- Kawhi Leonard's free agency appears to be a two-team race. Who will prevail? With the Finals in the books, it's time to examine this summer's biggest storylines.
And the offseason begins … now.
The Toronto Raptors—the Raptors—are NBA champions, and while there will be pandemonium in Canada for the next few days, the NBA is about to descend into chaos. In 2016, the cap spike kickstarted a spending spree. This summer could see landscape-changing player movement and several teams rolling the dice with super-sized contracts.
Here are five early questions as we prepare for what will be a wild summer:
Where will Kawhi go?
The Raptors rolled the dice on Leonard last summer, ripping apart a nice, second-round or so playoff team for the chance to win a championship with a player who, when healthy, ranks among the NBA’s best. And it couldn’t have worked out better. Leonard stayed healthy, and the Raptors won the franchise’s first NBA title.
Nobody knows what Leonard will do this summer. Rival executives believe it is a two-team race, with the Clippers and Raptors vying for Leonard’s services. Toronto has done everything it can. It has treated Leonard like a franchise player. It has surrounded him with players who complement his talent. And it has won. Privately, Raptors execs have talked about the value of big moments with Leonard. The buzzer–beater at home to beat Philly. The conference finals-sealing win—also in Toronto—against Milwaukee. And, of course, the championship. The hope is these moments will resonate with Leonard when he makes his decision. There’s some thought that Leonard, 27, could return to Toronto on a short-term deal.
But they don’t know. The lure of Southern California is real for Leonard, and the Clippers have been shadow recruiting him all year. Complicating matters is the future of team president Masai Ujiri. ESPN reported what has been expected for weeks now—that the Wizards were prepared to make Ujiri a substantial offer to run the franchise. Ujiri’s brilliance is among the reasons Toronto will raise a banner next season. If he’s not there, will Leonard trust whoever replaces him?
What’s the future of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson?
Durant’s injury—a ruptured Achilles that will sideline him for most, if not all, of next season—changes the entire offseason. The Knicks were hoping to sign Durant, pair him with a second star (Kyrie Irving), fill out the roster and contend next season. The Nets had similar thoughts. The injury changes everything.
Durant can opt into his contract next summer, to collect $31.5 million and rehab in a pressure-free environment. But the expectation is that there will be several teams—including the Knicks—who offer Durant a four-year, max-level contract, effectively committing four years of money to get three years of Durant. With that available, expect Durant to opt out.
Will he sign with the Knicks, as many have suggested? Would Golden State offer a five-year deal—and would Durant accept? And what about other players? Will Irving or any of the top-tier free agents want to leave winning situations to team up with Durant, knowing what that first year could be like?
And then there is Thompson, who suffered a torn ACL late in the third quarter of Game 6, an absolutely brutal development for a player set to hit free agency this summer, too. The sense around the league has been that if the Warriors made a full max contract offer to Thompson, he would stay. Will Golden State make that offer knowing Thompson will miss most of next season? Will they try to lock up Thompson on a cheaper deal? Will Thompson—given everything that he has sacrificed to help the Warriors win three championships—feel slighted and look elsewhere? Like Durant, Thompson’s situation just got much more complicated.
What will Boston look like?
A year ago, Boston was a consensus conference frontrunner, an Eastern Conference finalist that would add a pair of All-Stars—Irving and Gordon Hayward—to the mix. The future seemed impossibly bright.
Now? Irving has one foot out the door—his rocky relationship with some of his young teammates among the reasons—and Boston is faced with taking a step back. The Celtics have not abandoned the pursuit of Irving; team president Danny Ainge is a firm believer that talent wins, and he is prepared to sell Irving on a Boston future that includes Anthony Davis, who the Celtics have the assets to acquire next month. Durant’s injury has reignited a flicker of hope among some in the organization that Irving can be convinced to stay.
Will it be enough? It says something about Irving’s feelings toward Boston if he walks away from a team that could feature Davis, Hayward and Al Horford. But there continue to be strong signals that he will.
As reported on The Crossover podcast last week, the Celtics intend to pursue Davis, with or without Irving. But Jayson Tatum is the centerpiece of a deal that would get New Orleans’s attention. Would Boston risk trading Tatum, without any guarantee from Davis?
Will Philadelphia spend?
The Sixers went all in on moves during the season, trading high-level role players and draft picks to bring Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. The result was a crushing second-round loss to Toronto, and now the Sixers must decide how expensive they want their payroll to be. Joel Embiid is on a max contract and it’s likely Butler and Harris—unrestricted free agents next month—will be able to procure four-year, max-level deals of their own. A new contract for Ben Simmons isn’t far off, either.
The Sixers are in a tough spot. They likely don’t want to overpay Butler or Harris, but they gave up a lot to get both and don’t want to start next season with nothing to show for it. And the idea that they could begin next season with just Embiid and Simmons has to be terrifying. It’s a significant summer for Philly.
Could Bradley Beal be the consolation prize?
Whoever gets the top job will likely begin the deconstruction of the Wizards. That could include trading Beal, a favorite of ownership but the piece that would bring back the most in a trade. When the dust settles on free agency—or even before—expect teams that don’t land top free agents to probe Washington about a Beal trade. Beal has three years remaining on a max—but reasonable, for a player of his talent—contract, and could return a solid rebuilding package a new president of basketball operations would be interested in.