2019 NBA Free Agency Predictions: Where Will the Biggest Stars Land?

For the unacquainted, NBA free agency is the craziest string of weeks in the league’s calendar. Sense and sanity jump out the window when the clock strikes six on the 30th of June. 

The 2019 NBA free agency is promising to amplify the nuttiness to a whole new level. About a third of the league have cap space for a max player or two –– which includes big markets like New York and Los Angeles teams, and playoff squads like the Celtics, Sixers, and Pacers. The actual free agents aren’t too shabby either; over a dozen All-Star-caliber players and bonafide superstars will enter the market. 

With the 2020 NBA Championship within reach for the first time in a half-decade, this year’s free agency will be a full-fledged arms race. There will be a number of aggressive teams trying to load up with superstars, while others will be looking to add the final piece to bolster their title dreams. 

Here’s my best guess –– based on reports, team fit, and gut feel –– on how the NBA’s silly season will play out: 

STAYING PUT

Klay Thompson: Golden State Warriors

Among the superstars available, Klay Thompson is the surest bet to stay with his existing team. Mychal Thompson, Klay’s dad, even told the San Francisco Chronicle that it’s “no question” his son will re-sign.

But nothing is ever set in stone in the NBA. Thompson can look at the state of Warriors and realize Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins are one foot out the door, Draymond Green is on the decline, and Steph Curry is 31 with a glut of health issues and playoff miles under his belt. The rest of the roster is full of players approaching retirement and underwhelming young players. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski even reported that if Golden State doesn’t offer Thompson the full $190 million max, he may bolt for the up-start Los Angeles Clippers –– his hometown.

The Warriors aren’t stupid, though. Even with the torn ACL and all, there’s a near-100% chance that they’ll (deservedly) offer Klay the max, and he’ll likely accept it. Thompson has given every indication throughout his career that he plans to stay as a Warrior for life. With three titles to his name, he doesn’t need to go ring searching and form a superteam, anyways. 

Jimmy Butler: Philadelphia 76ers

Much has been said about Jimmy Butler’s less-than-ideal fit in the Sixers. He is the archetypal ball-dominant superstar who played with another high-usage superstar in Joel Embiid, and one of the least threatening off-ball players in Ben Simmons. Each of the three stars grumbled about their role at least once last season, which isn’t the best sign for their chemistry going forward. The Nets and Clippers can potentially offer the role he so dearly desires: as the lone alpha with the keys to the offense. 

But this bears repeating: had a couple bounces (literally) went their way in the 2019 Eastern Conference Semis, there’s a real chance that the Philadelphia 76ers are the current title holders. I’m pretty sure that Butler, who has forced his way out of two playoff squads in search for the elusive ring, understands how close they were last season.

This is why I’m betting on Jimmy Buckets staying. He eventually got his preferred role as the lead wolf when the game bogged down in the postseason. The continued development of Embiid and Simmons –– who both have yet to reach their prime, by the way –– will raise the Sixers’ ceiling even higher next season. This will further coax Butler to stay –– especially as he’s approaching the wrong side of 30, allowing him to naturally cede control of the offense as he declines. If the three alphas (no, not those three alphas) settle their role issues, something special can begin brewing in Philly.

Khris Middelton: Milwaukee Bucks

Among this year’s crop of big-name free agents, Khris Middleton gets the least buzz. His counting stats last season (18.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.3 APG) and effective-but-muted playing style doesn’t exactly jump out of the screen. Middleton has built a reputation in Milwaukee as a solid third option on a title contender –– not the type of player that typically earns a max deal. 

However, the Bucks don’t have a choice. Middleton has all the leverage this offseason, since Milwaukee has very little resources to replace him if bounces. If the Bucks lowball Middleton with anything less than a max deal (or close to it), then he could very easily bolt to a host of other teams (like the Sixers, Mavericks, or Pacers) that could use the premier 3-and-D wing in the league. 

