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The NBA’s Potential Free Agency Chain Reactions Boggle the Mind

More than ever before, one superstar’s actions can change the entire league. With free agency just a few short days away, everything hangs in the balance. How will it all shake out?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This summer, the NBA’s free agency period will open at 6 p.m. ET on June 30 instead of its usual time of midnight on July 1. I’m not convinced the change is for the sake of a full eight hours of sleep, though. If the league cared about the REM cycles of players, agents, scouts, GMs, bloggers, and obsessive fans, then West Coast games wouldn’t begin at 10 p.m. ET. Regardless of when free agency actually opens, teams need a jump start on the chaos, even if it is, after all, in violation [wink] of league rules [wink wink] to speak with players before free agency opens [Rihanna double-time blink wink].

The forecast is calling for the most hectic free agency in years, because (1) so many players of influence are on the market, and (2) it’s a player’s league. And any decision one superstar makes will have ripple effects for the others. More than ever, top-tier players are speaking privately and forming alliances. But I’ve seen enough Survivor to know the inevitable: Smart players always do what’s in their best interest—even if that means exiling someone else (i.e., letting them sign with the Knicks alone).

Here are a few possible chain reactions for the teams—the Knicks, Clippers, Lakers, and Celtics—involved in almost every rumor:


What happens if Kevin Durant signs with New York?

Congrats, Knicks! If Durant signs on, you will have done it—after years of wishful thinking, cap clearing, and heartbreak, you’ll finally sign a top free agent. This has been the rumor from the jump: Durant deciding to recover from his Achilles surgery in New York, which, conveniently, is also where his business is located. Maybe he would get there via sign-and-trade from the Warriors, as Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher said was a possibility: “Several executives expressed confidence the Warriors would readily agree to a sign-and-trade that would allow Durant a $221 million payday and to play for the team of his choice.” Both parties benefit from a sign-and-trade: Golden State rectifies whatever part it played in Durant’s injury by giving him more guaranteed money, and the team also gets some asset in return for Durant, who could walk as an unrestricted free agent.

A KD signing could create an incredible chain reaction for the Knicks. Kyrie Irving could sign with the Knicks immediately afterward, fulfilling the duo’s long-reported wish to play in tandem and validating New York’s decision to trade Kristaps Porzingis. Durant wouldn’t be able to play for the first season of his five-year deal (assuming the franchises do a sign-and-trade for the most possible money), but because New York would finally have an above-average point guard in Irving, it could be enough to recruit another player by the time Durant is healthy again.

What happens if Durant doesn’t sign with New York?

In this scenario, Irving would sway Durant to sign with the Nets instead, winning him over with the organization’s “infrastructure.” So technically, Durant would sign with New York, just not that New York. Brooklyn, baby, home to Coney Island, the Cyclones, Prospect Park, and now, a 7-footer who claims he’s 6-foot-9.

With Irving locked up, Brooklyn will most likely let D’Angelo Russell walk. It wouldn’t be the worst-case scenario for Russell, who’s drawn interest from the Suns and Lakers. With the Knicks stripped of their first option (Durant and Irving), second option (just Durant), and third option (just Irving), they’d be forced to pivot. Kemba Walker has New York somewhere on his list, but reportedly favors Boston. A fifth, last-ditch option for an All-Star is signing DeMarcus Cousins to a large one-year deal.

Clippers and Lakers

What happens if Kawhi Leonard signs with the Clippers?

Leonard, who is reportedly interested in playing with Jimmy Butler, could convince the Clippers to offer them both maximum contracts. This would sting for the Lakers, who, according to reports, are interested in signing either of the players and have just opened up enough cap space to sign a max-level free agent. (Close one!) Luckily, the Lakers are interested in signing anyone of merit, so they still have options in Irving, Russell, and Walker. (“Merit” might be flexible for L.A. at this point, so that list could grow as free agency moves forward.)

This would devastate Toronto, but at least the Raptors can wipe away their tears with confetti. Without any clear (or reported, at least) backup plan in place, the Raptors could begin shopping Kyle Lowry, or act drastically and take on another franchise’s expiring burdens. There is no running it back without Leonard, and a year to change course wouldn’t be the worst thing for an organization that just beat one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history (yes, we know Golden State was hobbled). Adding Leonard and Butler would make L.A. the center of gravity in the NBA—well, more than it is already—with the LeBron-Davis Lakers and Kawhi-Jimmy Clippers vying for league supremacy.

What happens if Leonard sticks with Toronto?

If the Raptors retain their Finals MVP, they’d become favorites to repeat as champions in 2019-20. Without Leonard, the Clippers and Butler probably won’t be ready to commit to each other. (In May, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times reported that the Clippers “do not want to sign” Butler; in June, Bucher wrote Butler prefers to be the third Lakers star and would even take a pay cut to become such.) After months of LeBron recruiting him, Butler seems most likely to become the Chris Bosh to Anthony Davis’s Dwyane Wade and LeBron James’s LeBron James. (On second thought, hierarchically, Davis is Heat LeBron, and LeBron is Heat Wade.) Is it too early to bet on the Raptors and Lakers meeting in the Finals?

What happens if Leonard signs with the Lakers?

If Leonard signs with L.A., whom he’ll reportedly meet with once free agency opens, the Lakers would automatically vault into the running for the best team this decade. (I know what I’m saying; this implies that they could be better than the Durant and Steph Curry Warriors and assumes that LeBron is still peak LeBron.) Davis would have no reason not to re-sign in this instance—as a Klutch client, it seems the most likely outcome, anyway, Leonard or not. This also means that a slew of point guards—Irving, Walker, Russell—would have to find a different home.


What happens if Kemba Walker signs with Boston?

Sympathize with Charlotte all you want, but Kemba Walker would finally be free. One of his top choices would want him back, which has to feel great after the superstar-less Hornets reportedly offered well below the max. There are many positives for Kemba in signing with the Celtics: bigger market; more storied franchise; more nationally televised games; more aggressive front office; and better teammates in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and the ghost of Gordon Hayward than anyone during Kemba’s stay in Charlotte. But the negatives of signing with the Celtics are apparent, too: Teal did wonders for Kemba.

With Kemba and Marcus Smart, Boston wouldn’t have room for Terry Rozier, who might demand an exorbitant amount of money, anyway. For the first time in his career, Kemba would be in a situation where it’s reasonable for him to recruit other players, and he might bring in a free-agent big to fill the Al Horford gap. Perhaps that player could be Cousins or Nikola Vucevic, or maybe Boston signs a placeholder and either makes a midseason trade or waits for next year’s class.

What happens if Walker doesn’t sign with Boston?

Because the Hornets quite possibly lowballed Walker, Charlotte most likely won’t retain their All-Star guard. Walker is reportedly also being recruited by the Mavericks and the Knicks, the former with two potential European superstars, and the latter potentially demoralized enough from missing out on KD and Kyrie to offer whatever incentives Walker wishes.

Not securing Irving or Walker would put Boston in an uncomfortable spot. Maybe the Celtics say screw it and re-sign Rozier to a short, expensive deal; maybe over the 2019-20 season, an all-powerful Rozier plants a flag in Waiters Island and calls it his own. In that case, Boston seems unlikely to convince a high-profile big to sign on. That leaves a center like Enes Kanter as a main option, whom the team has been watching all summer. That squad feels very much like a 49-win, bounced-in-the-second-round type Celtics squad.