NBA free agency doesn’t begin until 6 p.m. ET on June 30, but that isn’t stopping us from taking stock of the league immediately following the Toronto Raptors’ impressive run to the franchise’s first NBA championship.
It’s early, some might say way too early, but our panel (a group of more than 40 reporters, insiders and editors) already is looking ahead to next season and ranking all 30 teams heading into a pivotal offseason.
Note: These rankings are based on which teams voters think belong higher heading into the 2019-20 season, taking into account potential player movement and the draft. Title odds for 2019-20 were provided by Caesars sportsbook. ESPN.com’s Malika Andrews, Kevin Arnovitz, Tim Bontemps, Tim MacMahon, Royce Young and Ohm Youngmisuk contributed the following information.
Ticktock. While the Bucks might check in at No. 1 in our way-too-early list, Milwaukee is on the clock. Roster evaluations began mere days after being eliminated from the Eastern Conference finals by the Raptors. Over the next 2½ months, decisions will be made on the contracts of Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, George Hill and Nikola Mirotic. Re-signing Lopez is a priority, league sources told ESPN. During the first week of June, the team agreed to a contract extension that will keep general manager Jon Horst in Milwaukee for the next three years. Every move Milwaukee makes is done with the ultimate goal of signing All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo to a supermax contract in 2020. — Andrews
The champs at No. 2? Despite their improbable run to a title, the Raptors now face one of the biggest offseason questions in the NBA: Can they retain Kawhi Leonard? If they can, they’ll have a legit shot to repeat. If not? Well, they’ll be shifting into a new era. Toronto has several key players — Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet — who will be on expiring contracts next season, allowing team president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri the flexibility to either let their deals expire and have oodles of cap space next summer or flip them for future assets and speed up a rebuild. How those decisions play out will, of course, be greatly influenced by Leonard’s looming decision, with the general consensus being he will either remain in Toronto or sign with the Clippers next month. Ujiri also will have his own opportunities to consider as the Wizards are preparing a massive offer to him, sources tell ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. — Bontemps
Coming off the smashing success of the 2018-19 season, the Nuggets enter the next phase of a developing contender, and it’s the hardest one: expectations. The Nuggets seemed to come out of nowhere to finish second in the West, but now they’re going to rank high on every preseason list and have the burden of expectations to realize those rankings. They’re still young, and they still have to sort through some significant offseason questions ( Paul Millsap’s future being the main one), but if 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. can get healthy and fulfill some of his own expectations, he might be the biggest addition the Nuggets can make this offseason. — Young
Who knew that the Clippers would be the best team in L.A. last season? After trading their leading scorer and rebounder in Tobias Harris, the Clippers still made the playoffs with a band of gritty role players and young prospects in what could have been Doc Rivers’ best job as coach. Now the Clippers are entering their biggest summer looking to add at least one superstar in free agency with Kawhi Leonard having been linked to the Clippers all season. LA also will be eagerly watching what happens up north with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and their respective injuries. The Clippers could add two max players but would have to trade Danilo Gallinari to do so. The heart of their defense, Patrick Beverley, is a free agent but they have plenty of tough-nosed pieces to surround a star. — Youngmisuk
The Warriors’ season ended in the worst way imaginable with their dynasty literally falling apart. Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL punctuated a painful ending, and Golden State now enters its most uncertain offseason. The devastating injuries to Durant and Thompson potentially have a major impact on free agency. What will Durant do and how will his Achilles injury impact the balance of power in the NBA? If Durant opts out of his contract, will the Warriors commit to a five-year, $221 million deal to keep Durant or does he leave for say the Knicks, Nets or Clippers to the four-year tune of $164 million? Then there’s Thompson, who injured his ACL just weeks before he was set to become one of the most coveted free agents. The Warriors still need to make Thompson, who could re-sign with the Warriors for up to $190 million, a priority on June 30. DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney and Quinn Cook are also among the Warriors’ free agents. Even if the Warriors can keep Durant and Thompson, they will have to somehow fortify the rest of their team with minimum contracts and a late first-round pick. –– Youngmisuk
General manager Daryl Morey is turning over every rock — and probably hurting a few feelings in the process — to try to figure out how to get the Rockets over the huge hump known as the Warriors. Houston will continue to aggressively explore the trade market, but there’s a decent probability that the Rockets’ starting five will remain intact, in which case Morey must make good use of the $5.7 million midlevel exception and minimum deals to build a contender-caliber bench. Owner Tilman Fertitta has committed to use the midlevel after not doing so last summer. — MacMahon
