The actual basketball is over, and the NBA draft is behind us. Let the real games begin. Here are the biggest questions we’re mulling over less than a week away from the start of a free-agency period that could shape the league for years to come.
1. What will LeBron do?
Most of the major dominoes probably won’t fall until this one does, so we might as well start here, too.
LeBron James theoretically has 30 options this summer, but with less than a week until the clock officially begins on his third major free-agent decision, no one team feels like an exact match for James’s druthers. Brian Windhorst, the world’s foremost LeBron historian, last Friday dubbed Los Angeles (which L.A. team was not specified) as the clubhouse leader for James’s services next season, with incumbent Cleveland not too far behind, and Philadelphia bringing up the rear. All are hardly fit for a King at this point: The Sixers’ young talent is much further along than the Lakers’ (if that is indeed his Angeleno of choice), but the fit issues between James and his Australian successor are very real; the Cavs just got swept in the NBA Finals, and GM Koby Altman didn’t exactly dismiss the fact a 19-year-old point guard doesn’t fit the timeline of a 15-year veteran; and the Lakers as contenders is still a hypothesis, one dependent on the addition of another star (and possibly a third star) who may never come.
Where James ends up is still a guessing game, and a waiting game, and a game within a game. But we’ve been here twice before. In choosing the Heat in 2010 and the Cavs in 2014, two mini-trends emerged:
Both teams were the unexpected choice at the time: Remember when James was supposed to team up with Dwyane Wade on the Chicago Bulls? Or join the Knicks because Tony Soprano foretold it? How about that James wouldn’t leave Miami after making four straight trips to the Finals? Each time James was in this situation before, his eventual choice didn’t align with the conventional wisdom. This may be less instructive than it was eight years ago, now that every breadcrumb of intel winds up getting leaked, but it may still bear out on a much smaller scale—for instance, maybe his relationship with Ben Simmons, a fellow Klutch Sports client, weighs heavier in the calculus than the fact their skill sets appear duplicative.
Both teams were blank slates: For all the pomp surrounding James’s triumphant return home to right wrongs and win Cleveland that elusive title, it’s important to remember that the Cavs were also one of the most asset-rich teams in the league. As Wade devolved into a designated hitter by the end of the Big Three era because of injuries, Kyrie Irving was becoming a younger version with a 3-point shot; and two straight years at the top of the draft had given Cleveland the trade fodder to land Kevin Love as LeBron’s new Chris Bosh. In 2010, the Heat had razed their roster down to James Jones and a couple of palm trees, paving the way to sign the three best players on the market. Neither team had much of a roster to sell to James before he arrived, but they had the means to get him one.
James’s priorities may have shifted; his family’s wishes have become a bigger talking point than in years past. But with the twilight of his career approaching, ensuring the sort of supporting cast that would aid, and eventually buoy, his assault on the NBA history books seems more important now than ever before.
1a. How long will LeBron drag this out?
While James’s choice has the chance to shape the NBA for the next half decade, how long he takes to make it will shape everyone in his orbit—teams, other free agents, reporters’ vacations—for the next half month. The good news is some modicum of clarity will come this week. Midnight of June 29 will function as a Bachelor-style first cutdown—that’s how long James has to decide whether or not he will opt into the final year of his contract with the Cavs, and thus open up the possibility of an opt-in-and-trade, à la Chris Paul last year. If he doesn’t, you can write off virtually every team except Cleveland that doesn’t have cap space. Even Daryl Morey’s supercomputer will struggle to carve out max-contract space in the Rockets’ books for James under a hard cap with Paul and restricted free agent Clint Capela both likely to command top dollar.
1b. LeBron’s Twitter account is now Akron-themed. What does it MEAN?!?!?!
