After nine months of speculation, rumors, and eyewitness reports of construction in Brentwood, all of this is about to get real. NBA free agency begins Sunday morning at 12:00 a.m. But while we wait, I don't want to focus on LeBron James. His situation has been discussed at length. The closer we get to July 1, the more it looks like his options have narrowed to Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. The Lakers are looking like the favorite for a variety of reasons, but as we've learned in 2010 and 2014, anything can happen.
In any case, LeBron's future isn't the only question that will be answered in the coming weeks. Here are eight more stories to watch as the offseason kicks into overdrive this weekend.
1. How badly does Kawhi Leonard want to be a Laker? On Wednesday afternoon there was an ESPN report indicating that "pressure is mounting" on the Lakers to make a deal for Kawhi Leonard before Friday, when LeBron will decide whether to opt out of his current Cavs deal. The thesis of that report claims LeBron won't go to the Lakers without the commitment of another superstar as well, and that the Lakers can't afford to miss out on free agents a year after they decided not to trade for Paul George. I'm not 100% sold on either premise there, but nevertheless, Wednesday night Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Lakers have re-engaged San Antonio in trade talks.
Beyond pressure that may or may not accelerate these talks, Kawhi is definitely worth pursuing aggressively. He's better than Paul George. He's probably the most talented player to hit the trade market since Kevin Garnett 10 years ago. There are injury questions that complicate his value, but theoretically, he and LeBron are in a tier of their own this summer. And while trade talks could go a dozen different directions between now and Friday—or between now and the February trade deadline—Kawhi can take control of this process if he makes it clear that Los Angeles is his long-term plan regardless of what happens this summer.
In the same way that Kyrie Irving's camp was able to signal to teams like the Nuggets and Suns that he wouldn't re-sign if they traded young assets for him, Leonard can send similar signals to the Sixers, Celtics, and anyone else who's dealing with the Spurs at the moment. San Antonio has a decent amount of leverage for now—room to claim "We're not dealing him to the West"—but the more active Leonard is courting L.A., the harder it becomes for other teams to rationalize dealing with San Antonio. In that scenario, playing hardball with the Lakers becomes less tenable. Then again, that only happens if Kawhi is genuinely determined to play in L.A., and "What does Kawhi Leonard want?" has been an ongoing riddle for nine months now. We'll see.
2. How much should we trust these Paul George rumors? Over the past week there have been repeated reports that Paul George is leaning toward remaining in Oklahoma City this summer. First, Marc Stein indicated that rumors of a return were gaining momentum around the league. Then, Sam Amick noted there was "all kinds of optimism" that George could stay. Wednesday, Woj indicated that George's "thinking has changed" since a year ago, when he'd planned to sign with the Lakers.
It's hard to know what to think here, because where other stars are carefully laying out breadcrumbs in the media, sometimes Paul George is just saying stuff. When he's in OKC, he talks about building a real brotherhood with Russell Westbrook and notes that he could see himself staying. When he's in L.A., "Los Angeles is home" and he's going to have a lot to think about this summer. To SI's Lee Jenkins last summer, George said of L.A., "Who doesn't want to play for their hometown?" but quickly added, "If we get a killer season in Oklahoma ... I'd be dumb to want to leave that."
Anyone who's followed this journey closely, even dating back to his final year in Indiana, should know that a close reading of George quotes will generally leave you more confused than you were at the outset. There's no question that credible sources in OKC are hearing that a return is a possibility. How much that means is anyone's guess. But if George's decision really is up in the air, and that could swing LeBron's plans, that's a fantastic wildcard to throw into the mix over the next week.
Editor's Note: Paul George decided to re-sign with the Thunder on July 1.
3. Do the Sixers have a backup plan? If there's a team that should feel pressure to overpay for Kawhi, it's Philly, not L.A. The Sixers are working with a tight window of cap space for this summer and possibly next—Dario Saric and Ben Simmons will be due extensions by 2020—and this is a perfect opportunity to build out the nucleus with one more superstar. The problem: L.A. and Cleveland are the heavy favorites for LeBron, while Paul George is apparently choosing between L.A. and OKC. That removes two targets from the big board, and that leaves Kawhi.
