The best part about the NBA — the free-agency period — is finally here, and the first superstar is already on his way from California to Texas. Beginning at midnight Eastern time tonight, free agents will be allowed to negotiate terms with teams, though they can’t officially sign those deals until July 7 (see: Jordan, DeAndre). Who will go where? Here are our best guesses:
The Celtics sign Rudy Gay
Jonathan Tjarks: Boston could have had Jimmy Butler for a song, but the Celtics chose to keep their powder dry to potentially get Gordon Hayward and Paul George. They are about to find out that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. If they don’t get any of the big stars in free agency, Gay is reportedly their fall-back plan. The good news is that Gay is a well-respected veteran presence in the locker room who should be a good influence on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. DeMar DeRozan wouldn’t be who he is today without Gay.
Kyle Lowry leaves Toronto, but not for an immediate contender
Danny Chau: It’s an interesting time to be a 30-something star entering free agency, for basketball mortality rears its head in two ways: This is most likely the last opportunity to accrue maximum value on a long-term contract, but it’s also a time to wonder just how much one is willing to sacrifice to win a championship — especially one that might be unattainable. With Chris Paul onboard a spaceship in Houston and Steph Curry a lock to re-sign with the Warriors, Kyle Lowry is the best point guard left in the free-agency pool. The number of perfect situations is scant. The Spurs may be the only true contender who could use his services, but the team would have to rejigger its roster to find a place for him, which is a much more difficult pill to swallow for a player decidedly not on CP3’s tier as a point guard.
Staying with the Raptors would make Lowry one of the richest athletes in the league, but at what cost? The psychic toll of losing year after year in similar, excruciating fashion weighs on a player, and he only has to look to Paul to see how that can influence a decision. More and more likely, it seems, Lowry will have to look for a compromise.
The splashiest move both now and in the future would be to link up with Jimmy Butler in Minnesota. According to KFAN, Butler has already started the recruitment process for Lowry, a fast friend from their time together at the Rio Olympics. It makes a whole lot of sense. Lowry would be able to recede from the harsh scrutiny that comes with being a first option and settle in as the fourth, riding out the rest of his prime as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins enter theirs in the coming years. It might not be instant gratification, but if Lowry wants to be a part of something potentially dynastic, Minnesota would be his best bet.
The Rockets find a way to get Paul George
Paolo Uggetti: Daryl Morey (who in the future movie about this era of the NBA will be played by A Beautiful Mind’s Russell Crowe) will break the CBA, confound the league office and the players union alike, and somehow manufacture a way to get Paul George onto the Rockets for next season.
Danny Ainge almost pulls off every deal
Michael Baumann: Danny Ainge almost trades for Paul George, but his lowball offer gets rejected. Danny Ainge almost recruits Gordon Hayward, but Ainge’s son, who’s running for Congress in Utah, convinces Hayward to stay with the Jazz. Danny Ainge’s son almost gets elected to Congress.
Danny Ainge settles for Danilo Gallinari and goes on a three-week press tour about how Gallinari was actually the player he wanted all along.
Carmelo Anthony finally waives his no-trade clause
Haley O’Shaughnessy: With Phil Jackson and his triangle offense gone, so are Melo’s reservations. His spite is no longer, and so will be his no-trade clause after he waives it with a demand to make a deal with Cleveland work. New York will get Kevin Love and Channing Frye’s remaining year in return, frontcourt supplements that new president Isiah Thomas will think a treasure chest.
The Knicks hire Isiah Thomas as president and general manager
Danny Heifetz: Phil Jackson was fired this week because he, like Voldemort, didn’t realize that you don’t mess with unicorns. The Knicks have been connected to Toronto’s Masai Ujiri and former Cavs GM David Griffin to fill their vacant front-office job, both of whom are good, competent candidates who have fleeced the Knicks in the past. Unfortunately, James Dolan, the real-life Robin Arryn, will probably screw it up. Isiah Thomas, who already works in the building for the New York Liberty, has ominously been described as a "dark horse candidate." Most people would conclude that a man who was accused of sexual harassment in your workplace should not return to said workplace to oversee a women’s basketball team, but, as Dolan explained at the time, "¯\_(ツ)_/¯."
