By Norm Elrod
So much of the NBA free agency talk seems to focus on LeBron James, and for good reason. When the best player in the league is available — who can elevate any team to conference contender — every front office at least runs the numbers.
But this NBA free agency season offers plenty of talent beyond LeBron, from difference makers to glue guys to bench depth. Here are the top 10 free agents, from the King on down.
Every NBA team wants LeBron. Every NBA team could use LeBron. But only one NBA team will get LeBron. Welcome to the 2018 edition of the LeBron James sweepstakes. Hopefully it won’t be a PR disaster this time around. So much has been said about LeBron, the best player of his generation and possibly the best player ever, once his career wraps up. So let’s focus on recent history. Turning 33, in his 15th season, he showed little sign of slowing down, in a league that’s speeding up. He averaged over 27 points on about 37 minutes per game in the regular season and 34 and 42 in the postseason. And he carried an undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, his eighth Finals appearance in a row. He’s LeBron.
Durant probably isn’t leaving Golden State, as much as the rest of the league would like to see some cracks in the Warriors’ foundation. But he is most definitely an elite talent who could decide to exercise his player option, shop his services and shift the balance of power in the NBA. Stranger things have happened in free agency. It was reported just today that LeBron reached out to KD about playing for the Lakers. Still, re-upping with Golden State for some combination of more money and more time is probably how this will play out. Durant, for his part is a nine-time NBA All-star, a two-time NBA Finals champion and a two-time NBA Finals MVP. He’s an elite scorer and playmaker and among the best players of his generation.
The Russell Westbrook-Paul George pairing could have been so much more, perhaps with a third superstar not named Carmelo. Alas, the Oklahoma City Thunder bowed out of the NBA Playoffs early, losing their first-round series 4-2 to the Utah Jazz. George had a strong season for the Thunder, putting up 22 points per game and shooting 40% from three on a team where he wasn’t the featured scorer. But can the Thunder really do much better than a four seed in the West and a quick departure? The 6’8″ swingman could, in theory, choose to stay in OKC. Or he could try a market where he would get paid handsomely, perhaps to play next to LeBron, if the King lands with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Did Chris Paul just miss his best chance at an NBA title? Well, it depends on how much mileage he has left in those legs. The James Harden-Chris Paul tandem looked basically unstoppable last season, as the Rockets piled up 65 wins to easily grab the top seed in the playoffs. And they sure seemed to have the Warriors figured out in the Western Conference Finals, right up until Paul’s untimely hamstring injury. The 33-year-old point guard, with a history of injuries, is still the best passer in the NBA. As an unrestricted free agent, he probably isn’t going to find a better situation than he has in Houston. And both sides know it. So let’s see how negotiations play out.
Paul isn’t he only free agent with a good thing going in Houston. Clint Capela, the Rockets’ 6’10” center, is a restricted free agent, meaning the Rockets can match any offer he receives. Coming off a career year that saw him average 14 points and 11 rebounds per game, while shooting 65% from the field, he’s going to attract some interest. Is Capela worth a max contract? He certainly benefitted from playing alongside Harden and Paul. And would (or could) the Rockets match an offer that big? That remains to be seen too. But Capela is the sort of running, shot-blocking big man that is coveted in today’s NBA.
DeMarcus Cousins is coming off a torn left Achilles, which ended his season and could make him less of a player than he was. Boogie, pre-injury, was a force with the New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings before that. In 48 games last season, the 6’11” 270-pound center averaged 25 points, 13 rebounds and 5+ assists per game, leading all NBA centers in points and assists and coming in third in rebounds. His numbers put him in historically elite company. Despite positive reports on his recovery, teams will want to know that his Achilles has fully healed, which could keep the unrestricted free agent from getting a longterm max deal. He’ll have suitors beyond the Pelicans; the Mavericks and Wizards have both been mentioned. But what are teams willing to commit, and what will they expect?
DeAndre Jordan is certainly on the Mavericks radar as well, not to mention the Milwaukee Bucks’. But what the Clippers’ 6’11” center does in free agency depends on his predicted value in the market. Can he make more than the $24 million the Clippers will pay to protect the rim and catch lobs? That is the question. Jordan is the last remaining member of this former playoff contender trying to stave off a full-on rebuild. And his 12 points and a whopping 15 rebounds per game last season helped keep them mildly competitive last season. With the acquisition of Marcin Gortat, the Clippers seem prepared for Jordan to leave, or to trade him if he stays. It’s up to Jordan to take the first step.
Aaron Gordon is the Orlando Magic’s best player, and whatever moves they make in free agency hinge on what happens with him. The 6’9″ power forward, drafted fourth in 2014, has improved with every year in the league. Once an athletic marvel who could jump out of the building but lacked a real scoring touch, Gordon is now a legitimate offensive threat. Last season he averaged over 17 points per game on 43% shooting (and 34% shooting from three), not to mention eight rebounds. Given that his game is trending upwards, the 22-year-old rising star will attract some interest, perhaps from the Suns or Hawks. But just how much attention? And will the Magic be willing to match any offers directed toward the restricted free agent? They’ve already extended a qualifying offer, so the process is underway.
Julius Randle is finally becoming the player the Los Angeles Lakers drafted him to be. As a power forward and small-ball center who can get up and down the court, he averaged 16 points, on 56% shooting, and eight rebounds, while playing every game of the 2017-18 season. But if LeBron and friends come to town, he’ll be showing off those skills somewhere like Indiana or Dallas. The Lakers have extended the restricted free agent a qualifying offer; he was, after all, a key part of their young core last season and remains a solid backup plan. LeBron will reportedly announce his free agency decision by July 4.
Marcus Smart would like to stay in Boston, and the Celtics would like to keep him. But there are limits, of the salary cap variety. Smart had a key role in the team’s unlikely playoff run last season, playing stellar defense and doing the little things that don’t always show up on the stat sheet. The fans love him, and his teammates respond to him. And while the restricted free agent is a career 36% shooter, he would have a place on a Celtics team that doesn’t need him to score. They almost won the Eastern Conference Finals, and they did it without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, two elite scorers. Smart seems to think his talents are worth somewhere in the $12 to $14 million range. Do the Celtics agree?