The Sixers can offer the Spurs some combination of Saric, Markelle Fultz, Zhaire Smith, Miami's 2021 unprotected first–round pick, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless (to make the salaries work). The Celtics could beat it, but they may not want to get involved. The Lakers could at least match it, but maybe San Antonio is serious about refusing to deal with the West. Leonard has spent the past year seeing Jonathan Glashow, a New York physician who has also worked with the Josh Harris-owned New Jersey Devils, not to mention the Sixers and Joel Embiid. Maybe that relationship will help ease injury concerns as the process unfolds. As for the other hurdle to any Kawhi deal—what if Kawhi leaves next summer?—Philly will have to work behind the scenes to get more clarity.
"We are star-hunting," Brett Brown said when the Sixers acquired that Heat pick from the Suns on draft night. So what happens if they come up empty? They could always try to offer another balloon payment to J.J. Redick on a one-year deal, giving them short-term help while preserving long-term space. They could explore the restricted free-agency possibilities with someone like Aaron Gordon or perhaps Zach Lavine. They could also look at trading for a second tier of All-Stars, like Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan, Kemba Walker, or maybe Kevin Love. There are not many easy answers, and all the options look significantly less attractive than trading for an MVP caliber wing or signing one of the best players of all time. Also: post-Collargate, we still have no idea who's running this team.
All of this makes Philly one of the three most interesting teams in the league for the next few weeks. They have lots of cap space and a legitimate chance to make next year's Finals. The stakes are high, and the answers aren't clear. One more factor to consider: if Paul George does re-sign in OKC, maybe that makes Philly more likely to gamble on a Kawhi offer even without a firm commitment.
4. Can the Pelicans find a Boogie solution? Here's the thing: the Pelicans were legitimately good over the final three months of the season, and before that stretch, the Pelicans hadn't been legitimately good in years. They'd been decent, sure, but they always felt like Anthony Davis playing with the Washington Generals. Once Boogie went down, that changed. Davis looked like the best player in basketball over the final few months, Jrue Holiday was excellent on both ends, and spreading the floor with Nikola Mirotic unlocked an offense that forced the whole league to pay attention.
The Pelicans' plan is working, and for the first time in the Anthony Davis era, there are real reasons for optimism. But speaking of the AD era: most of his time in New Orleans has been spent playing for teams that were too expensive, largely doomed by short-term thinking from a front office that was desperate to pay whatever talent it could find. So, yeah: I'm not in love with the idea of following up the most exciting stretch of AD's career by overpaying to keep a bloated, injured DeMarcus Cousins. As one league source texted me this week, "New Orleans didn't miss him. It's not even clear he's a winning player even when he's healthy."
I understand that New Orleans wants to recoup value from a superstar they traded for just 18 months ago. That makes sense. Likewise, Davis himself has been close with Boogie, and may want him back. That's worth considering, too. But the dream for New Orleans would be finding a way to sign-and-trade Boogie for a wing that makes more sense. For example, the internet has spent the past nine months trying to will an "Otto Porter for Boogie Cousins" trade into existence. That may not work on Washington's side, but it's exactly the sort of move the Pelicans should be trying to make over the next few weeks.
5. What will become of the big man middle class? I wrote way too much about the state of big men in the smallball era last week. One note in there: while teams were clearly willing to talk themselves in the superstar potential of big men in the draft—as if the Warriors and Rockets didn't exist—free agency is where it might get tricky.
Everyone is willing to pay superstars like Anthony Davis or Karl Towns, but for players who aren't quite on that level, it makes less sense to spend big money. The market for Cousins beyond the Pelicans is unclear, while DeAndre Jordan may opt-in to final year of his Clippers deal, because he's unlikely find a team willing to match the $24 million he's due in L.A. Those bearish conditions could apply to everyone. Jusuf Nurkic has been pretty decent as a starter for the Blazers, but it's unlikely he'll find a deal that pays him as much as Meyers Leonard is making as his backup (four years, $41 million).
Solid veterans like Brook Lopez and Derrick Favors will be in for similar adventures, while significant money for players like Aron Baynes, Ed Davis, Nerlens Noel, and Alex Len could be even tougher to find. It's hard to say how much of this summer's big man thrift is related to changing attitudes toward big men in a wing-dominated league. Teams obviously recognize that wings are more valuable. But what's happening this summer could simply be the by-product of non-existenet cap space and a hangover from the summer of 2016. It'll probably take a few years before we can accurately gauge what good-but-not-great big men are really worth. In the meantime, this is not a great summer to be seven feet tall and looking for a contract.
