to think about, and maybe he'll reward the team with a long-term commitment. But if not, the Raptors could conceivably go from the Finals to the lottery real quick.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.