In the middle of the NBA Finals, news broke that could greatly affect the NBA’s second-biggest event, the July free agency period. Kawhi Leonard reportedly bought property in Toronto ahead of his free agency, and alert shoppers noticed that Nike was selling a Kevin Durant shirt that listed all the cities where he has played basketball. Below “Oakland,” where KD is playing this year, is “San Francisco,” where the Warriors will move next season.
Real-estate rumors and T-shirts aren’t proof of either player’s intentions, but it does raise the possibility that two of this year’s top free agents might stay put. If that’s the case, the 2019 free-agency period, where over half the teams in the league have salary cap space, might be a dud.
It’s not just Kawhi and KD.
The Warriors' owner insists they’ll keep Durant and Klay Thompson. Kemba Walker says Charlotte is his “first priority,” and Michael Jordan is unlikely to let him walk for nothing after refusing to trade him for years. Philadelphia paid big in picks and players for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and it can pay those two soon-to-be free agents more than anyone else can. Dallas' Kristaps Porzingis and Brooklyn's D’Angelo Russell are restricted free agents, and Milwaukee is so worried about losing Giannis Antetokounmpo, it might bring back Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon. Marc Gasol and Al Horford are making such big money next year that opting out of their deals would be a risk. Even Nikola Vucevic will probably stay in Orlando, now that the Magic finally made the playoffs and the Star Wars rides at Disney World are finally opening.
When the dust settles, it’s possible that the top free agents left are Kyrie Irving, who reportedly is eyeing the Nets, and Boogie Cousins.
Which is near-disastrous for teams that have hoarded cap space in anticipation of this summer. The Knicks had been dreaming of spending their $70 million in space to pair Durant and Irving with Zion Williamson. After ending up third in the lottery, they could end up with Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and R.J. Barrett. And a disenchanted fan base.
The Clippers were so confident about Leonard that they tried to buy his logo from Nike, but without him or Durant, it’s unclear who their backup targets would be. Thaddeus Young? Julius Randle? Both Lopez twins? And the Lakers might follow up last summer’s “Meme Team” misfire by adding even more mediocrity alongside LeBron James.
It’s also a bit of a buzzkill for the ballyhooed beginning of free agency, which the NBA moved up from midnight July 1 to 6 p.m. June 30 this year to accommodate huge fan interest. Imagine Shams and Woj fighting over who broke the news of Bojan Bogdanovic’s new team first, which could be one of the biggest scoops. Of course, the Pacers have $40 million in cap space, so he might stay put as well. (Though we’re hoping he signs in Sacramento to join forces with Bogdan Bogdanovic.) Instead of awaiting something like LeBron taking his talents to South Beach, we’re going to see Dallas give up on their big dreams and ink Nikola Mirotic to a massive four-year deal.
A shrinking number of superstars available in free agency could only raise the price on lower-tier free agents, which we saw in the aftermath of The Decision in 2010. Miami vacuumed up the three top superstars, and a result, Chicago and New York panicked and wildly overpaid for Carlos Boozer and Amar’e Stoudemire. Free agency FOMO can haunt a team’s balance sheet for years. This is great news for players such as Cousins, who’s certain to find someone willing to give him a max contract in this cash-flush summer, and the ripple effect figures to get Rudy Gay extra years and extra dollars.
The effect is that the big moves this summer won’t be signings, but trades. And the price on trading for stars will go way up. It’s no coincidence New Orleans announced this week it's soliciting Anthony Davis trade offers. The $120 million remaining on Chris Paul’s contract suddenly looks more enticing when the alternative is overpaying Darren Collison or Ricky Rubio. Rockets GM Daryl Morey says everyone is on the trading block, so would the Lakers consider a Banana Boat reunion? Be prepared for Bradley Beal to switch teams, Miami to deal Goran Dragic, and some team might even take a flyer on Boston’s distressed asset, Gordon Hayward. We’re looking at you, Indiana.
It also means that the start of free agency, June 30, no longer remains the key date. It’s June 20, the night of the NBA draft, which features Williamson, Ja Morant, and not a single other guaranteed star. The Knicks and Lakers picks at No. 3 and No. 4 are certainly available, while Atlanta’s two lottery picks and $49 million in cap space seem like a natural fit for an expensive and/or disgruntled star like Beal. Meanwhile, teams that had aspirations of renting out their cap space to get extra picks, a bread-and-butter 76ers strategy during The Process, are going to find a saturated market.
Fans and basketball media have become so accustomed to relentlessly refreshing Twitter when free agency breaks, it will still be a big event. But the most consequential moves may have happened 10 days earlier, so we all may have to shift to relentlessly refreshing the Trade Machine instead. But regardless of how many superstars decide to stay put, the initial free-agent free-for-all will always retain a certain amount of charm, because watching the New York Knicks strike out in free agency never gets old.