1 Surprise NBA Team Every Top Free Agent Should Be Thinking About
Never mind the fact that they're tied for the two worst winning percentages in the NBA over the last six seasons. The Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks popping up in free-agency rumors feels like an annual offseason tradition.
But what if basketball fit, team culture and long-term potential carried as much weight as market size and organizational lore do in summer narratives? Sure, the big-name teams would still attract plenty of attention as the right fits for certain players, but others around the league would certainly get their own shine.
The goal here involves finding teams that may be off the media's beaten path and offer better basketball fits for this summer's top 10 free agents. Our pool of players and rankings for this exercise are determined by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.
10. Khris Middleton: Atlanta Hawks
Right now, the betting odds are heavily in favor of Khris Middleton returning to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2019-20, per Yahoo's Keith Smith.
It would be a tough situation to leave. Teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate, the Bucks were two wins away from the NBA Finals and 27-year-old Middleton is the older of the two. If they stay together, they'll have a decent chance to get another crack at a title.
The only possible issue is that Milwaukee is clearly Giannis' team. Middleton hasn't given any indication that's a problem for him. But if he does want to be a No. 1 option somewhere, he may test free agency.
The Atlanta Hawks could be a seamless fit.
Youngsters Trae Young and John Collins have the playmaker and big roles locked down. A malleable combo forward such as Middleton could have them in contention for a playoff spot as early as next season.
Now, there may be some question as to whether Middleton would be a No. 1 option there, as well. Young and Collins both averaged more points in 2018-19. Young averaged the most shots of the three.
9. Tobias Harris: Utah Jazz
"Journeyman" can sometimes have a negative connotation when applied to NBA players. For Tobias Harris, who's been traded five times and played for five teams in eight seasons, it shouldn't.
Player efficiency rating's flaws have been well-documented, but it's interesting as a measure of Harris' consistency. After he posted a career-low 14.2 PER as a rookie, he's been between 16 and 17.2 in each of his seven other campaigns.
If only his address was as steady as his play.
Other than the rare no-trade clause, a player can do very little to guarantee he won't be traded. But as Harris approaches Year 9, he could be in the market for some stability.
The Utah Jazz may be the team that can offer it.
Generally speaking, the Jazz have approached player movement more conservatively than the rest of the league. New general manager Justin Zanik may gamble a bit more than his predecessors, Dennis Lindsey and Kevin O'Connor, but both still hold positions with the team. And when those executives signed players to long-term commitments, they were usually honored.
The ironic part is that the Jazz would probably have to waive the final year of Derrick Favors' contract (non-guaranteed for $16.9 million) to have the cap space to sign Harris.
Favors has been with Utah since he was traded there during his rookie season in 2010-11. He's only a year older and was significantly better than Harris in 2018-19, according to both box plus/minus and win shares per 48 minutes.
But per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jazz intend to pursue Harris.
8. Nikola Vucevic: Los Angeles Lakers
The market for bigs may be the most interesting one to watch this summer. Have teams learned from the sins of 2016, when front offices splurged on the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Bismack Biyombo? Are switchability and perimeter skill more valuable than traditional size?
The deals signed by Nikola Vucevic, DeMarcus Cousins and the other free-agent centers will go a long way toward answering those questions.
Vucevic is a player whose skill may transcend those concerns, though.
This season, a 28-year-old Vucevic averaged 24.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per 75 possessions. Kevin Garnett's 2003-04 campaign is the only season on record to match all five of those numbers. And, of course, KG won MVP that year for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
MVP-level play from Vuc in his contract year could ensure a return to the Orlando Magic. But what if he followed the path Shaquille O'Neal once took to the Los Angeles Lakers?
L.A. has a proud tradition of big men that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq and Pau Gasol. LeBron James has a history of success with skilled bigs like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love who can stretch the floor. The fit would make plenty of sense for a team that started JaVale McGee at center for 62 games.
But any reciprocal interest from the Lakers would likely depend on them striking out elsewhere. On top of their involvement in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, LeBron has reportedly recruited wings Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard.
