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Free Agency Preview: Top 21 unrestricted free agents

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These are the guys everybody is talking about.

The players on the top of this list can reshape a franchise and move them into contender status. Even farther down they are players who can play critical roles for teams next season, pushing them up the ladder in the NBA.

These are the players who are true, unrestricted free agents and can go to any team that can afford to pay them. Or, they can choose to stay right where they are and make a little more money.

Here is our list of the top 21 unrestricted free agents this summer, and it starts with an obvious choice:

1. LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers). The biggest domino on the board, until he makes a move a lot of other decisions by teams and players will be held up. There is a lot of buzz around the league that LeBron wants to come to Los Angeles, but he doesn’t want to come alone — can the Lakers convince the Spurs to make a trade with them for Kawhi Leonard? Will Paul George come to LA with LeBron? LeBron wants assurances before he pulls the trigger, but that puts the Lakers on a tight timeline, they have to figure it out before LeBron feels compelled to turn to other options (including possibly staying in Cleveland). Until we know what happens with LeBron, a lot of other dominos will not fall.

2. Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors). He is technically a free agent so we have to list him here, but Durant is not going anywhere, he is all in on the Warriors. Him becoming a free agent only means is he’s not taking a big discount for the team again.

3. Paul George (Oklahoma City). In Oklahoma City, they are convinced he is staying. In Los Angeles, they are convinced he is coming. George says he hopes his decision will make the most people happy, but his call may hinge what LeBron does. There is a lot of buzz he could take a one-plus-one deal with the Thunder, keeping his future options open, but Los Angeles is still on the table (with Philadelphia trying to get a foot in the door).

4. Chris Paul (Houston Rockets). CP3 is expected to stay with the Rockets, it’s all but a lock. Does Houston want to give a 33-year-old a five-year contract? Not ideally, they’d like to trim a year off that, but they will pay the price to keep him in Houston to keep a contender together.

5. DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans). The Pelicans would like to keep him, a few teams including Dallas would like to steal him away. His decision comes down to this: how many guaranteed years will a team give Cousins coming off a torn Achilles? Will teams give him a second guaranteed year? A third if he meets minutes requirements in year two? Whoever offers the most security will land him. That’s probably the Pelicans, but after their playoff run without him they are more willing to move on if another team comes in over the top.

6. DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers). It is possible he will not be a free agent, instead opting-in to the last year of his contract with the Clippers ($24.1 million) and then trying to force a trade. Either way, he’s likely on the move, the Clippers trading for Marcin Gortat is a sign they expect Jordan to be in a different uniform next season. However he becomes available, Jordan may be the best defensive paint protector/rim running center in the league. He needs to be paired with a strong point guard/ball handler to be the most effective, but he could help a lot of teams.

7. J.J. Redick (Philadelphia 76ers). He’s not going to get the $23 million he got last season from the Sixers, but he’s going to draw interest because he’s the kind of shooter teams could use (42 percent from three last season), he’s a tireless worker on the offensive end, a solid team defender, and the kind of professional, veteran presence teams want in the locker room. Philly wants to keep him, but the Sixers are big game hunting and may not have the money to retain him.

8. Trevor Ariza (Houston Rockets). He was a key part of Houston’s run to the Western Conference Finals, but he plans to capitalize on that and meet with multiple teams. He can shoot the three, is a versatile and switchable defender, and plays a high IQ game. There are going to be several teams interested, but his camp has denied he’s looking for $50+ million that was reported.

9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Los Angeles Lakers). While everyone was focused on the Lakers’ young stars, KCP was having a solid season — 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, shooting 38.7 percent from three, and playing strong defense. He took a one-year, $17.8 million contract with the Lakers hoping to show his value and get paid more (like a max) on the back end. He may not find everything he wants in this tight free agent market, but he will get paid.

10. Will Barton (Denver Nuggets). One of the better sixth men in the NBA last season (he finished fourth in the voting), he averaged 13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. He’s not providing much of anything on defense, but the rest of his game provides real value. He reportedly turned down four-years, $42 million before last season from the Nuggets, he will want more than that after a strong season.