The Bucks know that they need to maximize the talent surrounding Antetokounmpo’s prime years, and this means fully committing to Middleton –– even if it’s through a five-year, $190 million max contract. For Middleton, that kind of money and long-term security may be enough to stay.

STAYING PUT (FOR NOW)

Kawhi Leonard: Toronto Raptors

The noise surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s decision seems to change on a daily basis. When the Raptors won the title, a return to Toronto seemed like a foregone conclusion. Woj then dropped a bomb two days before free agency that Leonard and Durant teaming up for the Clippers is a ‘real possibility’. Marc Stein of the New York Times later reported a few hours later, saying that the Lakers, and not the Clippers, are in the driver’s seat for Leonard.

At this point, it’s tough to predict what the cryptic Leonard wants. My gut feel is that he signs a short term deal with Toronto, primarily based on these two facts: 

  1. Leonard has never been one to crave the limelight (this is a dude who signed with New Balance, after all)
  2. A quick look at NBA history shows that here has never been an in-prime superstar that bolted for another team after winning a freaking title

As for the length, a 1+1 contract (one guaranteed year plus a player option in 2021) makes sense for a number of reasons. The contracts of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka all expire next year, so Leonard signing a one-year deal aligns perfectly with their core group going for one last run. Should they run it back, the Raptors will likely be the favorites for the 2020 championship –– especially if Pascal Siakam develops into an sure-fire All-Star. 

If Leonard opts to return to free agency two years from now, he’ll be eligible to receive the largest possible max contract. The year 2021 would mark his 10th season in the NBA, meaning that he can sign for up to 35% of the salary cap instead of the usual 30% for players with nine years of experience or less. 

Basically: Leonard can earn around $6 million more per year if he returns to the market in 2021. That’s, like, a lot.

Despite these factors, I’m only about 40% sure of this prediction. You never really know with a player as elusive as Kawhi Leonard. A LeBron-AD-Kawhi trio would offer the most upside, but Leonard would have to be comfortable playing second or third fiddle. The same goes if he signs with the Clippers along with Durant, and that hypothetical team would only be true contenders once Durant returns –– wasting a precious year of Leonard’s prime. 

A Raptors return in the short term offers the safest path to a championship. It also gives Leonard the role he’s been accustomed to since he broke out with the Spurs: as the lone, ball-dominant superstar surrounded by a group of cerebral and talented veterans. To quote the late Bert Lance: If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

SURE BETS TO BOLT

Kemba Walker: Boston Celtics

After being stuck on the train of mediocrity for his entire career, Kemba Walker reportedly plans to leave the Charlotte Hornets for (literally) greener pastures. This move makes sense for both parties. For the Hornets, signing Walker to a mammoth deal that would have kept him in Charlotte well beyond his 30s, handicapping their flexibility going forward and leaving the team in no man’s land in the foreseeable future. For Walker, he finally gets to play for a team whose second-best player isn’t, well, Jeremy Lamb. 

This is an intriguing move for the Celtics. They plan to sign Walker to the max, meaning that they won’t have room to pair Kemba with another star via free agency. With Al Horford and Kyrie Irving on the way out, Boston is banking on a Walker-Tatum-Hayward-Brown-Smart nucleus going forward –– a sign that they plan on walking the delicate balance between rebuilding and contention, yet again. If Tatum has a breakout season and Hayward rounds back into form, the Boston could have an All-Star trio of their own next season.

Kyrie Irving: Brooklyn Nets

This move is a done deal according to most reports. In terms of on-the-court fit, signing Irving alone would basically turn next seasons Nets into a…slightly better version of last year’s Nets, with Kyrie replacing D-Lo. That isn’t the most exciting outcome if you’re a Brooklyn fan. The Nets front office know that signing Irving alone won’t turn them into a contender, unless they also…

Kevin Durant: Brooklyn Nets

…sign Kevin Durant as well! Durant has been long rumored to be on the way out from Golden State, with the Knick as the most talked about destination. But the Knicks’ collection of young talent isn’t exactly the most exciting, especially as Durant transitions into the post-prime years. There also hasn’t been any buzz about a star free agent wanting to join the Knicks so far. 