2. Which teams will fall into the Phil Jackson zone?
A select few teams will get to chase the ultimate brass ring this summer, but most will try to do their best just to keep up. And keeping up, more likely than not, means putting ownership’s dollars to work regardless of the long-term ramifications (à la Jackson in 2015 … and 2016). Any team could wind up overspending in the heat of the chase—the Pelicans nearly doubled their getout price on Solomon Hill two years ago—but the two most likely to pay up for a quick fix are the same ones that made the biggest splashes on draft night.
Dallas: The Mavericks coughed up a future first-round pick to land Luka Doncic in a move that, if not for the cult of bloggers who spent a calendar year mainlining Synergy clips adopting Luka as their one true god, could be described as eerily similar to the Sixers’ trade-up for Markelle Fultz. The pick will convey next year if it falls outside of the top five, meaning they’ll have every incentive to go out and pay for Tyson Chandler 2.0 to fill their glaring hole at center. The Mavs have plenty of options, but if DeAndre Jordan doesn’t opt out and the Rockets match any offer to Capela, the fear is they’ll be stuck maxing DeMarcus Cousins fresh off an Achilles rupture or spending too much on Derrick Favors—neither of whom provides the requisite rim protection to cover up for Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. on defense.
Phoenix: The Suns are also transitioning to win-now mode, or something. The Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder was a steep price to pay in order to get Mikal Bridges in the fold ASAP, signaling that Phoenix won’t be looking to lose, at least intentionally, from here on out. Making up any meaningful ground in the West with a core of two rookies and four other recent draftees all under the age of 23 is unrealistic, but spending now to at least graduate from an amorphous blob of young talent has some merits. Improving the league’s worst defense should be the priority; Marcus Smart has a similarly relentless impact on that side of the ball as Josh Jackson, and Luc Mbah a Moute would be the perfect switchy, shooting big to complement Deandre Ayton’s rim runs and blown assignments. But immediate upgrades never come cheap; the Celtics may want to keep Smart if only to preserve a trade asset, and Mbah a Moute, if healthy, will likely command more than the minimum deal he signed last summer.
3. Will Paul George stay in Oklahoma City?
As free agency approaches, the Thunder indeed appear to be up in the race for Paul George. The New York Times’s Marc Stein reported last week that contract scenarios between George and his current team are starting to circulate among rivals. On Saturday, USA Today’s Sam Amick reported that the OKC momentum is starting to ripple into LeBron’s realm: “There is all sorts of optimism in Oklahoma City that George will re-sign,” he wrote. “Conversely, there’s pessimism in James’s camp that George would leave Oklahoma City.” There’s still plenty of time for George to change his mind, but if he indeed returns to the Thunder, three pretty important discussions emerge:
1. While there is a statistical case building that Russell Westbrook’s style of play has a negative effect on his teammates, there’s also mounting evidence that teammates enjoy playing with him. Kevin Durant’s digital shade is well-documented, but no teammate came out publicly against Russ as his usage rate reached historic levels two seasons ago, and both George and Carmelo Anthony have backed him, even as he pilfered their rebounds.
2. George and Kevin Love are among the most recent superstars to be traded without an assurance given to their new team that they would stay long-term. Both will have signed second deals with those teams. (You can include Goran Dragic, too, if you believe that one phone call at the start of free agency was all it took to convince him to return to Miami after being traded there five months earlier.) Cousins, who was dealt with a season and a half left on his deal, has to make a decision on whether or not to stay in New Orleans this summer; Kyrie Irving won’t have to make the same choice until next summer, at the earliest.
3. If OKC’s gamble pays off, will more teams outside of L.A. County be emboldened to make a similar play for Kawhi Leonard?
4. Will the Kawhi sweepstakes end this summer?
Unless Uncle Dennis starts spam messaging every prominent NBA reporter once a day with a new grievance, the Spurs seem content to wait for the market to come to them. R.C. Buford put relationship-building at the top of his Leonard agenda when the GM met with reporters on the night of the draft, and nothing mends fences better than an extra $31 million that only San Antonio can offer. But recent history suggests we’re still headed for a divorce at some point in the near future. As with every other prominent player decision that will take place in the coming weeks, James’s choice could factor into how Kawhi’s summer shakes out.