11. Tyreke Evans (Memphis Grizzlies). Memphis screwed up not trading him at the deadline, now they will lose him for nothing in free agency. One of the bounce-back players of the year (and possibly a Sixth Man candidate if he had stayed healthy, he played in just 52 games), Evans averaged 19.4 points per game and had a PER of 21.1 last season. He’s going to make a lot more than the $3.3 million the Grizzlies got him for last summer when his stock was down, the question is how many years will teams offer?

12. Thaddeus Young (Indiana Pacers). He has yet to decide if he will be a free agent, opting-out of the $13.7 million he is owed next season, although he is expected to. Defensively the Pacers leaned on Young, who is long and switchable doing a good job on the perimeter. He does the little things on the court. Offensively he can finish inside and works well in transition, but his shot is inconsistent. At age 30, another guy that may struggle to get a longer-term deal from teams, but one of them will step up to try to grab him.

13. Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz). One of the more interesting free agents in that he’s not a modern NBA big — he can’t really space the floor and he isn’t a high-flying rim protector — but he has value as a big man who can do a lot of things fairly well. He can shoot from the midrange, he plays within himself, and on defense he is well positioned and can use his length and size to bother shots in the paint. Will any team value him as much as the Jazz?

14. Avery Bradley (Los Angeles Clippers). He had a down season last campaign: He didn’t fit in the Detroit offense and struggled with turnovers, then his chance to redeem himself after being traded to the Clippers was cut short by injury. He was scoring points last season, but he wasn’t efficient. Some GM is going to look past this most recent campaign and remember that a year ago Bradley was considered one of the better two-way guards in the NBA. The Clippers want him back but other teams (including the Memphis) will make a run at him.

15. Isaiah Thomas (Los Angeles Lakers). Nobody in the NBA has seen their stock fall — and lost more money — in the past year than Thomas. The Brinks truck is not backing up to his house. The combination of the hip injury/surgery that sidelined him for the first half of last season, and perceived attitude problems in Cleveland that helped lead to a trade, will have teams hesitant. That said, a year ago he was an All-NBA player, one team will take a chance he can find something close to that again. Would he accept a sixth man role?

16. Luc Mbah a Moute (Houston Rockets). He was a key part of the Rockets’ regular season defensive success — the team was 4.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he was on the court last season. He’s a switchable wing defender, plus he shot 36.4 percent from three. At age 31 he’s not getting a long deal, but the Rockets want to bring him back and other teams will try to steal him. Mbah a Moute will have options.

17. Rajon Rondo (New Orleans Pelicans). His play was okay during the regular season, but he picks it up in big games and the playoffs, and was an important part of the Pelicans’ late-season run. He can play with Jrue Holiday in a backcourt as needed. He still has flaws (his shot is at the top of that list) but he fits well with a playoff team looking for veteran backcourt help. He brings competitiveness and a high IQ game.

18. Dwight Howard (Charlotte Hornets/Brooklyn Nets). He’s not a free agent yet — he will get traded to Brooklyn on July 6, and the sides are already talking buyout. Most around the league expect Howard will be on the market this summer — but who is buying? He was solid for the Hornets last season averaging 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds a night, but he’s old school wanting touches in the post, his defense isn’t what it used to be, and he hasn’t been popular with teammates in a long time. In a limited role, he could help a team, if he accepts it.

19. Wayne Ellington (Miami Heat). Every team could use more shooting, and Ellington shot 39.2 percent from three last season — he’s going to have suitors. He’s one of the best knock-down shooters in the game. The challenge is he doesn’t bring much defense, rebounding, or anything else, but if a team is looking for a sniper Ellington can be their guy.

20. Brook Lopez (Los Angeles Lakers). While we don’t think of him as a modern NBA center, he has learned to shoot the three (34.5 percent) and took 41 percent of his shots from deep last season. Plus, he’s an efficient scorer around the basket, hits the boards hard, and uses his size and length to defend the paint. He’s got value, even if his role is somewhat limited, and there will be multiple teams with interest.