The offseason got off to a tumultuous start with Magic Johnson’s resignation and explanation of his feeling of betrayal by Rob Pelinka. In the Magic aftermath, Pelinka now is in charge with Kurt and Linda Rambis also helping make Lakers decisions with Frank Vogel now the head coach. The offseason objective has been clear — acquire a superstar. Pelinka already is in hot pursuit of Anthony Davis. Armed with a new asset in the fourth overall draft pick to throw into any package that could include young prospects such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, Pelinka is trying his best to secure Davis now even if the All-Star big man’s intentions to sign with the Lakers as a free agent in the summer of 2020 have been made clear. If Davis cannot be acquired via trade this summer, Pelinka will see if he can trade for another All-Star while dangling the potential combination of the lottery pick and a young core player. In free agency, the Lakers have one max spot to find help for LeBron James. Max free agents such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker are on their radar. It remains to be seen how Thompson’s ACL injury impacts free agency and the Lakers’ chances. — Youngmisuk
For the first time in nearly five years, the Thunder enter an offseason without any sweeping superstar questions and no worry of losing a cornerstone. They are stable; they have their core in place. That’s a plus, sure, but in spite of that, the Thunder aren’t riding anything other than profound disappointment into the summer. The Russell Westbrook- Paul George pairing still possesses plenty of promise and potential, and there were moments when they flashed their power. But both George and Westbrook are spending their summers getting healthy, while the front office sorts through the financial burden of a gargantuan luxury tax bill for a roster that has won only four playoff games since 2016. — Young
Brooklyn was already an intriguing team heading into the summer — and that was before the Nets swung a huge deal with the Hawks, sending Atlanta their 2019 first-round pick and a protected 2020 first-round selection to dump Allen Crabbe and create the ability to get two max players in free agency next month. Now there is rampant speculation that Kyrie Irving could be headed to Brooklyn. This is the first time since the franchise moved to Brooklyn that the Nets and Knicks are going toe-to-toe in free agency. Meanwhile, D’Angelo Russell will be one of the more interesting restricted free agents this summer. Russell was an All-Star this season, but he remains a polarizing player. Still, he is a young guard who has shown an ability to shoot from 3-point range and create his own shot. — Bontemps
Opting for continuity a year ago didn’t pay dividends for the Jazz, who won 50 games but were eliminated in the first round, a disappointment after advancing to the West semifinals during each of the previous two postseasons. Utah needs another offensive creator to ease the burden on Donovan Mitchell, which is why point guard Ricky Rubio is unlikely to return. Potential free-agent targets include D’Angelo Russell and Tobias Harris, but Utah would have to decline a $17.7 million option on power forward/center Derrick Favors to have that kind of cap space. The Jazz also could rekindle trade talks for Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley. — MacMahon
The Pacers are determined to be more than a scrappy, resilient, heartwarming story next season. After losing their franchise player, All-Star Victor Oladipo, to a season-ending quad injury in January, Indiana clawed its way to a playoff berth before being swept in the first round by the Celtics. Domantas Sabonis was consistently reliable coming off the bench for the Pacers, earning him a spot as an NBA Most Improved Player Award finalist. Indiana has seven free agents it will need to make decisions on, including Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic. Signing Bogdanovic — who emerged as a key part of the Pacers’ offense — will be a priority for Indiana. They also will seek a wing to replace Tyreke Evans, who was disqualified from the NBA for two years for violating the league’s anti-drug program. Whatever moves it makes, Indiana must keep in mind it might not start the 2019-20 season with Oladipo, as the team still has not provided a timetable for his return. — Andrews
The Spurs just keep on Spurs-ing, and while there are plenty of questions on how they can reclaim space in the upper tier of the West, they remain stable. They dealt with significant injuries last season, but the core of coach Gregg Popovich, big man LaMarcus Aldridge and guard DeMar DeRozan was enough to produce another postseason berth. There’s an obvious need for more talent, but the biggest steps forward are getting Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV healthy and pushing the development of the other young talented players on the team. — Young
No team outside of the Warriors was impacted more by Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles than the Knicks, who saw their dream scenario for 2019-20 scuttled before the offseason even began. Now instead of pairing KD with another star free agent — and then potentially swinging an Anthony Davis trade to create the NBA’s next superteam — the Knicks could choose to play the waiting game. They could still sign Durant, then remain flexible with their cap space while he works his way back for the 2020-21 season. Or, in a scenario that must frighten Knicks fans, New York could miss out on Durant and not trade for Davis, meaning they dealt away former franchise player Kristaps Porzingis to create two max spots to sign two very good — but not great — players. Meanwhile, the Knicks wound up with the No. 3 pick in last month’s NBA draft lottery, probably setting them up to take Duke star RJ Barrett — if they don’t use that pick as the foundation of a Davis deal instead. — Bontemps
