Every NBA Team's Best Player Most Likely to Leave Via Trade or Free Agency
Obviously, a significant chunk of the league hits free agency this summer. And 14 teams are projected to have cap space, according to Yahoo Sports' Keith Smith. Nine squads could have enough room to sign new max contracts.
Oh, and the whole "it's a foregone conclusion that the Golden State Warriors will win it all" thing isn't in play this season either. Plenty of teams can reasonably sell themselves on the possibility of winning a title in the suddenly wide-open NBA.
Throw all these factors into the pot, and you have a chance for a spicy offseason stew.
There will almost certainly be loads of player movement this summer. We'll probably even get a few more trades (Anthony Davis and Mike Conley have already been dealt this summer).
Free agency officially begins June 30, but in today's 12-month NBA, it's never too early to start speculating. Every team is bound to lose someone. And some will leave bigger voids than others.
As we look at the best and most likely to leave each organization, we'll break it into six categories:
- Goners (self-explanatory, but these free agents are as good as gone already)
- Youngsters with Player Options or Restricted Free Agency
- Veteran Help
- Trade Candidates
- The Stars
- The Superstars
Cleveland Cavaliers: JR Smith
Ever since the Cleveland Cavaliers sent JR Smith home in November this past season, they've seemingly been hoping to unload the veteran shooter. They'll reportedly keep looking for suitors up until the official start of free agency.
A likely outcome, whether he's traded or not, is that Smith will be released. He's set to make $15.7 million next season, but it's only guaranteed for $3.9 million if he's waived by June 30. That's almost $12 million in cap flexibility for the Cavs or whatever team trades for him.
If Smith is waived, Yahoo's Chris Haynes says he may reunite with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Denver Nuggets: Isaiah Thomas
In 2016-17, Isaiah Thomas averaged 28.9 points for the Boston Celtics and tied James Harden for the second-best offensive box plus/minus in the NBA. His 8.7 offensive box plus/minus that season is top-20 all-time.
The two seasons since then have been, in a word, rough. He played in 32 games and averaged 15.2 points in 2017-18. In 2018-19, he played in 12 games and averaged 8.1 points for the Denver Nuggets. He wasn't close to league average in true shooting percentage in either season.
Given that Monte Morris has a firm grasp of the backup point guard role in Denver, it doesn't look like IT will get things back on track with the Nuggets.
At this point, it's tough to think of a spot where he could so.
Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio
It's that time of year when we pay close attention to emojis, cryptic posts and the activity of NBA stars in hopes of seeing any clues about their playing future.
Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio hasn't been so subtle.
Shortly after Utah traded for Mike Conley, Rubio tweeted: "it's time to just be happy. Being angry, sad and overthinking isn't worth it anymore. Just let things flow. Be positive."
The next day, he posted, "thank you Utah" with a picture of himself in the Jazz's gradient uniforms, arms raised in celebration with the home crowd.
Two years after the team traded for Rubio to appease Gordon Hayward, who would sign elsewhere just a couple of weeks later, this union is over.
Youngsters with Player Options or Restricted Free Agency
New Orleans Pelicans: Julius Randle
Julius Randle is coming off his best season in the NBA. He put up career highs in points (21.4) and box plus/minus (1.4).
But New Orleans just drafted someone you may have heard of. Zion Williamson ring a bell?
There's a lot of positional overlap, and the Pelicans will likely steer into a rebuild that allows plenty of minutes for Williamson, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram.
Randle is only 24 himself, but New Orleans should be looking to play Zion upward of 30 minutes per game. Randle probably knows that, and some team may be willing to pay him more than the $9.1 million he will reportedly opt out of.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Nerlens Noel
Like Randle, Nerlens Noel has a player option for 2019-20 that he will reportedly opt out of. His was even further below market value at less than $2 million next season.
He and his agent will look to get more from another team, especially since he only played 13.7 minutes per game behind starter Steven Adams.
