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Free Agency primer: Top 25 free agents to watch

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At midnight tonight — as Friday officially flips into Saturday and the calendar flips to July 1 — NBA free agency opens and the floodgates will open. Some of the wild action of the past few weeks, such as Jimmy Butler going to Minnesota or Chris Paul to Houston, will influence what happens next.

There are things we know will happen, some we expect, and with some players we have no idea what is about to go down.

Here are 25 top free agents and what to expect, broken down by category.

ELITE FREE AGENTS NOT LEAVING THEIR TEAM

We feel obligated to mention these guys, but your team isn’t stealing them away.

1) Stephen Curry. The heart and soul (if not the best player anymore) on the Golden State Warriors, he is going to get the richest contract in NBA history — five years, nearly $201 million. He will sign the first “designated veteran” contract in NBA history, then will hit the golf course, relax a little this summer, savor another ring, then show up in the fall ready to humiliate defenders again.

2) Kevin Durant. The Warriors best player and Finals MVP, he opted out of the second year of his contract with the Warriors. However, that was just a formality, one which allows the Warriors a better chance of retaining free agents such as Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston. He will re-sign with the Warriors closer to the end of July, and he said he will take a little less than the max, but on another 1+1 deal so he can opt out next year and get paid even more.

TOP FREE AGENTS WHO COULD BE ON THE MOVE

3) Gordon Hayward. He’s an All-Star, near All-NBA level wing player in a league where some elite teams are looking for one. He will have as many max offers as he wants, but the race appears to be down to Miami, Boston, and Utah. He will meet with all three then decide early next week, but around the league there is a sense Boston may have some momentum (getting him and Paul George, however, is very difficult financially). If he leaves Utah will in part come down to if they move to keep George Hill (keep reading, he’s on this list) and would be a huge setback for one of the West’s up-and-coming teams.

4) Blake Griffin. Chris Paul has left Los Angeles, now the Clippers want to retain Griffin, run the offense through him, put some good shooters around him, and basically put together an interesting, if not contending, team. The question is does Griffin want that? He’s meeting with Phoenix, and we know Boston and Miami are interested (if they strike out on Hayward). Denver wants in the conversation, and there will be others. He has options but if the Clippers come with a five-year max that may be enough to retain him.

5) Paul Millsap. The Hawks seem set to lose LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap in free agency in back-to-back years for nothing (which is why they would like a sign-and-trade, and why Mike Budenholzer wanted to move him at the deadline). If teams give Millsap a four-year max they may regret the last season when he’s 36, but he can rebound, defend well, shoot threes and can help almost any team. Denver, Phoenix, and Sacramento are interested and there will be others.

6) Kyle Lowry. The least likely guy on this part of the list to move on. The Raptors want him back and will pay for him, the question is will they max him out? Do they have to max him out as the market has dried up some — Philly, Sacramento, Brooklyn all were reported targets then all just got young guards around the draft, so they are out of the mix. He’s not going to find a better spot, but he may look around a little.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS ANOTHER TEAM MAY TRY TO STEAL

7) Otto Porter. A lot of teams like the Washington Wizards’ wing and he’s the kind of player a team with cap space — such as Brooklyn or Sacramento — likely try to poach with an oversized offer. While John Wall would rather have Paul George, the Wizards don’t have the space for PG13 (unless Washington and Indy want to so a sign-and-trade, meaning the Pacers lowered their asking price), which means they will pay Porter, or match whatever offer sheet he gets. Porter is about to be a max or near-max guy, and John Wall is going to need to make it up to him.

8) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Stan Van Gundy has hinted that he will match any offer for KCP — an impressive defensive wing who shot 35 percent from three last year (but has more work to do to be a real offensive threat) — and he should. Still, a team like Brooklyn will take a shot and try to sign him on the chance Detroit decides not to pony up, just expect the Pistons to match. They have to, they can’t lose him, they don’t have the cap space to replace him.

9) Nerlens Noel. Teams are no longer allowed to say “we will match any offer” because it’s seen as trying to dampen the market. So the Mavericks have said everything around that phrase — “he’s a central part of our future” — to hint they will match anything. Dallas traded for him at the deadline last year to see him as part of the future, the only question now is the price, and if they have to match someone else’s offer.

