NBA free agency officially begins Sunday afternoon.
This year’s class features some of the NBA’s top players, including reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Where does Leonard rank among fellow free agents Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving? Should the Lakers target a third star or multiple role players with their cap space? Which underrated free agents will have the biggest impact next season?
Our experts discuss what they’ll be watching most closely when the action begins and make their bold predictions for the offseason.
1. What will you be watching most closely when free agency begins Sunday?
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Two things, really. Is Kawhi going to leave a team with which he just won a championship? And how much do these home-field-advantage teams flirt with the idea of negotiating with guys who will have plenty of other suitors? Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler strike me as two players about whom you could raise fair injury-risk questions, but they will have teams lined up waiting to talk to them if they feel slighted by their current clubs.
Kirk Goldsberry, ESPN: Kawhi Leonard. This dude’s decision will swing the entire balance of power in both conferences. If he stays in Toronto, the Raptors should be the favorites in the Eastern Conference. If he moves to the Clippers, they immediately become legit contenders for years to come.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN: How quickly the market moves and what that means for the teams such as the Lakers, who are operating on parallel tracks — trying to sign a star but also hoping to get role players if they’re unable to land one of their star targets. If they’re stuck waiting for days for the top players on the market to make decisions, those second-tier options could be gone already.
Tim Bontemps, ESPN: What Kawhi Leonard chooses to do. The King of the North is the NBA’s Kingmaker this summer. With Thompson and Durant likely sidelined for most of next season, Leonard is easily the best player on the board. Where he chooses to go — remaining in Toronto or heading west to the LA Clippers look most likely for now — will be the most important decision of the offseason. As usual, there will be other things that draw more attention and drama (read: the Lakers), but nothing is more important than what Leonard decides to do.
Jorge Sedano, ESPN: I think Leonard will set the tone for free agency. I’m curious to see how many meetings he sets up, particularly if he’ll listen to a Lakers pitch and consider joining forces with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That could be the best trio of players to ever form a superteam.
2. Rank your top five free-agent targets based on value.
Bontemps: Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Kyrie Irving
The first three names on this list are easy. Even with injuries, Durant and Thompson are clear max players to me, while Leonard is arguably the best player in the world. After that, the list gets more subjective. I put Middleton fourth because of the value of wing play in today’s league, his reliability in the playoffs and his age (27) relative to some of the other options. Irving is fifth over Butler, Tobias Harris and others because of his scoring ability and age (27), despite the issues he had in Boston last season.
Leonard is a no-brainer for the top spot. I prefer building my teams with an emphasis on defense, and Butler is the next-best two-way player available. I know that plenty of people will scream about “THIBS MINUTES!” However, I feel that’s overstated. Butler has had only two seasons in which he averaged more than 38 MPG. Middleton, an excellent shooter, was essential to the Bucks’ success. Bogdanovic is a great offensive wing who shot 50% from the field and 42.5% from 3, and he’s also a much better defender than he gets credit for. Curry is arguably the best pure shooter available, plus he has youth on his side.
Goldsberry: Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Tobias Harris, Kyrie Irving
Like it or not, this is a superstar-driven league, and the most valuable contracts generally belong to either max guys or rookie-scale players outperforming the dollar values of their deals. These five stars have all blended volume and efficiency at very high levels, and with the exception of Harris, they’ve all done so in huge moments. If a single team can land two of these guys, look out.
Leonard is the max free agent most likely to be a bargain on his next contract, while Green still appears somewhat undervalued as a star in his role. Jones is an RPM standout who’s just 23 and could develop into a starter over the next four years. Mirotic seems underrated because of an ill-timed shooting slump in the conference finals while playing out of position. Kleber’s strong 2018-19 season got little attention, but he’s a legit 3-point threat who’s also an outstanding shot-blocker — sort of a lesser Brook Lopez who’s younger and (likely) cheaper.
Herring: Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving
You could easily mix and match a few of these, depending on who you think will have the greatest impact over the next few seasons — in terms of not only health but also two-way contributions and specific roles within their teams. With Durant fully healthy or not, Kawhi would arguably deserve top billing at this point because he’s younger.
3. Besides that top five, which free agent will make the biggest impact next season?
Sedano: You can make the argument that Kyrie Irving is the key to free agency. We all know how talented he is. That’s not debatable. Are there questions about how coachable he is and his lack of chemistry with teammates? Sure. His talent trumps all that in most cases. And the scuttlebutt that he could be the key to landing Kevin Durant adds a ton of intrigue.