On a per-minute basis, Noel was pretty effective. A team in need of a rim protector (Noel was third in block percentage among players with at least 1,000 minutes) might not have to offer a ton to lure him away from OKC.
Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell
The Brooklyn Nets are coming up on a potential decision between Kyrie Irving and D'Angelo Russell.
"Almost no one inside the league thinks this is an easy decision," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "The Nets could talk themselves into either direction. But the bet here is that if Irving wants to come, the Nets will sign him—with or without [Kevin] Durant—and figure out the rest later."
For now, Russell is a restricted free agent. If Brooklyn wants to open up enough cap space for two max players, it'll have to renounce its rights to the All-Star guard. That would send him into unrestricted free agency.
Dallas Mavericks: Maxi Kleber
According to The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania, the Dallas Mavericks are expected to offer Kristaps Porzingis a five-year max contract at the start of free agency. Dwight Powell figures to be a long-term fixture in the frontcourt as well, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon.
Maxi Kleber would be a great third in that three-big rotation, but he may have shown enough to draw an offer in restricted free agency that Dallas won't match.
This season, Brook Lopez was the only player in the NBA who matched Kleber's per-possession averages for threes and blocks. Lopez and Kleber put up the 11th and 12th such individual seasons in NBA history.
If the Mavs are intent on hunting big free agents, as was reported in April, they may not be able to match significant offers to Kleber in restricted free agency.
Sacramento Kings: Willie Cauley-Stein
"I really think Willie needs a fresh start," Willie Cauley-Stein's agent, Roger Montgomery, told Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee. "Based on how things have gone for him there in Sacramento, I just think it's time for Willie to move on, and we'd really like him to move on."
Cauley-Stein is another restricted free agent, but since his representation is already putting this out in public, there may be little reason for Sacramento to keep him that way. Plus, this free-agent market has some intriguing bigs—Al Horford and Nikola Vucevic—who would make plenty of sense with the Kings' intriguing young core.
Veteran Help, Part I
Atlanta Hawks: Dewayne Dedmon
In a recent episode of the podcast The Lowe Post (h/t HoopsRumors), ESPN's Zach Lowe called Dewayne Dedmon "sneakily the most coveted under-the-radar free agent in the league."
It's not hard to see why. In 2018-19, Dedmon averaged 14.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.8 threes, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per 75 possessions.
That versatility from the center position could help a number of teams. And with John Collins and Alex Len on Atlanta's roster, the Hawks may be ready to move more toward the youth inside.
Chicago Bulls: Robin Lopez
The Chicago Bulls have Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen under contract for next season. Now, they're reportedly interested in Julius Randle. There's your three-man big rotation.
Bringing Robin Lopez back as anything more than a veteran mentor might not make a ton of sense. And as he heads into his age-31 season, he may be ready to play for a contender. He's only appeared in 28 playoff games.
Detroit Pistons: Zaza Pachulia
With a frontcourt of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the Detroit Pistons need as much shooting as possible. That may mean prioritizing Thon Maker as the backup center.
Maker is 108-of-331 (32.6 percent) from three for his career. Zaza Pachulia is 0-of-31.
Indiana Pacers: Bojan Bogdanovic
T.J. Warren and Bojan Bogdanovic could certainly play together, but the acquisition of the former felt like a little insurance against the possibility of the former's departure.
In Bogdanovic's 35 games after Victor Oladipo was lost to injury, he averaged 20.6 points on 50.2 percent shooting from the field and 41.5 percent shooting from three.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley
According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, the Phoenix Suns could make a push for Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley.
As the Clippers chase max free agents, they may be priced out of the Beverley market. Last season, Beverley was 11th among point guards in ESPN's real plus-minus.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Cap space is a precious commodity for the Los Angeles Lakers.
While Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has averaged double-figure scoring and posted an above-average true shooting percentage in each of the last two seasons, L.A. likely won't compromise that space for him.
