Austin’s Crystal Ball: Where Will The NBA’s Top Free Agents Land?

Like the pollen in the air, the rumors swirling NBA free agency are abundant as we transition from May to June. The free agent market opens at 6 PM on June 30th, and that’s when the NBA’s landscape will change for the foreseeable future. So, with free agency just over three weeks away, it is time to consult my crystal ball to figure out where the league’s top free agents will land when all is said and done. 

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard is the league’s biggest enigma. No one can get an idea of what he’s thinking because he doesn’t talk. He just plays the game and keeps to himself. The one thing we think we know is that he has his eyes set on going home to Los Angeles. Yes, the Raptors can offer him a 5-year deal while any other team can only offer 4 years, but a person like Kawhi, who has been known to live a simple life, might forgo money to be where he wants to be. Part of me believes Kawhi’s heart will always be in Los Angeles and that he wants to go home. But a bigger part of me believes he has grown to love the situation that he has with the Raptors, as well as the fanbase and city that has welcomed and loved him. How could you not love being one win away from an NBA championship? We saw Paul George adamantly express his intentions to go to his hometown of LA last summer only to fall in love with Oklahoma City. I think we see it again this summer, too.  Prediction: 2 years and a player option in year 3 totaling $114 million with Raptors                                    

Kevin Durant

Durant wants to prove that he is the league’s top player. He thought he did it when he carried the Warriors to two consecutive championships in the seasons immediately following his joining the franchise. But, people contest that the support of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green has made it nearly impossible for them to lose. Thus, Durant still takes the backseat to LeBron James and now, in my opinion, Kawhi Leonard. In addition to Durant preserving his own image, all rumors and reports point to him departing from Golden State.

So, that’s one of the league’s three most marketable players looking for a team on which he can be the undisputed leader. The Knicks, Nets, and Lakers have been thought of as the primary contenders for Durant’s services. However, there was no traction to corroborate reports that Durant would be interested in joining the purple and gold, and those rumors quickly faded. That leaves the Knicks and Nets in the battle for Kevin Durant. The Knicks offer the allure of New York City and its market (although so does Brooklyn), a head coach in David Fizdale that players around the league love, a pair of promising young players in Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, the 3rd overall pick in this summer’s draft, and the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Yes, the franchise is in a state of dysfunction, but I’m going to follow the clues that have been laid out since we re-opened the discussion of Durant’s next move.  Prediction: 2 years and a player option in year 3 totaling $111 million with Knicks                                                                

Kyrie Irving

The Knicks, Nets, and Lakers have all been rumored to be in on Kyrie Irving. It was recently reported that the Nets were the more likely New York team to land Irving’s services, as it was rumored that the two parties had mutual interest in one another. The Lakers seemed viable after LeBron and Irving reconciled their relationship this past season, but a recent bombshell story from ESPN cast a dark cloud over the Lakers’ management. I don’t believe any marquee free agent wants to be a part of the chaos in that organization. That leaves the Nets. Adding fuel to the speculation, it was reported that Irving recently purchased a property in South Orange, New Jersey. The writing is on the wall.  Prediction: 2 years and a player option in year 3 totaling $105 million with Nets                                                

Kemba Walker

Walker has a decision to make this summer — take less money to put himself in the best position to win a title elsewhere, or continue to be the face of the Charlotte Hornets. Months ago, on J.J. Redick’s podcast, Walker stated that he wanted to stay in Charlotte for the rest of his career. It appears those feelings haven’t changed, as, two days ago, it was reported that Walker was focused on re-signing with the Hornets. He wants to stay and build what he’s started in Charlotte. I can’t blame him for that. Prediction: 5 years, $175 million with Hornets                                                 

Jimmy Butler

Tracking Butler has been exhausting. The Nets, Knicks, and Lakers have all been rumored to be in on Butler, while the Sixers have to decide whether they want to give Butler a fifth year on a max contract. It was rumored that Butler would quickly sign with the Lakers if they offered him a max contract. That rumor has cooled dramatically. In recent days, everything has pointed towards Butler re-signing with the Sixers. Further, given what the Sixers gave up in assets to acquire Butler and Harris, failing to retain at least one of them would be disastrous for the Sixers. The truth is that Philadelphia has put itself in a situation with only one solution — give one of Butler and Harris whatever they want, and I think Butler has proven that he’s the worthy one.  Prediction: 5 years, $190 million with 76ers          

