Best, Worst Landing Spots for Top 10 NBA Free Agents Post-Anthony Davis Trade

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2019

Best, Worst Landing Spots for Top 10 NBA Free Agents Post-Anthony Davis Trade

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    NBA free agency figures to be as wild as ever in 2019.

    Hot on the heels of the Anthony Davis trade, which ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Saturday, a number of big names could be on the market. Depending on what happens with team and player options, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton and more might be available. Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker are unrestricted free agents.

    And according to RealGM, over half the teams in the league can get to enough cap space for one max or near-max player. A handful of squads can open up enough room for two max contracts.

    Three years removed from the bonanza of 2016, we may have more fireworks this summer. But, as is the case every year, not every deal will lead to a perfect union.

    For each of the top 10 free agents in this class (a list determined by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes), there are landing spots that make plenty of sense and others that don't.

    Below are the best and worst for all 10.

Khris Middleton

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Milwaukee Bucks

    Middleton and the Milwaukee Bucks were two wins shy of an NBA Finals matchup against a Golden State Warriors squad without Durant.

    By the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Toronto Raptors had pretty thoroughly outplayed the Bucks, but you couldn't blame them for thinking they're close.

    And while it will quickly get expensive to keep the core together, it may also be worth it.

    If Milwaukee maxes out Middleton (qualified for 30 percent of the cap) and Malcolm Brogdon (25 percent), it will eventually be spending 90 percent of its cap on those two and Giannis Antetokounmpo (qualified for a 35 percent supermax that he can sign next summer).

    While that'd be perhaps a tough pill to swallow, the Bucks may have to do it. Milwaukee had a plus-7.8 net rating (90th percentile) when those three were on the floor this season, per Cleaning the Glass. And there are mechanisms for operating over the cap when you're retaining your own players.

    For Middleton, it could get a lot worse than being one of the league's better No. 2 options alongside a perennial MVP candidate. Sharing the floor with Antetokounmpo would mean plenty of open looks and few double-teams for years to come.


    Worst Landing Spot: New York Knicks

    If the New York Knicks strike out in chasing the biggest names on the market (Durant, Leonard, etc.), they may set their sights on Middleton's tier.

    In that case, Middleton could see what it's like to be a No. 1 (or maybe 1B, if someone like Walker signs with the Knicks) in a much bigger market.

    The downside to that is clear, though. Milwaukee is already a contender. Without one of the very best free agents this summer, New York is not.

    And the pressure of satisfying an enormous fanbase that thought it was going to get Durant would be intense.

Tobias Harris

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Philadelphia 76ers

    Tobias Harris' shot betrayed him a bit after he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. In their red, white and blue, he hit just 32.6 percent of his threes. With the Los Angeles Clippers, he had knocked down 43.4 percent. His normal is somewhere in the middle, which should still hold plenty of value for Philly.

    As long as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are both on the floor—which should be for plenty of minutes for the foreseeable future—the other three spots should feature as much shooting as possible. And Harris is a 40.5 percent shooter from deep over the last two seasons.

    Perhaps that's part of why Philadelphia had the best odds for signing Harris at the end of May. Well, that and the possibility of Butler's leaving.

    The 76ers probably need to retain at least one of the players they surrendered assets for this season. Either one would fit. Both would get mighty expensive. And Harris may be better suited to playing off the ball and allowing Simmons and Embiid to dominate it.


    Worst Landing Spot: New York Knicks

    A lot of the same points about Middleton apply.

    Harris likely isn't too high up New York's list of priorities unless it becomes clear they won't get one of the bigger names.

    And if he does end up with the Knicks, he'll be on an organization that has been marred by dysfunction for quite some time and is much further from contention than the Sixers.

Nikola Vucevic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Los Angeles Lakers

    The Los Angeles Lakers will be big-free-agent hunting this summer. And that's true even after they won the Davis sweepstakes.

