That tingling sensation you feel all over your body is a sign that NBA free agency is right around the corner. In a few short days, the landscape of the entire league could change. The Association could be heading from a Superteam Era to something more resembling the Wild West. There are several teams with title aspirations for 2020—like the Lakers, Rockets, Nuggets, Blazers, Sixers, Raptors, Bucks, and Celtics—and all of them actually have a decent argument. The demise of the injury-laden Warriors—who are also expected to lose Kevin Durant—has blown the field wide open. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most intriguing teams headed into July.
Lakers, Nets, Clippers
These teams are being grouped together because they are basically the starting point of any free-agency conversation. The Nets and Clippers have basically a beautiful meadow of cap space, begging for stars and their friends to come frolic in. They also offer arguably the most appealing option for any big-time name to form a new megateam with the running mate of their choice. The Lakers have already reeled in one whale this summer. Los Angeles may not be able to open up another max salary slot, but Rob Pelinka will still have some room to play with. D’Angelo Russell is already a reported target—if Kyrie goes to the Nets. However the Lakers end up deciding to fill out the roster will be of utmost importance, because it’s clear Los Angeles is all-in on winning during the end of LeBron’s prime.
I guess we also can’t do this without talking about the Knicks. New York still has a bundle of cap room, and intriguing prospects to fit around potential stars, most notably Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, and R.J. Barrett. The Durant injury hurt the Knicks probably more than any other team headed into free agency, as KD was long expected to sign here until his Achilles tear complicated the situation. New York can still bring in Durant. But will they be satisfied bringing in one injured star if Irving prefers Brooklyn? The Knicks also can’t do the thing they normally do and blow huge money on guys who ultimately don’t make a difference. New York’s restraint this summer could be just as important as the players it actually signs.
Oh you thought we weren’t going to talk about my Nuggets? Roll one up, think about what you can do for all the people unfairly jailed for marijuana-related offenses, and pull up a chair. Denver can actually open up a bit of space this summer but it would take some maneuvering. The most realistic path to room for the Nuggets involves convincing Paul Millsap to sign a longer contract at a smaller per-year number, and trading Mason Plumlee’s expiring deal. In a scenario where that happens and Millsap is making about $18 million next season, Denver could have about $14 million in cap room. Is that enough for the team to fill its big hole at small forward? And is finding a player at that price on the wing worth giving up Plumlee, who played some valuable minutes for this team during the regular season?
It’s an important offseason for Denver. Jamal Murray will be on a much bigger contract next year, and Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris have already been paid. Important contributors like Torrey Craig and Malik Beasley are also in the final year of their deals. The Nuggets are going to become expensive quickly, and adding depth after this summer becomes much more difficult. Considering Denver finished second in the conference this year, it would make sense for Tim Connelly to be aggressive this summer.
Philly could open two max salary slots this summer if it renounced cap holds all of its free agents, including Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, and J.J. Redick. The Sixers weirdly have some flexibility this summer. If they don’t want to run it back with the Harris-Butler-Embiid-Simmons core, they can let Harris and Butler walk and try to get in the room with the other big names on the market. Or Philly can bring Tobi and Jimmy back on max deals, give another one-year balloon figure to Redick, and be capped out until kingdom come. Philly is in a similar position to Denver in that the team will get expensive very soon. Simmons will join Embiid on a max extension next summer. The Sixers’ flexibility in building around their two young players is waning, and the Elton Brand regime has shown it’s not afraid to take risks. If Philly doesn’t like the idea of being top heavy, it has the option to go in a completely different direction in a few days.
With Aron Baynes gone, and Kyrie and Al Horford likely off the books, Boston is another team falling into a ton of cap space. The Celtics will be facing an uphill climb finding big names to play in Boston after the public sagas involving Irving and Anthony Davis, but the basketball situation remains intriguing. While some of the $40 million-plus in room will likely be earmarked for Terry Rozier, the Celts should still have money to throw around.
How Boston approaches free agency will be telling. Does Danny Ainge want to immediately reform into a title contender? Does Danny Ainge want to immediately reform into a title contender? (Kemba Walker is already being floated by Marc Stein as a potential Kyrie replacement.) Or would he be okay taking a momentary pause, handing over the team to the young players, and seeing what happens?
Gordon Hayward complicates this situation. He’s making big money, and his treatment from the organization reportedly rubbed some players the wrong way. If Boston is confident he can be an All-Star again this season, Ainge may be more aggressive looking for veterans to fill out the roster. If there isn’t complete faith in Hayward this early in the summer, the Celts may have to slow-play any moves until they know what kind of expectations are realistic for the roster this upcoming season.