With the Raptors' loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, Toronto's season is over and one of the biggest summers in franchise history has begun. The team has big decisions to make about its future, but most of that begins with what Kyle Lowry decides as a fee agent. And Lowry is not alone. This summer the landscape of the league outside of Oakland (Golden State) and Cleveland will be shaped by the decisions of a few key free agents.
Speaking of Golden State, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are also free agents, but their situation feels like a moot point. They teamed up for a reason, Curry has zero financial or basketball incentive to leave the Warriors and Durant didn't depart Oklahoma City to dip his toe in the Bay waters. They will both re-sign this summer for the max, and the league will have to deal with them for the next five years, most likely.
But these other free agents have tough decisions ahead of them. Here's a look at what's on the table.
Lowry is in a tough spot. This postseason was a splash of cold water. The Raptors are not in the Cavs' league, and that has to hurt. They have been fun and exciting, and Lowry has finally found a home after bouncing around the league. He is close with DeMar DeRozan and that's a big deal. They have genuinely built a friendship and on-court partnership that neither takes lightly. Leaving would be leaving DeRozan behind as DeRozan signed a max deal.
Lowry is 31, coming off an injury-marred season. This will be his last major contract. The Raptors have little recourse but to re-sign him, unless they look for a complete teardown. To keep Lowry, they would likely have to offer him the five-year max, a crippling amount when you consider what he'll be making (upwards of $40 million by some accounts) when he's 36.
That might be what Lowry's decision comes down to, ultimately. If the Raptors resolve to keep him, refusing to lose him for nothing and offer the max, he stays. If they get squeamish about the max, Lowry can look for a four-year max elsewhere that gives him a chance to compete for a title. The Spurs will almost assuredly be looking for a point-guard upgrade this summer. If Chris Paul departs, the Clippers will be in the market (albeit with a tight cap) and New Orleans is one move away from having the space to sign Lowry. Lowry alongside DeMarcus Cousins would make for the grumpiest tandem in history, but that also gives Lowry two superstars in their prime (with Anthony Davis) to play with, lowering the load on him.
Does Lowry want to go West, where it's even tougher to compete? Or stay in the East and know he's facing LeBron James year after year? Lowry seems likely to re-sign with Toronto, but it's also not crystal clear what direction Raptors boss Masai Ujiri will take with the team, or how ownership in Toronto will see paying the tax for a non-contender, so he lands at a 3.
Hayward is going to be the belle of the ball this summer. He's a wing who can shoot and defend, the most valuable asset in today's NBA. He's going to have great options for whatever his priorities are.
The teams discussed as key suitors are Boston and Miami. Boston brings the Brad Stevens connection, as Hayward played for him in college at Butler. The Celtics have a contending team with another superstar to take the majority of the offensive load in Isaiah Thomas, a great center to facilitate, screen and pass, and future flexibility. Does Hayward want to have to deal with Kevin Durant every year, or LeBron James every year? Those are the choices, but Boston presents the best opportunity to contend, but it comes with the most pressure as well. Being asked 7,000 times about his relationship with Brad Stevens might get a little old as well.
Miami offers South Beach, a fun and frisky team with Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside (and Dion Waiters?) and Erik Spoelstra. There's also the pull of whatever future plans Pat Riley might have up his sleeve. This doesn't seem like a great option, but Miami is definitely in the conversation.
But here's the other side. Utah is an up-and-coming team. It's true, the Jazz didn't sign him to a max as a restricted free agent, forcing him to go out and generate that offer from Charlotte before matching. But they've built around him. They can offer the most money, and have almost no recourse but to do so. If Utah loses him, they take huge steps back. They have to re-sign him and offer him whatever he wants under the rules.
Do any of the suitors (if Houston isn't a fit for whatever reason) offer him a better chance to win than Utah? Hayward has been in Utah, he's comfortable there, he's not a guy who makes a lot of noise about wanting to chase big markets. The reality is if he leaves Utah, he'll have suitors from two dozen teams. But Utah still offers him the most money and comparably the best chance to win. That's a tough combination to beat.
No one needs to leave his team more than Chris Paul. I absolutely believe this. Paul was never a good fit for the Clippers, they were just the team with the market and pieces to get him after the league (acting as ownership within their rights) vetoed his trade from the New Orleans Hornets to the Lakers. He joined a young team as a veteran in his prime, and much of his resulting surliness and miserable attitude is the product of feeling like he has to play hall monitor.
That's not on Paul, and it's not on DeAndre Jordan. They were just younger, and are different people. It's not on Paul. He wants to win, maybe more than any other player in the NBA. But it's an issue.
Paul would do great things in San Antonio. The Spurs would have to be OK with losing Patty Mills and finding trade partners for LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, which might be impossible. I tend to think there will be suitors for a former All-Star and a future Hall of Famer, but maybe not in today's anti-big NBA. If they can though, Paul is pretty much perfect. He wouldn't have to be a psycho with Gregg Popovich running the show and for the first time in his career, next to Kawhi Leonard, he wouldn't have to be the best player.
Paul would certainly have to take less money to go to San Antonio, or anywhere else for that matter. But he has huge endorsement deals, and has already made more than $130 million in NBA salary alone. Does he want to win more than he wants to get paid? Everyone wants both, but this is Paul's last big contract. He has to make a decision between the two. He no longer gets to have his cake and eat it, too.
However, it seems unlikely. The Clippers have no recourse but to offer him a max, $200 million deal. They can't afford to let him go. They'll never replace him, not for a decade. They have no choice here. They can go for a rebuild, which risks a decade of irrelevance, or they can keep one of the best point guards ever. This is no choice at all. Paul, as head of the National Basketball Players Association last summer, negotiated a new deal that specifically allows players of his age to sign deals for more money. Does he then turn around and decline that? Seems unlikely.
Paul needs to leave L.A. for his legacy, for his career, for his sanity. But the most likely option seems to be that he'll just throw himself back in as the Clippers try and hope that maybe one day, they won't play like they hate one another most of the time.
Griffin is in a similar situation to Paul, in that he needs a change of scenery, and by all accounts might be a bit more receptive to leaving. It is the same deal in that the Clippers have no recourse but to offer him a max. And it's the same deal in that Griffin might not find a better situation. There will be suitors for Griffin, for sure, but probably not among the elites. He would have to take on a team looking to rise to contention.
Meanwhile, Griffin has had several major injuries since he was drafted, and each has taken its toll on his athleticism. He's not the same player he was at 22 dunking on anything that moved. He's still great, and has stretches where he flirts with being MVP-caliber when he's passing, scoring and rebounding. But he's not a top-flight defender, never has been a crack shooter and doesn't control the game for long stretches.
And yet he's still a superstar. Teams like Miami, the Lakers and Knicks will pursue him. He'll have options. If he gets healthy, he's an incredible player who can make a huge impact.
Griffin could be gone, but he'll be turning down money for what seems like a worse situation. If he departs, it'll be because he just really felt he needed a fresh start.