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The 6 Questions That Will Define NBA Free Agency

We’re four days away from the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: NBA free agency. And with several of the league’s biggest superstars potentially on the move — at a time in which the race for the title seems as open as it’s been in years — we wanted to set the stage with the key questions players and teams alike will face as they prepare for their all-important meetings this weekend.

Is Kyrie alone worth the trouble for Brooklyn?

For months now, we’ve heard the speculation about Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving potentially landing with the same club this summer. But now, with Irving seemingly keyed in on the Nets regardless of what Durant opts to do, Brooklyn could find itself in an interesting spot.

The Nets are fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2015 and were aiming to make a splash in free agency in hopes of taking their talented young roster to the next level. But the prospect of doing that with just Irving — who is unmistakably talented but seemed to mystify his Boston teammates this past season — would carry some degree of risk given the wholesale change it would mark. In doing so, Brooklyn would almost certainly be moving on from All-Star D’Angelo Russell, who made a considerable jump with the Nets this past year.

While Irving is far more efficient and a more bankable star, the 27-year-old has also proved to be unpredictable in terms of what he wants from one year to the next. Russell, meanwhile, is just 23, and while there’s still a gap between him and Irving in terms of ability, our CARMELO player projection model at FiveThirtyEight has Irving as one of Russell’s closest player comparisons. Making this a more complicated conversation is Brooklyn’s reputation as one of the NBA’s most analytically inclined organizations, while also being one that prides itself on building its roster carefully. The analytics and the fanfare point to signing Irving, while the most cautious step might be to keep Russell (and hope he keeps blossoming) if it can be done for less than a max-level contract. The complicating factor here, though, is that Russell is a restricted free agent, meaning that a club like the Suns or the Lakers could put the Nets in a scenario in which they’d be forced to match a high-dollar offer to keep him. In other words, keeping Russell could end up being an expensive exercise for Brooklyn either way, depending on the market.

If Irving ends up signing with the Nets, I think a defense-heavy club like the Pacers would be the best fit for someone like Russell, who can score a ton but isn’t much of a defender. He would make more sense for Indiana than Ricky Rubio, who is solid on D but not enough of an offensive threat.

Who will get Kevin Durant?

Nearly every aspect of how free agency would play out changed the moment it was announced that Durant ruptured his Achilles during Game 5 of the NBA Finals. For a team like the Knicks — who seemed like the front-runner to land him — and obviously for Durant himself, everything got thrown into a tailspin.

So what happens now, with the superstar likely to miss a lengthy amount of time rehabbing? While KD will have the ear of any organization he’s interested in — reports suggest that outside teams like the Nets and Clippers may be most in play here now — it seems Durant’s brutal injury and the Warriors’ loss in the NBA Finals makes it more likely for him to stay with the Warriors than before.

The notion that Durant would go to the Knicks always stemmed from the belief that, by going there, he would want to resurrect a franchise that hadn’t been consistently successful in decades — a polar opposite scenario from the one he stepped into with Golden State. But now, for the first time in years, the Warriors will enter a season vulnerable, with everyone knowing how much value Durant carried. So there may not be a need anymore for KD to validate that by starting over elsewhere.

In the aftermath of his injury, there’s still a lingering question of trust, given that Golden State officials mistakenly told Durant he couldn’t get any more hurt by coming back during the finals.1 But as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday, Durant has continued to have contact with Warriors’ officials, seemingly a promising sign for them as we head into free agency. And if there is enough of a trust there, it may help Durant to know whom he’ll be doing his rehab work with, as opposed to stepping into an entirely new situation with a new set of doctors and training staffers. It also doesn’t hurt that the Dubs can offer him a total of five years and a staggering $221 million, while other clubs can offer up to four years and $164 million.

Durant’s choice may not affect who wins the title in 2020, since we don’t even know whether he’ll be back to compete next season. But his decision — both in how it impacts Golden State and the way the Warriors will handle fellow injured star Klay Thompson’s free agency — could play a seismic role for the future. Things get really interesting if he does opt to leave and another star player goes along with him.

How should the Lakers use their cap space?

There is plenty out there to suggest the Lakers, who already have LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the fold, are hoping to create the space necessary for a third max salary slot. Regardless of whether they get there, though, there’s an argument to be made that Los Angeles is better off splitting up its remaining cap space on multiple difference-makers instead of getting just one star.

Of course, this depends on just how much of a star we’re talking about. If there is any indication that the Lakers can talk someone like Kawhi Leonard, or even a Jimmy Butler, into joining the mix, that’s a conversation worth having — particularly now, with the league wide open because of the long-term injuries to Durant and Thompson, who is scheduled to have surgery to repair his torn ACL this week. But star power on the level of Kemba Walker, for instance, doesn’t seem like it would be worth it.

Yes, a player like Walker — who apparently will be courted by the Hornets, Celtics and Mavericks, according to a report — has unbelievable scoring ability, even when defenses are draped all over him. But aside from Walker’s issues on D, the Lakers don’t truly need another ball-dominant player. Instead, they would be wise to fill out the rest of the roster better than they did last season to make sure they have the necessary depth and balance around James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma.

Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon would be an interesting option, though he’s restricted and could cost a lot depending on which teams pursue him. JJ Redick would be an ideal floor-spacer, and if he’s too pricey, a solid two-way veteran like Toronto’s Danny Green might come a bit cheaper. Depending on what someone like Indiana’s Bojan Bogdanovic goes for, he could be a great fit on both ends for the Lakers. And Pacers guard Darren Collison could be a perfectly fine signing, too.

These aren’t the sorts of glitzy moves we’re used to hearing about when the Lakers have max or close-to-max space. But using that space to sign any two of these players looks more appealing than signing just one star who doesn’t make the club far better than it already appears to be.

Which second-tier star shifts the balance most?

Butler seems to be the line of demarcation as a game-changer this summer.

We all watched him vault the Timberwolves into the playoffs the season before last and saw a number of moments in which he was integral to the Sixers this past year. Philadelphia will obviously prioritize keeping him, while the Rockets — desperately trying to pounce, with an aging Chris Paul and a hobbled Golden State — reportedly would love to negotiate a sign-and-trade for the 29-year-old.

There still figure to be concerns around the way Butler will age, given the amount of minutes he’s racked up over the years — something we’ve written about before. But his ability to check off all the boxes — at a time in which the title is up for grabs and the Sixers were arguably a bounce or four away from beating the team that won it all — makes it seem as if Philadelphia will do what’s necessary to keep Butler, despite what it may cost in years and salary. (Keep in mind how much they gave up to get him, let alone Tobias Harris, who’s also a free agent and could end up walking.)

There are a couple of other players of this caliber worth keeping an eye on, too. Despite his ACL tear, Thompson is the best shooter in the world not named Stephen Curry, and he will have suitors if the Warriors somehow don’t offer him a full max contract.2 And Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton would fit any contender who needs a solid wing player that doesn’t dominate the ball.

But since those two are widely expected to stay put, Butler — because of how many other teams will want to make a legitimate run at him and because of the risk involved with Philadelphia giving him a five-year contract — is arguably the most interesting free agent out there.

Could Kawhi really leave Toronto?

But what about arguably the best player in the world, who just led his team to a championship? How could he not be the most intriguing free agent right now?

Leonard, who turns 28 this week, could obviously shift the balance for this coming season quicker than anyone by moving teams, as the Raptors would take a massive step back, and whichever club he joined would take a quantum leap forward. The truth is, no one knows what Kawhi — arguably the most enigmatic superstar the league has ever seen — will do. But it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he decided to run things back with Toronto on a two-year contract, with an opt-out after the first season of the deal.3

Doing that would allow him a chance to defend his title with Toronto while also pressuring the Raptors to continue wooing him for yet another season, similar to the way LeBron did in Cleveland.

The Clippers have been waiting almost a year now to make their pitch to Leonard, and they would ideally aim to pair him with another star. And other teams — the Knicks and Lakers, presumably — would love a chance to sell him on signing with them.

We only truly know one thing in all this, as free agency approaches: The Raptors have done all they possibly could do to persuade Leonard to stay. And as much as it will sting Toronto fans if he opts to leave anyway, the ride to a championship, even if just for one year, was totally worth it.

What will the Bucks do?

Milwaukee has flown under the radar in the free-agent discussions because the Bucks almost certainly won’t be a contender for the biggest-name free agents. The reason for that: They’ve got a number of their own players they have to find ways to take care of.

Middleton will be a top priority, and he figures to have a max deal headed his way. Brogdon could be a hot commodity as a restricted free agent. Brook Lopez earned himself a payday because of his ability to stretch defenses and protect the rim. And Nikola Mirotic, despite a brutal series against Toronto, will garner interest as a floor-spacing forward who defends better than he’s given credit for.

The question for the Bucks, who had the league’s best record last season, is how much they can afford to spend without handcuffing themselves too much, too far into the future. Jon Horst, who won Executive of the Year this week, will want to maintain as much flexibility as possible to change things as necessary around league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But with Antetokounmpo eligible for a supermax extension in a year, it would send the wrong message — and look cheap — to not offer Middleton, Giannis’s All-Star sidekick, a max contract.4

Assuming Milwaukee holds on to most of its own talent, the Bucks will be forced to bank on internal growth, not only from Giannis, but also from Brogdon, Middleton and Mike Budenholzer, who won Coach of the Year but made some questionable decisions down the stretch of the Toronto series.

It’s crazy to think that a 60-win team — with the MVP, coach of the year and executive of the year — is a bit of an afterthought in free agency. But on some level, for Milwaukee, these next few weeks will be about playing defense as other clubs make a run at what looks like a wide-open bid for an NBA title.

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  1. To be fair, the Warriors have argued this was a collaborative decision between the Warriors and outside experts, along with Durant and his team of folks.

  2. Though it’s hard to imagine that. If they lose Durant, you’d have to imagine they would want to keep Thompson because of his value to the franchise. And even if Durant stays, having Thompson in the fold would seemingly make them the favorites again once everyone is healthy in 2021.

  3. Again, we have no clue what Leonard would prefer. He also could be against the idea of a short-term deal, given the quad injury that limited him to just nine games a season ago.

  4. The Bucks already signed Eric Bledsoe to a four-year, $70-million extension during the season.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.