We're in the dog days of summer and the most riveting NBA storylines revolve around Snapchat (for better and for worse). So yes, it’s a little early to start examining next season’s free agency—but what else are we supposed to do?
Recent reports put next year’s salary cap around $102 million, marking an increase of about $8 million from this year’s threshold. The luxury tax would be at around $122 million. This is less than some projected it would be, and certainly subject to change, but the bottom line is that teams are going to have even more money to spend, and players will be able to demand more in turn.
There are also new collective bargaining negotiations on deck. The current CBA runs through 2020–21, but the NBA and NBPA have a mutual opt-out clause that gives both sides until June 30 to end the agreement. Right now, everyone seems optimistic that the league won’t have another lockout, but the record amounts of money being spent are at least reason for pause. As long as both teams and players are raking in insane cash, it’s not really in anyone’s best interest to stop business. Plus, Michele Roberts told the Boston Globe this week that she thinks they can get it done before this season. This is all gravy.
If a lockout indeed happens, it’ll go down before free agency starts. This, of course, would throw all of our assumed financial implications into flux. But in the interest of wishful thinking as well as the possibility of fun, let’s assume that doesn’t happen here. The free-agents-to-be are still going to be free agents.
There’s obviously an entire season to watch, so we won’t get into player rankings, but it seems fair enough to create some tiers. Consider this a loosely organized way to think about the upcoming class. Without speculating too hard over old rumors or new destinations, here is an early, peripheral look at the top players potentially available.
Most are likely to stay put, all can alter the league’s landscape with their decisions.
Sorry. Do we really think LeBron is going anywhere? No, and especially not right now. But assuming he re-ups under his preferred 1+1 option structure, LeBron will have a boatload of options and his usual leverage in negotiations, given that, you know, he’s LeBron James. We do know he wants to play with Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony before they retire, but that would require a major philosophical shift from Cavs management. Maybe the Warriors are triggering a league-wide arms race that only LeBron can find a way to properly counter.
Kevin Durant can’t really get away with two address changes in two off-seasons…but KD’s shown us that 1) he’s not afraid to call his own shot and 2) he’s just impulsive enough to not dismiss this entirely. That said, it’s a safe bet that he’s in the Bay Area for a few years. One item of note: the Warriors will not have his full Bird rights, so that means if he opts out and wants to be paid the new, higher max, they’re going to have to clear a lot more cap space to make it happen. And this gets a little tricky when you remember the other huge free agent they do need to re-sign. Which brings us to…
We’ve heard it before and will keep hearing it until the Warriors pony up with an inevitable max extension: Steph Curry is the most underpaid athlete in sports, blah blah blah. We get it. If Durant opts in, it makes the contractual juggling process easier for Golden State brass, but it goes without saying that the plan here has to be keeping the current core together. Of note, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are entering free agency and already in their 30s (more on that later). This is another likely formality.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. The first question is if Westbrook will be traded by next off-season—and if he’s unwilling to commit to Oklahoma City long term, then logic and Sam Presti’s history suggests that he will. Basically, the Thunder can’t afford to let Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook walk for nothing. If Russ gets traded, the presumption should be that whoever gets him knows they’re re-signing him (and if they don’t…woof).
That considered, whether he hits the market for real is a function of the Thunder’s ability to navigate the situation, one way or the other. Russ can certainly change the course of most every franchise in the league, but he’s also a human culture change and brings with him some heavy personal gravity, on and off the court. Of the high-profile free agencies, this would be the one to watch.
The Clippers: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
Not the only free-agent Clippers…but the most important ones.
It’s felt like each of the last couple seasons could have been the breaking point for this Clippers team. Between disappointing playoff exits, Blake playing punch-out, DeAndre Jordan’s weird free agency, Doc hinting at reshuffling the deck, tons of inconvenient injuries and of course, Meet the Hoopers, the slow dissolving of Lob City has been a revolving soap opera of sorts.
Anyway, CP3 and Blake are back and have player options for next season. Paul will be 32 when free agency hits, quite possibly having never played in a conference finals. Griffin’s coming off the most tumultuous season of his career. Both are returning from injury. The stakes are pretty clear for the Clippers, and maybe unfairly so—it may take a Finals trip to keep the whole band together. The thing is, KD going to the Warriors has created a void of sorts for second-best team in the West, one that the Clippers, with a full, healthy season, could make a run at. History suggests an uphill climb. It’s not hard to see the power of attrition effecting change here.
They’ll command big money. They’re valuable on and off the court. With their decisions will come bigger franchise implications.
Lowry will make $12 million next season and is due for a big pay day, with an opt-out he’s almost certain to exercise. He’ll be 31 when he hits free agency. Still, someone’s sure to throw a max-level deal at him. Right now, it’s not a clear-cut decision one way or the other for the Raptors, who wisely ponied up for DeMar DeRozan and remain among the East’s elite teams. Extending a high-salaried point guard nearing the end of the typical prime years can be dangerous business. Then again, Toronto’s in midst of a franchise renaissance, and keeping continuity may be easier than trying their luck bidding or a replacement. There are plenty of teams with positional needs and the money for splashy bids. We’ll see.