Klay Thompson

This one is very simple. The Warriors were great before they brought in Kevin Durant because of the pairing and selflessness of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. One of their All-NBA talents is destined to leave this summer, but I would be baffled if the Warriors let two walk away. They likely will get this done fast.  Prediction: 5 years, $190 million with Warriors                                                          

Khris Middleton

This is a very difficult situation for the Milwaukee Bucks and a very good situation for Khris Middleton. The primary outside suitor for Middleton appears to be the Mavericks. That makes sense to me, a great spot-up fit to pair with Doncic who has the versatility to play shooting guard through power forward. However, I think Milwaukee, fearing that their core that won 60 games could fall apart if they don’t fork out the money, will do whatever it takes to retain Middleton’s services, even if it’s a massive overpay.  Prediction: 5 years, $150 million with Bucks                       

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is coming off a career year (20.8 points and 12 rebounds per game) in Orlando in which he was awarded his first all-star selection and led the team to its first playoff appearance since 2012. Outside of the Magic, there will be numerous suitors for Vucevic’s services, although it is unclear which franchises will enter the race for the 28-year-old center. I suspect the Lakers, Kings, and Mavericks will be amongst the primary teams involved, but I believe he loves his situation in Orlando, and I believe the Magic and the city of Orlando love him, too. Those in on Vucevic will be interested, but not interested enough to offer him $140 million. Prediction: 5 years, $150 million with the Magic                                           

D’Angelo Russell

Russell came into his own as the leader of the Nets after being traded from LA to Brooklyn two summers ago. He was named an all-star for the first time (albeit as a replacement for the injured Victor Oladipo), averaging 21 points and 7 rebounds. With the Nets destined to land Kyrie Irving, Russell has a decision to make — split primary ball-handler duties with Kyrie and form an elite backcourt, or go elsewhere and become the undisputed point guard. Having recently stated in an interview with the New York Post’s Brian Lewis that he would rather go to battle with this season’s roster again than change anything, there is quiet speculation that Russell could depart from Brooklyn. Add the fact that the Jazz, Magic, Timberwolves, and Pacers are rumored to be targeting Russell, and it becomes very viable that his time in Brooklyn might be ending.

However, I believe that he is very happy in Brooklyn. He is a focal point in the offense, they utilize him heavily in the pick-and-roll so that he can maximize his skills and production as a scorer and passer, and head coach Kenny Atkinson has developed Russell into an all-star. Yes, it may be an adjustment period. No, he won’t be the primary scoring option anymore. But, staying with the Nets and teaming up with Kyrie Irving will allow him to play more shooting guard, a position that he may excel in as a natural scorer. Everyone has to sacrifice in order to win, and Russell may find that he likes the role he is shifted to better, anyway. Yes, Russell is a restricted free agent, but I believe the Nets will match any offer that the other suitors send his way. Prediction: 4 years, $110 million with Nets

Tobias Harris

Harris is in a very interesting predicament — he had an all-star-level two-thirds of a season with the Clippers before being traded to the 76ers. His one-third of a season with the Sixers was very lukewarm. The Sixers, having given up a heavy load of assets to acquire Harris, might feel cornered into giving Harris a max contract. But, Harris has been rumored to not have loved his role with the Sixers and, thus, may look to go elsewhere. The Nets, Mavericks, Pacers, Kings, and Jazz are all reportedly going to pursue Harris this summer. It then comes down to his desired role and destination — Would he rather be one of the two primary options on offense, or would he accept being anything between the second and fourth option on a game-to-game basis? Would he rather be able to wear shorts most days, or is he fine with wearing winter jackets?

