In case you haven't heard, this upcoming 2019 free agent class looks pretty good. Sure enough, the league is acting accordingly. LeBron James is blatantly intending to recruit pending UFAs to the Lakers, speculation over the Clippers' interest in Kawhi Leonard is already overblown six months out and team executives from around the NBA are well along the path to positioning their clubs to potentially be involved in next summer's talent windfall.
Inevitably, this is all going to lead to triumph for some teams and disappointment for others, all the while shifting the balance of power in the NBA. If you aren't a fan of the Golden State Warriors, this is a good thing. In fact, part of why so many basketball fans are already locked into July 1st and all of the reports leading up to it is because free agency seems so unpredictable, relative to the seeming inevitability of a Warriors' three-peat. The 2019 class has the star power to undo some of that dominance, not to mention the presence of a certain Golden State star who might be ready to seek employment elsewhere.
While no one knows how the league will look ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, we can project some free agent pairings that seem plausible and/or make sense from a financial, positional and general fit standpoint. We've tried to steer clear of restricted free agents, given the absence of offer sheets in recent years and how few appealing options are out there (New York will match any offer to Kristaps Porzingis, so Terry Rozier might be the only semi-intriguing RFA out there). Additionally, we've examined player options and team options through the lens of who will likely exercise and who will opt out.
All that being said, let's get to the big 20 who are set to cash in and where they might be headed:
By all accounts, the Utah Jazz have been thrilled with the production they’ve gotten from point guard Ricky Rubio over the past two seasons since acquiring him from Minnesota in the summer of 2017. Still, despite the Spaniard’s flashy playmaking ability, his limitations - defense and three-point shooting, mostly - don’t offer much hope of marked improvement moving forward after eight years in the league, particularly not for a team looking to build a title contender around Donovan Mitchell.
Still, the 28-year-old won’t be without suitors and a role facilitating for the young Atlanta Hawks makes a lot of sense. Yes, he and Trae Young might form the worst defensive back court in the NBA, but his passing skills should help create opportunities for Young and other Hawks.
If a certain free agent whose nickname brings to mind Kraft Dinner does decide to leave the Bay Area this summer, it would turn the league on its head. It would also leave Golden State with a considerable hole to fill. Yes, Andre Iguodala is signed through next year, but Iggy will also be 35 at the start of next season and hardly an ideal sole option at small forward.
Maybe, then, Trevor Ariza is the answer. Currently with the Washington Wizards, Ariza already has a ring as a member of the 2008-09 Lakers and would bring a defensive presence to an organization that already has plenty of scoring punch. Perfect replacement? No, but the 15-year vet could absolutely fill a need.
J.J. Redick may well be content to stay in Philadelphia, but two straight one-year deals have offered both player and team flexibility. Who knows, maybe Redick will be ready for a new challenge this summer and the Sixers could prioritize bigger fish. Let’s not forget, when the sharpshooter first arrived in Philly on a one-year, $24 million pact before last season, the club was coming off a 28-win campaign.
If he wanted to take on that same challenge with a young, developing squad (and maybe earn a similarly hefty payday), the Kings might present an intriguing fit. Redick would help take some pressure off De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield in the Kings’ back court while offering a sorely-needed veteran voice. Assuming Sacramento gets rebuffed in trying to throw their cap space at marquee names, the three-point specialist might be a nice secondary option.
The situation with Anthony Davis looms large over everything in New Orleans heading into the summer, but the Pelicans also have some free agency matters to take care of. That includes the future of Nikola Mirotic, who has proven to be a better compliment to the ‘Brow than DeMarcus Cousins ever was. They are, however, far from the only team that could use a guy like Mirotic, and the forward may look elsewhere if he senses Davis isn’t long for the Bayou.
Could he potentially find a soft landing spot in San Antonio? The Spurs might be in the market for size up front with Rudy Gay set for free agency and Pau Gasol on the decline. Beyond that, the tandem of RC Buford and Gregg Popovich have rarely ever met a skilled European big man that they didn’t like.
The Pacers are about to have a free agent problem. Heading into the summer, four of their six leaders in minutes played per game are approaching unrestricted free agency. Rookie Aaron Holiday figures to absorb some of those minutes in a greater role, but he’ll need help. And that doesn’t even factor in Tyreke Evans, who has failed to live up to the season he had last year in Memphis. The good news is that the Pacers might find everything they need - bench scoring and an established ball handler - in one place, and on the cheap.
Isaiah Thomas still hasn’t made his Nuggets debut on account of lingering hip issues. But Thomas isn’t that far removed from averaging nearly 29 points per game during an All-Star 2016-17 campaign while still shy of his 30th birthday. He could still have plenty left for an exciting group in Indy that has been repaid handsomely for giving second chances to the likes of Victor Oladipo and Thaddeus Young.
