Free-Agency Predictions for LA Lakers and NBA's Top Championship Hopefuls

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 29, 2019

Free-Agency Predictions for LA Lakers and NBA's Top Championship Hopefuls

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    It feels a little strange that so many of the NBA's top title threats are also major players in free agency.

    In the past, championship contenders generally entered the offseason intact, coming off hugely successful seasons. Continuity tended to coincide with preseason front-runner status.

    Now, though, the top five championship faves, according to Vegas Insider, all have significant free-agency issues to sort out. Some are searching for additional stars, others are trying to hold rosters together, and a couple are practically blank slates. As you'd expect with such an uncertain crop of teams, the championship odds we're using could change dramatically.

    Let's take a crack at a free-agent prediction for each of the five current championship front-runners. 

The Los Angeles Lakers Land a Third Star

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    Though the Los Angeles Lakers have reportedly set up a meeting with D'Angelo Russell, we're not going to get specific with our prediction. Maybe the third star alongside Anthony Davis and LeBron James will be Russell, and maybe it won't.

    The point is: The Lakers are going to add another big name. It's just how they operate.

    Look at the way they've approached talent acquisition lately. They signed James last summer, nailing the big move, and then botched all the subsequent little ones, adding non-shooters and ill-fitting pieces around him. Now, they've landed Davis, another huge success.

    All it cost them was virtually everyone of value (other than James) on the roster.

    The Lakers understand the value of top-end talent, which isn't surprising given their history of building around superstars. Lately, though, they've shown a looser grasp of the nuanced intricacies of building around those stars. So of course they'll swing big again and treat populating the rest of the roster like an afterthought.

    A trade Thursday that sent three more Lakers to the Washington Wizards and cleared max cap space, as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported, has L.A. in position to enter the bidding for the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and anyone else interested in max money.

    Title Odds: 7-2

The Milwaukee Bucks Bite the Bullet

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    Forget Nikola Mirotic. He's not part of the Milwaukee Bucks core and is highly unlikely to return. This bet on Milwaukee biting the bullet is all about a historically tax-averse team spending what it takes to keep key free agents Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon.

    With Middleton expecting a five-year max after opting out, Brogdon potentially commanding up to $80 million on a four-year offer sheet in restricted free agency and Lopez's floor-stretching a perfect fit for any team with cap space, the Bucks are staring down the barrel of a massive financial commitment—one that will effectively telegraph to Giannis Antetokounmpo: "This is the best we can do. If you're winning a ring, it'll be with these guys."

    Antetokounmpo is the reason Milwaukee has to spend first and ask questions later. We just saw Anthony Davis work his way to the Lakers while still under contract with the New Orleans Pelicans through 2020. Antetokounmpo's deal expires in 2021, which means the Bucks have to do whatever they can to appease him now.

    The clock is always ticking for a small-market team with a superstar. So although Middleton isn't a max player, and Brogdon is more of a support piece than a cornerstone, the Bucks will have no choice but to pay market rate (or more) for both.

    Losing them isn't an option, as Milwaukee has few avenues to replace their production.

    The Bucks are going all in, and it's the only choice with Antetokounmpo in his prime.

    Title Odds: 7-1

The Houston Rockets Settle for Running It Back

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    With the Golden State Warriors diminished by injury and free agency (more on that second part in a moment), the Houston Rockets shouldn't be too upset by the prospect of making another go of it with roughly the same roster that fell short last year.

    Think about it. All we really know for sure is that the Houston teams of the last two seasons weren't good enough to get past Golden State. Maybe they would have hoisted a couple of trophies if they'd somehow avoided the Dubs. When general manager Daryl Morey says he views the Rockets as potential West favorites, he's not just talking up his team.

    Well, he is talking up his team. But he might actually be right.

    Houston is nudging its way into the free-agency news cycle by pursuing Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade scenario, making Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker available, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe. If the Rockets don't shake up their starting five, it won't be for lack of trying.

    A sign-and-trade for Butler is a long shot for several reasons, with perhaps the most obvious being the Philadelphia 76ers' ability to throw five years and $190 million at him. Nobody else can match those numbers. To agree to a sign-and-trade with Houston and a third team, the Sixers would have to fear losing Butler for nothing. Considering their bargaining advantages, it's hard to imagine they're worried.

    The Rockets will bring back their core, add a piece or two with minimums and the taxpayer's mid-level exception, and see how far they can go in an NBA no longer dominated by the Warriors. Running it back may not be the Rockets' favorite option, but it's a pretty darn good one.

    Title Odds: 9-1

The Golden State Warriors Bat .500

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    The Golden State Warriors have a recent transactional history that seems too good to be true. Since 2012, they've signed Stephen Curry to what became the biggest bargain contract in the league, inked Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for less than their maxes, squeezed in Kevin Durant in 2016 and added DeMarcus Cousins for the mid-level exception last summer.

    With a track record like that, we can't rule out a clean sweep in which Thompson and Durant, both unrestricted free agents, sign max deals to stay.

    Thompson, at least, seems like a lock as long as the Warriors don't pinch pennies.

    According to The Athletic's Shams Charania: "The Warriors and free-agent All-Star Klay Thompson will meet in L.A. this week at the outset of free agency, league sources said. Should the Warriors enter the meeting with the five-year, $190 million maximum contract, both sides expect a quick agreement."

    Durant's continued presence in Golden State is far less certain. In fact, this is a prediction that it's already over. We just endured a full year of whispers about New York franchises and watched said teams clear space to accommodate a free agent of Durant's caliber. Now, the Warriors are in "scramble mode" to avoid losing Durant for nothing, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

    KD hasn't communicated any firsthand hints about his plans, so anything's possible—even a return to Golden State. But it seems more likely the Dubs only retain one of their two top-line free agents.

    Title Odds: 10-1

The Los Angeles Clippers Explode Our Minds

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    It's no great leap to guess Kawhi Leonard will sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. Figuring out which second star might join him is the hard part.

    The Athletic's Sam Amick reported on the possibility of Jimmy Butler heading to Los Angeles alongside Leonard, but the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett listed the Clips and Dallas Mavericks as two franchises most closely tied to Al Horford, who declined his player option with the Boston Celtics for 2019-20.

    Butler is a fine player and probably worth the max, but his skills are somewhat duplicative of Leonard's. If the Clippers are serious about chasing titles, it might make more sense to add a big man who may be the best option against opponents' frontcourt superstars.

    Horford was the key figure in Boston's defensive schemes against both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, and we know he'd pair well with Leonard because he does just about everything Marc Gasol does...only better.

    The Clips have Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac up front, but neither matches Horford's versatility and two-way reputation. A Leonard-Horford duo would make the Clippers a serious title threat and a team with defensive answers for any playoff opponent's offense.

    Title Odds: 10-1

           

    *Note: The Toronto Raptors are tied with the Clippers at 10-1, but since we're sending Leonard to L.A., that necessarily knocks Toronto's odds down substantially. So the Raps don't make the cut.

           

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceNBA.com and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Salary information courtesy of Basketball Reference and Spotrac.

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