We are now in the stretch run of the 2017-18 NBA season. All-Star Weekend has just wrapped up, the trade deadline has passed and teams are gearing up for the postseason and hoping that their best ball comes in May and June. There are still many questions that we hope will be answered over the next two three months such as “Will the Cavs’ new team be better than their old team,” and “Is this the year that LeBron James’ Finals streak finally comes to an end?” Oh yeah, there’s also 29 other NBA teams.
But we won’t be looking at the rest of this season, and rather will take a look at the summer of 2018. There will be many big-name free agents who can alter a franchise’s history with a simple signature on a contract. LeBron’s free agency dominated the summers of 2010 and 2014, and let’s be honest, it will also dominate the summer of 2018. But there are other great players besides King James that could be looking for new addresses and there’s no harm in speculating.
This list will include both players whose contracts expire after the 2017-18 season as well as players with player options (like LeBron) or team options (like Dirk Nowitzki). Every year there are free agent decisions that send shockwaves throughout the rest of the league, and this year should be no different. Here are where the top 15 NBA free agents of 2018 will sign.
15 DeMarcus Cousins – Los Angeles Lakers
The list of players who successfully bounced back from a torn Achilles is a small one and other NBA teams are well are of that. The closest comparison to Boogie is Elton Brand who was one year older than Cousins, but a similar 20-10 guy. Brand never averaged more than 15 PPG after his torn Achilles but still cashed in on a five-year contract with the Sixers.
Teams will be wary of giving Cousins a long-term deal so he may have to settle for a one-year “prove it” type contract.
He could still make bank on a one-year contract just like J.J. Redick is doing this season ($23 million). Hooking up with the Lakers for one year would be a win for both sides as Boogie could rehab his value while the Lakers can keep their options open for the summer of 2019 when Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving become free agents.
14 Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
If it ain’t broke….
Durant has no reason to leave Golden State but it would still be a smart financial move for him to opt out of his player option and become a free agent. That will then allow him to sign for a max contract that would take him to his mid-30s. I actually believe that Steph Curry is more likely to finish his career in another uniform than the Warriors (like the Hornets) than KD is. He has lots invested in the Bay Area and the pull from his hometown of Washington DC isn’t as strong as Curry’s with Charlotte.
What will be interesting to see is if Durant takes less than the max this summer because if he doesn’t, then Klay Thompson may end up as the odd man out come next summer. If Durant does end up leaving the Warriors this summer, then that move may be even more shocking than when he left Oklahoma City.
13 Isaiah Thomas – Orlando Magic
One year you finish in the top-5 in MVP voting and the next year you’re getting traded for Jordan Clarkson.
Life comes at you fast.
If there was ever a player who needed a one-year “prove it” deal, it was Isaiah Thomas. Things have been all down hill since last season’s playoffs for IT, and he needs to prove that he’s the nearly 30-PPG game scorer he was in Boston.
There aren’t lots of teams that will give Thomas the freedom to jack up shots as a No. 1 option, but Orlando is one of those teams.
They don’t have a point guard of the future (or present), they have oodles of cap space, and they have no go-to scorer. Thomas isn’t going to get the $200 million he thought he would as a Celtic, but he can rehabilitate his image and game, and then re-enter the free agent market in the summer of 2019.
12 Zach Lavine – Chicago Bulls
After spending the last couple of seasons as the third wheel with the Timberwolves, Lavine is getting a taste of being Chicago’s first option and he won’t want to go back. He will be a restricted free agent and the Bulls have no issues with cap space so they will offer him the max. Only the Lakers have less money committed in 2018-19 than Chicago has. Before Lavine even played his first game with Chicago, he said he wanted to be with the team long-term and the feeling is mutual from the front office.
Even if another team offers Lavine a max, Chicago has the right to match it and they would be stupid to not to as they gave up Jimmy Butler in order to nab him. The rebuild in Chicago has to start somewhere and Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen isn’t a bad foundation.
11 Avery Bradley – San Antonio Spurs
AB was nearly a Spur at the trade deadline and San Antonio will likely pursue him again after the season. The Spurs were reportedly trying to trade Danny Green and a draft pick for Bradley as Green has a player option for next season.