Speaking of Denver, there’s virtually zero chance that the Nuggets will want any part of a 34-year-old Paul Millsap at $30.5 million next season, so the veteran power forward will likely be seeking one more lucrative contract with another team. While he seems to have lost a step from his Atlanta Hawks heyday, the four-time All-Star has still served a critical role on the rising Nuggets. It would be easy to see him charting a similar course with another team, like the 76ers.
Although Philly fans probably have loftier dreams than adding Millsap, he could bring value in going from playing alongside one unicorn (Nikola Jokic) to another (Joel Embiid). After all, the Sixers already look like Eastern contenders, so while there may be some clamouring for a superstar alongside Embiid and Ben Simmons, it may be more prudent to save some money and find a potentially better fit.
Bargains are hard to come by in today’s NBA, but the New Orleans Pelicans look to have found one in Julius Randle. Cast away by the LeBron-chasing Lakers last summer, New Orleans swooped in to add the 24-year-old big man at just $8.6 million this year. The move has paid off big time, with Randle nearly averaging a 20-10 alongside Anthony Davis.
Looking ahead, the 2014 7th overall pick is almost certain to decline a $9 million option for next year, although he could still renegotiation a long-term deal with the Pelicans. If he does elect to consider a new home, the size-needy Brooklyn Nets possess the cap space to make a tantalizing contract offer and the chance to be an offensive focal point of a young, developing group.
Free agent signee DeAndre Jordan finds himself taking a back seat to rookie phenom Luka Doncic these days. Jordan hasn’t been bad, but while his numbers are a shade below what he was producing with the Clippers, Doncic has exceeded even the loftiest of preseason expectations. What this means for the big man’s long-term future with Doncic’s Mavs remains to be seen.
Maybe the 30-year-old just needs a situation where his interior skills are better suited. In Milwaukee, a club with multiple pending free agents but with cap space to play with, Jordan could do the grunt work inside while creating opportunities for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ bevy of outside shooters. There may be some question over the fit of the two-time rebounding champ alongside the young phenom, but pairing Jordan with a big, explosive forward certainly worked in LA with Blake Griffin.
When the dust settles in the early stages of free agency and the biggest dominoes have fallen, the Raptors will likely be in one of two very different places. If they convince Kawhi Leonard to re-sign, they will ride things out with the current core. If they lose the Klaw for nothing, then it could usher in a tear down in T.O. If that happens, Valanciunas can surely fetch more on the open market than his $17.6 million player option, whether the Raptors re-sign Kawhi or not.
If JV does split with the team that drafted him, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that the Grizzlies would come calling. The Grizz could bring in Valanciunas as the heir apparent to an aging Marc Gasol, a player who could bridge the cap between a present anchored by Mike Conley and a future headlined by rookie Jaren Jackson Jr.
The Lakers and their chief recruiter LeBron James have to be considered when projecting a possible landing spot for some of the bigger fish in free agency. There are, however, reasons to believe that each of the top guys may not necessarily jump at the chance to play alongside the King, even in L.A. But that doesn’t mean James and the Lakers will come away empty-handed.
Eric Bledsoe isn’t mentioned among the elite crop of available free agents, but he currently holds the keys to one of the best teams in the East. That said, the 29-year-old PG hasn’t meshed perfectly with Giannis Antetokounmpo since arriving last year and may be on the outs in Wisconsin. Bledsoe’s game-breaking speed and, most notably, his affiliation with LeBron ally and super-agent Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports make him a sensible target for the Lakers.
The Magic are easy to ignore amidst the NBA’s broader landscape, which is a shame for Nikola Vucevic. The seven-footer is enjoying a career season (in a contract year, no less), for a Magic squad outside of the playoff picture and looking in. Orlando, in the midst of a rebuild and hoping to open up minutes for rookie Mohamed Bamba, might only be lukewarm in their interest in the 28-year-old, but other clubs will happily step forward.
The Mavericks have a free agent big man of their own in DeAndre Jordan, but Vucevic is younger and commands more attention inside on account of an impressive arsenal of low post moves and mid-range shooting. He may prove to be a better fit alongside the likes of Luka Doncic and Harrison Barnes.
It seems that just about every year, there’s a new guy who gets so much buzz for being underrated that he kind of winds up overrated. That may well be the fate of Khris Middleton, arguably the second-best player on the loaded Bucks who is perpetually overshadowed by Giannis. That won’t be the case heading into the summer, where the 27-year-old stands to earn a hefty raise from the $13 million player option he will surely decline.
If he wants his own spotlight, he’ll have to leave Milwaukee, who may not be able to afford him anyway. What about the Hornets? Buzz City may be facing the sobering reality of losing their own star free agent (more on that later), so Middleton may be able to give Charlotte the star they need just like the Hornets could give the sweet-shooting wing the go-to role he may yearn for.
