By Carson Breber
While some will forever be critical of Kevin Durant’s move to the Golden State Warriors, an undeniable byproduct of that signing is that this superteam era has blessed us with some assured excitement each and every offseason.
Last season saw multiple blockbuster moves focused on superstars rushing to join others in hopes to form a squad that could rival the omnipotent Warriors. With the big three experiment beginning in Oklahoma City, the two new stars in Boston, the Rockets’ superstar backcourt and Jimmy Butler heading to Minnesota, last year gifted us with easily one of the craziest offseasons of all time. Still, this year’s free agent frenzy has the potential to top it.
There are three legitimate superstars hitting the free market this time around: Lebron James, Paul George, and Demarcus Cousins. Both Kevin Durant and Chris Paul will also technically be free agents, yet the consensus is that they are all but guaranteed to return to their current squads. Interesting pieces like J.J Redick, Isaiah Thomas, Trevor Ariza and Tyreke Evans will all be fielding offers as well, along with a few other solid contributors.
The dominant storyline will, of course, be “The Decision 3.0”. This is the long-awaited time when the always unpredictable Lebron James will put pen to paper and commit himself to one of many potential destinations this July. The Vegas odds as of now suggest Los Angeles is the spot, but Philly and Houston merit legitimate consideration, and it seems San Antonio and Boston are not off the table. Who knows; maybe he’ll even go off the board entirely. Regardless, this is a thrilling opportunity to witness the best player in the world determine a fraction of his legacy in real time and impact the rest of the NBA with it.
So, without further ado, I give you my best bets for what will go down in this year’s free agency (covering only those who are both significant players and have a legitimate chance at actually moving).
Lebron James: Los Angeles Lakers
Lebron has his fair share of suitors. A few of them do boast nice situations for Bron, but the stars seem to be aligning for a Lebron to Los Angeles move. Kawhi Leonard has recently demanded out of San Antonio and listed Los Angeles as his ideal landing spot and it has long been known that Paul George wishes to return home to his neck of the woods and play in L.A.
Lebron has the opportunity to build his own superteam here with two players who compliment him beautifully- as neither Kawhi nor George is ball dominant, yet they can both create for themselves, are strong spot-up shooters and play elite defense, and are in the early stages of their primes (Leonard is 26, George is 28). While the team’s depth would have to be decimated in order to bring in the other two stars, likely losing Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, Brook Lopez, Channing Frye, and Kentavious Caldwell Pope to clear space for Paul George, and then doubling down by giving up pieces like Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram in the theoretical Leonard trade, they would now have a big three that could easily rival that of the Warriors.
Furthermore, acquiring complementary players would not be particularly difficult, as Lebron has historically been quite successful in recruiting role players who he’d like to play with.
Outside of basketball, Lebron loves the Los Angeles lifestyle. Additionally, It has been made clear that stability for his family is a high priority in his decision-making process, as he and his wife have no interest in uprooting their children’s lives. This school of thought makes Cleveland and Los Angeles the two main contenders, as James owns two homes in L.A and his family spends large chunks of the offseason in California.
Although Cleveland provides the same family comfort, from a basketball perspective, the Cavs have a roster that is essentially set in stone and is somewhat mediocre thanks to multiple overpaid veterans on the squad.
Outside of family, Los Angeles would present Lebron with huge opportunities both for his businesses and his potential career in the entertainment industry. This is notable because Bron owns a media company, has acted in the movie “Trainwrecked”, and is reportedly going to be the star of a “Space Jam 2” film.
Life after basketball has to be considered at this point in his career, and L.A simply sets Lebron up better for his retirement years than anywhere else. No other destination offers the overall package of family convenience, non-basketball career opportunities and freedom to manipulate a basketball roster to his liking as well as L.A. does. This makes Los Angeles Lebron’s most likely home for the coming season.
Paul George: Los Angeles Lakers
George knows the ceiling of his current Oklahoma City roster. They have no cap space, no promising untapped talent, and a superstar who is too set in his ways to work with another star.
Those who mention money as a driving force in the rationale for George staying with the Thunder clearly aren’t thinking logically, as, although he is guaranteed one more year at the max in OKC, it’s very likely that PG will be offered another short-term max deal when the theoretical Lakers contract runs out in four years, when he’ll only be 32. Plus, George can more than make up the difference with the overwhelming media exposure and subsequent business opportunities that would not be available in the smaller Oklahoma City market.
Additionally, he is from Los Angeles county and has stated that he would like to play there. If the superteam comes together, Los Angeles instantly becomes a legitimate title contender, which is not in the cards for the Thunder.