5. Will the Lakers be left at the altar yet again?
Long term, the Lakers are much better off than they were three years ago at this time, when the franchise was dragged for its tone-deaf pitch to LaMarcus Aldridge. Kobe Bryant is no longer openly antagonizing his own teammates. The front office has unearthed valuable contributors in the back end of the first round (though the Lakers’ three consecutive no. 2 picks have yet to produce the superstar the team badly needs). And the team has begun establishing some semblance of an identity other than being a mausoleum to past accomplishments. But as they head into the first offseason of consequence under the Magic–Rob Pelinka power duo, it still feels like the sales pitch to superstars like James and George is a more polished version of the same one they gave out years ago: possibility draped in Lakers exceptionalism. A February story proclaiming that they had reset their sights to the 2019 free-agent class was either a smoke screen or an early cushion for an inevitable fall. We’ll see.
6. When will reality come crashing down on Carmelo Anthony?
It’s D-Wadeja Vu all over again. Last June, Wade opted into the last year of his contract with the Bulls, worth $23.8 million, only to agree to a buyout before training camp began. Now it’s Melo’s turn to play washed-star chicken. Anthony declined to exercise his early-termination option over the weekend, meaning he is now due $27.9 million for next season. But money is far from a solution: Melo shot a career-low 40.4 percent from the floor in his first season backing up Russell Westbrook—a truly repugnant number in today’s efficiency-obsessed NBA for a player who shot and started as often as he did—yet thought his role was the problem. It seems likely that he’ll be giving some of that salary back to be able to choose a new destination. The quest to find a team in desperate need of a score-first, defense-last power forward to run the offense seems … ambitious—though the Clippers, who nearly dealt for Melo last year and may be looking to beef up their bona fides as a superstar destination, make some sense. He can take solace in the fact things worked out—eventually—for Wade.
Also worth noting: If and when Melo does get cut loose, and James also opts out of his contract as expected, it will mark the first time the full Banana Boat will be free agents in the same year. (Paul arrived in the NBA two draft classes after the other three, and Carmelo Anthony memorably took the guaranteed fifth year in his second deal with Denver instead of an opt-out to sync up with the rest of the Heatles.) Maybe if the Lakers strike out on building a team around current all-league players, they can sign the full boat plus Dwight Howard to form an All-NBA team from a decade prior. They should be used to mortgaging their future to cash in on the past by now.
7. Who will be the surprise team of the summer?
Sam Presti’s ninja offseason hardly yielded historic returns, but last year’s surprise trades for a pair of All-Stars completely overhauled OKC’s roster and expectations, after Russell Westbrook’s John McClane act fizzled out in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. It’s hard to envision any team currently outside of the title picture microwaving a contender in one offseason other than the Lakers, but the following franchises have the means to make splashes that will at least win a news cycle:
Chicago: With Wendell Carter Jr. joining Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls have a smart, stretchy, albeit slow-footed frontcourt to build upon moving forward. The big question now is if Zach LaVine, a restricted free agent who hasn’t played 82 games in the past two seasons combined, is the optimal wing scorer to pair with them. Re-upping LaVine, one of the key pieces in the return package for Jimmy Butler, is the path of least resistance; then again, paying a player still trying to get right after an ACL tear may only be doubling down on a sunk cost. The Bulls’ absorption of Omer Asik’s millstone contract at the trade deadline points to a longer view than this summer—Chicago native Anthony Davis will likely hit free agency in 2020, when the team’s books are protected to be pristine—but they have the potential cap space, assets, and market muscle to get friskier than expected.
Toronto: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE (according to reports).