    But while the Lakers still carry plenty of cachet, they whiffed on a number of free agents over the years before they signed LeBron James in 2018. And since they backed into that deal, there has been the Knicksian dysfunction of Magic Johnson's resignation and ensuing fallout.

    So, the possibility that Butler, Walker and Leonard will each be on some team other than the Lakers is real.

    Calling Nikola Vucevic a consolation prize doesn't do him justice.

    In 2018-19, he put up per-possession averages matched only by Kevin Garnett in his 2003-04 MVP campaign. His overall numbers weren't far behind the average MVP since 1974.

    And in some ways, he kind of fits the mold of bigs who've won championships with LeBron. Like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, Vucevic has the ability to pop out for a jumper after setting a ball screen. He was one of 10 seven-footers who took at least 100 threes with a league-average three-point percentage or better.


    Worst Landing Spot: Dallas Mavericks

    In April, rumors surfaced about the Dallas Mavericks' interest in Vucevic.

    "It should be noted that [the] Mavericks dispatched a high-ranking member of their front office to observe several post-trade deadline Magic games," The Athletic's Josh Robbins wrote, "ostensibly to scout Vucevic."

    A Vucevic-Luka Doncic pairing would be intriguing for many of the same reasons a LeBron-Vuc pairing would be. But the idea made a lot more sense prior to Dallas' acquisition of Kristaps Porzingis.

    Retaining the newly acquired Porzingis may cost max or near-max money. His best long-term position is center. Plus, a Dwight Powell extension looms. Investing much more money into bigs could quickly lead to roster imbalance.

Al Horford

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Boston Celtics

    Even if it means a restructured contract, something Danny Ainge has already discussed with the media, Al Horford's best fit probably remains the Boston Celtics.

    Even accounting for Irving, there's an argument Horford's been Boston's best (or at least most important) player over the last three seasons.

    Since 2016-17, Horford's 26.2 wins over replacement lead all Celtics. His net rating swing of plus-4.7 comfortably trumps Irving's plus-2.9.

    And in utter defiance of Father Time, Horford is seemingly improving with age. His true shooting percentage, win shares per 48 minutes and box plus/minus have all improved in each of his last two seasons.

    As the Celtics transition into a post-Irving future that may feature players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown more prominently, Horford's leadership and steady play on both ends will be critical.


    Worst Landing Spot: Brooklyn Nets

    Even with Horford's success in green, oddsmakers in May thought the chances of him staying or leaving were pretty close.

    If he does opt out of the $30.1 million he's owed in 2019-20, there should be multiple suitors looking to give him a little long-term security. Something like $60 million over four years feels in play.

    But if the Brooklyn Nets add Irving (something ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski has reported is a serious possibility), Horford should look elsewhere. He's tried that experiment already.

Jimmy Butler

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Philadelphia 76ers

    Yes, this is the second 76er whose best landing spot is the Sixers. Yes, signing both Harris and Butler would be costly. But Philadelphia has to consider it.

    Because of injuries to Embiid and the fact that Butler and Harris came to the team midseason, Philly's top four didn't get to spend a ton of time together. It was dominant when it did.

    According to Cleaning the Glass, the 76ers outscored opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) when Simmons, Butler, Embiid and Harris were on the floor.

    And Butler was the closer of that group.

    In the regular season, he averaged 28.4 points per 36 minutes in the clutch (when the game is within five points and in the final five minutes). Among 76ers with at least 100 clutch minutes, that trailed only Embiid's 31.1. In the playoffs, Butler led the way: 39.9 to Embiid's 22.4.

    He also led all Sixers in postseason box plus/minus.

    For a team that was just inches away from maybe beating the Eastern Conference champions, letting go of the guy who often refused to allow a loss wouldn't make much sense.


    Worst Landing Spot: Los Angeles Clippers

    LeBron has been recruiting Leonard and Butler to join the Lakers, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst (via SportsCenter). Now that they have AD, that's a spot that'll be much more attractive to NBA players who want to live in Hollywood.