10) Tim Hardaway Jr. He’s developed well under the Hawks tutelage and last year scored 14.5 points a game shooting 35.7 percent from three. That said, he’s not much of a defender, and it’s fair to ask how much a now rebuilding Hawks team (assuming Millsap moves on) is willing to pay for his game. It’s going cost in the eight digits a season to keep him, but how high up into the teens might a team go to steal him? If one guy on this list can be stolen with a big offer, it’s Hardaway Jr.

GOOD PLAYERS WHO ARE/MAY GET PAID HEAD SHAKING AMOUNTS

11) Jrue Holiday. Do you think Holiday is a $30 million a year point guard? He’s about to get paid in that ballpark — and by the Pelicans. New Orleans has no choice, they have gone into a win-now place with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, and if they loose Holiday they will have about $12 million to replace him, and they are not going to get anyone near as good for that price. Denver and a few other teams are interested, but he meets with the Pelicans first and they aren’t going to miss this chance.

12) Andre Iguodala. There are a lot of teams interested in Iguodala — Minnesota, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Orlando, Brooklyn and Utah among them. We’ve also heard the Warriors are “concerned” about the tax bill for Iguodala (after they give Curry and Durant massive new deals). All that hints that Iguodala could be on the move, but in the end, can the Warriors really let him go? He’s crucial to Golden State’s small lineups, and with KD taking less to keep him it’s hard to imagine him leaving. The Warriors would like to get him for around $12 million or less. Iguodala has talked to GM Bob Myers about it. But if another team comes in over the top… who knows.

13) J.J. Redick. He’s one of the best pure shooters in the NBA, he hit better than 40 percent from three last season and works very hard off the ball, plus is a solid team defender. The Clippers aren’t expected to keep him, and we know that Brooklyn (where he has a home) and Philadelphia are interested, and other teams will step up. This is Redick’s last big NBA contract and he’s going to want to maximize it, he’s not going to take less to contend.

14) George Hill. Gordon Hayward reportedly wants the Jazz to re-sign Hill, but I’ve heard he’s leaning towards moving on. Obviously, it will come down to who offers the most money, but teams such as San Antonio. Minnesota (if they move Ricky Rubio), and New York reportedly all are interested. Hill is a guy good at everything — good defender, can shoot the three, strong floor general, can attack the rim — and that versatility makes him valuable.

15) Danilo Gallinari. When he’s healthy he puts up numbers: Last season the 6’10” wing scored 18.2 points with 5.3 rebounds a game, shot 38.7 percent from three, he can create shots for himself, and he’s a solid defender. However, last season he played in 63 games, and that’s the most he has played in four seasons. Denver seems to be looking at other options (Paul Millsap, even Kevin Love) but it will come down to money. Gallinari is the kind of guy that GMs talk themselves into after missing their first couple of targets, which means he’s going to get a big payday.

GOOD PLAYERS NOT GOING ANYWHERE

16) Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks didn’t pick up his $25 million option so they could go after some free agents, but there is no way Mark Cuban is letting his talisman player go. And Nowitzki doesn’t want to leave. The two sides will work out a deal at some point, and it could be a two-year deal so Nowitzki has options.

17) Pau Gasol. He opted out of the $16 million he is owed next year and likely will make less per year for that, but will get the security of a longer deal with the Spurs. Gasol did this to help the Spurs chase free agents, we’ll see who they can land with that space (and if LaMarcus Aldridge stays, that’s another discussion). Gasol is still a fundamentally solid big who can score inside, make smart passes, and defend the rim all with a high IQ. He’s past his peak but he’s still good.

PLAYER WHO COULD GET PAID MORE THAN HE SHOULD AT THIS POINT

18) Serge Ibaka. There were reports he’s already basically agreed to a deal to return to the Raptors, although how much they really want to pay for a four who doesn’t stretch the floor terribly well or defend quite like he used to remains to be seen. He’s still good, and if Kyle Lowry returns they need what Ibaka brings to be a threat in the East. He could make more than the $12.3 million he made a year ago.

OTHER FREE AGENTS TO WATCH

19) Dion Waiters. He got in the best shape of his life in Miami at age 25, and when the Heat needed scoring the second half of the season he picked up the slack (not efficiently, but he was getting buckets). Waiters is the kind of player that could get a bigger payday than the ballpark two years, $20 million he should get because when a GM strikes out on better targets he talks himself into the idea that the post-All Star break Waiters is here to stay. Miami may keep him, but other teams will come calling.

