Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and the NBA’s top 50 free agents
Free agency in the NBA technically begins on June 30, though preparations for this summer have been in the works for years. Teams have carefully analyzed their finances and scouted personnel throughout the league with specific goals in mind—all while knowing their best-laid plans could be detonated with a single, market-shaking deal. All it takes is one bloated contract to rock their projections off balance.
This is why the NBA offseason—far from any court or camera—has become the greatest show in sports. Before the league’s teams ever have a chance to test one another, they’re each tested by the unpredictability of the marketplace.
To set the stage, we’ve ranked the top 50 free agents available (or potentially available, in some option cases) this summer. Considerations for the ranking include: Recent performance, expected contract value, age, developmental trajectory, variety of potential fits, versatility, chemistry with previous teammates, relationships with coaches, role in the modern NBA, and more.
1. Kawhi Leonard
The allure of defending a title has never seen a more compelling NBA test case. There’s nothing explicitly keeping Leonard in Toronto, save for what he helped build: a stout championship team with a chance to repeat. From an organizational perspective, the Raptors have done just about everything possible to prove themslves worthy of Leonard’s talents. All that’s left to decide is what Leonard—one of the most inscrutable players in the league—really wants.
2. Kevin Durant (Player Option)
One of the premier players—and free agents—in the league rupturing his Achilles tendon has changed both everything and nothing. Most of the teams eager to be in the Kevin Durant business will likely still give him the max, if allowed. They simply won’t be getting the kind of basketball return they expected for a year or more. It takes a certain kind of team to table the return on a max-level free agent, but Durant is legitimately too good to pass up for any team with the room and need to sign him.
3. Kyrie Irving
Nine months after pledging his return to the Celtics, Irving will explore the open market. The only apparent guarantee is that he won’t be back; any number of destinations could entice Irving, and a scorer of his caliber will be in line for max money—even after all he said and did to unsettle the locker room in Boston.
4. Jimmy Butler
Between the lines, Butler is an incredible player. Outside them, he tends to complicate things. Butler set the tone for the young Timberwolves, up until that tone turned combative. His tenure in Philadelphia has been far less turbulent, though now the Sixers are faced with a big decision regarding Butler’s future: are they prepared to offer a huge, five-year deal to a 29-year-old star who already misses 15-20 games annually due to injury? And if they do, what are the chances Butler sours on Philly the way he did Chicago and Minnesota?
5. Kemba Walker
Walker deserves better than what Charlotte has given him: two playoff appearances in eight years, neither with much of a chance of advancing beyond the first round. The biggest differences between Walker and a player like Irving come down to context. When Irving was playing with LeBron James, Walker was running with Al Jefferson. While Irving rolled with a loaded Celtics team, Walker’s best help came from the likes of Nicolas Batum. If Walker wants to sign the supermax to remain a Hornet, more power to him. Should he look for a change instead, there would be no fault in the choice.
6. Klay Thompson
A torn ACL is a serious injury, though not so serious as to put Thompson’s future in doubt. Signing him—or re-signing him, in the Warriors’ case—simply means eating most of the first season in salary while he works his way back. Consider it an investment. It’s easy to trust that Thompson will return as soon as he’s able, considering the way he fought to get back on the floor in the NBA Finals. Once back, his defense can stabilize a team and his shooting can transform its offense.
7. Khris Middleton
Any team could use a player like Middleton, a sure sign that he’s due for a handsome new deal. Middleton will almost certainly be offered the max, perhaps by the Bucks—a 60-win team with no real means to replace him. Of interest is which of the max and near-max offers he finds most appealing. Middleton has a good thing going in Milwaukee, but what if he prefers a different role or a different market? What if six years in a place is enough to move on? Free agency is nothing if not revelatory, and with the biggest payday of his career in the cards, we’re about to learn something meaningful about Middleton.
8. Al Horford
A somewhat surprising entry into the market at large. While some in the league theorized that Horford might decline his $30.1 million player option for next season, it came under the assumption that he would re-up with the Celtics on a multi-year deal. Perhaps he still could. Yet at the moment, the general tone of the reporting around Horford suggests rather strongly that he could be in line for a lucrative, four-year deal to play elsewhere.