    Bad news for the Clippers.

    They still have a solid foundation in place, but even landing two max players this summer might not stave off the resurrection of the little brother complex.

    With LeBron and AD on board, Lakers flags will be flying high once again.

Kemba Walker

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Charlotte Hornets

    This one is fairly simple.

    If the Charlotte Hornets are willing to offer the supermax Walker just qualified for by making third-team All-NBA, he can sign a five-year, $221 million contract with a starting salary of $38.2 million.

    And despite the fact that Walker is undersized (6'1", 184 lbs) and such a deal would pay him well into his 30s (he's 29), you probably couldn't blame Charlotte for offering the full boat.

    If it lets him walk, there's no guarantee a player that good will come along and want to stay in the small market again.

    And he's already the franchise's career leader in minutes, points, free throws, threes and wins over replacement player.

    If Charlotte balks, though, Kemba has a heck of a contingency plan taking shape.

    "Kemba Walker will be a top target in free agency for the Lakers after they reached an agreement in principle to trade for Anthony Davis, according to league sources," the New York Times' Marc Stein tweeted.

    Going there could mean a pay cut for Kemba, but he almost feels tailor-made for lineups that feature LeBron and AD.

    Still, there's something about the sentimentality of his staying with an organization that has a history already dominated by Kemba. And there, he'll remains the face of the franchise, rather than a ring-chasing third wheel.


    Worst Landing Spot: Dallas Mavericks

    The Mavericks may be out of the mix on the top tier of free agents, but Stein reported they'll still be aggressive:

    "There has been no indication to date that the Mavericks will get a sniff from the Kevin Durant/Kawhi Leonard/Kyrie Irving tier of free agents. I likewise continue to believe that Golden State's Klay Thompson is 100 percent staying put with the Warriors and will not consider external suitors.

    "But league sources say that the Mavericks intend to fling themselves into the chase for Khris Middleton and/or Kemba Walker with gusto in hopes that they have a shot at one of them."

    On paper, Walker and the Mavs makes some sense. But he has next to no experience playing off the ball. That doesn't mean he can't, but Dallas should be prioritizing complementary players who will allow Doncic to continue to develop as the focal point of the offense.

Klay Thompson

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Golden State Warriors

    Behold, the top three in Warriors history in threes made:

    1. Stephen Curry, 2,483
    2. Klay Thompson, 1,798
    3. Jason Richardson, 700

    Regardless of what happens with Durant's free agency, or the knee injury Thompson suffered in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, breaking up the Splash Brothers feels like basketball sacrilege.


    Worst Landing Spot: Who knows?

    This is somehow one of the toughest calls. On about any team that has creators, he'd be a great plug-and-play option. His off-ball movement and all-time-great shooting would help most teams with cap space.

    If he's counted on to be a ball-handler or creator himself, it's a lot more difficult to predict how he'd fare.

    Thompson's leaving the Warriors would be shocking.

Kyrie Irving

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Brooklyn Nets

    The Nets made the playoffs this season with first-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell at the point.

    Replacing him with Irving seems like a no-brainer, at least when it comes to on-court impact. Irving comfortably topped Russell in box plus/minus, win shares per 48 minutes and true shooting percentage.

    If Brooklyn renounces the rights to Russell and signs another max player, adding Irving probably makes even more sense.

    But this move isn't without concern. As detailed by's Tim Bontemps, Irving's leadership style was a bust in Boston. And the Nets would figure to have young players surrounding Kyrie next season.

    Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs are all under contract for 2019-20.


    Worst Landing Spot: Boston Celtics

    Boston's trade for Irving was worth the gamble, but it looks like the partnership is already done.

    "It doesn't look very promising, but Boston still plans to make an offer and let Kyrie tell them no," Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler wrote. "They can offer more guaranteed money and higher annual raises, but that does not seem to be a factor in Kyrie's process."

