For all the drama expected in the summer of 2018, in the end we were given an NBA offseason that pretty much wrapped up in the first few days, with Paul George staying put in Oklahoma City as free agency tipped off, and LeBron James unceremoniously announcing his move to Los Angeles the following night.
The only real shock came with the trade of Kawhi Leonard to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, a rare All-Star swap.
If you’re more a fan of the NBA’s offseason machinations than the grind of the 82-game regular season, you may have been disappointed. But fear not, because the Summer of 2019 should offer the kind of fast-paced volume signings you’ve come to look for from the league’s offseason tilt-a-whirl.
Early projections show that 12 teams are expected to have the cap space to sign a max free agent next summer, though more could join that mix. The Knicks, for example, could get there if they use the stretch provision on Joakim Noah and decline to give Kristaps Porzingis an extension. The Grizzlies could be in position, too, if Marc Gasol declines his $25.6 million player option for next season.
Heck, the Celtics — yes, the Celtics — could be in position to add a max free agent if Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and Aron Baynes all opt out of the final years of their contracts, but it’s likely only Irving will do so.
Most likely, there will be four teams within range of adding two max contracts: the Kings, Mavericks, Clippers and Nets, though only the Kings and Mavs are sure things to have that much space. The Nets will have to consider what to do with D’Angelo Russell (extension-eligible), and the Hawks could easily join that group with a salary-dump trade.
There probably will be five others in certain position to get a max free agent: the Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, 76ers and Jazz. Five more teams — the Knicks, Pelicans, Lakers, Suns and Grizzlies — will be flirting with max-contract cap space, too, though the Knicks and Grizzlies have the previously mentioned asterisks.
Three other teams figure to have $25 million or more of cap space, depending on some considerations: the Cavs (if Rodney Hood stays on the qualifying offer), Bucks and Magic.
FREE AGENCY RUMORS: Contract talks stalled between Hood, Cavs
It’s possible, then, that 17 teams will enter next summer eager to burn $25 million or more in cap space. This was the reason solid free agents like DeMarcus Cousins, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Trevor Ariza accepted one-year deals. Things will be much better next season.
That’s the team side of things. There will be players eager to take all that cap-space money from those teams, and while it is a star-packed bunch of free agents at the top, it’s not a very deep group. We could see some weird spending next summer.
But let’s look at the potential top guys available…
(Note: Restricted free agents like Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns are not included below, as they are in line to be offered max deals. The key word is available.)
Top available 2019 NBA free agents
1. Kevin Durant: Durant took a one-plus-one deal from the Warriors this summer, staying on in Golden State but keeping his 2019 options open should he turn down the second year of the contract (which he most certainly will do). Next year will be his third with the Warriors, and to be clear, he is almost certain to return on a longer-term deal that can pay him more next summer.
But if he has an inkling of examining other options — the Lakers, for example, or back to the East Coast with the Sixers, or back to Texas with Dallas — next summer could get very fun, very fast.
2. Kawhi Leonard: As has been well-documented, the task for Toronto in the coming year is to persuade Leonard to stay in a place and perform for a team for which he had no desire to play just a few short weeks ago. It’s a tall order, and if the Raptors can do it, the massive gamble they took this month will have paid off.
Most around the league still expect that Leonard will look to return home to Southern California, either to join LeBron James with the Lakers or bring his star power to the Clippers.
3. Kyrie Irving: Danny Ainge did not trade away Terry Rozier this summer (not yet, at least), and with good reason — Rozier is insurance should Irving want to return to the New York area with the Knicks or Nets. The Celtics traded for Irving thinking he’d be around long-term, and Irving has said that is his intention.
But he’s also said he will see what’s to be had out in free agency next summer, opening the possibility he winds up a few hours south of Boston for 2019-20.
4. Jimmy Butler: We reported that Butler was not happy in Minnesota a couple of months ago, especially with fellow Wolves star Andrew Wiggins. It’s also been reported that Butler does not much care for Towns, either. All that points to Butler exiting when he hits free agency next summer, though his relationship with coach Tom Thibodeau offers the Wolves some hope of keeping Butler.
He is going to have plenty of options, though. He could join up with Irving in Brooklyn, or join Leonard with the Clippers. He could be the final piece to push the Sixers to a Finals run. He could forge a new future in Dallas. Dissatisfaction with his young teammates is a problem, but Minnesota’s bigger problem when it comes to Butler is that he will have so many choices.
5. Klay Thompson: For those hoping to see the NBA returned to sanity with the breakup of the Warriors, Thompson is the biggest hope. He could be lured back to Southern California, where he’s from, to play with James in what would seem an ideal pairing.
But those hoping for a Thompson departure underestimate how attached he is to the Bay Area and the Warriors franchise. It’s hard to imagine him leaving on his own accord.
6. Al Horford: Horford will be 33 when free agency hits next summer, and conventional wisdom has it that he would simply opt in to the final year of his contract with Boston, which would pay him $30 million. But Horford was an All-Star last year and has the kind of game that should allow him to produce into his late 30s.
Next summer, with all its available money, could prove one last chance to lock down a three-year deal that could pay him in the $70 million range. It’s likely that the Celtics would be the team paying him that deal, but if Boston falters on keeping Horford, he would surely get the chance to join a team with aspirations, like the Pacers or Sixers.
7. Kemba Walker: There won’t be a big clamor for point guards on next year’s market, and that’s a potential problem for Walker, who needs the ball in his hands and does not play with great efficiency. He’s an ideal starting piece for a rebuilding project, but teams like Dallas, Sacramento and Atlanta have already made draft investments in point guards, and sinking a max contract on Walker doesn’t make sense.
Would Walker fit in, say, Indiana with Victor Oladipo? Or in Utah with Donovan Mitchell? Probably not. The best choices probably will be starting over in Brooklyn or staying in Charlotte.
8. DeMarcus Cousins: The Warriors will give Cousins ample opportunity to show he is back to 100 percent after having his Achilles tendon repaired and can be a max player elsewhere when he hits the market next summer. The Mavericks were interested in bringing in Cousins this summer, and they would be in good position to make it happen in 2019.
Again, the Pacers, as a team with a chance to move forward in the East, are an interesting possibility, teaming Cousins with Myles Turner and Oladipo. Cousins would not be the top choice for the Lakers, but he’d be on their list, too. First things first, though — he’s got to prove he’s healthy.
9. Khris Middleton: Middleton is overshadowed by his better-known wing teammate, Giannis Antetokounmpo, but those who watch the Bucks regularly know he has established his value as a top-tier player in the NBA. Middleton averaged 20.1 points even as a midseason slump dinged his 3-point shooting numbers (35.9 percent last year, but he had finished at 39.6 percent or better the last four years).
Middleton has a $13 million player option for 2019-20, and he is certain to opt out. He will likely double that amount, and the Bucks must make keeping him a priority.
10. Tobias Harris: Harris wisely turned down an $80 million extension (over five years) from the Clippers this summer, because he will secure more next summer — maybe even a max deal of four years, $145 million if he leaves LA.
Harris averaged 19.3 points in 32 games with the Clippers, and he had his best stretch as a 3-point shooter last year (41.4 percent). The Clippers would like to make him a featured player, but the better he does this year, the higher the price tag.