Playoff loss after playoff loss, first-year Pistons coach Dwane Casey would climb the step to Detroit’s dais and compliment the Bucks — the Pistons’ first-round playoff opponent — and their depth. Detroit’s lack of depth, Casey said, was what was hurting his team. Ultimately, it was part of what led to the Pistons’ being swept in the first round of the playoffs. This summer, the Pistons’ priority will be to build out their bench on a budget that stays below the luxury tax. — Andrews
The Magic surprised the East last season by cobbling together an elite defense down the stretch to propel themselves into the postseason for the first time in seven seasons. The Magic will improve to the extent that their young talent does — namely Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Markelle Fultz and Mo Bamba. Though there is optimism about the future, planning for it won’t come without some difficult choices. Their All-Star center, Nikola Vucevic, who will turn 29 soon after the new season starts, enters free agency with the expectation of a payday. Should Orlando invest heavily in the frontcourt, where they already have a trove of talent and prospects? Orlando needs to upgrade its backcourt, where D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier and Fultz are on the books. — Arnovitz
For the fifth consecutive season, the Heat finished with between 37 and 48 wins, solidifying themselves as a team with enough organizational competence and stability to be respectable, but not enough talent to truly contend. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of money on the books in Miami without a ton of upside. With their pursuit of Jimmy Butler last season, the Heat are aware they need to add to a young core of Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo. Goran Dragic reportedly told the Heat he will exercise his option on next season and Hassan Whiteside is expected to do the same, an indication that the $46 million they’re collectively owed next season is greater than their market value. Similarly, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters are on the books for another couple of seasons. — Arnovitz
It’s a fresh start for the Wolves with a new front office and Ryan Saunders officially taking over the roster. But there still are plenty of questions ahead — and not a lot of great options to answer them. On the surface, there’s a foundation of youth. But it comes with the complication of Andrew Wiggins’ contract and the relation of his value to it, as well as Karl-Anthony Towns’ supermax that has him tied to the Wolves for the next few years. What will team president Gersson Rosas’ approach be? Will he tweak around his two young foundational pieces or go for a full-on rebranding of the roster? — Young
Winning the lottery — and the right to draft Zion Williamson — essentially assured that the Pelicans would be relevant despite Anthony Davis’ strong desire to be traded. New Orleans already had taken a significant step in the right direction by hiring David Griffin, the architect of Cleveland’s title team, to run the front office. With Williamson and Jrue Holiday in the fold, a return to the playoffs is a reasonable goal if Griffin gets good value in a Davis deal, assuming Griffin is unable to convince the perennial All-Star to have a change of heart. — MacMahon
A cloud of uncertainty and a messy salary spreadsheet make for a foggy future in Charlotte. The most vital decision begins with the free agency of All-Star Kemba Walker. By being named to the All-NBA third team, Walker now is eligible for a five-year, $221 million contract from the Hornets. Yet investing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars into a guard who will turn 34 near the conclusion of the term is fraught with all kinds of risks. Unfortunately, that’s not the only liability for Charlotte on the horizon. The Hornets are locked into Nicolas Batum for another two years and $53 million, with hefty, eight-digit pay stubs next season for Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. Between the cost restraints and Walker’s status, it’s hard for Charlotte to draw up a clear vision. — Arnovitz
It’s time for the Grizzlies to say goodbye to the final piece of the Grit ‘n’ Grind era by trading point guard Mike Conley. Such a deal should give Memphis financial relief and assets (draft picks and/or young players) to aid its rebuilding process. Conley’s replacement will arrive on draft night, assuming that the Grizzlies use the No. 2 overall pick on Ja Morant, a dynamic athlete who can be a franchise pillar for the foreseeable future along with last year’s lottery pick and All-Rookie selection Jaren Jackson Jr. — MacMahon
All of the Cavaliers’ struggles in their first season after LeBron James left for Los Angeles came with a silver lining in a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft. Unfortunately for Cleveland, it ended up with only the No. 5 selection in what’s widely considered a two-player draft. The Cavaliers could return a core of Kevin Love, Cedi Osman, Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. and second-year point guard Collin Sexton, who dramatically improved over the second half of last season to receive second-team All-Rookie honors. They’ll also have a new coach in John Beilein, who bolted from the University of Michigan for one last coaching challenge in his career. GM Koby Altman has proved that he’s almost always willing to make a trade, so don’t be surprised to see JR Smith’s contract moved or another roster reshape in some way before September training camp begins. — Andrews