Memphis Grizzlies: Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah had a nice little comeback season for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2018-19.
Despite only appearing in 42 games, he finished sixth on the team in wins over replacement player. He averaged 16.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions. And he posted an above-average true shooting percentage.
That should be more than enough to convince some team that Noah still has enough left in the tank to contribute off the bench. The Grizzlies should let him go find that opportunity while giving as many frontcourt minutes as possible to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke.
Veteran Help, Part II
Milwaukee Bucks: Nikola Mirotic
The Milwaukee Bucks are potentially on the verge of some hefty financial obligations to Giannis Antetokounmpo (qualified for a supermax extension), Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon.
The latter two enter free agency this summer. Both could command max-level money, which would be 25 percent of the cap for Brogdon (a restricted free agent) and 30 percent of the cap for Middleton.
Combine that with Antetokounmpo's potential 35 percent deal in 2020-21, and you almost have your entire salary cap gobbled up by three players.
That means extreme cost-effectiveness with the rest of the team. Given Nikola Mirotic's postseason struggles (37.6 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from three), he could be an early cap casualty.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Derrick Rose
Another former Bull who may have played his way back into on-court relevance, Derrick Rose just had his best season since injuries struck in 2012.
Rose proved he can still be a heat-check guy off the bench. He just shouldn't be for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who need to prioritize minutes for Tyus Jones (assuming they retain the restricted free agent).
New York Knicks: DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan had a moderate bounce-back in 2018-19, but that probably isn't enough to convince the New York Knicks to re-sign him (unless he really would increase the likelihood of getting Kevin Durant).
Assuming the Knicks don't land big-name free agents, they should turn the center position over entirely to Mitchell Robinson.
Phoenix Suns: Richaun Holmes
Deandre Ayton is the center of the future. And Aron Baynes was just acquired, seemingly to be his backup. That might leave the underrated Richaun Holmes on the outs with the Phoenix Suns.
Among players with at least as many minutes over the last four seasons, Holmes is 74th in box plus/minus. He should be on the radar for teams in need of a solid backup big.
Portland Trail Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu
"I'm gonna be honest i had a conversation with friends and i think the best move for the Blazers would be to get Kevin Love," former NBA player Channing Frye tweeted. "I think it would shake the whole western conference."
Two days later, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe speculated about the same possibility.
If Portland is able to swing a deal for Love, he almost certainly takes Al-Farouq Aminu's spot at the 4.
Now, Love may have to play a lot of 5 while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from his season-ending injury. In that case, it might make sense for Aminu to stick around. But the Blazers also have Zach Collins waiting in the wings.
San Antonio Spurs: Rudy Gay
A week ago, Rudy Gay was expected to re-sign with the San Antonio Spurs, according to The Athletic's Jordan Brenner.
On Wednesday, though, Gay told SiriusXM NBA Radio, "I can be a big piece to any team." His numbers over his two seasons with the Spurs suggest he's right.
In 2018-19 alone, Gay put up 18.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions. His size and ability to create make him an almost ideal modern 4.
Washington Wizards: Trevor Ariza
If the Washington Wizards are finally ready to prioritize their youth, there's little reason to hang on to soon-to-be-34-year-old Trevor Ariza.
Turn the combo forward minutes over to Rui Hachimura and let Ariza chase contention elsewhere.
Houston Rockets: Chris Paul
The Houston Rockets seem bound and determined to have James Harden, Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul on the same roster.
ESPN.com's Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Houston has made all three of Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker available ahead of a pursuit of Butler.
They explained further:
"The Sixers have been expressing confidence throughout the NBA that they'll be able to sign Butler and free agent Tobias Harris to new deals, league sources said. Butler's level of interest in pursuing the Rockets' idea is unclear. League rules prohibit Butler and his agent, Bernie Lee, from discussing the deal prior to the start of free agency on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET.