Demarcus Cousins: New Orleans Pelicans
The Boogie to Dallas rumor is heating up, but to me, that would be a mistake by both parties. The Mavericks aren’t in a position to win now, and therefore dedicating buckets of money to a 27-year-old, controversial superstar, who is yet to demonstrate that he can win, may be unwise. They are building a foundation for a rebuild, having acquired Luka Doncic through the draft, so it is unclear to me why they would resist the full rebuild when they are simply talent deficient- especially in the superteam era when so much talent is needed to contend.
Meanwhile, I don’t see why the Pelicans wouldn’t bring Boogie back. They are trapped cap wise with or without him, thanks to an overly ambitious Jrue Holiday contract (4 years, $105 million left) and a remarkably generous Solomon Hill deal (2 years, $26 million left). With or without Boogie, they are over the cap and will be unless they make considerable roster changes.
Why not hold on to as much talent as they can? Will it make Anthony Davis more content to be mediocre in the West? This team will never be great as currently constructed, but that dilemma is not the fault of Cousins. It is a multitude of other factors.
Still, a big three of Holiday, Cousins and Davis will undoubtedly win some games, and with them all in their primes at the ages of 28, 27 and 25 respectively, this team should be good for a while if they keep Cousins around.
J.J Redick: Philadelphia 76ers
I am running under the assumption that the 76ers fail to acquire any superstar free agents this offseason, making a Redick resign quite logical. Redick was a strong contributor to the much improved Sixers squad of this past season, and presuming he won’t be looking for a contract as substantial as the one year, $23 million deal he signed last offseason, he should return as a complimentary piece to Philadelphia’s young star duo as they push towards championship contention. If the Sixers do manage to get a big name this offseason, however, Redick will, in all likelihood, have to go, but I believe it to be more likely than not that he returns.
Trevor Ariza: Houston Rockets
Similar to the Redick deal, this is assuming the Rockets don’t add a Paul George or Lebron James to their roster.
Ariza was a crucial piece to the Rockets season (yes, I said it. crucial) as a very effective three and D player with veteran poise and experience. They should, in all likelihood, be looking to bring him back, and his price tag should be reasonable as it will likely be in the $8-10 million range.
Although it was previously reported that Trevor may have interest in signing with the Golden State Warriors, my guess is that the competitor in him won’t allow for that, as the Rockets came to the brink of defeating that Warriors squad and he surely believes they’re capable of pulling it out. Plus, if he were to become a Warrior, he would essentially just take up Nick Young’s minutes- a clear demotion from his role in Houston. It seems to me that Ariza will be returning to H-Town.
Clint Capela: Houston Rockets
Capela will naturally attract attention on the open market this season as a 24-year-old coming off of a career season, but he is a restricted free agent (unlike everyone else mentioned thus far), meaning that the Rockets can match any contract offer Capela receives from another team and keep him on the roster. Capela will likely have a high price tag (probably somewhere from $18-20 million a year), but he’s worth every penny for this Rockets team.
Capela is their only true rim protector and a crucial presence down low for them on both sides of the ball, locking down the paint on defense and executing in the two-man game with Harden on offense.
The Rockets won’t be able to find Capela’s level of production anywhere else, so if they want to stay elite, they’ll have to pay him. He’ll see some nice offers, but unless a team puts absurd money on the table, he should stay a Rocket, and if he likes winning, I would think he should be excited about doing so.
Tyreke Evans: Indiana Pacers
Evans is coming off of a fantastic season in Memphis, but at 28 years old, he’s simply not a part of their future plans as they turn to a rebuild. The Pacers just had quite the successful campaign themselves this past season, unexpectedly snagging the five seed while Victor Oladipo emerged as an all-around star. However, unlike most playoff teams, Indy will still have cap space this offseason, and as they recently declined Lance Stephenson’s inexpensive team option, it seems logical that they acquire a versatile wing scorer and playmaker in Tyreke Evans.
Adding this gifted offensive player to their roster would give them a very strong second unit, headed by Cory Joseph, Domantas Sabonis, and Evans. Maybe some desperate team will throw big-time money at Evans, but if the Pacers can give him somewhere around $10-12 million a year, the combination of winning and money that they offer should be enticing to Evans.
Julius Randle: Dallas Mavericks
In order to execute their superteam plan, the Lakers have to let some talented players walk. Most notably, this would certainly include the promising Julius Randle.
It seems that the Mavericks, as a respected organization with a high caliber coach and motivated owner, are looking to use their wild amounts of cap space (about $30 million) to become big players in free agency. While I believe some signings would be a reach for them, Randle makes perfect sense.
