Even before Durant’s injury, there were good reasons to expect fireworks. More than a dozen current and former all-stars are hitting the market, including Durant, Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving and Philadelphia 76ers wing Jimmy Butler. A handful of teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, have spent months positioning themselves as superstar landing pads.
That basic framework of supply and demand makes for a good starting point, but other market factors should heighten anticipation for the weeks to come. The NBA’s salary cap is projected to rise to $109 million in 2019-20, up from $101.9 million this past season. What’s more, the cap space logjam that formed during the infamous leaguewide spending spree of 2016 is finally beginning to clear. Free agency suitors will combine to possess more than $470 million worth of cap space, according to a Yahoo Sports projection, which is more than double last year’s mark.
While NBA executives never lack for excuses to spend, there are key timing elements that encourage bold action this summer. For one, the 2020 class of free agents is short on big fish. Anthony Davis is set to be the headliner, but he appears to have found a long-term home after being traded to the Lakers this month. Golden State forward Draymond Green is a proven winner, but he isn’t a traditional franchise centerpiece. Complicating matters: Many of next summer’s top talents, including Ben Simmons and Jamal Murray, might never hit the market because they are restricted free agents.
If 2020′s relative lack of talent prompted many teams to focus their efforts on this summer, Durant’s injury opened the floodgates. For multiple seasons, many teams decided to wait out the Warriors’ run rather than spend, while others constructed rosters that mimicked their approach or aimed to exploit their few weaknesses. Golden State’s influence on the competition already was set to fundamentally change if Durant left in free agency, and it dissolved when he was lost for the entire 2019-20 season. Suddenly, as many as 10 teams reasonably could imagine themselves as 2020 champions.
The Lakers are the purest representation of these developments. Within days of the Finals’ conclusion, they had traded a king’s random to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. Then they looped the Washington Wizards into the deal on Thursday to open enough cap space to add a third max-level star alongside LeBron James and Davis. Sensing a title window and hoping to make the most of James’s late prime, Los Angeles mortgaged its future by trading numerous young players and draft picks.
If the Lakers land Leonard or Irving with their newfound cap space, they will be installed by oddsmakers as the early title favorites. If they “settle” for Butler or Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell, they will still be viewed as a top contender. Not bad for an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs in six years and parted ways with its president and coach in April.
Los Angeles’s move for Davis was hardly the only preemptive strike meant to aid free agency efforts. The Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis before the deadline to clear the deck for Durant and another star. The Nets dumped Allen Crabbe’s contract on the Atlanta Hawks this summer to open two max-salary slots in hopes of pairing Irving and Durant for future title chases. And the Clippers moved Blake Griffin in 2018 and Tobias Harris in February to maximize their chances of landing Leonard and a second star.
The result? An array of potential title-worthy cores that makes the NBA feel like fantasy basketball.
With Leonard and Davis, James’s Lakers could form the most talented “Big Three” of his career. Or James and Irving could host a Cleveland Cavaliers reunion, inviting Davis along as a supercharged version of Kevin Love. Or Butler could serve as the Lakers’ lead perimeter defender, saving James from the toughest assignments while settling into a tertiary offensive role similar to the one he occupied with the 76ers.
The list goes on from there. Leonard and Butler could transform the Clippers from scrappy underdogs into West favorites, thereby taking the crosstown rivalry with the Lakers to new heights. Or Durant and Irving could emerge as a bucket-getting dream duo in Brooklyn. Or Durant could settle in with the Knicks during a rehab year and then launch a new round of recruiting in 2020. Or Leonard could run it back with the Raptors after winning the title, thereby leaving the top of the West in a mushy parity.
Each of those scenarios is a distinct possibility that requires little more than the stars’ assent.
Remarkably, the trickle-down effects have already started to manifest. If Irving leaves the Celtics as expected, Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker is reportedly prepared to fill his shoes. If Irving chooses the Nets, Russell will need to find a new home and could consider a return to the Lakers. If Durant and the other top stars spurn the Knicks, James Dolan and company would be left to sift through backup plans and face immense second-guessing of their Porzingis trade. And if the Clippers strike out on their A-list targets after a year of methodical planning, their pain would be doubled by the Lakers’ splashy Davis addition.
Soon, these theoretical combinations and permutations will give way to contract agreements, and eventually a clear 2020 title picture will take shape. Durant won’t be included, at least for the time being, but his fingerprints will be all over it.