If all those flashier names land elsewhere, L.A. could do a lot worse than a LeBron/Vucevic pick-and-roll duo.
7. Al Horford: Sacramento Kings
In order for Al Horford to enter free agency, he has to opt out of the $30.1 million he's owed by the Boston Celtics for 2019-20. That's obviously a lot of money to turn down, but a world exists in which you can imagine Horford going down that route.
He's set to enter his age-33 season, and a deal in the neighborhood of $60 million over four years might be enticing if he feels he's more likely to get that security this summer than next.
His current squad might be the team to make such a deal.
"That will be discussed," Boston general manager Danny Ainge said when asked about the possibility of Horford opting out and extending with the Celtics, per NBC Sports Boston's Chris Forsberg. "That's one of the priorities on our list, as well."
That priority could head down the list if rumors about Clint Capela are true.
"The Celtics from what I have heard engaged pretty seriously on Clint [Capela]," Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler tweeted. "... Everything is very fluid at this stage in the draft/trade process. It's finding out what you can do."
If Boston is already looking at other centers, perhaps Horford could land elsewhere for 2019-20. In that case, the young core of the Sacramento Kings would make for a fun pairing.
The "let's sign some vets to impart wisdom on the young guys" move didn't work for the Kings when they added George Hill and Zach Randolph in 2017. But it's not a strategy without some value. Sacramento just went to it too soon.
This team is more ready now. De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic helped lead the Kings to a ninth-place finish in the Western Conference. Marvin Bagley III showed plenty of potential along the way. Now, Horford could fill a role one of his former teammates did for the Denver Nuggets.
Paul Millsap's maturity, leadership and versatility have been a crucial part of the young Nuggets' rise over the last two seasons. Could Horford provide the same for the Kings?
6. Jimmy Butler: Brooklyn Nets
Jimmy Butler will have plenty of suitors on July 1, including the Philadelphia 76ers squad he's already on.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Philly's net rating was 6.3 points per 100 possessions better (85th percentile) when Butler was on the floor during the regular season. In the playoffs, he led the team in BPM and averaged 19.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
And after seeing how deep into the playoffs the Toronto Raptors advanced, the Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater that ended the 76ers' season in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals has to haunt them.
Butler's clearest path to contention might be remaining alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as they continue to develop. However, he may have a chance to skip the process if rumors about Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets are true.
"Kyrie Irving is serious about the Nets—and the Nets are serious about beating the Knicks—and rest of league—to the biggest free agents in the marketplace, per league sources," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted.
If Brooklyn signs Kyrie to the max and renounces its rights to restricted free agent D'Angelo Russell, it could max out Butler, as well.
That would instantly become one of the better top twos in the East, and the supporting cast would still include Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs.
5. Kemba Walker: New York Knicks
Kemba Walker put himself in line for a supermax contract by making third-team All-NBA, but the collective bargaining agreement only allows the Charlotte Hornets to offer it.
If Charlotte is willing to go that far to keep Kemba, he'd be in line for $221 million over five years with a starting salary of $38.2 million. The max he can get from any other team is $141 million with a starting salary of $32.7 million.
The numbers are so astronomical they may be hard to grasp. But turning down $80 million would be tough.
Daring analysis, I know.
For Kemba, though, it may be worth considering. During his eight-year career, he's only been to the playoffs twice. And over the course of his NBA tenure, Charlotte's net rating has been 5.6 points per 100 possessions better when Walker is on the floor.
He's certainly done his part. But even in the weaker conference, he hasn't been able to sniff contention.
Perhaps that could change with the New York Knicks, who can create enough cap space to sign two max players. And for Kemba, who was born in the Bronx, restoring some of the lore to Madison Square Garden might be right up there with getting back to the postseason.
4. Klay Thompson: Philadelphia 76ers
Klay Thompson returning to the Golden State Warriors feels pretty close to a foregone conclusion at this point.
"The season is still ongoing," Warriors owner Joe Lacob told The Athletic's Tim Kawakami. "We are not finished. I have no new ideas or data for you. We love Klay and KD and intend to attempt to re-sign them. Period. I am confident about BOTH of them."