9. DeMarcus Cousins
Every NBA contract is, on some level, guesswork. No one can know with absolute certainty what a player might look like on a different team, or without the incentive of a new contract, or some three years in the future. It’s all a team can do to make an assumption and hope for the best. Cousins is more challenging than most, given that his gap year with the Warriors was atypical of his career in so many ways. We know what Cousins looks like when working his way back from two significant injuries for a team where he is, ostensibly, the fourth or fifth option. What about in the starring role he’ll pursue this summer? And at what figure would a new contract feel comfortable?
10. Kristaps Porzingis (Restricted)
This could be the most injury-ridden free agent class to date, both in the medical histories of the players involved and the recency of their ailments. Porzingis is a prime example: a star by ability who hasn’t yet played a full and healthy season in his career. The last time we saw Porzingis play in an NBA game was February 6, 2018. One can still expect Dallas to sign him to a rich, long-term deal due to the circumstances that brought him to the team, though Porzingis might not have been available to the Mavs in the first place if not for his health.
11. Paul Millsap (Team option)
There is still some question as to whether Millsap will actually be a free agent this summer at all, given that the Nuggets hold the power to either accept or decline his $30.4 million option for next season. Should they decline it, that would likely signal Millsap’s return to Denver on some other arrangement. The Nuggets are too good a team to step back with the West wide open, and Millsap is too central to their success (and too difficult to replace given their cap situation) to willingly lose outright.
12. D’Angelo Russell (Restricted)
There is a certain tug between Russell’s free agency and Irving’s, given the overlap in where either could sign. Irving signing with Brooklyn would surely mark the end of Russell’s time there. Russell returning to the Lakers could mean that Irving was either out of their price range or less than eager to reunite with LeBron James. The two guards might not share every potential landing spot, but there’s enough commonality to see the decision of one in terms of what it might say about the other.
13. Tobias Harris
It cost Philadelphia Landry Shamet, a pair of first-round picks, and a cast of role players to land Harris at the trade deadline, knowing that he would be due for a new contract in a matter of months. On some level, the Sixers must have been prepared to pay Harris what he would be worth at the moment they made that deal. In reality, they now face the proposition of paying all three of Harris, Butler, and JJ Redick what the market demands—all for the sake of keeping the core of the team intact. Worthy an endeavor as that is, it would cost enough to make the Sixers think twice.
14. Nikola Vucevic
A career year from Vucevic was thrown into stark relief come playoff time. Vucevic is, inarguably, a player who can produce enough to help carry a team to competence through a long regular season. What he’s not is a centerpiece. Every player has his limitations, and Vucevic ran into his in a playoff collision with Marc Gasol—a defender big and savvy enough to neutralize even the best aspects of Vucevic’s game. In the right scenario, Vucevic could take a competitive team up a tier. But if made to do too much, there’s really only so far a Vucevic-led team could plausibly go.
15. Marc Gasol (Player option)
It takes a certain kind of big to hang with the the Warriors, split cuts and all. Gasol proved up to the challenge, holding his own through a variety of adaptive coverages. At this point, you don’t lean on Gasol to be a big-time scorer, or even to anchor a team defense as he once did. You rely on him to facilitate: to ease the burden on the team’s best shot creators and to smooth over any gaps in the scheme. Some part of a player’s value will always come to back to whether he can be trusted to make good decisions. That’s never really in question with Gasol, which is at least part of the reason the Raptors are now NBA champions.
16. Malcolm Brogdon (Restricted)
Brogdon, 26, makes sense for young teams and older ones; for those in need of a point guard or a shooting guard; for lineups already featuring a single, dynamic player or badly in need of one. The trick will be prying him away from Milwaukee, which will have the right to match any offer sheet that Brogdon signs. There could be scenarios in which the Bucks let him walk (in part due to the overlapping free agency of Middleton and Brook Lopez, among others), though not without the kind of overwhelming offer that cracking restricted free agency typically demands.
17. Bojan Bogdanović
A prolific, unheralded scorer who kept the Pacers afloat when they frankly didn’t have the firepower to sustain an NBA-level offense. Imagine the good Bogdanović might do in a more comfortable role: balancing the floor for a star rather than pretend at being one. Perimeter shooting is the resource by which every offense lives and dies. Bogdanović’s game starts there but drills deeper: working on the move to strain defenses in all directions, and cutting intuitively when opponents dare to react. For as much as Indy needs Bogdanović, they won’t be alone in pursuing him.