21. Rudy Gay (San Antonio Spurs). He’s not the same athlete he was before his torn Achilles, but he averaged 11.5 points a game last season for the Spurs, picked his spots and shots better on offense, and played some defense. He turned down an $8.8 million player option, not sure he gets more than that next season, but a team might commit to him for more than just one season. That team may be the Spurs, who would like him back.

Dwyane Wade got an All-NBA vote, Gabrielle Union would have gone with Klay Thompson

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Honesty from your spouse is a bedrock of any good relationship.

But come on Gabrielle Union, show your man a little love.

Dwyane Wade got one second-team All-NBA vote, and he took to an Instagram story to thank that voter (even if he wouldn’t have voted for himself). His wife would not have voted for her man.

Just a few notes:

• That is a funny video.

• We do not know who cast that vote for Wade, yet. The NBA’s end of season awards are voted on by 100 media members who cover the league (the NBA selects those voters). There is transparency, the full votes will be released after the NBA’s award show next month.

• Third team All-NBA guard was probably the toughest choice on the entire ballot. Because the NBA forces voters to select only two guards for each of the teams (six guards total), rather than allowing voters to just chose the 15 best players for the honor, deserving guys get left off every year. In this case, Stephen Curry and James Harden were first-team locks. Damian Lillard was a clear second-team choice, and a majority of voters had Kyrie Irving joining him on the second team. Russell Westbrook was not far behind Irving and was clear-and-away the fifth choice for voters. That left one guard spot between Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, or anyone else considered worthy (Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, etc.). There is no wrong choice in that group. If players were not locked into positions for All-NBA more guards would have made the cut in an increasingly backcourt dominated league. (For transparency purposes, I did vote Walker in on my ballot barely over Thompson.)

• No media members I know are comfortable with these votes having an impact on player salaries. It makes us all uneasy, even as voters study and try to make the best choices. The NBA and players’ union need to come up with a better system in the next CBA. I’ve got a crazy idea, how about letting the teams decide who is worthy of being paid that much?

Brooklyn Nets like Kyrie Irving, but how much does he like them?

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Kyrie Irving is a popular guy. He has a strong relationship with Kevin Durant and rumors of them pairing up on the Knicks next season have been rampant all over the league this season. Irving also is hanging out with LeBron James in Los Angeles, and LBJ is reportedly up for the idea of getting the band back together (minus Kevin Love, and in Los Angeles this time). Boston has every intention of keeping Irving, and ideally pairing him with Anthony Davis who they would acquire via trade.

The Brooklyn Nets will be free agent players this summer and think they would be an excellent fit for Irving. The goal would be to pair him with All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

How seriously is Irving considering the Nets? A lot, according to Anthony Puccio of SNY in New York.

Sources tell SNY that Kyrie Irving and his camp are strongly considering Brooklyn if he decides to leave Boston. Irving’s camp has kept a close eye on the Nets as the season progressed and the team got better, with the playoffs only helping their case.

SNY also learned recently that the Nets would not shy away from signing Irving even if they re-sign point guard D’Angelo Russell. The ideal scenario would be to pair two max free agents, such as Kevin Durant and Irving, but sources say the Nets would be open to pairing Irving and Russell in the backcourt together.

The Nets, just like the Clippers, could be major players in free agency this summer (the Clippers are more focused on Kawhi Leonard, but if he chooses to stay in Toronto the Clippers will be a potential force in trades and on the free agent market). This is a young team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs this season, they have a good culture and good role players, they just need a star or two to take them over the top.

Irving could be that guy, or at least one of those guys, in Brooklyn.

Irving will have options and you can bet his decision is not yet made. He may be leaning one way or another, but circumstances with other players and time to think things over may (likely will) change his mind. Maybe a few times.

Where his mind is July 1 matters. It could be in Brooklyn then, but it could be a lot of places.

Warriors know they have is something special, with uncertainty ahead

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry hears the dynasty discussion about his Golden State Warriors during another postseason run.

Draymond Green realizes special teams only stay together for so long before something breaks them apart.

That’s why the Warriors decided from Day 1 of training camp to cherish this season.