He’s only 23 years old, which means he fits in with the timeline of their two apparent franchise cornerstones in Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic, and his all-around skill set makes him an easy fit. Plus, if they want to slide Harrison Barnes back to his natural small forward position, signing Randle would allow them to do so. Although the Mavs will probably overpay a bit to get Randle, there’s nothing wrong with that for a gifted player yet to enter his prime.
Will Barton: Denver Nuggets
Barton was a sound contributor to a team with a tremendously bright future, and my guess is that both Barton and the Nuggets see the value in preserving that relationship.
The Nuggets can offer Barton a respectable contract at roughly $10 million a year, which he should be content to accept if it means winning and playing a fun brand of basketball.
Is he integral to the Nuggets success? No. Could he get better money elsewhere? Perhaps. But all in all, the Nuggets have no reason not to bring Barton back, as at 27 years old he has plenty of prime years left and has really seemed to piece his entire game together. In Denver, Barton has shown himself to be a strong outside shooter, shot creator, playmaker, and defender, and one hopes that he sees the value in staying in such a promising situation.
Avery Bradley: Oklahoma City Thunder
Bradley’s not going to get big money this offseason after a disappointing, injury-riddled campaign stained his resume in 2017-18. That being said, he’ll still draw interest, and the Thunder seems like as good a team as any to sign him.
If Paul George abandons ship in OKC, Bradley is a logical replacement. He’s a three and D player who does not need the ball to be effective, making him and Westbrook an easy fit. Bradley won’t make the Thunder a legitimate contender or anything, but at the mid-level exception that he’d likely be getting, there’s no harm for either party. Bradley could help win them games and keep the fans entertained.
Isaiah Thomas: New York Knicks
The Knicks are a big market in need of a second star, and neither last year’s draft selection, Frank Ntilikina, or this year’s pick, Kevin Knox, are ready to fill that role yet.
Trey Burke can certainly be a nice backup point guard for this team, but he is far from a must-start. Therefore, if a better talent in Thomas is available they might as well shoot their shot.
In order to acquire Thomas, they’ll have to drop one of three bad contracts: Courtney Lee (possible for rebuilding team), Tim Hardaway Jr. (unlikely because it extends through 2020-21 at about $18 million each year) or Joakim Noah (good luck). I believe that if they want to make it happen, they can dump Lee to add Thomas, whose pricetag post-injury shouldn’t be any more than the $12.2 million that Lee is set to receive this year.
Although Ntilikina seems to be improving this offseason and is an exciting piece, he does not have to run point on offense, where he’s just not a significant contributor yet. Further still, Thomas can play off the ball for stretches if they need him to while on offense.
Thomas and Kristaps Porzingis make for a scary duo in the pick and roll, each being capable of knocking down from anywhere. Plus, as the Knicks seek to make the playoff jump, adding a veteran scorer on a reasonable contract seems smart. This fit makes sense, and provided that the Knicks can create the cap space, Thomas should find his way to the big apple.
Jabari Parker: Milwaukee Bucks
Parker is another restricted free agent, and although there has been some apparent turmoil between him and the organization regarding injury concerns, at 23 years old he is simply too talented for the Bucks to let go.
Parker is a gifted scorer, as he averaged 20 points a night in just his third season in the league, and he could easily surpass Khris Middleton as the Robin to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Batman if he continues his growth. If a rebuilding franchise falls in love with Parker’s skillset and sees that he aligns with their timeline, a departure is possible if the money is too much to be matched, but it seems to me that other teams will be reasonably cautious about Parker’s injury history and he will, therefore, remain a Buck.
Zach Lavine: Chicago Bulls
There is no reason for the Bulls not to want to hold on to the talent that Lavine (also a restricted free agent) is. An absurd athlete with a handle, jumpshot, and solid playmaking like Lavine does not come around often.
That being said, those same traits could inspire another suitor to offer him the max or something close to it, in which case the Bulls would be inclined to let him go. Yet, Lavine is a building block of this organization, and with the recent selections of Wendell Carter Jr. and a likely late first round steal in Chandler Hutchinson, the Bulls legitimately have a bright future ahead of them if they hold onto their pieces. Lavine should be happy to stay in Chicago and Chicago should be happy to pay him to stick around. Unless the money is extremely generous elsewhere, Lavine and the Bulls should keep their promising relationship alive.
This is an exciting time for all basketball fans; the landscape of the league we so love could change dramatically, so let’s brace for it and hope for another thrilling free agency.