Klay has spent his entire career with Golden State. He's been a critical contributor to multiple championships. And he's one half of the Splash Brothers, who form one of the most iconic backcourts in NBA history. Breaking up him and Stephen Curry in the middle of their primes would be shocking.
On the off chance he does want a change of scenery, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting basketball fit.
If Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler both leave, the 76ers could comfortably sign Thompson to the max. In that situation, they might even be able to fit in both Harris and Thompson.
Even if it's just the 2-guard, though, one of Philadelphia's biggest issues would be instantly addressed. When your top two players, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, offer so little outside shooting, you need as much as possible out of the other three spots.
Thompson could fill a supercharged version of the role JJ Redick had on offense over the last two seasons, and the upgrade on the other end would be monumental.
3. Kyrie Irving: Phoenix Suns
The "Kyrie Irving with a young core" experiment nearly blew up in the Boston Celtics' face this season, but Kyrie doesn't appear rattled by that.
As noted when discussing Jimmy Butler, Irving is considering the Nets. And even if they land another star, he's likely to be surrounded by young teammates. The average age of Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs is under 24.
It may be tough for some of the other teams with intriguing young cores to compete with the market and city life Brooklyn offers, but the Phoenix Suns should at least be worth a look.
Deandre Ayton has the potential to be the best big with whom Irving has played. David Robinson and Arvydas Sabonis are the only rookies in NBA history who played at least 500 minutes and matched Ayton's per-possession averages for points, rebounds, blocks and steals.
Devin Booker has 5,820 points, 1,154 assists and 945 rebounds to his name. The only other players in NBA history to do that through their age-22 seasons? LeBron James and Tracy McGrady, both of whom played in significantly more games than Booker.
And finally, new head coach Monty Williams has a history of developing strong relationships with his players, including superstar big man Anthony Davis. Perhaps he could find a way to connect with Kyrie that has eluded previous coaches.
2. Kawhi Leonard: Dallas Mavericks
The headline did say "surprise."
Yes, the Mavericks have whiffed on a number of high-profile free agents over the years, but this is the first time they enter the summer with Luka Doncic. It may be too early to expect him to be a great selling point for potential additions, but superstars should be intrigued by the 20-year old's ability to elevate their games.
Could that apply to Kawhi Leonard?
In terms of pure basketball fit, Leonard won't have any suitors who can top the Toronto Raptors. Market size favors one of the New York or Los Angeles teams.
Maybe Dallas could offer a little of both.
Kawhi would be the clear No. 1 option with the Mavericks, but opponents wouldn't be able to zero in on him with two young 20-point scorers on the roster in Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (assuming the big man re-signs). Moreover, the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth media market is topped only by New York, L.A., Chicago and Philadelphia.
L.A. and Dallas are the only two cities in that top five that are warm all year, and Kawhi reportedly "hates the cold." Plus, California would stick Leonard with a 13.3 percent state income tax. In Texas, he'd only be on the hook for federal taxes.
1. Kevin Durant: Golden State Warriors
Disaster struck for Kevin Durant in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals when, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelbourne and Adrian Wojnarowski, his right Achilles reportedly tore just 12 minutes into his return from a calf injury that held him out for over a month.
He was going to set the landscape of the NBA for the next few years. He still might. But this is an injury with a track record that features devastating consequences.
If it forces any of his suitors to balk at offering a max contract in free agency, Durant should think about opting into the final year of his contract, which would pay him $31.5 million. That would give him the entire season for recovery and another crack at free agency in 2020.
This is a tricky situation, though. If he doesn't play at all in 2019-20, he may be even more of a question mark than he is now. Coming back too early and not looking like the same prolific scorer could damage his value, too. He's about to embark on a terribly difficult balancing act.
Of course, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks still offer the max. The Knicks, especially, have struggled to find some form of organizational hope for years. Durant, whether signed a year later or inked to a contract with a lost first season, would offer that hope.
But in the immediate aftermath of the injury, questions still abound. While staying in Golden State seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago, it should at least be considered now.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.