Free agency in the NBA often gets described as and sometimes can seem like a frenzy. More often than not, though, there’s a method to the perceived madness, a pecking order that isn’t frenzied at all.
It typically is this simple: The big dogs eat first.
That’s not to say that secondary- or tertiary-level signings don’t happen, sometimes shotgun-style, in the minutes after negotiations officially (ahem) began on Thursday at 6 p.m. ET. What it does say is that the biggest names, in pursuits and decisions, drive the market and determine which dominoes fall next.
The marquee names heading into this year’s free-agent class are Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal, James Harden, Deandre Ayton and Kyrie Irving, the last of whom opted-in with Brooklyn but still could shiver some timbers before all is done.
Next in line – actually, jumping the line based on the headlines in recent days – were Jalen Brunson and John Wall. They represent two ends of the gotta-have-him, can’t-afford-him spectrum of free agency. Brunson, 25, drove up his value with his postseason play for Dallas to the point that the Knicks reportedly will offer him a four-year, $110 million package.
Wall, 31, valued by Washington three years ago at $170 million over four years, will have played just 40 games on that deal while reportedly giving up only $6 million in 2022-23 to wiggle out via buyout for a reset with the Clippers.
Others might nail down their futures before all five of the following get dealt with and pencil-locked up in the next week (nothing becomes official until the moratorium period ends July 6). But all sorts of subsequent calculations and opportunities such as extensions and salary-cap exceptions will be affected by the ripple effects of these five cases:
1. Is Irving’s situation settled?
It would be nice if it were, with Kyrie Irving opting in mostly to address his unfinished business with the Brooklyn Nets, his title aspirations with buddy Kevin Durant and his professional reputation badly in need of repair. That would be one way to spin it. Another way, however, is that there was no way Irving was going to take a $31 million pay cut — from the $37 million in his player option to about $6 million available in some team’s midlevel player exception. Nothing wrong with that, except that the seven-time All-Star sure made a lot of noise about the other places he preferred to play. So whether he’ll dedicate this season to doing right by the Nets is a huge “if.” They are, after all, the team that refused to give him a max extension. One big domino impacted by this is the Los Angeles Lakers, who suddenly have to scramble to Plan B with the largely flawed possibility of Plan A gone.
2. Does Harden stay in Philadelphia?
Harden’s deadline to opt into his $47.3 million salary for the final season of his current deal was the same as Irving’s (5 p.m. ET Wednesday). Most speculation saw him doing so, then adding a two-year contract extension from the Sixers worth an estimated $102 million. The prospect of him opting out to seek a longer, bigger deal ($270 million, oh my) in a tight market — at 33, with much to prove after his post-Nets move to Philadelphia, especially in the playoffs (18.6 ppg, 40.5% FG) — was almost too wacky to consider. Except for the wrinkle in which doing so would free up money for boss Daryl Morey to lure their old pal P.J. Tucker from Miami, after which Harden’s new deal with the Sixers would fit around it. It’s unthinkable that Harden would not be in Philly going forward, given the ordeal and costs of the Ben Simmons trade. Like Irving and opted-in Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, his contract and obstinance have curtailed his marketability.
3. Who signs Ayton to an offer sheet?
Unlike the others on this list, Ayton is mired in the muck of restricted free agency. It can be a very appealing muck worth as much as $177 million — or $131 million if it comes in a four-year offer sheet from an outside team. But it can lug a Trojan Horse’s worth of emotions, too. Will Ayton resent the Suns not signing him outright or extending him last year? Might he opt to play on a one-year, $16.4 million qualifying offer to become unrestricted next summer? It seemed the decision not to extend him before last season let a little air out of that joyful 2021 Finals run. Then there’s the need factor: If not Ayton as the Suns’ long-term solution at center, then who? Will GM James Jones seek a Kevon Looney-level replacement as a big man capable of staying in games in this downsized league? What Phoenix can spend for fresh help, while facing extensions to holdovers Devin Booker, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder, hinges on Ayton’s whereabouts.
4. Will LaVine stay with Chicago?
Everything in its place and time is the perspective to apply here. Had the Bulls agreed to the extension LaVine sought last offseason, they wouldn’t have been able to upgrade the roster around him as dramatically as they did, adding in particular Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso to aid in the leap from 10 games under .500 to 10 over, with a playoff berth, in 2021-22. Now Chicago won’t only be offering the springy, hitting-his-prime wing with a much heavier number — presumably the max offer of five years, $212 million — but he has a better crew with which to chase success. Assuming he’s fully recovered from his recent knee surgery, LaVine figures to be even more central to the Bulls’ attack, with DeRozan needing a lesser load. It doesn’t hurt that the other teams with the most money aren’t as attractive as winning destinations.
5. Is Beal sticking with the Wizards?
UPDATE (6/30): Beal has reportedly agreed to a five-year, $251 million deal with the Wizards
Beal can land himself this summer’s whopper, a five-year, $242 million contract that will take him to age 34 (he turned 29 Tuesday) and demonstrate his buy-in to the Wizards’ plans under coach Wes Unseld Jr. and president Tommy Sheppard. He could leave outright for one season and $63 million less. Or he can fish for a sign-and-trade to another team that could fast-track any postseason ambitions (Beal played in 34 playoff games his first five seasons, just 11 in his past five). Better be careful, though: Whatever his new team gives up to get him could be sorely missed once Beal arrives (think Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks). From Washington’s standpoint, what’s worse: the Wizards without Beal in 2022-23 or with the guard in decline in 2026-27?
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