20) Kyle Korver. He doesn’t move like he used to, he is a defensive liability, but he shot 45 percent from three last season, he knows how to find open space, and he remains one of the best long-range marksmen in the game. He made $5.2 million last year and I could see a salary in that ballpark (which includes the taxpayer midlevel, so a contender could snap him up).

21) Patty Mills. He has gone to Spurs university and come out the other side as a quality NBA point guard who can knock down threes, work off the ball, defend fairly well, and just be a guy who can be trusted on the big stage. He’s likely too expensive for the Spurs to bring back, and a lot of teams that are targeting Holiday/Lowry could come calling when they strike out.

22) Zach Randolph. It would be strange not to see him in a Memphis uniform next season, but it very well could happen. After spending on restricted free agent JaMychal Green – which the Grizzlies absolutely need to do — there’s not a lot of money left for Randolph or Tony Allen. Randolph says he wants to stay in Memphis, and he’s not getting a long-term deal anywhere at age 36, but another team could offer too much money to pass up.

23) Derrick Rose. He put up average numbers last season, on paper he had an average/solid season, but the Knicks did not click when he was running the show and he’s still a defensive liability. He could help a team if he was willing to play for less than the mid-level and come off the bench, but will he do that?

24) PJ Tucker. He played on the Raptors last season and in the playoffs showed his strengths — physical, versatile defending — and his weaknesses on the offensive end. The Clippers and Knicks reportedly have interest, but other teams will line up once the top end of free agency shakes out and GMs realize they could use a veteran defender like Tucker.

25) Rudy Gay. He’s an old-school volume scorer who was already slowing down before he suffered a ruptured Achilles last January. He should be back around the start of the season, but how much does he have left? A few teams have expressed interest, including the Thunder and Clippers. But at what cost?

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s reported reaction to Knicks’ $71 million offer: ‘Man, that’s crazy’

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Knicks acting (now long-term) front-office leader Steve Mills signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet shocked some within the Knicks.

It also apparently shocked someone who wasn’t (yet) with New York – Hardaway himself.

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I was talking to somebody who would know about the Tim Hardaway Jr. scenario. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s first words after signing that contract: “Man, that’s crazy.”

In the likely event Hardaway doesn’t live up to this massive contract, he’ll get blamed – and the scorn will be hotter in New York.* That’s not fair, as Hardaway was just taking the money offered to him. He wasn’t getting anywhere near that much anywhere else. But it is reality.

*It’s a lesson Kyrie Irving, who could land anywhere, could stand to remember as he reportedly hopes for the Knicks to trade for him.

As hilarious as Hardaway’s response was, it doesn’t top Tyler Johnson for my favorite reaction to a loaded offer sheet.

Report: As Kyrie Irving rumors swirl, Timberwolves still negotiating extension with Andrew Wiggins

AP Photo/Jim Mone
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The Timberwolves were working on a contract extension for Andrew Wiggins.

Then, Kyrie Irving‘s trade request became public. He reportedly listed Minnesota among his preferred destinations. Jimmy Butler (a friend of Irving’s) and Karl-Anthony Towns have petitioned Timberwolves management to add Irving, and the team is exploring a deal. Wiggins fits perfectly what Cleveland is said to be seeking.

So, where do extension talks stand now?

Darren Wolfson of

The Timberwolves could simultaneously be exploring multiple paths. They might want to trade for Irving, even if it means including Wiggins. They might want an extension lined up with Wiggins in case they don’t. They’re not committed to either direction until they finalize something.

They’re not even committed to keeping Wiggins if they extend him.

It’d complicate an Irving trade, to be sure. Wiggins outgoing salary would still count as his actual salary ($7,574,323), but his incoming salary to Cleveland would count as the average annual salary of the entire deal – the final season of his rookie-scale contract and the extension years both included.

But there’s no time period after signing Wiggins to a rookie-scale extension where the Timberwolves would be prohibited from trading him. He could also sign an extension with the Cavs anytime between a trade and Oct. 16. Minnesota might be assessing Wiggins’ extension demands on behalf of Cleveland, which would surely be interested in extending him in accordance with a trade.

If the Timberwolves actually sign Wiggins to an extension, that’d send a big signal they don’t plan to trade him for Irving – but even that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Until a deal becomes official or more concrete word leaks of Minnesota’s plan, I wouldn’t assume a Wiggins-for-Irving deal is off the table.

Report: Kyrie Irving ‘very badly’ wants trade to Knicks

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Kyrie Irving, who grew up in New Jersey, listed the Knicks among his preferred destinations in a trade.