Nikola Vucevic isn’t the only pending free agent big man who apparently knows when to have a career year. The Clippers have exceeded expectations this season, and leading the charge with career-highs (to date, anyway) in points and rebounds is Tobias Harris. In doing so, the 26-year-old power forward is making executives think about what it might take to get him under contract. Truth be told, though, there’s no reason to bring an end to the good thing that Harris and the Clippers have going. Even if the club can find success in their pursuit of a marquee free agent, they are expected to have as much as $70 million in cap space carved out, allowing Harris to return while earning a nice pay raise from the $14.8 million he’s making this year.
After returning from a long-term injury, Boogie will find himself right back on the free agent market - and may not be inclined to settle for hitching a ride on the back of a contender for $5.3 million. Not that making some money and contending for a title need to be mutually exclusive.
If Cousins were to join the Nuggets, he would not only find himself suiting up for a club currently atop the Western Conference standings, but he’d represent one half of a star-studded front court with Nikola Jokic, potentially replace an outgoing Paul Millsap and add another hard-nosed competitor to a team that already boasts Jamal Murray. Sure, we should probably wait for Cousins to at least make his Warriors debut before we project his next free agency decision, but the Mile High City makes a lot of sense.
There’s no #SaveKemba campaign in the works, but there seems to be a growing sense that the time might be right for Kemba Walker to bid farewell to Charlotte. The organization has consistently failed to construct a capable supporting cast around him, leaving the club mired on the playoff fringes in the shallow East. Walker has done his best to keep the Hornets competitive - now it’s time for the former UConn star to get his. And an arrival in Salt Lake City would potentially be beneficial for both sides.
He would be an instant upgrade over fellow free agent point guard Ricky Rubio and would immediately establish one of the league’s best backcourts alongside the guy that Charlotte passed on in 2017, Donovan Mitchell. For all of his talents, the two-time All-Star has just two playoff appearances and zero series wins in eight years. Joining the Jazz would surely change that.
The honeymoon for Jimmy Butler and the 76ers lasted, what, a month? The evidently impossible-to-please All-Star shooting guard already forced his way out of Minnesota and now seemingly has taken issue with the Sixers’ system under head coach Brett Brown. Butler will have his pick of any interested franchise this summer, but will any of them make him happy? The risks inherent in signing the four-time All-Star will scare many teams off, but a select few may just be desperate enough to gamble on the mercurial 29-year-old (assuming he declines his $19.8 million player option).
The Pelicans could be one of those select teams. The Pels, of course, are already preoccupied with the summer of 2020, hoping to convince Anthony Davis to stick around. Butler could potentially encourage Davis to stick around, but he and Jrue Holiday could also form a foundational back court in the even that the ‘Brow isn’t around long-term.
Kyrie Irving still hasn’t signed an extension and murmurs suggest that Boston remains leery of committing big money to an injury-prone player when less expensive and younger viable options exist behind him in Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. The Celtics certainly didn’t seem to need him as they advanced to the Conference Finals with Irving sidelined last spring. So proclamations aside, this could still end badly. Then what? Well, the New Jersey native admitted to strongly considering the New York Knicks before committing to the Celts, so maybe that door hasn’t closed entirely. Taking up residence at MSG would make the five-time All-Star the marquee attraction in North America’s biggest media market.
I like player movement as much as the next guy, and so I made these projections with an eye towards at least somewhat resetting the NBA landscape and making for an active summer. Realistically, though, there’s just no sensible way to foresee Klay Thompson winding up anywhere else than back with Golden State. Barring some unimaginable circumstances in which owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber opt to nickel-and-dime a homegrown key component of their three championships or where Thompson insists on being paid like fellow Splash Brother Steph Curry, the two sides should come to terms quickly and uneventfully. I mean, it’s not like either side will find a better situation out there!
The bold effort by the Raptors to follow OKC’s Paul George blueprint and trade for a year of Kawhi Leonard in hopes of convincing him to stay long-term seems to be off to a good start. The only franchise outside of the US is atop the Eastern Conference again and could challenge for the league’s best record, prompting some to wonder whether the gamble is paying off. But Leonard is a differently wired guy, so who’s to say that any of this is making a remote difference.
Assuming all the preseason speculation - that the Klaw wanted to be in Southern California and was unhappy with the trade north - rang true, then it’ll take more than a hot first half to change his free agency plans. L.A. will still be calling come July 1st, and it’s easy to envision the quiet superstar embracing a move to the city’s “other” team than joining LeBron James as part of the Lake Show circus.
Yeah, you read that heading right. If Kevin Durant is set to leave Golden State this summer, all the usual suspects will be brought up as possible destinations for one of the league's top players. And maybe he will go to New York or LA or possibly home to D.C., but why not the Toronto Raptors? They could have a major hole at the three should Kawhi Leonard decide to split, but would still offer a championship-caliber supporting cast for KD while still letting him reign as top dog.
Sure, he'd still be joining a front-runner, but would still get credit for taking the franchise, which was once his favorite team growing up, to unprecedented heights. Just recently, Durant sang the praises of the Raps, suggesting that they've arrived as a serious threat and carry a championship-caliber pedigree.