Free agency officially opens Sunday, or Saturday night at 10 p.m. for those of you living in the Mountain Time Zone. It’s the NBA’s version of a feeding frenzy, where teams can pluck talent off the open or restricted market and that talent can seek the best deal for themselves.
Except, this July, that feeding frenzy may grind to a halt for a few days.
If LeBron James — the Cleveland Cavaliers star and the best player in the league — officially opts out of the last year of his deal on Friday, he will become an unrestricted free agent for the third time in his career. And the NBA will turn into react mode. And if San Antonio star Kawhi Leonard is truly on the trading block — he told the San Antonio Express-News last week that he wanted out of the Spurs — the fate of two of the league’s brightest stars will further tie into what the rest of the NBA does.
Instead of free agency business opening in full on Sunday, the league will be asking two major questions.
Where will LeBron go?
Will the Spurs actually deal Kawhi?
San Antonio General Manager R.C. Buford and the Spurs front office are hopeful on the record that Leonard’s hard feelings with the organization can be smoothed over. “Our goal is to keep him as a part of our program for a long time,” Buford told reporters last week.
Whether that happens, or doesn’t, Leonard’s plight and James’ decision will set off a domino that could affect many teams in the league — including the Utah Jazz. Many think James’ preferred destination lies in Los Angeles with the Lakers. But, it’s difficult to picture a 33 year-old James joining a Laker core as young and callow and not ready to win as the one that currently exists.
Los Angeles has carved out enough space to support two max contracts. One is almost certainly being held for James. Another could go to Paul George, the dynamic Oklahoma City Thunder small forward, who was traded to OKC last offseason.
And, in theory, the Lakers have enough young players — Lonzo Ball, former University of Utah star Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram — to put together a package that could entice the Spurs in a Leonard trade.
That’s Magic Johnson’s dream scenario: signing James and George, and trading for Leonard. It would be enough for the Lakers to instantly vault into the top three of the Western Conference and challenge the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors for an NBA title.
Or, things can go this way: George stays with the Thunder and signs a one year deal with a player option and tries his hand at a more lucrative and free-wheeling 2019 free agency market. The Spurs — as is the rumor — trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team. And James, without a ready-made contender to go to, either stays in Cleveland or signs with another team.
The former option would be a bad thing for the Jazz, who just may currently be the third best team in the Western Conference. A James/George/Leonard scenario would almost certainly knock Utah down a peg, and the Jazz would have a significant battle to stay among the better teams in the conference.
But, if things stay as status quo — James stays in the Eastern Conference — the Jazz could have an opportunity to make real noise next season, depending on what happens with their roster and what happens through the rest of the league.
James’ decision could be the most intriguing of his free agencies. When he left Cleveland for the first time in 2010, Miami emerged in time as a natural destination. When he left the Heat to return home, his two choices seemed clear.
Now, there is no clear choice.
He could go to Los Angeles, where the bulk of his business interest lies. The Houston Rockets could be enticing with James Harden and Chris Paul. The Philadelphia 76ers could be a landing spot as well.
But each place has drawbacks. The Lakers may not be ready to win. Houston would have to gut some of its roster in order to fit James under the cap. The Sixers would also have to lose valuable veteran role players.
In other words, there is no perfect solution for James, at least not a week before free agency begins. He’s given no official hints as to his preferred destination, only telling reporters that his current decision will be a lot more family oriented.
But that’s what this week is for. The Boston Celtics could try to make a move for Leonard via trade and James via sign-and-trade, although that doesn’t seem as likely. The Sixers — in a draft night trade that acquired Zhaire Smith — picked up an unprotected 2021 first round pick from the Miami Heat that could be used as an asset in a potential Leonard trade. And, even if Leonard eventually wants to end up in Los Angeles — he could be an unrestricted free agent in 2019 — teams closer to title contention will likely try and take a risk on a one-year rental.
That makes the NBA’s impending free agency all the more intriguing. There won’t be a lot of money on the market, but the trade market could explode. There are a significant number of good players on the market, but they are all overshadowed by the best player.
So, what will that choice be for LeBron James? Will he stay? Or will he go?
Top 10 NBA free agents
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: The best player in the league. Much of the NBA’s free agency hinges on his decision
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: Very likely to remain with Golden State, the place he’s won two straight titles
3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder: Could go to the Lakers. Could stay with OKC. Could go to Philly
4. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets: Still one of the very best point guards in the league. He probably stays with Houston
5. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans: Coming off an torn Achilles. The Pelicans want him back, but could Dallas get involved?
6. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers: Still a terrific player. His destination will have an effect on what Jazz forward Derrick Favors does
7. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets: Houston likely matches any offer for him. He’s one of the best centers in the league
8. Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers: Had a terrific season, but the Lakers’ free agency run at the top players will determine what happens here
9. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: Close to becoming a star. Will probably get max money, probably from Orlando
10. Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets: Still one of the best two-way wings in the league. A great defender, who can shoot and play multiple spots