Thomas is Dolan’s Rasputin. Dolan has formally and informally retained Thomas as an adviser for the past seven years, which after Thomas’s disastrous tenure as GM is like having an infant offer advice on cleaning up his or her own vomit. He’s probably spent the past two years directly in Dolan’s MSG orbit performing Wormtongue-like incantations set to JD’s favorite blues-rock music. "Isiah cannot be killed off," an MSG official told Frank Isola in 2015. "It’s actually quite impressive." It doesn’t make sense, and it may be morally wrong, but that’s why it’s the smart prediction. Don’t bet against Rasputin.
J.J. Redick trusts the Process
Shaker Samman: Long-range maestro and Certified Podcaster J.J. Redick will be the new starting shooting guard for the Philadelphia 76ers. At first glance, adding J.J. to the FEDS makes sense. The Sixers took the seventh-most 3-pointers in the league last season but finished with the sixth-worst percentage. Redick led the league in 3-point percentage two seasons ago and shot at a 42.9 percent clip from beyond the arc last year. Plugging the former Blue Devil in for Nik Stauskas immediately improves Philly’s offense. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to add a seasoned veteran to a young locker room.
Still, let me be clear — this is not a Process™-approved move. This is a Bryan Colangelo move. Redick is a 33-year-old jump shooter who’ll command a long-term contract that pays in the high teens yearly. It’s possible the Sixers could end up paying $20 million a season — up from the $7 million he got per year from the Clippers — for a guy they’ll regret having in four years. Sam Hinkie never planned for now. He planned for the future. That was the Process™ Way. Colangelo, on the other hand, is planning for the immediate fate of his team. If healthy, a lineup of Fultz-Redick-Simmons-Saric-Embiid could win more than 45 games. It just won’t win a title.
The Kings throw the max at Paul Millsap
Riley McAtee: So far, the Kings have done nearly everything I’ve wanted them to. The roster is filled with young players (nine guys will have one or zero years of NBA experience next season), and Sacramento has plenty of money to spend. It’s not every day your highest-paid player, at $12 million per year, is a rookie! If the Kings can absorb a big contract that some other contender needs to unload to create space, then they should do so — and get some assets in return. But what they shouldn’t do is sign a deal that in eight months will be a contract they’ll want to unload themselves. So of course that’s what they’ll do.
There are whispers the Kings are interested in Paul Millsap, a 32-year-old who is good enough to be an All-Star but not good enough to carry a team. Perfect for the Kings.
Nick Young stays Swaggy
Sean Yoo: Nick Young, a.k.a. Swaggy P, has been in the NBA for a little over a decade now. Regardless of what team he has been on, he has continued to stay true to his authentic self, which is full of swag. He’ll continue that on his new team. The best-case scenario would be returning to the Lakers, but it doesn’t seem like the cap space works in his favor.
There are plenty of other opportunities for Young. The Brooklyn Nets need shooting and provide an ideal city for him. The Grizzlies have been linked to having interest in him, and although the team doesn’t really scream swag, this would actually benefit Young because he would be the main source of swag to such a swagless team. Finally, the Atlanta Hawks, a team that resides in a city covered in swag, are in need of some offensive role players, and I think they would be a perfect match. Imagine seeing Nick Young dancing on court to the smooth stylings of Hawks organist Sir Foster.
Fortunately, this is a man who oozes confidence and swag, and the likeliness of that fading away on a new team is pretty low. Let’s just make sure he never gets signed by San Antonio.
Paul George joins the Lakers
The Lakers are at the bottom of what some might call the Wild, Wild West. And as much as I’d like to be referring to this late-’90s steampunk masterpiece, I’m not. I’m talking about the conference of teams that have been thoroughly belittled by the Golden State Warriors for the past few years. In times like these, one can’t afford to tread lightly. Moves have to be made. Deals have to get done. And that — I’m confident — is exactly what the Lakers are rearing up to do.
Right now, Magic Johnson is at Lakers headquarters nervously rubbing his sheened scalp, figuring out how to get Indiana Pacers forward Paul George in Staples Center this fall. My guess is the Lakers will have to part with their young guard Jordan Clarkson and two other pieces to appease them. Perhaps they’ll ship out high-flyer Larry Nance Jr. and avoid any potential awkwardness between him and new center Brook Lopez. And maybe tack on a 2020 first-rounder to that. If that doesn’t satisfy Indiana, they could consider packaging Clarkson with Julius Randle, their promising young forward whose rookie contract expires next summer. Only time (approximately 24 hours) will tell. Whatever happens, the Ball(s) is in Magic’s court.