By Jordan Cohn
The 2019 free agent class is loaded with talent, and some top-tier playoff teams, like the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, are at risk of losing core pieces of their respective franchises. Major injuries, unexpected wins, and player dissatisfaction all set the scene for what should be a make-or-break free agency period for these organizations.
Meanwhile, teams which have struggled in the past have a chance to completely reverse their fortunes. For example, the 17-65 Knicks enter free agency with $67.7 million to work with, and they added a key piece to the organization in third-overall pick RJ Barrett.
Free agency officially begins on Sunday at 6 p.m. EST, so where are the biggest stars likely to end up?
Kevin Durant: Somewhere in New York
Durant’s ruptured Achilles added even more intrigue as to where he’ll end up this offseason. Although Durant will likely miss the entire 2019-2020 campaign, he left everyone with another display of dominance throughout the playoffs, averaging 32.3 points per game while shooting an elite 50-40-90 clip.
It seemed inevitable that Durant was on his way out after his 2018-2019 season, but the devastating injury slows that train of thought. The 30-year-old forward was reportedly disgruntled with how the Warriors dealt with his health in the 2019 NBA Finals, and they’ll only be a high-caliber team for a few more years with Steph Curry at the core.
While Radio.com’s Brian Scalabrine seems confident that Durant will stick around, two other teams present captivating cases. Six-time NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving has reportedly been in frequent talks with Durant about teaming up in Brooklyn. The Nets certainly have the cap space to make the signing, and after a strong season with an inexpensive roster, two star players would make them a serious contender in the Eastern Conference.
Teaming up with Barrett in New York presents another attractive opportunity for Durant, and the Knicks should be fine with another down year while they’d wait for the four-time scoring champion to heal. That would also enable them to come out with another early lottery pick, which could become a trade asset.
Kawhi Leonard: Toronto Raptors/Los Angeles Clippers Toss-Up
By now, most NBA players would’ve made it clear if they wanted to re-sign with their championship squad. The mild-mannered Leonard isn’t like most players.
Toronto is rumored to be the favorite for Leonard since it can offer the biggest deal, thanks to his Bird rights, allowing only the Raptors to offer him a five-year max contract. Their core would remain the same, and they undoubtedly would be a top threat to win the East again.
But the Clippers present an enticing option for Leonard, too. The team finished 48-34 last season, earning the No. 8 seed without much star power. Leonard would fill a positional need, as Los Angeles lacked a consistent small forward. Danilo Galinari (19.8 points per game) split time at both forward spots.
Additionally, Leonard’s presence should help to draw a big-name center, such as Al Horford. A roster like that could make a torrid run in the West.
Kyrie Irving: Brooklyn Nets
Irving has made it clear that he wants to go to the Brooklyn Nets, actively recruiting other elite stars like Durant. He also just bought a new house in New Jersey, where he grew up and played basketball in his childhood.
The pick makes sense logistically as well. D’Angelo Russell would be replaced by Irving, or he could make a lethal sidekick in the backcourt. The Nets made the playoffs last year despite an inexpensive and inexperienced roster, indicating that they’ll be even more dangerous in the future.
Jimmy Butler: Philadelphia 76ers
Butler meant a world of difference to the 76ers down the stretch. When Butler was on the court, the Sixers put up 114.5 points per 100 possessions (PP100P) while allowing 103.7 PP100P. When he was off the floor, they generated 97.9 and yielded 116.6 PP100P.
To put Butler’s impact into perspective (plus-29.5 PP100P), Kawhi Leonard’s was plus-15.9 during Toronto’s championship.
If Philadelphia does choose to use a max contract on Butler, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll pass up the opportunity to play with such a talented unit. One potential obstacle in the 76ers’ path is the Rockets. They have reached out with possible sign-and-trade scenarios for Butler. But one has to consider if a ball-hungry player would fit in Houston, already boasting a pair of them in James Harden and Chris Paul. Hence, Philadelphia seems to be the better fit.
Klay Thompson: Golden State Warriors
Thompson’s own father claims there is “no question” that he’s staying in Golden State, which aligns well with the Warriors’ core.
Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green have been magical over the past decade, and the Warriors can offer the eight-year veteran more money than any other team in free agency (via Bird rights). Racking up the largest possible salary isn’t a bad option for someone who could miss the entire regular season.
Plus, if Thompson’s recovery schedule (torn ACL) goes as planned, he could be back in time for the 2020 playoffs. It might not be a pretty regular season for Golden State, but Curry, Green, and Co. should still be able to squeeze out a postseason ticket. Thompson’s eventual return would make them as dangerous a threat as any come April.
Kemba Walker: Boston Celtics
Like Russell, Kemba Walker is another high-level point guard for numerous teams, including the Lakers and Mavericks. The three-time All-Star was paired with an often unspectacular Charlotte team, and this offseason gives him an opportunity to team up with another star.
Boston seems to be the likeliest destination for Walker, and the Celtics have gone after versatile scoring threats at the guard position in the past (Irving, Isaiah Thomas). Walker would add leadership to the young roster that desperately needs a selfless veteran to be the glue that holds the team together -- unlike Irving.
Kristaps Porzingis: Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks didn’t get any playing time out of Porzingis (torn ACL) in his first year with the organization. Offering him a max contract looks to be a guarantee, as the duo of Porzingis and 2019 Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic means that two of the most difficult matchups in the league will form the core of the franchise. Barring injury setbacks, the 7-foot-3 big will pick up where he left off, hitting threes at an efficient rate (39.5 percent) and fooling defenders with crafty post moves.
Porzingis’ signing will also help lure talent into Dallas. Adding one more piece (specifically at guard) makes Dallas a formidable presence in the league. While Walker and Russell are the premier guards in the running, fellow free-agent Patrick Beverley would make for a sound fit and wouldn’t require a max contract.
Tobias Harris: Brooklyn Nets
Harris’ free agency depends on what other stars decide to do. While Durant and Leonard are clearly more attractive players for Brooklyn to pursue, Harris would be a great second option to team up with Kyrie Irving on the Nets.
Because the 76ers would be able to offer Harris a max contract, the Nets have to consider if that hefty price tag is worth it. However, if both Durant and Leonard sign elsewhere, Harris’s value to the Nets will skyrocket. He’s capable of knocking down the three-ball and would fill in a spot that was predominantly split between Caris LeVert, Rodion Kurucs, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in a messy rotation last season. Harris is from New York, too, but has never played there professionally.
Harris would be a good choice for the 76ers, Jazz, Nuggets and Clippers as well, making his destination a toss-up.
D’Angelo Russell: Los Angeles Lakers
Could a reunion in Los Angeles really come so soon after Russell’s departure in June 2017? Teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be a dream scenario for point guards, and Russell would be the perfect fit.
Coming off an All-Star season, in which he recorded 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, the Ohio State standout proved that he could spread the ball around while remaining an elite scoring option. He was one of only four guards to average over 20 points and seven assists per contest -- alongside Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Jrue Holiday -- while leading the Nets to an unexpected playoff berth.
A supporting cast of Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen could become Kyle Kuzma, James and Davis. It’s an irresistible offer for the young guard.