Golden State is a franchise in its prime – five straight trips to the NBA Finals and seeking a third consecutive title. But the clock is ticking and the Warriors are well aware of the possible ramifications of free agency and how things could change in a hurry this summer.

“Basketball careers aren’t that long. If you can get 10 out of it, you’re lucky,” Green explained. “To be to five straight finals, I don’t even know what to say about it. This is what you play for. This is our goal every year and to get here five straight times is special.”

The Warriors started this run with three All-Stars in Curry, Green and Klay Thompson. They added two more in Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. How many they’ll have after free agency is any and everyone’s guess.

Curry – with nearly 11-month-old son Canon regularly in his arms for the ride – is certainly relishing this stretch of his decorated career, appreciating how far the Warriors have come during the 10 years he has been in the league.

A third straight title is suddenly within reach, which would be Golden State’s fourth championship in five years.

“We know what’s at stake and what we’re chasing this year, this series, this game, and that’s the only way that you can really put your best foot forward in terms of trying to get back to the mountaintop,” Curry said. “We’ll have plenty of time when we hang the sneakers up to really go back and think about all the different experiences and highs and lows, but right now, we’re two games away from another finals appearance. It’s pretty special.”

The Warriors are the first team to reach five straight finals since the Celtics advanced to 10 in a row from 1957-1966.

Another championship would cement this run of titles among the best ever.

The Los Angeles Lakers of 2000-02 – led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal – are the last team to capture three straight titles.

Golden State advanced without Durant, the reigning two-time finals MVP, and Cousins. Both were sidelined with injuries for the entire Western Conference finals. The finished off Portland without Andre Iguodala, another finals MVP who sat out Game 4 with an injury.

While the Bucks and Raptors are slugging it out in the East, the Warriors are rehabbing.

“I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed or underrated. Five straight finals hasn’t been done since the 60s, since Bill Russell’s Celtics,” fifth-year Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Hasn’t been done for a reason: It’s really, really difficult. I just can’t say enough about the competitive desire about the group of players that we have here and the culture that they have built together, playing together regardless of injury.”

Each Warriors run has been unique. When they won in 2015 it was the first title for the franchise in 40 years.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers derailed them in 2016, but the Warriors bounced back in 2017 with a dominant 16-1 record during the postseason.

Last year, Golden State joined Russell’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and trio of Lakers teams – including George Mikan and company in the 1950s, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the `80s, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant nearly 20 years ago – as the only franchises in NBA history to capture three championships in four years.

“When I was here the first time, they rebuilt and retooled,” said Andrew Bogut, a member of the 2015 title team before rejoining the Warriors in March.

“They didn’t just sit on their hands thinking it was going to last forever. They freed up cap space, you have to give (general manager) Bob Myers, (owner) Joe Lacob and the coaching staff a lot of credit. There are a lot of teams that win a championship and kind of reward the whole roster, then they end up two-three years down the track and end up in a bit of a hole. Whereas this is a great run for a franchise that will end up as one of the all-time greats.”

The Warriors enjoy playing together and with so many selfless stars and a deep bench they are rarely out of any game.

That doesn’t mean it has been easy, especially with the constant free agency chatter this season.

Durant is an impending free agent and the basketball world continues to speculate on his next move. Thompson’s future with the Warriors is unclear as well, while Green is signed through next season.

“We know that these runs don’t last forever, and obviously there are so many questions and things that could possibly happen with this team this summer,” Green said. “So want to try to take advantage of this opportunity and make the most of it, and deal with the things that come after whenever those things arrive, but right now we’re focused on the task at hand and try to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time, or many times.”

The Warriors are aware of the dynasty talk, but aren’t labeling themselves. They have consistently said their focus is the task of raising another banner in the final season at Oracle Arena before the franchise moves into Chase Center in San Francisco to begin 2019-20.

“I don’t think in those terms. It’s just every opportunity we have to play, these are big moments, big games,” Curry said, “and the context of what this five-year run has been and all that stuff doesn’t really dominate my mind when we’re out there competing.”

 

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.