It’s arguable nothing looms larger over the NBA than free agency, especially in a summer as loaded as 2019.
Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, the collective winners of the past three Finals MVP awards, can both soon hit the open market. So too can Kyrie Irving, who buried the biggest shot of the 2016 championship round, and Kemba Walker, who’s aching for the opportunity to prove he could lead an NBA title charge the same way he sparked UConn’s run to the 2011 national championship.
Given the top-shelf talent available, this could be a transformative offseason for the basketball world at large. We’ll examine three of the top names on the market and predict where they could end up.
The Toronto Raptors knew they’d be fighting an uphill battle to retain Leonard, a Southern California native who’s been more or less linked to Los Angeles ever since his trade request away from the San Antonio Spurs surfaced last June.
Toronto can’t change its location, nor its climate, both of which could be potential deal-breakers for the soft-spoken superstar. The Raptors, though, did help him add to his ring collection, and that should give them some kind of confidence-or, at the very least, comfort-with this situation, even if they can’t control its outcome.
“I think for us, there is nothing more that we can do,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told reporters. “We’ve done it. The city has done it. This franchise [has] done it. … The best way to recruit somebody is to just be yourself over the course of the year, and I would assume that he knows what is here and what makes this place special.”
Leonard’s situation is hard to read, thanks in no small part to the fact he is. External speculation can’t account for the internal desires that will ultimately shape his decision.
If the 27-year-old wants to head home, he can go to the Clippers (perhaps with a handpicked second max player) or join LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the new-look Lakers. If he wants to stay put, he could perhaps help Toronto take control of the Eastern Conference.
Prediction: Leonard signs a short-term deal to stay in Toronto. Kyrie Irving
It all seemed so simple in October, didn’t it? The Boston Celtics were favored to win the East, and Irving was ready to publicly pledge his allegiance to the franchise.
October must feel like a lifetime ago for the Shamrocks and their free-agent floor general.
Despite being healthier and deeper on paper, Boston won its fewest games in three seasons and had its shortest playoff run of that stretch. Irving struggled with leadership duties, and his game abandoned him at the worst possible time. The Celtics suffered four consecutive losses in the second round, and Uncle Drew was at the center of it with woeful shooting rates from the field (30.1 percent) and three (18.5).
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Divorce has since seemed the logical step, and that continues to be the case. The Celtics are “almost [at] the point of resignation” with Irving’s exit, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said (via NBC Sports Boston). Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe reported the 27-year-old “has essentially ghosted” the Celtics, as people within the team said they’ve had “little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.”
While Irving has been linked to both the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, the Lakers likely rejoined the fray with the Davis deal. Irving has reportedly wanted to join forces with Davis “for months,” per The Athletic’s David Aldridge, and don’t forget, Irving and James made peace earlier this year.
Prediction: Irving joins the Lakers on a near-max contract. Kemba Walker
The Charlotte Hornets are the only NBA franchise Walker has known, and he’s become the player most synonymous with this franchise, which he leads in career minutes, points and win shares.
Not surprisingly, neither side seems especially interested in a split.
The 29-year-old has made no bones about his adoration for Buzz City. In September, he told reporters he didn’t “want to be nowhere else.” Fast-forward to now, and he’s still calling Charlotte his “first priority,” per The Athletic’s Jared Weiss.
More importantly, Walker has said he would take less than the five-year, $221 million supermax to help the Hornets build a better supporting cast around him. Considering Charlotte has already prioritized him, his willingness to leave something on the table could make this a no-brainer.
Prediction: Walker re-signs with Charlotte for a little less than the supermax.