2019 Free Agency
In summer of 2019, these 10 free agents provide most intrigue
We knew that the postseason would affect free agency. But the idea was that the success or failure of certain teams would affect what their free agents’ thoughts about staying or leaving.
Unfortunately, the last two games of The Finals brought devastating injuries to two of the three most coveted free agents on the market. Kevin Durant, arguably the best player in the world, tore his Achilles in Game 5, just 12 minutes into his return from a calf injury. And Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6.
The two injuries will certainly have repercussions beyond the two players and the Golden State Warriors. Maybe they already have. With the Western Conference seemingly wide open next season, the Los Angeles Lakers have reportedly made a deal for Anthony Davis, sending a bevy of young players and future picks to New Orleans so they can team the 26-year-old star with 34-year-old LeBron James … and maybe another star added in free agency.
As always, the free agent market and the trade market are tied together. The pending Davis trade could affect the decisions of players and teams come July 1. And if teams miss out on the free agents they’re seeking, they could always fill their cap space by making a trade.
With all that in mind, the players listed below aren’t necessarily the 10 best free agents (or potential free agents). They’re the 10 (actually 12) most interesting in regard to where they’re going and what kind of contract they get.
For players to be on this list, there needs to be some intrigue regarding their (and/or their team’s) decision this summer. That’s why Thompson isn’t included.
1. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto (Player option)
Whether he leaves or not, trading for Leonard last summer was well worth it for the Raptors, who won their first championship, with Leonard averaging 30.5 points per game in the postseason. The Raptors’ “load management” program (which limited Leonard to just 60 games in the regular season) clearly worked, and director of sports science Alex McKechnie should be seen as a major asset in the quest to keep Leonard in Toronto.
There should be a “run-it-back” sentiment for the new champs, with Danny Green also a free agent and Marc Gasol holding a player option this summer. A short-term deal would make sense, unless Leonard is looking for long-term security, having missed almost all of the 2017-18 season with a leg injury.
It’s all up to Leonard, maybe the toughest player in the league to read. If he takes his two-way talent elsewhere, the Raptors may have to go in a new direction.
Number to know: In the postseason, Leonard had a true shooting percentage of 69.1 percent, the highest mark for a player that averaged at least 30 points per game in the playoffs and won the championship.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State (Player option)
Durant’s torn Achilles probably won’t scare any team, including the Warriors, from paying him as much as possible. As deep and talented as this free agent class is, the top two guys on this list are in a class by themselves.
Rumors have long had Durant ready to leave Golden State and even with his injury, he seems more likely than Thompson to find a new home. But an ESPN report had Thompson’s father talking about “unfinished business” after overhearing a conversation between the two injured Warriors. Durant could always put free agency off for a year by exercising his player option and remaining on the Warriors’ payroll through his rehab.
Number to know: Durant was the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game in at least 10 playoff games while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line.
3. Kyrie Irving, Boston
The disappointment of the Celtics’ season, along with Irving’s questionable leadership with a group that underachieved, has taken some of the shine off his star. Irving’s injury history also must be taken into consideration.
But talent is the most important thing in this league and Irving is one of its most talented players. He’s still just 27 years old and he can still get buckets when buckets are needed. A return to Boston appears far less likely than it did six months ago (especially with Davis being traded elsewhere) and there have been a lot of signals that Irving is bound for Brooklyn.
Number to know: In the regular season, Irving had an effective field goal percentage of 56.1 percent with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, the second-best mark among player with at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.
4. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, Philadelphia
The Sixers lost to the eventual NBA champions on a Game 7 buzzer-beater that bounced on the rim four times before falling through. They’re right there. But their starting lineup, which outscored its opponents by more than 21 points per 100 possessions in 334 total minutes (regular season and playoffs), includes three free agents.
In regard to future assets, the Sixers didn’t give up as much for Butler as they did for Harris. And of course, Butler has more baggage in regard to accepting his role. But, with his defense and his ability to get his own shot, he’s is the most important of the three.
Harris struggled a bit in the conference semifinals against Toronto and is the least important of the Sixers’ three free-agent starters; J.J. Redick’s shooting was clearly more critical in the postseason. But Harris isn’t easily replaceable and he appears to be the most likely to leave, with a lot of teams looking for versatile forwards.
Number to know: In the regular season, Harris shot 41.3 percent on pull-up 3-pointers, the second-best mark among 69 players who attempted at least 100.