I believe that the idea of making max money as the undisputed secondary option is very attractive to Harris. I also think that the situation in Indiana makes a lot of sense for him — the pairing of Harris and Oladipo could be an explosive 1-3 or 1-4 punch, and it is easy to envision Nate McMillan running high pick-and-pops for Harris game in and game out. Prediction: 4 years, $136 million with Pacers                                                                        

Kristaps Porzingis

This is a very difficult situation for the Dallas Mavericks. They gave up a few serviceable role players and Dennis Smith, Jr. to acquire a disgruntled Porzingis a week before the trade deadline this season. The fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft missed all of this season recovering from a torn ACL and has recently received negative attention for a slew of off-the-court incidents. I’m not going to assume that Porzingis has a character issue, but it certainly is worth wondering if there is some trouble with Kristaps Porzingis, the person. If that isn’t pause for concern enough, no one knows what Porzingis, the player, will be after this injury.

Whatever concern the Mavericks have, they gave away numerous pieces to get Porzingis, and his skill at 7’3″ is irreplaceable. Additionally, they could allow themselves to escape the contract by raising the annual salary to satisfy Porzingis and designating a final year as a team option to protect themselves, should things go awry. Yes, Porzingis is a restricted free agent and the Mavericks appear unequivocally determined to keep him, but, similar to the max extension that Joel Embiid signed with the Sixers, there will likely be technical clauses in his contract to protect the Mavericks should Porzingis become injury-plagued. Prediction: 3 years and a team option in year 4 totaling $120 million with Mavericks

DeMarcus Cousins

Coming off of a torn achilles, DeMarcus Cousins signed a 1-year deal with Golden State in hopes of coming back in the latter half of the season to help ignite the Warriors to a third consecutive championship while also proving that he was healthy enough to earn a significant long-term deal somewhere, as no one was biting on a long-term contract after the achilles injury. He proved that he could still score and dominate the glass. However, it is worrisome that his 3-point percentage and free throw percentage declined, as it is evidence that he might’ve lost that “burst” from the feet that push the shot up through the body. It is also very concerning that Cousins was unplayable in close games because he could not muster the foot speed or agility to stay with his man on defense. Furthermore, Cousins tore his quad in the first round of the playoffs, adding greater damage to an already very questionable lower body. Through all of that, Cousins is still a force in the paint. He still has the upper body strength and skill to return to his old dominance under the basket. He might’ve lost some of the shooting ability he had developed, but we won’t know that until he plays a more consistent season in the future.

No one will give him max money, even if he is a max skillset. For a long time, I had it in my mind that the Wizards would give Cousins a deal in hopes of channeling a pick-and-roll game with Bradley Beal and maybe re-discovering Boogie’s greatness at a cheap price. But, the Wizards appear to be on the verge of tearing it down for a rebuild. So, with the Warriors likely to lose Durant, they can use some of that money to keep Cousins around for a few more years while also having a great solution at the center position for the first time in their reign of dominance. What makes this situation so enticing is that, if Cousins can stay healthy, the Warriors may be able to extend their championship reign for a few more seasons, especially when factoring in that they will be able to add depth that they haven’t had since signing Durant. If Cousins can’t get back to his old self, they at least have a sizable upgrade even at a bit of an overpay. No matter what, I can’t imagine they’d be worse off by re-signing Cousins. Prediction: 3 years, $24 million with Warriors                                                                                      

Malcolm Brogdon

If the Bucks were smart, they would let Khris Middleton walk in free agency and extend Brogdon while adding elite role players to their core, so that they can extend Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer while also building a giant window for themselves to contend for a championship. But, Milwaukee is going to overpay its second all-star out of fear that the core could crumble if they let him depart, and that likely means that, if he wants a big payday, Malcolm Brogdon is going to have to go elsewhere to get it. The ultra-efficient Brogdon can float between a starting role and a bench role and excel at either. This means that there are a slew of teams in need of a starting or secondary shooting guard that could be interested in Brogdon. I believe that the Dallas Mavericks, currently lacking a viable shooting guard off their bench, could be willing to spend money to add Brogdon’s elite role player skillset to their payroll. Even with Porzingis signing an extension, they would only have about $85 million on the books; that is ample space to bring in an excellent bench piece like Brogdon. Prediction: 3 years, $45 million with Mavericks