"Once free agency starts, however, the Rockets are determined to push the 76ers for a sign-and-trade deal that would allow the All-Star forward to join All-NBA guard James Harden and Chris Paul on the Rockets, league sources tell ESPN."
Next season's salary cap is projected to be $109 million. The combined salaries of Harden, Butler and Paul alone would be $109 million. Obviously, that makes team-building around the top three a challenge.
If it came down to it, one has to wonder if Houston would dump CP3 if it knew it would help get Butler.
The future Hall of Fame point guard and the Rockets met after their elimination from the postseason, according to Stadium and The Athletic's Shams Charania. The sides discussed the future, and though no trade demand was made, the subject came up.
The difficult part of trading Paul is finding a taker, though. He just turned 34. He's averaged 59 games per season over his last three. And the last season of his current deal is 2021-22, when he's slated to make $44.2 million.
That's a tough ask.
Still, CP3 is heading to the Hall of Fame—and if he's healthy, there are teams he can help. If one is willing to absorb that deal, Houston has to listen.
Miami Heat: Goran Dragic
The Miami Heat have locked themselves into mediocrity.
Consider this: They'll start free agency well over the cap and have Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Ryan Anderson, James Johnson, Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk, Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo and Derrick Jones on the books for 2019-20. That's 10 players, all of whom were on a team that just went 39-43.
The only real shots at a shakeup are the expiring salaries of Dragic and Anderson. And since Anderson only managed 322 minutes and a 41.4 true shooting percentage last season, Dragic fills the "best" and "most likely" descriptors from the headline by default.
Dragic's best days are behind him. He just turned 33. But he was still fairly productive when he managed to stay on the floor. In his injury-riddled 2018-19, he averaged 18.3 points, 6.4 assists and 2.1 threes per 75 possessions.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
Because of his selection to the All-NBA third team, Kemba Walker is qualified for a supermax contract that would pay him a starting salary of $38.2 million (35 percent of the projected cap) if he stays with the Charlotte Hornets. That deal could also last as long as five years.
If he signs elsewhere, he can do a four-year deal with a starting salary of $32.7 million (30 percent of the cap).
As of Thursday, that second scenario felt much more likely.
"All-Star Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets have sizable gaps and stalemate in talks so far, opening pathway for competitors in Boston, New York and Dallas," Stadium and The Athletic's Shams Charania tweeted.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski later followed that up by reporting, "The Boston Celtics have emerged as the front-runner to sign Charlotte All-Star guard Kemba Walker..."
For Charlotte, this breakup would be tough (Walker is the franchise leader in points, field goals, threes and value over replacement player) but ultimately understandable.
He's a 6'1" point guard heading into his age-29 season. The Hornets have only made the playoffs twice in his eight years. And that's a more-than-significant commitment for a non-contender.
If Boston is indeed the front-runner to land him, that makes sense, too.
Walker doesn't fully replace what Kyrie Irving provided on the floor. He finished 10th among point guards in ESPN's real plus-minus, compared to Irving's seventh. But the Celtics may be hoping chemistry and leadership bridge that gap.
Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic
How many people realize just how ridiculously productive Nikola Vucevic was for the Orlando Magic in 2018-19?
He averaged 24.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per 75 possessions. The only season in NBA history in which all five of those marks were hit? Kevin Garnett's 2003-04 when he won his lone MVP.
And on the back of Vucevic's ridiculous production, the Magic made the postseason for the first time since 2012.
The natural question: Why would Orlando let him go?
Well, with such gaudy numbers, Vucevic is likely to sign for max or near-max money. And that'll be a steep price to pay for a team that would have a hard time convincing itself it's anywhere near contender status.
There's also the concern that this was a contract-year boost. Prior to 2018-19's 6.4 box plus/minus, Vucevic's career high was 2.7. The average over the first seven years of his career was 0.9.