Bradley fits into the Spurs scheme as a defense-first player and is a better all-around player than Danny Green is at this point.
He would also pair nicely in the backcourt with another Seattle native in Dejounte Murray as the 6’5” Murray has the size to crossmatch with shooting guards while Bradley takes point guards.
Outside of LaMarcus Aldridge the Spurs haven’t really dipped into free agency that often in the Popovich era, but with an aging roster and limited draft options, free agency is the easiest way to get younger and in a hurry. Let’s just hope that Kawhi Leonard gets healthy so Bradley can slot in as a third option behind The Claw and LMA instead of being forced to play above his skill set.
10 Jahlil Okafor – Memphis Grizzlies
After barely getting off the bench in Philadelphia, the No. 3 pick of the 2015 draft was shipped to Brooklyn for journeyman Trevor Booker. Okafor is playing about 13 minutes per game with the Nets and looking nothing like the All-American he was at Duke. He needs a fresh start and needs to learn how to survive in the NBA as a 90s-era center. Going to Memphis would give him a change of scenery and an opportunity for him to learn under the tutelage of Marc Gasol. The younger Gasol is an unathletic seven-footer but has still turned into one of the best defenders in the league, and he could teach Okafor that positioning is just as valuable as hops when it comes to being a great defender. Okafor would also be closer to home as he spent part of his childhood in Arkansas before moving to Chicago.
9 Chris Paul – Houston Rockets
At 32 years old, Paul realized that he could no longer be the primary option on a team so he went to Houston to lean on James Harden. He may not put up the stats that he did in New Orleans or Los Angeles, but at this point CP3 only cares about a ring (or at least advancing past the second round of the playoffs).
Having Paul and Harden on a team also makes Houston a better destination for other free agents who give up money in order to play with them such as P.J. Tucker and Joe Johnson.
The one team who could steal Paul away from the Rockets is the Spurs as Tony Parker will also be a free agent. But Paul is big on his legacy and playing for three teams in three years will make it look like he’s a ring-chaser.
8 Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic
Are you ready for a world in which Aaron Gordon is a $100 million player? Prepare yourself because it’s going to happen next year as Gordon will be a restricted free agent and will likely get a max deal. Otto Porter got $106 million last summer and Gordon should top that this summer. While it would be exciting to see him on a team that people actually give a hoot about, the Magic will pony up and pay him because he is the only reason to watch Magic games.
The franchise that let Shaq get away, ran Penny into the ground, and traded away T-Mac and Dwight Howard can’t let a potential All-Star get away. A team like Utah will throw a hefty offer at Gordon, but Orlando has the right to match any deal so that means another couple of years of only watching Gordon on highlights because the Magic aren’t exactly a team national networks are dying to broadcast.
7 Dirk Nowitzki – Dallas Mavericks
As he’s done with each of the past two offseasons, Nowitzki is expected to opt out of his contract and then sign another contract with the Mavs. Tom Brady has a better chance of playing for another team other than the Patriots than Nowitzki has of playing for a team other than the Mavericks. It is the only franchise he’s ever known (outside of the few minutes he was a Buck before a draft-day trade).
Nowitzki has a couple of milestones on his radar and both he and Mark Cuban want him to reach those in Dallas.
Nowitzki can surpass Michael Jordan for fourth place on the all-time scoring list and could pass Karl Malone for the most games started in NBA history. But he won’t reach either of those this season so look for him to come back for his 21st NBA season which would also tie an NBA record.
6 Jusuf Nurkic – Atlanta Hawks
Nurkic and the Blazers did not agree to a contract by October’s deadline which means he will be a restricted free agent this summer. While he wants to return, I’m not sure the Blazers will want him back after his production decreased in his second season with the team. Nurk’s numbers are down across the board and Portland can’t afford to throw him a seven-figure contract after committing so much money to their backcourt. If Nurkic wants a Steven Adams-type deal (4 years, $100 million), then Portland would have three players taking up 75 percent of their cap space.