Al Horford

This is a very interesting situation to watch this summer. Al Horford has a big decision make — opt into his $30 million player option with the Celtics or restructure to add more years. Obviously, Horford’s play doesn’t warrant a $30 million payday, so he could opt in and secure one last huge payday while averaging 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds. With that huge payday comes uncertainty about his future past 2019-20, and that may not be attractive to Big Al. Alternatively, he could opt to restructure his contract to secure his future in Boston for the foreseeable future and receive smaller cash flows each season. My guess is that Horford, who is regarded as one of the most intelligent players in the league, would sacrifice the huge payday for additional years in Boston. Prediction: Restructure $30 million player option into 3 years, $54 million with Celtics                                                           

Marc Gasol

Gasol is not thinking about his future right now — he’s a little busy trying to help the Raptors win their first championship in franchise history. But when he’s done with that, he has a decision to make similar to Horford. Does he want to opt into his $22.6 million player option with the Raptors and spend another year in his mid-30s on a team that will be rebuilding if Kawhi Leonard leaves? Does he want to opt out and decide where his future will be, albeit at a not-quite-as-rich salary? Does he want to restructure his contract and extend his stay in Toronto at lesser annual cash flows? Mind you, there is no question that Gasol will have to take less money — his production has declined each of the past two seasons. I believe that Gasol will wait for Kawhi’s decision. Prediction: If Leonard re-signs, Gasol will restructure his contract into 2 years, $30 million with Raptors; If Leonard leaves, Gasol will sign a 2-year, $28 million deal with Kings

Brook Lopez

After the Lakers let him walk after just one season with the club, Lopez signed a 1-year deal with the Bucks to provide stretch-5 capability to create space for Giannis Antetokounmpo to attack the basket. The Bucks got way more than the $3.3 million they paid him, as Lopez transformed into a catch-and-shoot sniper that spread the floor for the rest of his teammates and allowed Giannis to turn in an MVP-caliber season with the paint unclogged. Lopez has earned himself a hefty payday, and the fit in Milwaukee is perfect. Yes, Lopez will require a raise, but that shouldn’t be a problem with Milwaukee letting one of Middleton and Brogdon walk. Prediction: 2 years and a player option in year 3 totaling $58 million with Bucks             

Julius Randle

Julius Randle’s production has increased every season that he’s been in the NBA. On a 1-year deal with the Pelicans, he averaged a career-high 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds (most he’s averaged since his first full season). Taking those numbers to negotiations, Randle will almost certainly decline his $8.857 million player option in search of a better deal. I expect the Nets, Suns, Mavericks, and Pelicans to be amongst the primary suitors for Randle. The Nets make a lot of sense, but they will likely look to spend big money elsewhere before turning to Randle. The Mavericks will likely want to look at more cost-efficient options after extending Porzingis and signing Brogdon. The Pelicans would make a compelling case for re-upping with Randle if they weren’t destined to select Zion Williamson with the first overall pick in this summer’s draft. Williamson’s presence makes it very difficult for me to imagine Randle sticking around, as they have very similar bodies, fairly similar skillsets, and play the same positions.

That leaves the Suns. Phoenix is projected to select guard Jarrett Culver with the sixth pick in the draft. That selection would slide Devin Booker over to the point guard spot, insert Culver into the shooting guard spot, slide Mikal Bridges in at small forward, leaving power forward unoccupied. Insert Randle, who can provide highly-efficient scoring (56.3% true shooting) and very good defensive rebounding (6.7 per game for his career) to the league’s worst defensive rebounding team this season. This fit makes too much sense not to come to fruition. Prediction: 3 years, $36 million with Suns

Paul Millsap

It would be concerning if the Nuggets exercised Millsap’s $30 million team option after consecutive seasons of declining numbers and a disappointing performance in Denver’s game 7 upset loss in the second round of this year’s playoffs. Rather than continue to pay for something that hasn’t worked, I would expect the Nuggets to allow Millsap to walk. The market demand for a stretch-4 is always high, and that is why I still expect Millsap to get paid by a team looking to take the next step in its playoff aspirations. Enter the Indiana Pacers — a team with an exceptional point guard looking to add stretch forwards who can play small forward, power forward, and small-ball center. Adding Millsap to a team with a healthy Oladipo could make some noise if the top-heavy East takes a step backwards next season. Prediction: 2 years, $30 with Pacers

