- Kevin Durant has decided to switch coasts and join the Nets, leaving the Warriors and other contenders to figure out their next course of action. How should runners-up handle the remainder of free agency?
With Kevin Durant reportedly headed to the Nets on a four-year, $164 million maximum contract as free agency opened on Sunday evening, the highest-profile sweepstakes of the off-season has already come to a close. He joins, per reports, Kyrie Irving and (much less critically) DeAndre Jordan in a league-shaking team-up that may sway the balance in the Eastern Conference at some point down the line.
Certainly, Durant—who is expected to miss next season as he recovers from his ruptured right Achilles—was far from the only big fish left on the market. But he’s off the board for Clippers, Warriors, Knicks (and to a lesser extent, the Lakers), who move into contingency mode. Let’s break those situations down.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have already agreed, per reports, to a $190 million, five-year extension with Klay Thompson. Durant’s departure had been expected in league circles for a while, and Golden State will recover just fine, although, obviously, not having him is going to hurt in a real way. That being said, not having to pay two max-level players who will sit out most or all of next season is some consolation. Durant’s departure is going to save them a large chunk of money in luxury tax payments. On the court, the loss is more of a long-term one. Still, Golden State brought him in and won two titles—that experiment worked. It’s hard to act like the Warriors were left at the altar, here.
Golden State is working with the taxpayer midlevel exception to sign free agents, and still aims to re-sign Kevon Looney, so the Warriors’ off-season will remain of interest, despite the fact there’s probably no big splash coming. They’ll lean on Steph Curry and Draymond Green, who is now in a contract year, to carry the load during the regular season. Again, this is not exactly a surprise. But it’s certainly a new challenge.
New York Knicks
The Knicks are estimably the biggest losers in this entire equation, with Irving and Durant—whom they once hoped to lure to Madison Square Garden as a duo—now headed across the East River, to haunt them in plain sight. New York dealt away Kristaps Porzingis to facilitate the creation of two max contract slots this summer. Now, with just six players set to be under guaranteed contract (including No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett) and tons of cap space, the Knicks have to pivot. What exactly that entails, well, it gets dicey quickly.
New York’s best (and perhaps only) hope for jump-starting their roster this summer was always going to be adding two stars: there’s not enough talent on the roster for them to sell immediate success to a lone max-quality free agent, but bringing two guys in to play together changes that discussion a bit. They may come to regret not bidding more aggressively on Anthony Davis, although there was certainly no guarantee he’d stay, anyway. The top dog left on the market is Kawhi Leonard, who had been linked to the Knicks in conjunction with Durant, but has much better solo opportunities elsewhere, whether it’s staying in Toronto or heading to join the Clippers or Lakers.
Realistically, it sure looks like New York is going to strike out on top-tier free agents, barring a surprise in the Leonard saga. Figuring out how to use their cap space (ideally, by offering short-term money to become players in free agency again in 2020 and 2021) is the next step. This is going to sting for a while, particularly given the now-very public shift in perception between the Knicks and Nets, the latter of whom now have a strong case as New York’s vanity franchise. And if Brooklyn wins big over the next few years with Durant and Irving leading them, the Knicks won’t soon forget this feeling.
It’s no secret that the Clippers’ primary off-season target has been Kawhi Leonard for some time; his situation remains unresolved as of this writing. So it’s unfair to treat this like a sad story for L.A., who don’t have to worry about having Durant in the West, and can remain fully focused on recruiting Leonard. They still can hold onto Danilo Gallinari if they choose, or they can trade him into someone else’s cap room if, say, Jimmy Butler (who reports are linking to Miami) decides he wants in, as well. This is already a good foundation, and they won’t be totally gutted if they get snubbed—although, disappointment would be appropriate. All things considered L.A. is still fairly flexible moving forward. Certainly, they’ll be holding their breath over Leonard’s decision.
Luring Durant was almost certainly a pipe dream for the Lakers, who with Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving off the board seem to be setting their sights on Leonard, and then the next tier of free agents. They already have Anthony Davis in hand, and there’s quite a lot of work left to be done to build their roster out. They’re indirect losers here in that the market for other top free agents now intensifies quickly as bigger names fly off the board, while teams determine what to do with a wealth of cap space. This remains a wait-and-see situation.