Free agency is over, and the NBA enters its offseason slumber when players, coaches and execs head for various beaches to rest up before it begins anew at training camp. For us, we get to examine factors impacting what the league may look like a year from now with regard to player movement, including trade and free agency scenarios:
Too many stars, not enough money
In 2016, teams went berserk and overspent after a massive cap jump created by a mega-TV deal. Guys who weren't max-level players landed huge deals. Mike Conley was a max candidate, but he happened to land his $153 million deal in the year of the jump. But Ian Mahinmi? Evan Turner? Those deals (four years, $64M for Mahinmi and four years $70M for Turner) were shocking.
The market corrected itself this summer. Stars like Kyle Lowry got smaller -- in terms of length -- deals (the Raptors' PG got $100M, but only a three-year pact) and money spent on role players decreased dramatically. Expectations are belts will tighten even more next summer. The cap came in under projections for next season, in part because of lower revenues from the playoffs because the Warriors and Cavaliers beat everyone in short order. Another season like that could see similarly depressed revenue relative to projection.
This would happen the same summer when huge stars could become free agents, names like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas. Big-money targets and not a lot of space means one of two likely outcomes:
- The CBA works as intended and players stay with their respective teams or take player options to hold out for better times in 2019.
- Teams clear cap space to go after those stars, which could fill next season with cap-space clearing trades.
But it still takes two to tango, and not a lot of teams have that space. Some clubs that do -- the Nuggets, for instance -- have young cores they may want to sign to max extensions. This sets up a tense season as some teams try to keep stars as others jockey for position to land them.
The Chosen One's next choice
Few thought James would leave Cleveland in the first time. Then he did. Then, there seemed no way he would leave Miami after two titles. Then he did. Now, we're wondering if James again will search of greener pastures next summer.
One school of thought is James never would leave Cleveland twice because he's invested too much in the community. Plus, his options to join a genuine challenger to the Warriors seem limited. Even with all the cap room the Lakers have cleared for next summer, they still may nascent, and the West may be too tough -- even beyond Golden State -- relative to the irresistibly easy East.
Then again, James rarely follows expectations. He's still chasing Michael Jordan's ghost, and it would seem out of character for him to sit and let the Warriors (or any club) rule as his career is extinguished. There already is plenty of drama in Cleveland. He would have a chance to team with not one, but multiple superstars in 2018 -- and could do so in Los Angeles, where he has business interests and a home. He could go to San Antonio, play for Gregg Popovich, partner with Kawhi Leonard and make a run at the Warriors. He could orchestrate a sign-and-trade to Houston to join Chris Paul, or head elsewhere if the CP3-Harden partnership fails.
Bottom line: We're looking at a full year of James free agency talk.
The Thunder flash
Oklahoma City gambled big when trading for George as a possible one-year rental. He and Westbrook can depart in 2018, and that'll be the story in OKC next season. Westbrook has a designated veteran player exception worth more than $200 million. If he signs it, the Thunder at least would have him going forward -- and it figures to improve the odds of keeping both players.
But if Westbrook doesn't take the exception, both could leave in free agency and even wind up with the Lakers, to whom George has long been linked. Should things go sour on the floor with George, OKC always would have the option of moving him at the deadline -- making for an even shorter-term rental.
The Thunder have consistently made big moves with Sam Presti in charge and figure to keep building the roster and (they hope) momentum.
A thin middle class
The 2018 class is flush with marquee names and plenty of rotation players. However, there are few high-end role players. Avery Bradley, Clint Capela and Zach LaVine highlight this group. After that, it's a steep drop-off. A larger number of rotation players in a tight market could alter the market, with much of it determined by how many teams clear space for stars. If teams clear space to pursue major stars and miss, they may offer more money for lesser players -- the way Chicago paid big for Carlos Boozer in 2010, when clubs were pulling out all stops to land James.
Is 'Lake Show' looking to buy?
The Lakers have a lot riding on next season because of George and James' potential interest. If the Lakers struggle next season, that could hurt their chances. Consequently, there figures to be a significant push to win games and make their situation as attractive as possible. And they can afford to add a piece with assets they can spare. We're looking at a big 12 months for this franchise.
Spurs in position, if they want in
Assuming LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and Rudy Gay exercise early termination options next summer, here's what the Spurs have in guaranteed salary going into the summer: $35.5 million.
Most of that is tied up in Kawhi Leonard ($20.1 million) and Patty Mills ($11 million) and that's no coincidence. San Antonio didn't commit long-term money to rotation players this summer beyond Mills, who they needed with Tony Parker out. It's widely known they have been shopping Aldridge and that his fit there has been rough. So what does all this mean?
It could mean the Spurs are being careful, that they cleared space to pursue Paul (who went to the Rockets) and missed, so they chose not to spend. Whatever the intent, they are set up as a potential player in next summer's star bonanza. If you want to beat the Warriors, is there a better situation than playing for Popovich with good role players and a stable culture led by Leonard? Most every player in the league would take the Spurs' call. Could that include James? The Spurs rarely make such big moves, but it's worth keeping an eye on that potential $65 million available in San Antonio next summer.
Stars on trade market
After Jimmy Butler and George moved this spring, the list of available notable trade targets is tight, and goes something like this:
Cousins: If the Pelicans stumble, there will be pressure to move him. His expiring contract would hurt his value in return, and New Orleans conceivably could get less than it gave up to get him. There's also pressure for the Pelicans to make this work so they don't wind up in a bind that eventually sends Anthony Davis out of town, too.
Westbrook and George: OKC is gambling. If the pairing doesn't work and Westbrook won't commit to an extension, it's possible the Thunder could trade one or both to avoid a repeat of 2016 to happen, when they lost Kevin Durant and got nothing in return. Seems unlikely, but it's worth watching.
Kevin Love: There's talk of James leaving, and Kyrie Irving asking out if he goes. This team needs upgrades, big-time. They've already been shopping Love. Unless something changes and the Cavs look entirely different this season, Love will continue to be on the market.
Dwyane Wade: He doesn't want to be in Chicago with the Bulls in full rebuilding mode after dealing Butler, but $24 million is $24 million. A more likely scenario seems to be a February post-deadline buyout, but if a suitor gets desperate, making a move for Wade isn't implausible
Carmelo Anthony: He's a free agent next summer, so his value will be even lower. It looked like a deal to Houston was close before the Knicks hired new GM Scott Perry. Until Melo gets moved, he will be the subject of trade talk.
Andre Drummond: Reports surfaced last season that the Pistons were taking calls for Drummond, which is different from actively shopping him. Those trade rumors have died down. Drummond has been frustrating for Detroit; he vanishes for stretches, making it difficult to build around him.
Next-level trade market
Eric Bledsoe: He's almost a star. He's explosive, talented and has improved his shooting and brings it on defense. On a good team, he could break out (think Lowry). His injury history is difficult and Phoenix has been reluctant to move him, though he's been the subject in a lot of talks.
Greg Monroe: Has been on the market, and exercised his option to stay with the Bucks. Last season was one of his best, when he showed more defensive aptitude than ever. He would be attractive to teams looking to fortify their bench or frontcourt.
Kenneth Faried: His contract is friendly with another two years on it at $13 million, and after signing Paul Millsap, Faried's value to the Nuggets has dropped. He is a hard sell because of his desire to start, inconsistent defense (though last season was maybe his best at that end) and his inability to space the floor or defend stretch fours. But he would be a good low-cost gamble because he always plays with energy, especially on the glass.