5. Kemba Walker, Charlotte
Walker has expressed some level of loyalty to the Hornets. But immediately after the Davis trade was agreed to, there was a report that Walker would be a “top target” of the Lakers with their cap space.
Walker would be an ideal offensive complement to James and Davis, in that he can play off the ball (though he shot less than 35 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season) and take some of the playmaking burden off of James’ shoulders. The Hornets, meanwhile, would likely have a tough time upgrading their roster around Walker, with Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller all under contract next season for a total of $85 million.
Number to know: Walker led the league with 126 field goal attempts with the score within five points in the last five minutes. That was 43 percent of the Hornets’ total (295). His effective field goal percentage on those shots (49.6 percent) ranked 15th among 45 players with at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.
6. D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn (Restricted)
A finalist for the Kia Most Improved Player award, Russell took a big step forward this season, both in regard to his production and his maturity. He earned himself an All-Star appearance and helped the Nets reach the playoffs with a 14-win increase from last season. He’s only 23 years old and is one of the league’s most flammable shooters.
But because he doesn’t get to the basket or the free throw line very often, Russell is neither all that efficient (his true shooting percentage of 53.3 percent ranked 66th among 94 guards with at least 500 field goal attempts) nor consistent, and he struggled (shooting 36 percent) in Brooklyn’s first-round loss to Philadelphia. If the Nets are targeting another ball-handler in free agency (with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie already under contract), they’ll probably let Russell head elsewhere.
Number to know: In the regular season, Russell ranked second with 11.4 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game. He scored 0.89 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the 26th best mark among 44 players that averaged at least five ball-handler possessions.
7. DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney, Golden State
Cousins hadn’t made it back to 100 percent from his Achilles tear before he suffered a torn quad in his second career playoff game. He made it back for The Finals from that injury and showed flashes of his old self with 14 important points in the Warriors’ Game 5 win and a big bucket in the final minute of Game 6. But he also struggled on both ends of the floor at times, and the Warriors were outscored with him on the floor in seven of his eight playoff games. Now he goes back on the free agent market with teams still not sure of what they’re getting.
Looney is an unrestricted free agent at 23 years old, and he was the Warriors’ most important center this season. The Western Conference champs have Looney’s Bird rights, but they could also be spending a lot of money to retain Durant and Thompson (and possibly extend Draymond Green). Another team might have a larger role and more money for an improving young big.
Number to know: In the regular season, the Warriors’ lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Looney scored 121.5 points per 100 possessions and outscored opponents by 18.7 per 100. Those were the best marks for points scored and point differential per 100 possessions among 40 league-wide lineups that played at least 200 minutes together.
8. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee (Restricted)
The Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the league through the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. But, with four of their top eight players being free agents (or potential free agents) this summer, they have a lot of work to do if they want to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo surrounded by players who can get it done on both ends of the floor.
Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are the three key pieces. They’re all due a pay raise and they all belong on this list. Brogdon is the restricted free agent, but he’s also the youngest of the three (he’ll be 27 in December) and the one that could be projected into a larger role on another team.
Number to know: Brogdon shot 47.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, the third-best mark among 223 players who attempted at least 100.
9. Julius Randle, New Orleans (Player option)
After five years in the league, Randle is still just 24 years old. So he’s not necessarily a bad fit for David Griffin’s plans for the future in New Orleans. But the Pelicans might not be ready to commit the money Randle is seeking (should he opt out of the final year of his contract) after averaging a career-high 21.4 points per game. He reportedly declined his player option for 2019-20, which will put him on the open market this summer.
Defense remains an issue, but Randle has expanded his offensive skill set; he was a respectable 34.4 percent from 3-point range this season, taking 18 percent of his shots from beyond the arc (up from six percent over his three previous full seasons).
Number to know: Randle averaged 13.2 points in the paint per game, seventh most in the league, and he made more 3-pointers (67) than all but one of the six players in front of him.
10. Ricky Rubio, Utah
According to Rubio himself, he’s not Utah’s top priority in free agency. He remains a good defender and one of the league’s best passers, but the Jazz need to get more potent offensively if they’re going to take the next step.
At 31.1 percent, Rubio ranked 153rd in 3-point percentage among 163 players with at least 200 attempts. There could be as many as 10 teams (not including the Jazz) in need of a starting point guard this summer, and Rubio could have more value on a team more in need of a distributor.
Number to know: The Jazz were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better offensively with both Rubio and Donovan Mitchell on the floor (scoring 110.4 per 100) than they were with Mitchell on the floor without Rubio (104.6).
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