Bojan Bogdanovic 

Bogdanovic had an excellent contract season with the Pacers, averaging career highs in points and 3-point percentage. At 6’8″, Bogdanovic has the ability to knock down outside looks while also having the basketball IQ to cut when the lane is there. His fundamental knowledge of offense and his numbers fall in line with the Popovich-ian history of European wings. Considering that the Spurs run their offense through DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, neither of whom are proficient long-range shooters, it may be time to update the offense. The Spurs are living in 2011, and while they are a playoff team with this offense, they are only surviving two weeks past the regular season with the roster as currently designed. Maybe it’s time to bring in a wing who can stretch the floor. Prediction: 3 years, $54 million with Spurs

Marcus Morris

Every franchise needs a Marcus Morris — a stretch-4 who can create off the dribble, attack the basket unintimidated, and get dirty. Morris has the junkyard dog personality, but is more skilled than the typical junkyard dog. While his fit with the Celtics was perfect with Kyrie Irving there, I can’t see the Celtics wanting to allocate over $15 million to a player who doesn’t have star potential when Irving inevitably departs. So, what other team with young, high-potential players could use a gritty veteran who can play small forward, power forward, and small-ball center while also shooting above 36% from 3-point territory? I can already hear it — “IF YOU DON’T LIKE THAT, YOU DON’T LIKE KINGS BASKETBALL!” Prediction: 3 years, $48 million with Kings

Thaddeus Young

Thad thrives in environments where he can “physical” his way into 15 points. Not one of the top three options on a great team, but certainly one of the biggest contributors on a good team. Ideally, he’ll hit a few fifteen-foot jumpers, a handful of floaters from just inside the free throw line, and the rest will come with exquisite footwork around the rim. The intangible offering he brings to a good team is screen-setting. As a 6’8″ power forward, Young’s physicality comes from the body he’s built himself. With that strength and mass comes the ability to set excellent screens for shooters. Enter the Denver Nuggets, a below-average 3-point shooting team that went cold in game 7 as the Blazers rallied to win on the road. For Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and maybe another shooter (*wink wink*), Thaddeus Young becomes the perfect offseason addition to a team whose 3-point shooting cost them a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Prediction: 1 year, $14 million with Nuggets

J.J. Redick

Redick’s situation is very interesting because, although his shooting declined a bit this season and his defense took a turn for the worst, he is still one of the three biggest catalysts that makes the Sixers’ offense nearly unstoppable at its best. Let’s think about how Redick has his highest chance to succeed as a player — monstrous screens from his big, crisp passes from an elite distributor, and fast-paced systems. The bottom line is that Redick needs Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Brett Brown’s offense at least as much as the Sixers need him. Prediction: 2 years, $18 million with 76ers

Danny Green

With Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol returning, there has to be an odd man out, as sad as it may be for some to see this Raptors team be broken up in any way. The fact is that if both Leonard and Gasol return, there’s no way the Raptors can keep Green and maintain a palatable tax bill. Green will have to be the odd man out. Remember how I said the Nuggets need a spot-up marksman for Thaddeus Young to set screens? Well, here he is! Prediction: 2 years, $24 million with Nuggets

DeAndre Jordan

Even with Kevin Durant coming to town, the Knicks are going to need all the veteran leadership they can get to lead a team full of youngsters. I also have a theory that if Jordan wanted out of New York, he would’ve asked for a buyout when he was first traded to the Knicks. If the intangibles Jordan provides and my theories aren’t enough, the Knicks allowed nearly 51 points in the paint per game this season. Jordan’s efficient scoring and paint defense is something that the Knicks could absolutely benefit from retaining as they attempt to rebuild, especially with the gargantuan cap space they have at their disposal. Prediction: 2 years, $36 million with Knicks

