There was one big theme NBA’s summer of 2018: The one-year contract.
Nearly half of the contracts signed by free agents took either a one-year contract or a two-year deal that gives them the ability to opt out after one year. Why? Because 2018 was a very tight financial market with only a few teams having cap space to spend and a lot of teams up against the luxury tax (thanks to the cap-spike spending binge of 2016). However, look ahead to 2019 at least half the teams in the NBA are expected to have $20 million or more to spend. Agents and players see the potential another 2016-like summer of paydays, with teams spending big, and everyone wants to cash in.
I mean everyone — there are 450 players in the NBA and nearly 200 will be free agents next summer. As one team executive told me at Summer League, it’s going to be a saturated market. Not just the elite players but a couple of teirs down will get paid as well, however, many others will be disappointed with what is left on the table when it’s their turn.
The summer of 2019 is going to be wild, and we’re looking at the best players on the market next summer.
One non-free agent thing to watch in July 2019: The Pelicans will be able to offer Anthony Davis a super-max five year contract extension in the $235 million ballpark (depending on the cap in a couple of years). Does he sign it and stay committed to New Orleans? If not the jockeying for trades will come fast and furiously.
Here are the top free agents of 2019 broken out into three categories, only the last — the guys with the most potential to change teams — have been put into the official top 10.
Free agents who are not not going anywhere:
Kevin Durant (player option): He may not choose to opt out after just singing a two-year contract with the Warriors, but KD has the right to. Either way, nobody around the league thinks he will be on the move.
Klay Thompson: He is the target of fan bases around the league, and on paper he is the one of the Warriors’ big four they could come closest to replicating the production of with other players. Thing is, Thompson doesn’t want to leave and the Warriors don’t want him to go. Thompson is a different cat, not driven by the “me-first” ego of some who would want their own team or a larger role (or more marketing focus on a less crowded team). Thompson’s priprity is winning and the Warriors are doing that. Thompson has talked about taking a discount for the Warriors and likely will, and they will re-sign him.
The Restricted free agent big names:
Kristaps Porzingis: The Knicks and KP will work out the terms of a max extension before the season starts. Even if something went wrong and he went to restricted free agency, New York would still match any offer. He is not going anywhere.
Karl-Anthony Towns: The Timberwolves and Towns are already talking max extension (that offer is on the table but Towns wants to talk to management first), that contract will get done. That may signal more about the future direction of the franchise and who will be on their way out, but no way the Timberwolves do not get this done.
Terry Rozier: He is one quality rotation player that could be gone from Boston due to saving financially in the future. If he is not traded this season (a real possibility) he may be someone who can be poached next summer.
The 10 biggest name remaining free agents:
1) Kawhi Leonard (player option): He will opt out and the Lakers are considered the frontrunners. However, Toronto has a season to woo him, and next summer the Knicks, Sixers and other teams will come calling (as long as he stays healthy and proves he is still close to the MVP-level player of a couple of years ago). Leonard will have options.
2) Kyrie Irving (player option): Danny Ainge traded the much-desired Brooklyn pick for Irving and sees him as the kind of shot creator and scorer the Celtics need with all their versatile talents at other positions. Ainge will want to pay the man, and winning does matter. But if Irving and the guy next on this list want to team up, as they reportedly have discussed, there will be teams that can absorb both contracts.
3) Jimmy Butler (player option): He is frustrated in Minnesota and is looking to get out — he could get traded during the season, but even if he stays a lot of things will have to change for him to want to stay. With the Timberwolves maxing out Towns, Butler seems the man on the way out the door. He will have options from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between.
4) Kevin Love (player option): Update: Love has agreed to sign a four-year, $120 million extension with the Cavaliers (beyond the one remianing year on his contract. So, it took all of a few hours for this list to become dated, you can scratch him off the free agent list. Love scored 17.6 points and grabbed 9.3 rebounds a game last season, and he shot 41 percent from three. There aren’t many bigs as good or who fit the modern game like Love.
5) Al Horford (player option): The versatile big man may not opt out (he is scheduled to make $30 million), but if he does the Celtics will keep him — he is the glue that binds this roster. His ability to anything well provides the flexibility Brad Stevens needs, and Danny Ainge knows that. The two sides could talk contract extension as well.
6) Kemba Walker: The All-Star point guard has said he wants to stay a Hornet, and right now new GM Mitch Kupchak (on orders from owner Michael Jordan) say they want to keep him and compete, not rebuild. However, a lot can change in a year and a lot of teams with money looking for better play at the point guard spot will come calling — Walker will have options. Will he take any of them, or stay in Charlotte?
7) DeAndre Jordan: He is poised for a bounce-back season in Dallas (not that 12 points per game on 64.5 percent shooting plus 15.2 rebounds per game and a 20.2 PER is bad) — he missed Chis Paul feeding him the rock, and now he will have Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic throwing lobs. Jordan is one of the few old-school style centers who can still be a major contributor in the NBA, and after this season he will be looking for a payday and security. He will want multiple years. Dallas may give it to him (depending on how this season goes) but there are other teams with quality point guards who could use him.
8) Goran Dragic (player option): He will be 33 when the next free agency period roles around, and his player option is for $19.2 million, but he may seek the security of multiple years (in Miami or elsewhere). He is still a dangerous pick-and-roll man with the ball in his hands (it accounted for 55 percent of his possessions last season) and he scored 17.3 points per game, dished out 4.8 assists, and shot 37 percent from there. There will be demand for his services if he wants to test the market, or he could stay in Miami.
9) Marc Gasol (player option): He will b e 34 next July, his skills have been in decline for a couple of seasons now, players at his position are finding it hard to get paid, and he has a $25.6 million player option. He may well pick that up. If not, he still is a big man who can play in the modern NBA — he averaged 17.2 points per game last season, shot 34.1 percent from three, is strong on the boards and is a big body in the paint. He will have suitors, just not as many as he might expect. He has said before he does not plan to leave Memphis.
10) DeMarcus Cousins: This could be too low for him on this list. If he bounces back from his ruptured Achilese and is 90 percent of who he was before — and if he fits in as a good teammate in Golden State, maybe helps them win a ring — he will have a number of teams clamoring for his services (and he will make a lot more than the $5.3 million he is getting this season). That said, the history of big men bouncing back from this injury is not good, so there is a wait and see attitude about his free agency next summer.