Bontemps: For next season, this answer is easy: Butler, who would be second on my overall list if looking just at 2019-20. All anyone needs for proof of that is to look at this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, in which Butler went toe-to-toe with Leonard. He might’ve competed for a title had Leonard’s insane Game 7 buzzer-beater bounced off the rim rather than through it. The end of Butler’s next deal might not be pretty, but he’ll be an impact player next season without question.
Herring: I think it depends on destination. Kemba Walker would be an obvious choice to some, but I think his scoring numbers will come down if he joins a couple of established scorers. JJ Redick figures to be helpful on offense wherever he ends up. And I think DeMarcus Cousins could end up having a really nice bounce-back season for someone if and when he’s back to full strength.
Goldsberry: I’m going to cheat and choose three: Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon. If they all stay in Milwaukee, the Bucks are set up to make title runs for years. But if any of them goes elsewhere, suddenly the Bucks aren’t as scary. This is a team that pairs incredible statistical markers with youth and strong chemistry. A huge chunk of that chemistry has a “for sale” sign on it starting at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Pelton: Butler might have the biggest impact on the 2020 title race, given both his importance to the Sixers and the possibility of improving another contender if he heads elsewhere.
4. What should the Lakers do?
Pelton: Unless they get a superstar in his prime — and that list is likely limited to Leonard and Irving — I think they’re probably better off using their cap space to sign two or three contributors to fill out a rotation that is precariously thin at the moment. I would be more interested in building the best possible five-man lineup than the best possible trio.
Herring: I think Bojan Bogdanovic would be a fantastic fit with them. He can score on the ball or off of it, and he’s a solid defender who has actually guarded James well in the past. He can shoot with range and extreme efficiency. Grabbing him and another quality player or two to boost the team’s depth would make for a more-than-solid summer, in my opinion. Unless they can get Kawhi or Butler, I don’t think most other star free agents are good enough to justify using the rest of the team’s cap space.
Sedano: Sign Kawhi, Kyrie or just build out the roster with shooters and guys who can defend. You don’t turn down the Finals MVP if he wants to join your team. You also don’t turn down the guy who helped LeBron win a championship. If either one wants to join the Lakers, you do everything in your power to free up the requisite cap space. If neither of those players is interested, move on and build the roster with as much high-level depth as possible.
Goldsberry: Easy. They should invent a purple-and-gold time machine, go back a couple weeks and restructure the Anthony Davis trade so they have more cap space. But seriously, folks, this is simple: They need shooting and defense. They should adopt a pair of litmus tests for potential signings: Can this dude shoot 3s well? Can this dude play good defense?
If the answer to both of those questions is yes, they should pursue that player. If even one of the answers is close to no, they should consider only a minimum deal. If they manage to surround LeBron and Davis with competent shooting and defense, they’ll be awesome. If they don’t, well, we don’t need a time machine to know how that will turn out — just look at 2018-19.
Bontemps: Spread their resources around as much as possible. Another star player would be nice, but the Lakers should look at this season’s NBA Finals as examples of what to do — and not do — in free agency. Golden State suffered injuries, yes, but the team’s depth was nowhere near Toronto’s. Imagine how useful, say, Norman Powell would’ve been to the Warriors. The Lakers already have two of the top players in the league. Their best chance at contention is to surround them with as many quality NBA players as possible.
5. What’s your bold offseason prediction?
Goldsberry: The Sixers emerge as favorites in the Eastern Conference. Not only does Kawhi go to L.A., but also both Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler stay put in Philly. Combine that with the continuing improvements of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, plus some key subtractions in Milwaukee, and Philly suddenly has a clear path to the Finals.
Sedano: Kemba Walker joins the Celtics. Walker fits perfectly into what the Celtics wanted to do with Kyrie. His skill set is similar to Irving’s, and Brad Stevens can recreate some of the magic he had with another shoot-first point guard in Isaiah Thomas.
Herring: I’m struggling to come up with one. Honestly, I think free agency could end up being a lot more static than we all thought, and almost all of the biggest names, including Kawhi, Durant, Klay, Butler and even Kemba, will find it most worthwhile to simply stay put. So maybe my prediction is that a team that correctly values the right second- and third-tier guys — such as a Dallas or Orlando — will end up making some of the biggest leaps next season.
Bontemps: Milwaukee loses Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez or Khris Middleton. With all three coveted on the free-agent market, the belief here is that it will be tough to keep them all without going far into the luxury tax — something Milwaukee has been reticent to do.
Pelton: Leonard will smile and/or do the Kawhi laugh at the media conference to announce his new contract.