Is New York his top choice?

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I got a phone call, and the voice on the other end of that phone call is a trustworthy person. And he was saying to me that Kyrie Irving very badly wants to be a New York Knick. Kyrie Irving wants to come home.

Irving is less valuable than Kristaps Porzingis and more valuable than Carmelo Anthony, and the Knicks can’t easily bridge either gap. They reportedly won’t trade Porzingis for Irving, a wise move. Anthony – who possesses a no-trade clause – is reportedly set on the Rockets. An Irving trade would almost certainly have to be centered around one of those two players.

Maybe Cleveland can work its way into a multi-team trade with Anthony going to Houston, but it’s unclear where the assets the Cavs are seeking would come from.

When Irving requested a trade, he should have known he’d lose control of the process. Locked up for two more years and without a no-trade clause, Irving has minimal sway. His relationship with the Cavaliers looks increasingly unworkable, but they could deal him anywhere.

That said, I can see why he’d want to go to New York – big market in his home area, a team he could take over. Even as Porzingis grows in stature, he’s not a ball-dominant player who’d step on Irving’s toes.

But this just feels like a Stephon Marbury redux. From owner James Dolan down, the Knicks are poorly run, and their stars – beloved when welcomed – usually leave with their reputations damaged.

By the way, what happened to the Spurs being Irving’s top choice? In a situation like this, sometimes people close to the player have differing preferences and leak accordingly. That could have just been someone near Irving pushing for his or her choice for the guard – and this could be, too.

If players thought this year’s free agent market was tight, next summer could be “nuclear winter”

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Plenty of agents spent this summer trying to explain to their clients that the summer of 2017 was not the summer of 2016 (one I know of even was thanking media members in Las Vegas who wrote about how tight the free agent market had gotten so he could show his clients). Players saw the ridiculous contracts of 2016 — Timofey Mozgov got four-years, $64 million; Bismack Biyombo got four years, almost $70 million; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, players deep into rosters were overpaid — and thought this summer it would be their turn.

Except it wasn’t. In 2016 the salary cap spiked from $70 million to $94 million and that meant 27 teams entered free agency under the cap (and the teams over it spent big to re-sign their own), and $5 billion in contracts were handed out. This summer, 14 teams were under the $99 million cap and about $3 billion was handed out — and once the stars such as James Harden got paid big, the market dried up and players got less than expected. Four-time All-Star and elite defender Paul Millsap would have been a clear max a year ago, he could “only” get three years (at age 31) at $4 million less than his max. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have been a lock max in 2016, he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million this summer. And further down the list guys like Rajon Rondo are signing team-friendly deals.

And next summer is going to be a far tighter market. As Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks of ESPN point out, the free agent class of 2018 is going to pay for the excess of 2016.

The early projections for 2018-19: nine teams with cap space, and potentially 10 teams paying luxury tax.

“The real story is the nuclear winter for free agents coming next year,” one team executive with authority to make personnel decisions told ESPN. “Teams planned the last two summers for the cap to be much higher. The fact that it went way down from the projections crushed teams.”

Another general manager put it this way to ESPN:

“What I see all the time is players not understanding why, ‘This player got this, but I get that?’ They want it to make sense and it just doesn’t make sense. I think you’ll see a lot of agents get fired.

“The top guys will always feed first and then the year of the cap spike, there was a lot left for everybody else to feed. Next year, the top players will still get theirs, and then there will be not much left.”

NBA teams are not going to negotiate deals off the mistakes of 2016, they see that as the outlier to be ignored.

The Summer of 2018 is loaded with top free agents who are going to get max contract offers from their own teams and those with enough cap space to try and poach them — LeBron James, Kevin Durant (he will re-sign with Warriors), Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, plus restricted guys who could see max deals such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. There’s even a second tier of guys who will be maxed out or close to it — Andrew Wiggins (extension eligible right now), DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and others.

But that next tier down? How much will teams pay for Robert Covington? Aaron Gordon? Clint Capela? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Danny Green? And for guys counting on the one-year deals they signed this summer to boost their stock — we can use Derrick Rose as an example — even if they play well they may not see the money they expect.

The league and owners had wanted to smooth in the salary cap spike of 2016, raising it fair amount over three or five years to avoid the spending spree, but the players’ union rejected that idea. For the free agents in the summer of 2016 that worked out well. For the ones in the 2018… not so much.