Someone who won’t have issues with cap space is Atlanta and the Hawks will make their pitch to top names, but will likely have to settle for the B-level free agents like Nurkic. Nurk would be a solid get for Atlanta and he would allow the talented John Collins to develop physically at his natural position of power forward.
5 DeAndre Jordan – Los Angeles Lakers
Jordan won’t be one of the Lakers’ first three options, but after striking out on two of those (the third will be revealed later), the Lakers will throw a bunch of money at DJ. He won’t have to relocate or even plot a new route to work, as he’ll simply have to move his gear from the Clippers’ locker room to the Lakers’.
Jordan is exactly the kind of player that these young Lakers need: he doesn’t need the ball in his hands, which lets them develop and he’ll also clean up their mistakes on the defensive end.
Another team that makes sense on paper for Jordan is the Dallas Mavericks, but we all remember what happened the last time Jordan flirted with the Mavs. He actually agreed to a deal in 2015, only to back out days later and after half of the Clippers essentially held him hostage in his own home to prevent him from signing with Dallas.
4 Marcus Smart – Denver Nuggets
While Gordon Hayward’s injury was terrible for the player and the team, his absence did allow youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to develop quicker than the Celtics likely thought they would. Once Hayward comes back then there will be a minutes crunch and free-agent-to-be Smart may end up the odd man out. Terry Rozier is under contract for one more season so they’ll still have depth, and Boston also want to cloud its salary cap situation with Kyrie Irving up after next season.
Thus, Smart will be gone and Denver would be prudent to pursue him. He would be a perfect third guard for them and provide some much-needed toughness and defense to their backcourt. Denver already has an elite offense, but they need a glue guy and Smart would fill many of the holes that the Nuggets currently have.
3 J.J. Redick – Brooklyn Nets
Redick is making $23 million this season on a one-year deal and that’s more than he made in his first six seasons combined. He could return to Philly, but they seem more likely to throw money at someone further down on this list.
Redick has a home in Brooklyn and he flirted with the Nets last offseason, and he may revisit those conversations this summer.
By signing with the Sixers this year and also considering the Nets, Redick is clearly favoring money over the chance for a ring, but that’s understandable considering how underpaid he was through the first part of his career. With both D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin having injury concerns, there are now minutes to be had in Brooklyn’s backcourt and look for Redick to make the permanent move to Brooklyn after commuting to and from there this season while in Philadelphia.
2 Paul George – Los Angeles Lakers
PG-13 is saying all of the right things about potentially staying in OKC, but what exactly is the Thunder’s ceiling? They seem like a team that will make the second round, at best, before bowing out of the playoffs. That doesn’t seem too appealing for George as he could have stayed in Indiana for early playoff defeats. George going back to his hometown of Los Angeles would allow him to play in front of his parents as he did when OKC last played at the Staples Center. George grew up a Kobe Bryant fan and he would be the Lakers’ biggest star since Kobe.
Additionally, if Carmelo Anthony opts into his option for next season (as expected), then there won’t be much money left for George. The 2018-19 salaries of Westbrook, Carmelo and Steven Adams adds up to $87 million with the salary cap expected to be about $102 million.
1 LeBron James - Philadelphia 76ers
WITNESS THE PROCESS!!!
While all 30 teams will be interested in LeBron’s services, only few have a legitimate shot. Cleveland, of course, but it’s hard to imagine him going back there after calling this season the most stressful of his career. Houston is a trendy pick but LeBron remembers the growing pains he had when playing alongside Dwyane Wade in Miami, and now he would be paired with two other players who need the ball in their hands to be successful. Then there are the two teams filled with youngsters: the Sixers and the Lakers and Philly has two big advantages over L.A:
LeBron gets to stay in the Eastern Conference which has an easier path to the NBA Finals, and LeBron gets to play with PROVEN young players with the Sixers instead of the “potential” that resides on the Lakers.
Would you rather play with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and whatever the hell Markelle Fultz becomes or play with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram? It’s no contest and the Eagles winning the Super Bowl will help with the notion that Philly is the city of champions.
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