18. Harrison Barnes
Barnes declined a $25.1 million player option for next season to join this year’s free agent pool, likely a wise decision considering how much cap space is floating around. Once the higher-end forwards make their commitments, the market will swing to Barnes as an alternative: a big, strong bodied defender with the instincts to score at a few different levels. Not quite dynamic or efficient enough to lead a team of his own, but more than capable of contributing to one.
19. Brook Lopez
For Milwaukee, the only conceivable downside of the one-year, $3.4 million contract given to Lopez last season was that they would soon have to re-sign him without the benefit of his Bird rights. That particular mechanism offer the means for established teams to keep tenured talent by paying them in excess of the salary cap. Lopez wasn’t in Milwaukee long enough to qualify, meaning the Bucks will have to get creative to keep him or risk seeing their game-changing stretch five ply his trade elsewhere.
20. JJ Redick
One of the best shooters in the league is back on the market, newly turned 35 years old. If the Sixers balk at the growing cost of their roster, it seems likely that Redick could be the casualty. One could argue that no single player has been more influential to the way Philadelphia runs its offense. Yet there comes a time for every burgeoning team to lean into those processes built to last, and a shooter of Redick’s age can only sprint the floor so hard for so long. In an ideal scenario, the Sixers would bring everyone back, giving this roster time to develop after being cobbled together in-season. Realistically, something probably has to give—even if it’s one of the most important players on the team.
21. Thaddeus Young
Indiana’s decision to trade for T.J. Warren likely spelled the end of Young’s three-year stint in a Pacer uniform. It was an odd choice in the sense that it was purely stylistic; in no universe is Warren a better player than Young, and yet Indiana’s need to diversify its offense superseded that fact. Their loss will be another team’s gain. Young was a contender for the All-Defense teams last season—stifling in Indy’s conservative style of coverage, but easily adaptable to others.
22. DeAndre Jordan
The NBA in 2019 isn’t exactly a center’s league, particularly when the centers in question are limited to scoring in dunks and aren’t all that interested in playing reliable defense. At this point in his career, Jordan is a rebounder first, a lob threat second, and a rim protector a distant third. He didn’t much care to be in the right places defensively for either the Mavericks or Knicks, though perhaps that could change if he were to join a playoff-ready team vying for something more.
23. Al-Farouq Aminu
There’s no way around the fact that playoff opponents will leave Aminu to prioritize greater scoring threats. But you don’t pay Aminu to punish the defense—you pay him to bring it. You invest in his length, and all its applications. You invest in a keen sense of where to be on the floor, giving cover to his teammates. You invest in a defender who can put schemes into practice, and you hope to carve out enough offense in the process.
24. Ricky Rubio
The past two seasons in Salt Lake City were the closest that Rubio has ever had to finding a real NBA home. Then, in the week leading up to the draft, the Jazz swung big with a trade for Mike Conley—one that ejected any realistic hope Rubio may have held for a return. The story in finding his new team is the same as it ever was: Rubio badly needs help in managing his deficits as a scorer. If he can find it, the rest of Rubio’s game—headlined by creative playmaking and pesky defense—will buoy a team across the board.
25. Patrick Beverley
Beverley has long been a choice counterpart for high-usage wing players, capable of handling the ball in spots without dominating it. An offense that needs Beverley to wait on the wings can bank on his three-point shooting: 39.4% over the past four years. One that needs flashes of creation, as the Clippers did, can find it through hard drives and heady passing. The primary appeal with Beverley will always be the way he digs in on defense. What really makes his game work, however, is that he knows when to involve himself and when to get out of the way.
26. Jonas Valančiūnas
The market on Valančiūnas has always seemed a bit muted, though he may have found a match in the rebooting Grizzlies. According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the primary reason Valančiūnas declined his $17.6 million player option for next season was to work out a new, multi-year deal with Memphis. It didn’t really make sense for the Grizzlies to negotiate an extension under the terms of Valančiūnas’ previous deal, but a longer contract at a smaller number could make sense for all involved.
27. Julius Randle
By the numbers, Randle—who averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game last season – was a star hiding in plain sight. By his impact, the picture of his game is more complicated; there are costs to much of what Randle brings to the table, which hollows out his numbers a bit in the process. This isn’t to say that Randle is an empty contributor. Only that he’s more complicated (and often less helpful) than his stat line would suggest.