6. Who wants to pay the restricted free agents? When Marcus Smart and the Celtics failed to agree on an extension in October, his agent Happy Walters said, "It will cost them a lot more [this summer], I can tell you that." Likewise, as soon as the Eastern Conference finals ended, Smart told ESPN: "To be honest, I'm worth more than $12-14 million." He may have a tough time proving it.
In a market where most of the league is feeling the effects of a 2016 hangover, it's going to be tough to create bidding wars for restricted free agents like Smart. Teams bidding for restricted free agents must 1) have the cap space to sign these players outright, 1) overpay to dissuade incumbent teams from matching, and 3) be willing to keep that money tied up while the 48-hour window to match any offer passes (those windows can begin on July 6). In Smart's case, the Pacers are reportedly interested and the Suns are a team that needs a point guard, but it's tough to find many teams that have backcourt holes to fill and money to spend. One factor working in Smart's favor is that Boston will need some midsized contracts to include in future trades, so even without a big-money offer from someone else, it could make sense for the Celtics to overpay this summer with the intention of using that salary in some hypothetical deal for a superstar in the next few years.
Other restricted free agents may not be as lucky. Is anyone going to be bidding for Jabari Parker? What about Zach LaVine or Julius Randle? Will someone throw a max deal at Aaron Gordon? Clint Capela is probably the most attractive restricted free agent of all, and attempting to steal him from the Rockets would be a win-win: either a team gets an excellent young big man who fits well with the modern NBA, or Houston is forced to overpay Capela to keep him, tying up the cap of the best team in the league outside Golden State.
After Smart and Capela, things get murkier. Restricted free agency has always been a burden on the mobility of young players, and the matching process occasionally deters would-be suitors from getting involved. Now that most of the NBA has limited cap space to bring to the bidding process—again, thanks to the drunken spending in 2016—incumbent teams will essentially be negotiating against themselves, putting RFAs at an even bigger disadvantage. We'll see how it goes. This class of restricted free agents has a bunch of guys who are intriguing gambles, but there are fewer obvious stars and more unforgiving market conditions than anything we've seen in recent years. That could lead to some bizarre outcomes.
7. What happens to the middle of the league? After spending the past month seeped in rumors about LeBron, Kawhi, and Paul George, it's easy to forget just how many teams and players finished the season with something resembling an existential crisis. So here's a brief (and probably incomplete) list of teams that are capable of anything given the way this past season went: Raptors, Hornets, Blazers, Wizards, Thunder, Wolves, Heat, Cavs, Bucks.
And, in turn, here are the star-ish players who could be available once the dust settles with the biggest names in the class next week: Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker, Kevin Love, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, Hassan Whiteside, Andrew Wiggins and Carmelo Anthony.
Does that list become more depressing the further you go? Absolutely! But still. If the free agency period is beginning to look more predictable the closer we get, it bears mentioning that a number of teams across the league remain desperate enough to try anything. Maybe that means the Raptors and Wolves link up for a Lowry-Wiggins deal, or perhaps the Heat find someone to take Whiteside and use Winslow to sweeten the deal.
The Bucks will listen to any and all offers for Bledsoe, while the Thunder—with or without George—will be looking to fill out the rotation around Russ. Cleveland has declared loyalty to Kevin Love regardless of what LeBron does, but it's been well-established that the Cavs are constitutionally incapable of going four months without including Love in trade talks. We'll see. What's most important is that after the handful of stories that dominate the first week of free agency, there's still plenty of room for the middle of the league to go to some strange places.
8. And what will Kevin Durant do? I don't want to reopen a box of KD arguments that was mostly closed after the NBA Finals, but ... that parade was weird. This entire year in Golden State was weird. And one of the greatest players of all time willingly playing the sidekick next to Steph Curry is, again, weird. Durant is expected to re-sign in Golden State this summer, but it will be very interesting to see how long the deal is, and what kind of options it includes.
There's at least a chance that any Durant deal includes an opt-out next summer, at which point he will likely be coming off three straight titles in Golden State, surveying a league in which the Knicks, Nets, Clippers, and possibly Lakers all have max cap space (among others). Or, of course, Durant could commit long-term in Golden State, and the Warriors could win the next five titles. We don't know, and that's why it's worth watching. The whole world is waiting on LeBron, but the other free agent in the Uber has even more power to shake up the entire league.
That is what's great and ridiculous about the NBA. We are just a few hours from free agency, but it's never too early to start wondering about next summer, too.
Editor's Note: Kevin Durant is reportedly willing to sign new, short-term deal with the Warriors, as reported on June 30.