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NBA free agency preview: Big money, big drama, big markets

Kyrie Irving has a decision to make Wednesday when he can either opt in or decline his player option. (John Minchillo/AP)
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Kyrie Irving will pick up his $36.5 million player option with the Brooklyn Nets for the 2022-23 season rather than test the market as an unrestricted free agent, a person with knowledge of the decision confirmed Monday night.

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

This year’s NBA draft was a small-market affair: Once the dust settled on trades, only two of the 14 lottery picks — the Houston Rockets’ Jabari Smith Jr. and the Washington Wizards’ Johnny Davis — landed in the league’s top 10 television markets. By contrast, the upcoming free agency period, which officially opens Thursday at 6 p.m. Eastern time, will be dominated by big-market intrigue.

The drama begins in New York, where the Brooklyn Nets need to sort through complex negotiations with Kyrie Irving at the risk of upsetting Kevin Durant, and the Knicks appear to have cap space burning a hole in their pockets. Meanwhile, all-star guards James Harden (Philadelphia 76ers), Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls) and Bradley Beal (Wizards) are due lucrative new deals.

Out west, the Golden State Warriors will incur another massive luxury tax bill as they try to keep together their title-winning roster, while the Dallas Mavericks, their Western Conference finals opponent, will be fending off interested suitors for breakout guard Jalen Brunson. In Los Angeles, the Lakers are desperate for a reset after a humiliating 33-win season, and the deep-pocketed Clippers are bound to be aggressive with Kawhi Leonard finally set to return from a knee injury this fall.

Keep in mind: Cap space is tight around the league and the pool of unrestricted free agents is light on superstars, so pulling off a major shake-up will require some serious front-office creativity. Before the rumors heat up this week, here’s what is at stake for five of the NBA’s heaviest hitters:

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Brooklyn Nets: A disastrous first-round exit following months of uncertainty around Irving has placed the Nets on center stage. The 30-year-old guard made it sound in April as though his return would be a formality, but a different picture has emerged in recent weeks.

Irving is accustomed to receiving as much money as his teams are legally allowed to pay him, and he’s eligible for a five-year contract worth nearly $250 million. Understandably, Brooklyn’s ownership and front office are hesitant to make such a long-term commitment given Irving’s injury history, spotty availability and vaccine-related absences. Last week, reports emerged that Irving was weighing his alternatives, including the Lakers, but he will probably find that he’s not as coveted by other contenders as he might think.

The Nets face the most pressure of any team in the league: If they can’t reach a deal with Irving, Durant would be left with a shell of the aspiring superteam he thought he had formed last year with Harden and Irving. Would such a sharp change in fortune lead Durant to request a trade?

On top of those fundamental challenges, the Nets have a ton of notable contributors who can hit free agency, including Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, Goran Dragic, Nic Claxton and veteran big men Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. Even if Irving and Durant recommit, Brooklyn is going to have its hands full filling out a roster capable of contending.

New York Knicks: It doesn’t exactly take a code breaker to decipher New York’s intentions. Knicks executives showed up courtside at Mavericks playoff games in April and then hired Brunson’s father, Rick, as an assistant coach in early June. During the draft, New York traded its lottery pick and dumped Kemba Walker’s salary in a trade to increase its spending power in pursuit of the Dallas guard and other targets.

Brunson, 25, would plug in nicely as New York’s starting point guard, and he is coming off a career season in which he averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists. Yet Brunson’s strong showing in the playoffs — he averaged 21.6 points and poured in 41 during a first-round win over the Utah Jazz — will make Dallas highly motivated to keep him. How high, exactly, are the Knicks willing to go to get their man?

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Los Angeles Lakers: Russell Westbrook proved to be an awful fit during his first season with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, yet the Lakers have given every indication they expect him back for the final year of a contract that will pay him $47.1 million. First-time head coach Darvin Ham, who was hired in May, went so far as to call Westbrook “one of the best players our league has ever seen,” adding that the 33-year-old guard “still has a ton left in the tank.”

Regardless, the Lakers must seriously explore all options to trade Westbrook, who posted a career-low Player Efficiency Rating last season. If they can’t find a suitable deal, the Lakers will find themselves with a top-heavy cap sheet and huge holes at the wing positions. Cycling through veteran-minimum stopgaps didn’t work last season, and they are bound to be a less desirable destination for free agents after cratering to 11th in the West.

It’s also worth noting that James, 37, is eligible for an extension this summer. In February, the four-time MVP flirted with the possibility of returning to Cleveland and teaming up with his teenage son, Bronny, down the road. Whether James agrees to the two-year, nearly $100 million extension will shed significant light on whether he plans to retire with the Lakers or seek greener pastures in July 2023.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Warriors hadn’t even held their championship parade before the Clippers emerged as a popular pick to unseat them in 2022-23. On paper, there’s a lot to like with a veteran roster headlined by Leonard and Paul George plus a supporting cast loaded with shooters and switchable defenders. The Boston Celtics’ wings and frontcourt athletes gave the Warriors trouble in the NBA Finals, and the Clippers, if healthy, would present similar challenges.

Importantly, Steve Ballmer is the rare owner willing to try to keep up with the Warriors in a spending arms race. The billionaire former Microsoft executive took on major salary at the trade deadline, and he will surely be eager to retain forward Nicolas Batum, the Clippers’ top free agent. Another intriguing option is John Wall, who was shut down by the Rockets last season but could reach a buyout agreement on an expiring contract that will pay him $47.4 million. If Houston finally cuts Wall free, he would have the chance to chase a title and play real minutes in the Clippers’ backcourt.

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Golden State Warriors: Shortly after winning his fourth title in eight years, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr told a San Francisco radio station that he thought Golden State would “be even better next year.” That’s not exactly a hot take: Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson barely played together during the 2021-22 regular season; 2020 No. 2 pick James Wiseman never saw the court because of his lengthy injury rehabilitation; and promising rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody will have another season to mature.

Before the Warriors can repeat as champions, though, they will need to sort through a long list of free agents, including starting center Kevon Looney, backcourt defensive specialist Gary Payton II and veteran wings Otto Porter Jr. and Andre Iguodala. Looney, 26, should be the highest priority; his interior defense and rebounding proved vital throughout their title run.

To keep the band together, Golden State could wind up exceeding $425 million in payroll, luxury taxes and repeater taxes in 2022-23, according to a estimate. To put that unprecedented level of spending into context, the NBA’s salary cap was $112.4 million last season. There’s no need to shed tears for owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber — Forbes pegged the Warriors’ franchise value at $5.6 billion in October, the second highest in the NBA behind that of the Knicks.