- With the NBA trade deadline behind us, the plans of many teams will soon shift to the summer and free agency. So what franchises are poised to become destinations for big stars? We outline three potential landing spots.
The NBA trade deadline on Feb. 7 provided more than a fair share of drama and buzz, with a string of notable players landing in new locations. Kristaps Porzingis moved from New York to North Texas, Marc Gasol traveled north of the border to Toronto and Tobias Harris left the Clippers to form a new Big 4 in Philly. The seven days from the Porzingis deal to the trade deadline saw 22 deals. Golden State may still be the runaway favorite to win the Finals, but the deluge of deals last week could shape the league for years to come.
Yet despite all the activity, the trade deadline is likely still more an appetizer on the player-movement menu than the main course. The first week of July is expected to be a free-agent frenzy, with a slew of max players on the market. Kevin Durant could move coasts. Kyrie Irving is a potential runaway bride. There’s both All-NBA talent and considerable depth in this year’s free-agent class, making cap space for this summer paramount. Clear enough space, and a new era can begin in a matter of weeks. That seems to be the mantra emanating from Madison Square Garden.
So which teams should you keep an eye on as free agency approaches? We at The Crossover broke down a trio of intriguing free-agent destinations, with potential additions for each team.
Mark Cuban and Co. went star shopping early this year, swiping Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks in exchange for Dennis Smith Jr., draft picks and salary relief. But the Mavs did some salary shedding of their own the day before the deadline. Dallas sent Harrison Barnes and his $94 million deal to Sacramento on Feb. 6, receiving Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph’s expiring contract. Four of Dallas’s five opening month starters have been banished from the roster, with a rebuild around Luka Doncic forming in his sensational rookie year. The Mavericks now project to have Doncic, Porzingis and just over $30 million in cap space heading into free agency. They aren’t players in the top-tier sweepstakes, but expect Dallas to spend. A new Big 3 could form in the Lone Star State.
Who could the Mavericks target? Dallas could go the wing route and look to snag Khris Middleton from Milwaukee. Tobias Harris would also be a theoretical fit, though Philadelphia has indicated it intends to keep its new foursome together.
Quick aside: Harris has been superb in the first week of his Sixers tenure. He’s punishing guards who switch onto him in transition and blowing past bigs isolated on the perimeter. Still, Harris or Jimmy Butler could be the odd man out if Philadelphia had to choose in free agency.
Adding a wing could provide an upgrade over the Barnes spot, but Dallas would be best served by going big. A skilled center next to Porzingis could provide a lethal frontcourt combo akin to the short-lived Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins era in New Orleans. Cousins would be a fascinating experiment. He’s canned 100 threes in each of the last two seasons prior to this year, and is an increasingly effective playmaker. Even with health concerns, he could still recoup a nine-figure deal in free agency. Golden State could reward him if Durant leaves. Otherwise, Cousins will move to his fourth team in four years.
The health concerns and price tag might dissuade Dallas, though. There may be too much risk involved, and Cousins does have some wear on his tires. Nikola Vucevic may be a more natural fit. He’s a rightful All-Star, and not just due to the weakened Eastern Conference. The 2011 first rounder is an offensive force, scoring 20.5 points and 12.0 rebounds per game in 2018-19. His 38.0% mark from three is a career-high. Vucevic and Porzingis will make Dirk Nowitzki proud with their prowess from beyond the arc.
Dallas was masterful at the deadline, adding Porzingis while clearing a max contract slot. The Mavs’ future is bright, and July’s free agency will provide the next opportunity for a return to relevance.
Los Angeles Clippers
Tobias Harris may have been a terrific addition for Philadelphia, but he didn’t come cheap. The Clippers recouped two first-round picks in the deal—along with intriguing rookie Landry Shamet—including Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick. Shipping Harris at the deadline was a sensible deal. Los Angeles projects to have $59 million available in July. A sizeable chunk of that space could have gone to Harris, though it now looks as though Los Angeles has its eyes set a bit higher. Its war chest of picks and young talent could snag Anthony Davis. The cash and allure of home could land Kawhi Leonard. Durant and Irving are in play despite the drumbeat of New York rumors. Jerry West and Clippers’ brass have done a wonderful job setting up the franchise for success in the 2020’s.
It’s a touch curious why Los Angeles didn’t continue to sell at the deadline following the Harris deal. The Clippers keep their first-round pick if they land in the lottery this year. That pick is more valuable than the beating they’d receive at the hands of Golden State. Trading Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley could have netted picks, and would be worth dealing had a first rounder been offered. Beating out the Lakers and Kings for the No. 8 seed would be a difficult task anyway. Embracing a slide down the standings as the youngsters grow is a smart strategy. Still, the Clippers extracted impressive value for Harris, and now enter free agency as significant players on the market.
New York Knicks
The Knicks are the sliding doors team in July’s free agency. There’s a world where New York enters 2019-20 with Durant, Irving and either Davis or Zion Williamson. The Knicks could also land a pick outside the top three and sign a fringe All-Star to a massive payday. Recent history suggests the eventual outcome will land closer to the latter scenario, bringing another failed summer as a prelude to a depressing season. But a return to prominence is firmly within striking distance.
The free-agent front is fairly clear as July approaches. Durant is the top prize, and a pairing with Irving is certainly possible. Perhaps Kemba Walker will eschew the extra $40 million from Charlotte and head back to MSG, the site of his Big East Tournament heyday at UConn. The market for DeAndre Jordan will be interesting. If New York isn’t building a contender, don’t expect Jordan to stick around. But a dampened market could keep Jordan in New York as a complimentary piece next to a pair of incoming stars. He’s still a valuable player, and the price tag should be below his $22 million in 2018-19. Regardless, consider Jordan on the periphery as Durant’s decision looms.
May 14 will be a key date in New York’s rebuilding effort. Landing the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft could bring Williamson to the Garden. He’d be the most exciting prospect to hit New York since Patrick Ewing. But the top pick could also land Zion in New Orleans as the center of an Anthony Davis deal.
The No. 2 pick, Kevin Knox, additional pieces and picks doesn’t seem to be a sufficient offer for Davis. A potential Boston deal including Jayson Tatum would likely top the market. The likes of Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett or another early lottery pick would still contribute to the rebuild, and could steer the Knicks back to a more responsible rebuild. Williamson would change the calculus.
The Knicks now have two max contract slots and are in place for a top-three pick this summer. There’s not much else New York fans can ask for. Now it’s up to the organization to execute its master plan.