Their cross-borough neighbors, on the other hand, possess the pieces that the Knicks simply can’t offer. The Nets’ collection of young talent –– Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddle, Jarret Allen, and Rodions Kurucs –– have the defensive acumen, shooting, and/or playmaking to complement KD and Irving well. Those young pieces can also be parlayed into a trade, say for a guy like Aaron Gordon, Jrue Holiday, or Bradley Beal, if Durant prefers a third All-Star-level talent. It also helps that the Nets are blessed with a top-to-bottom culture that mirrors the Spurs, while the Knicks have, well, JD & The Straight Shot!

Of course, the Nets and Irving have to be comfortable with Durant sitting out the entirety of next season. But if it means acquiring one of the 15 best players in NBA history at about 80-90 percent of his peak, Brooklyn will gladly take it. 

Al Horford: Dallas Mavericks

When the Pelicans began playing a real-life version of NBA 2K and accumulated asset after asset, a glaring need emerged to compliment their bounty of young talent: a rim-protecting center with the ability to space the floor. After Twitter detectives found that Horford, who severed ties with Boston earlier this week, followed Jrue Holiday and Zion Williamson on Instagram, a New Orleans-Horford marriage seemed like a done deal.

But not so fast Pelicans fans! Stein reported that the Pelicans aren’t pursuing players for four-year deals –– the kind of security the 33-year-old center would likely want heading into the twilight of his career. Instead, a mystery suitor apparently plans to offer Horford a lengthy $100 million deal. My bet is that mystery bidder is Mark Cuban and the Mavericks, who have the cap space to do so.

The same reasons of Horford’s potential snug fit in New Orleans also apply to Dallas. They also have young talent that could use a 3-and-D center, with the added bonus that Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis fit more towards Horford’s timeline. Unlike in New Orleans, where is remains to be seen if Zion and co. are equipped enough to win now, the dynamic duo of the Mavs have proven to be All-Star-caliber players despite being at the nascent stages of their career. 

Horford would potentially play a similar role as Paul Millsap in Denver –– the swiss-army-knife veteran capable of doing whatever the young Mavs need him to do. If the Mavericks fill out their hole at the one, they could easily emulate last year’s Nuggets. They have a pair of young franchise cornerstones leading the way potentially flanked by a do-it-all former All-Star.

D’Angelo Russell: Minnesota Timberwolves

Russell to the Lakers fits the prodigal son narrative perfectly that a move to Los Angeles seems like it’s bound to happen. Unfortunately, that signing pressumes two things:

  1. The Lakers struck out on Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler
  2. The Lakers chose to forgo filling out their roster with quality role players and instead chose to max out Russell, who probably will never make an All-Star team in the Western Conference

Russell is a great player, don’t get me wrong, but he isn’t the franchise-altering cornerstone that you’d risk gutting your entire team for. D-Lo still a minus defensive player, and isn’t the kind of off-ball threat (he shot 39.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season, 109th in the league) that would maximize the talents of LeBron and Davis. If the Lakers don’t get Leonard, or even Butler, then I’d bet for them to spread their $30 million in max room to build depth instead.

Even though Minnesota don’t have cap space to sign him outright, Russell will reportedly meet with the Wolves –– meaning that they have a path to find space and sign D-Lo. I like his fit as a pick-and-roll partner with Towns; when teams sag back to deny KAT’s devastating rim runs, D-Lo can cash in from mid-range, the area where Russell is most effective.  

DeMarcus Cousins: New York Knicks

Stein reported that the Knicks could potentially offer Cousins a gargantuan, one-year deal if they miss out on Durant. The Knicks signing a supremely talented, but oft-injured big man after striking out on their targeted superstar? Sounds very Knicks, indeed. 

Photos for graphics from Getty Images