Millsap was involved in trade rumors this off-season as the Hawks reportedly tried to keep Al Horford and slide him to power forward next to Dwight Howard. That fit would probably have been a little questionable. Millsap holds a player option for next season and would hit free agency at age 32. He’s been Atlanta’s fulcrum the last three years, but if things go poorly to start the season, it’s not far-fetched to think he could maybe move sooner than later. Though he’s aging, his versatility can elevate just about any roster.
The Jazz are building something sustainable right now, and Hayward is at the center of it. They seem almost certain to pay up to keep him, and there’s no reason for them not to. Stars don’t just show up at Utah’s doorstep, and Hayward will be just 27 entering free agency with a player option. The Jazz just have to keep him happy—and their recent improvements suggest they plan on being a playoff team this season. This feels like a great continued match.
While Wade seems genuinely excited to be playing for the team he grew up watching, the Bulls’ chief decision-makers are tough to peg, and their on-court product could certainly fall short of expectations again. It’s reasonable to see Wade, having left Miami anyway, opting out to assess his options. He was tied to Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. Can he finesse another team-up with LeBron? Will he go somewhere with CP3? These are fair questions, and ones we are probably going to hear a lot of—possibly even more than how much D-Wade has left in the tank.
Can offer legitimate long-term help, and will be in demand.
Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Jeff Teague
For brevity’s sake, let’s group them together. Gallinari’s been part of trade rumors for a couple of seasons and is older than Denver’s intriguing young core—if it looks like another growth year for the Nuggets, maybe he finally moves somewhere. If not, he’ll surely have interest on the market given how good he can be when healthy. The Magic likely didn’t deal legitimate parts for Ibaka to let him walk now—expect them to try and get an extension done. The same goes for Teague, whose scoring ability and quickness should add a helpful dynamic to the Pacers’ offense as Indiana tries desperately to build Paul George a contender.
Restricted free agents
These guys need to get paid, and will.
Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, Dennis Schröder
This isn’t worth getting into: all of these guys are young and promising, all of their teams have a lot riding on them (though Noel may be traded before long) and will need to spend big to keep them. It would be altogether surprising if these guys hit free agency or are allowed to walk.
Still useful, but for how long?
Pau Gasol, Andre Iguodala, Zach Randolph, J.J. Redick
All four could conceivably stay put, Gasol having just arrived in San Antonio, Iguodala and Randolph with deep roots in Golden State and Memphis, respectively, and Redick enjoying the best years of his career with the Clippers. All four could also help just about any contender. Gasol and Randolph have to be nearing retirement. Pau and the Spurs make enough sense together that you can see it lasting more than a year. It’s kind of hard to see Z-Bo ever leaving Memphis at this point.
Iguodala and Redick leave a bit more uncertainty, based heavily on the fact that the Warriors and Clippers have bigger salary issues to work through. Could Iguodala be a salary cap casualty of maxing out Curry and Durant? Would he take a pay cut to stay put? Given what they’ve accomplished and his role in luring KD, the latter seems likely enough. If Paul and Griffin leave L.A., is there any on-court reason besides dollars for Redick to stick around? Even as his skill set eventually enters decline, that three-point stroke will keep him relevant among the league’s top tier of teams. Wait and see, here.
Well, this leaves a bit to unpack.
Tyreke Evans, Rudy Gay, Jrue Holiday, Greg Monroe, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose
Evans and Holiday could easily be out as New Orleans rebuilds, with Holiday the more valuable asset. Both will be 27. Gay’s time in Sacramento will likely end soon, whether via trade or if he walks. His utility has been sporadic enough to make the actual market for him a real curiosity as he enters his 30s. Similarly, it’s not a secret that the Bucks’ Monroe experiment has pretty much failed. If he doesn’t get traded, it’s tough to see him coming back. He can likely help someone as a rotational scoring big man, but his optimal on-court future is probably off the bench.
Which brings us to Rose and Rondo, who are now intertwined after the most recent off-season roulette spin. Rose is a bit of a poison-pill situation for the Knicks: if he puts together a healthy season, he’ll likely command serious money again, more than he’s probably worth. If the Knicks somehow put all these parts together into a playoff team, there’ll be pressure to keep him anyway. If he bombs or gets hurt again, he’ll hit the market as a real mystery, and the Knicks’ gamble will most likely come off a little foolhardy. Rondo replaces him in Chicago with just a partially-guaranteed second contract year, meaning it’ll be a little easier for the Bulls to cut bait. They’re his fourth team in less than two years, and possibly another failed experiment.
Moreso than others, 2016-17 carries a ton of weight and puts a lot of dollars at stake for all these guys.
The toughest group to project.
Tony Allen, Andrew Bogut, Taj Gibson, Jeff Green, George Hill, Shaun Livingston
Congrats if you made it this far down. We’ll spare you any more details. There are 83 days until the 2016–17 season and 332 until July 1, 2017.
Hang in there.