Regret could set in something fierce if he reverts back to those previous numbers in Year 1 or 2 of a max contract.
And with Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac all on the roster, Orlando might be able to justify letting the All-Star walk by reminding itself of that young talent.
Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris
Again, Philadelphia is confident it can hang onto both Butler and Harris, according to Wojnarowski. But if it's forced to prioritize one over the other, it should focus on Butler.
During the regular season, Butler was third in box plus/minus (Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were tied for first) among Sixers with at least 500 minutes. Harris was sixth.
Go to the playoffs and drop the minutes qualifier to 100 and Butler was first. Harris was fifth.
Butler provided whatever killer instinct Philly had. There's a reason Houston seems willing to forfeit most of what's left of its team for him.
The 76ers would be wise to do whatever it takes to keep him.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving
This one probably could've been filed away in the "Goners" section, but Kyrie Irving's superstar talent put him here instead.
Over his two seasons with the Boston Celtics, the only players with better box plus/minuses were James Harden, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis. But a lot more than numbers goes into having Kyrie on your team. By the end of the second campaign, all the extra stuff had taken its toll on the franchise.
At this point, neither side appears interested in running it back. Boston has already been linked to other star guards.
"The Celtics, I'm told, are emerging as a stealth suitor for Charlotte Hornets free agent Kemba Walker," the New York Times' Marc Stein tweeted.
And as for Kyrie, you can hardly boot up the old internet machine without seeing a new report that links him to the Brooklyn Nets.
One source even told NetsDaily's Anthony Puccio, "Everything I've heard is that it's a done deal."
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant
Mum seems to be the word with Kevin Durant and his impending free agency. Following reports that KD predictably declined his $31.5 million player option for 2019-20, Stadium and The Athletic's Shams Charania explained the superstar's approach:
"Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant and his business partner, Rich Kleiman, have taken a distant approach and haven’t given the top interested teams — the Knicks, Nets, Clippers and Warriors — any signals so far, league sources said. Durant and Kleiman are in New York, and at one point discussed potentially coming to Los Angeles for free-agent meetings, but are expected to remain stationed in New York, according to sources.
"Durant has said publicly and privately that he will not be recruited to a team and will sit with his inner circle to determine his next move."
Even with the torn Achilles he suffered in the NBA Finals, Durant may still be the No. 1 or 2 free agent in this class. The injury will force him to sit out most, if not all, of his age-31 season. But if he's even 85-90 percent of the player he was upon his return, his team is likely a contender.
Durant certainly relies a lot on his explosiveness. Even if that doesn't come all the way back, he should still be an effective scorer. He's not going to come back any shorter. And perhaps his greatest skill, shooting, shouldn't abandon him.
Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard
Good luck reading this situation.
When the Toronto Raptors first acquired Kawhi Leonard last summer, there was widespread speculation that it might just be a one-year rental.
It may still be, but winning the organization's first championship and his second Finals MVP award, along with the much-publicized "load management" schedule he enjoyed, may make this a more difficult decision.
Plus, Kawhi will be qualified for a 35 percent max in two years, which helps a short-term deal with Toronto make more sense. He can stay with a ready-made contender, defend the title and enter free agency again in 2021 with a shot at a much larger contract.
The risk is obvious, though. Kawhi had a courtside view of it when both Durant and Klay Thompson suffered season-ending injuries in the Finals. You never know when disaster might strike.
The security of a long-term deal can't be overlooked, and the Raptors won't be the only team offering that. Far from it. According to Fox Sports' Chris Broussard, Leonard could meet with as many as five franchises in free agency.
"I think he'll meet with the New York teams, he'll meet with the L.A. area teams and possibly Philadelphia," he said.
Another inherent advantage for Toronto? It can get out ahead of these meetings, and reports indicate the Raptors have done just that.
According to The Athletic's Eric Koreen, general manager Masai Ujiri said meetings between the superstar and the Canadian franchise have been "very good."