2023 Free Agency

5 questions set to be answered during 2023 free agency

Get ready for a busy weekend of reported deals as NBA free agency begins Friday at 6 p.m. ET.

James Harden, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are among the players who could be on the move.

There are fewer superstars among the Class of 2023 free agents than some previous offseasons. Most of the players are of the role variety, with some older stars among the mix.

Still, that doesn’t mean the marketplace that opens for business Friday at 6 p.m. ET won’t provide some mind-boggling negotiations and intriguing relocations. Here are five worth watching. They’re not dominoes in the sense that one will topple into another and trigger a sequence of events. But each could send tremors of some degree across the league. And as always, available money seems to dry up fast:

1. Does James Harden favor Philly or Houston?

» Update: Harden reportedly picks up his player option

Harden, the veteran playmaker who actually reconfigured his game last season to better serve the Philadelphia 76ers’ needs, seems to have reached – weeks before his 34th birthday – the not-so-sweet spot between the notorious rock and the inevitable hard place. Not that the kind of dough Harden will be getting is rough duty in any way, but whether he stays put with the Sixers or moves to the much-speculated-upon destination of Houston, the outcome will be interesting.

Certainly, if he goes back to the Rockets, it will be an annuity move for The Beard. He seems out of sync with that roster, a basketball generation removed from the core built around Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Alperen Sengun and new draftees Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore. Is Harden eager to be that locker room’s “old head,” putting his game on the back burner to serve the young guys? Do his work habits, player-coach relations and off-court preferences holler out “role model” to guide new coach Ime Udoka’s crew from the inside? And if so, how much is Harden worth in that glorified Udonis Haslem role?

Staying with the Sixers offers its own level of challenges. Does the configuration Philadelphia rolled out this postseason have what’s necessary to get out of the second round for once? If center Joel Embiid repeats his MVP performance and guard Tyrese Maxey takes another leap, will that be enough against an ever-improving East field? Harden’s work against Boston in the semis – 45 points in Game 1 with Embiid sidelined, 42 in Game 4 – showed he still can summon his old self some nights. But playing his complementary style in the other five, he averaged 13.4 points on 25.4% shooting.

2. Who will welcome the price for Kyrie Irving?

Irving’s NBA reputation 12 years in is clear: Best handle in the business. One of the game’s great finishers. And about as consternating as any similarly decorated player in league history. Yes, he’s an eight-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection. He helped Cleveland claw all the way back from its 3-1 deficit to the 2016 championship, hitting one of the most memorable shots in the Finals. But he has left a trail of regret at every stop, from Cleveland to Boston to Brooklyn and, frankly for some, already in his brief tenure with Dallas.

After his trade from Brooklyn, Irving averaged 27 points, five rebounds and six assists while shooting 51% overall and 39.2% from deep. Those were better, across the board, than his career numbers. But the Mavericks were 8-12 in the 20 games he played and went from sixth place on Feb. 7 to 11th by season’s end, missing the Play-In.

For the money he’s seeking, Dallas is the place to get paid. But that goes for the opportunity, too. After Irving’s issues at his previous stops, how many teams would welcome that at any price?

3. What’s next for Draymond Green?

The Warriors’ trade of Jordan Poole signaled even to casual NBA fans that Green had won that particular internal power struggle stemming from Green’s outrageous practice punch last fall vs. the young shooter. But it’s more complicated than that.

For one, Green, 33, is aging in lockstep with the team’s championship core of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Now his role could be complicated by the reported acquisition of veteran point guard Chris Paul, since both players’ greatest value comes from having the ball in their hands to initiate offense. There are teams where Green could flex his on-court smarts and defensive quarterbacking – Sacramento most often gets mentioned, with the Lakers close behind – but many more teams could overpay without the context or crew provided by Golden State.

The new CBA even has grabbed the attention of Warriors management, the cost of doing business now looming large at their Chase Center money machine. That’s why speculation about a more modest re-up for Green – a little shorter, a fair amount less than max money – seems in the offing.

4. Is VanVleet set to clear customs?

Fred VanVleet has climbed the ladder to reach this point in his career, a chance to find the best possible fit for his talents and ambitions. He was a Miami-like find for Toronto, an undrafted Wichita State product who blossomed at the perfect time, averaging 14.7 points and making 52.6% of his 3-pointers over the Raptors’ 7-2 closing kick in their 2019 championship run.

He got paid a year later (four years, $85 million), made Kyle Lowry expendable, appeared in the All-Star Game in 2022 and has averaged 19.8 points, 6.8 assists and 1.7 steals the past three seasons. He seems certain to land elsewhere, with circumstances and the dollar amount the only variables.

At 29, he could fill the veteran void in Houston better than Harden. A team such as point guard-deprived Chicago (not far from VanVleet’s native Rockford, Ill.) sure could use him. Or he could end up as a shiny new piece on a contender.

5. Will Bucks run it back?

With a nod to Denver’s Bruce Brown and the impact his decision to stick or stay with the Nuggets could have on the Western Conference standings, we’re going to two big-name Bucks at this spot. Khris Middleton opted out of $40 million for 2023-24. Brook Lopez reached the end of the four-year, $52 million deal he signed in 2019. The former had a shaky season in returning from surgery – 15.1 ppg 43.6% shooting, only 33 appearances and a step slower – and had more surgery this offseason. The latter just had arguably the most complete of his 15 seasons – 18.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per 36 minutes, 37.4% 3-point accuracy and runner-up status for Kia Defensive Player of the Year – but he’s 35 now.

No matter. All signs point to both veterans signing multi-year deals to stay in Milwaukee and try to find the 2021 title touch again. More than at any previous time, the Bucks are configuring themselves to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s wishes – not a bad thing, given his team-first superstar demeanor and the fact he can hit free agency in 2025. The two-time MVP reportedly played a major consultant role in the hiring of rookie head coach Adrian Griffin. His preferences get noted when fleshing out the roster. And his partnership with Middleton and Lopez, along with Jrue Holiday, figures to stay intact, the camaraderie within that team as valued as the production on the floor.

It’s good for NBA fans, too, who might have craved more Bucks sightings than they were afforded, given that hasty first-round ouster against Miami. They were the league’s overall No. 1 seed for a mystical home-court advantage that never did get flexed. Antetokounmpo is solidly into his second act now, and his team faces a crossroads. It’s best he chooses wisely with the guys he trusts.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.