    Boston made the conference finals in 2017-18 without Irving and Gordon Hayward. Getting them back from injuries was supposed to make it a powerhouse. Instead, it was a mess.

    Running it back, especially with the player who may have been most volatile, probably wouldn't return any better results in 2019-20.

Kawhi Leonard

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Toronto Raptors

    Mission accomplished.

    Less than a year after they traded one of the faces of the franchise for superstar Leonard, the Raptors are NBA champions.

    Leonard won Finals MVP, making him the third player in NBA history to win the award for more than one team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James are the other two.

    And now that he's delivered this organization its one and only title, he can head for a warmer climate, right? Well, that all depends on what's most important to Leonard.

    If basketball fit and title contention are high on his list of priorities, it's hard to imagine many situations better than the one he had in 2018-19.

    Load management allowed Leonard to rest whenever he needed to. He'll likely enjoy that again next season. He would have multitime All-Stars in Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol to help him defend the title. He would have a coach, organization and entire country in his corner.

    The Bucks and 76ers figure to be strong again in 2019-20. Others are bound to rise up. But right now, if Leonard returns, it looks like Toronto has a good shot at getting back to the Finals.


    Worst Landing Spot: Los Angeles Lakers

    Leonard now has two titles. One with the San Antonio Spurs and one with the Raptors. Both are generally perceived to be among the more stable organizations in the league.

    Ditching a title defense with the steady Raptors for the chaos that comes with James and the Lakers would go beyond bold.

    Now, if L.A. somehow winds up with LeBron, Davis and Leonard, it'd be a contender. But Kawhi's arguably No. 3 in that situation. He's already shown he can win titles as the No. 1.

Kevin Durant

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Best Landing Spot: Golden State Warriors?

    Durant's free-agency process was already going to be one of the biggest stories in the NBA this summer. His ruptured Achilles tendon added an element no one expected to the sweepstakes.

    "My road back starts now!" Durant posted on Instagram following his surgery.

    The question is: Where will the road be?

    The Knicks are still interested in signing him.

    "There are indeed some members of the organization who would consider offering Durant a contract this summer," Ian Begley of SNY wrote.

    Ditto for the Nets.

    "Durant's injury unlikely to impact Brooklyn's pursuit of him," NetsDaily's Anthony Puccio tweeted.

    The Athletic's David Aldridge reported he still expected both Los Angeles teams to be in the mix, too.

    Durant will have no shortage of suitors thanks to his remarkable career. He's 18th all time in regular-season wins over replacement through players' 12th seasons. He's also 18th all time in career playoff wins over replacement player.

    But even with the basketball credit he's built up, the best outcome may be staying put.

    As pointed out by ESPN's Zach Lowe on The Lowe Post, Durant just had a front-row seat to how the Warriors rehabbed DeMarcus Cousins from the same injury.

    And prior to to the quad injury he suffered in the postseason, Cousins looked about as good as could be expected. His 3.6 box plus/minus with Golden State was better than his career 2.9, and his .151 win shares per 48 minutes were the second-best single-season mark of his career.

    If, after seeing everything Boogie went through, Durant feels the Warriors would best handle his recovery, opting in to the final year of his deal for $31.5 million makes sense. Or perhaps another one-plus-one contract would give him the freedom to opt out again if he feels he's all the way back and would like his own team for 2020-21.

    Again, Durant will have plenty of options. Maybe long-term security will be more important to him in the wake of this injury. And the Warriors are the only team the collective bargaining agreement allows to offer five years.


    Worst Landing Spot: Any team that will rush his recovery

    It's tough to imagine any team that would do that. Not in today's NBA. And not after we just saw what happened when Durant may have come back too early from another injury.

    But wherever Durant goes, he should probably get some kind of assurance that he can take all the time he needs to get back to 100 percent.

    This is an injury that can have a devastating impact on an NBA player's career. An abundance of caution is the best course.


    All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference or unless otherwise noted.