Washington: With Marcin Gortat now on an expiring contract and another intriguing wing in Troy Brown Jr. on a rookie deal joining the fold on draft day, the Wizards all of a sudden have more than max deals to bargain with. A sign-and-trade built around Boogie Cousins for Otto Porter Jr. still makes all kind of sense for both sides. The Wizards could put together a similar package for Swole Myles Turner if Indiana wants to try again with the pace-and-space offense it forced onto Paul George three years ago. Or they might be desperate enough for the nuclear option: aggregating a few expirings to eat the remaining $52.5 million owed to Hassan Whiteside, whose surliness and lob-catching would be an easy fit on a John Wall–driven team.
8. Will restricted free agency be more active?
The restricted free-agent market is usually, well, restricted. Last year, just one RFA changed teams: Tim Hardaway Jr., and it took a gross overpay by a Knicks regime in transition to get him back to New York. The year before that, there were three.
This year’s restricted crop has a few more interesting cases than usual. Even after five centerish prospects came off the board within the first seven picks of the draft, someone is bound to throw a hefty offer at Clint Capela. Aaron Gordon had a career year back at power forward, but a new Magic front office may have drafted its frontcourt of the future in the past two lotteries. A glass-half-full team could get the Bucks and Trail Blazers to finally throw in the towel on Jabari Parker and Jusuf Nurkic. Julius Randle may be a casualty of the Lakers’ big-game hunting. There’s also LaVine, Smart, Rodney Hood, Dante Exum, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Anderson, and Nemanja Bjelica, among others.
The guess here is that most of these players’ teams will still match offers rather than lose the asset for nothing. But an enterprising GM may be able to slip in an offer sheet while other teams are busy LeBron-watching, or at worst force a rival owner to bite down hard and pay a large sum, and maybe even dip into the tax, to keep an imperfect player.
9. How will the financial crunch come into play?
Whether it was the lingering effects of last offseason or the swell of scuttlebutt leading into the night, the draft was expected to be a fireworks show of player movement. In the end, it was a total bust: A few teams moved up and down, but not a single veteran NBA player was traded for the first time in 15 years. Are we in for the same during free agency? The dearth of meaningful cap space across the league—the inevitable hangover from the wild spending in the summer of 2016—has led some to speculate that the trade market will be the primary source of unforeseen outcomes. For instance, if the restricted market indeed picks up, sign-and-trades may ramp up along with it. But if James, George, and Leonard all stay put, the rest of the offseason may be just as anticlimactic as draft night.
10. Can the Sixers take advantage of their window?
Draft night was a narrative thrill ride for anyone looking to read way too deeply into the first decisions of head coach Brett Brown in his new role as interim general manager. Brown looked like a novice after making the safe pick of Bridges, a Villanova guard whose mother works for the 76ers, at no. 10 overall. Then he looked like the spawn of Sam Hinkie by flipping the pick for Zhaire Smith and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder from Phoenix. When the draft was over, Brown was swaggering like he was Gordon Gekko at a stockholder meeting:
“We are star hunting or we are star developing, that’s how you win a championship and the emotion of what we have all been through is painful,” he told reporters. “But as I said at the start, [the focus is on] what’s best for the organization and how do you win a championship, and since I’ve looked at you all I haven’t pivoted out of that once.”
As entertaining as it is to hear Brown’s bloodlust, his dramatic reading from the Book of Process underlines the importance of this summer for the Sixers. Outside of the recently acquired Heat pick, Philly’s geyser of high first-rounders will run dry as long as the team continues to win big. Joel Embiid’s extension will kick in on July 1, removing $25 million from a once-open field of cap space. But the salaries for Simmons and Dario Saric won’t match their high level of production for at least another two seasons. That gives the Sixers only this offseason and the next to take advantage of that way-below-market value and redistribute the savings elsewhere, in the same way an NFL team with a good young quarterback can beef up other areas of need. With J.J. Redick in need of a new deal or the team in need of a replacement this summer, and with rotation players like T.J. McConnell in the same spot next year, the Sixers have the means to go over their cap. Now is indeed the time to go star-fishing.