Patrick Beverley

If you can lock your man up and shoot over 37% from 3-point territory, the Sixers want you. T.J. McConnell is a wonderful player for Philly. He’s gritty, he gives maximum energy and effort every time he steps onto the court, and he has a great personality. But, he isn’t a threat from beyond the arc and he is simply too small to be a consistent factor on the defensive end. He’s going to get more money than the Sixers can afford to pay him, and, thus, it is time to move on. What better a replacement than Pat Beverley? He is a career 38% 3-point shooter and is one of the most respected defensive point guards in the NBA. With his touch from beyond the arc, he would create new wrinkles in the Sixers’ offense that could feature Jimmy Butler as a shooting guard and Ben Simmons as a power forward. Alternatively, the Sixers could rest Butler for more than three minutes and let Beverley be the shooting guard. It fits like a glove. Prediction: 3 years, $36 million with 76ers

Rudy Gay

Rudy Gay has found a home after a few years of moving around the NBA. He has been integral in the Spurs’ success in each of the last two seasons, and his length, athleticism, and shooting touch have allowed them to be versatile on both offense and defense. There is reportedly mutual interest in Gay returning to San Antonio, and I don’t see why he wouldn’t. It’s been a great match for both parties. Prediction: 1 year, $11 million with Spurs

Terry Rozier

Scary Terry looked poised for a breakout season after how well he played when Kyrie Irving was sidelined for the 2017-18 playoffs, but he just never found his groove. Whatever caused it, Rozier was inefficient in his scoring and was just flat out bad. With Irving almost certain to be departing, Rozier will have an opportunity to prove that the hype wasn’t unwarranted. As for the Celtics, there is a sizable chance that Rozier could be a fringe-all-star player, and they wouldn’t have to pay over $20 million per year to have him. It’s worth a gamble for the Celtics, whose future is very uncertain as it is. If Kyrie isn’t there, I’m confident Rozier will stay. Prediction: 4 years, $60 million with Celtics

Jeremy Lamb

Although wildly inconsistent as a Hornet, Lamb was a lock to contribute 15 points and 5 rebounds on a nightly basis. With his 3-and-D ability, he could be the first semi-sensible signing the Lakers have made since landing LeBron James last summer. While his 3-point percentage was unimpressive, I think it would improve with a player like LeBron James running the offense. And at this point, bringing in Jeremy Lamb is better than walking away empty-handed. Prediction: 2 years, $32 million with Lakers

Terrence Ross

Ross is quite literally a perfect bench piece for any championship contender. He has the athleticism and size to attack the basket and be versatile on defense, is an excellent 3-point shooter, and can contribute fifteen points on any given night. He is expensive, yes. But, if they add him to the mix, the Sixers will have strengthened their bench enough to become the favorites to win the East. Prediction: 2 year, $34 million with 76ers

Nikola Mirotic

Mirotic was ineffective in the Bucks’ playoff run, but his averages suggest that he can be the role player that can push a team from the 5th seed to the 4th seed. There are numerous teams that can use his stretch-4 value. But with the Nets seemingly prepared to spend a large sum of money on a pair of guards, they need to add a skilled role player at the forward position to help balance out their slew of guards. Mirotic is expensive, but he would make the Nets much more difficult to defend. Prediction: 1 year, $20 million with Nets

Ricky Rubio

Ricky Rubio excels in situations that provide him a backcourt mate who can shoot and at least one frontcourt player whom he can lob to for easy dunks. With the Pelicans slated to take the high-flying Zion Williamson with the first overall pick in this month’s draft, they are a viable destination for Rubio. No, Rubio is not a good shooter. But with the Pelicans likely to deal Anthony Davis, it is time to re-think their roster construction. It is no longer about surrounding Davis with shooters. It is about putting Zion Williamson in the best situation to succeed as a rookie, and I don’t think that means putting the ball in his hands every time the Pelicans have possession. An exceptional passer like Rubio could be integral to a great rookie season for Williamson. And who knows, with the proper return on a Davis trade and Jrue Holiday as the team’s leader, it might just work out anyway. Prediction: 1 year, $13 million with Pelicans