28. Marcus Morris
Morris was one of the best Celtics in uniform for a few months running, when his highest profile coincided with the hottest stretch of his career. Reality has since taken its toll; it appears that Morris may not be a star after all. Even after falling back to earth, Morris has a lot to offer: physical defense, positional versatility, solid outside shooting, and enough to work with off the dribble to keep defenses honest. Morris doesn’t really hurt his team in any particular way, a rarer quality among wings than one might think.
29. Robin Lopez
Electiing to scale back Lopez’s role last season said more about the Bulls than their 31-year-old center. The Bulls didn’t have much to gain from relying on Lopez until injuries all but required it. This summer, Lopez will have the freedom to find a team more aligned to his circumstances. The appeal isn’t big production or big minutes, but in small things. Lopez makes a living off of setting screens and boxing out, by grabbing offensive boards and warding off drives to the rim. It isn’t glamorous work, but damn if it doesn’t help.
30. Terrence Ross
Ross, long so streaky as to be unreliable, came into his own as a reserve scorer for the Magic last season. The best parts of his game felt more accessible than ever, and the flurries of points more timely. There’s no better time for Ross to hit free agency; gutsy, skilled bench players never seem to go out of style, particularly when they have game enough to take over an offense for minutes at a time.
31. Nikola Mirotić
A game-changing stretch four on his best days, and a non-factor on his worst. Mirotić is too inconsistent to really change a team’s fortunes, but talented enough to punch up a weak spot in a starting lineup or a second unit in need of spacing. A team that understands what it’s getting with Mirotić—and what it’s not—can plan accordingly in a way that works best for all involved.
32. Danny Green
The 2019 playoffs were the full Danny Green experience: huge shots and stops, a dry spell that nearly turned the Raptors’ home crowd against him, sustained execution against high-level opponents, and a blunder that nearly cost Toronto a game in the NBA Finals. There are times when Green can seem woefully limited (as against defenses that run him off the three-point line and force him to dribble), but he has a way of winning back points you wouldn’t expect. It could be a chasedown block, a desperation three late in the clock, or a blind-side steal to get his team out on the break. Teams that stick with Green, like the Raptors did, can find themselves rewarded in the end.
33. Trevor Ariza
This was an odd year for Ariza, who left the Rockets to play for two of the worst teams in the league. It turns out his hyper-specific game isn’t suited for the flailing of lotter teams. Having a decent shooter in the corner and a responsible team defender involved can always do some good, though teams at that level can’t get the same value out of Ariza that Houston did. His game won’t make sense for just any team. But for those with stars and playmaking mechanisms in place, Ariza is still a worthwhile contributor for a long playoff run.
34. Derrick Rose
Can a career 29.6% three-point shooter, without the slightest warning, make the jump to 37% Rose’s future role in the league may depend on the answer. It’s one thing to dominate the ball against second-unit defenses and put up points in the process. It’s quite another to space the floor well enough to be a legitimate combo guard, expanding a team’s lineup options in the process.
35. Kevon Looney
During the Western Conference finals, Warriors coach Steve Kerr referred to Looney as a “foundational piece.” Along the way, Andre Iguodala openly campaigned for Looney to get top dollar this summer. Golden State has made its negotiating position clear, but Looney—only an unrestricted free agent due to the way the Warriors handled his option for the 2018-19 season—will have final say over his future.
36. Dewayne Dedmon
There is an extremely small intersection of centers who can both space the floor and defend the rim. Brook Lopez is the most extreme example: a seven-footer who made himself into a genuine gunner beyond the arc. Dedmon is the more prosaic variety, though useful all the same. Any seven-footer who can space the floor to the corners can help an offense thrive, and one with Dedmon’s instincts on defense can carve out a nice—if subtle—two-way impact.
37. Bobby Portis (Restricted)
There’s a whole lot of energy to Portis’ game, but not much discipline. That’s great for putting up numbers on a Washington team no opponent takes seriously, though less useful when it comes to playing winning basketball. Portis is still working out the kinks. A lot of young players—and young bigs in particular—go through this same progression. The next step is often the most challenging: reining in one’s most counterproductive impulses without undermining what makes them effective in the first place.
38. Rajon Rondo
Rondo still can’t really shoot and still doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to play defense so much as make big defensive plays. If a team can survive those quirks in the year 2019, then Rondo could be an impact player. If not, he’ll continue to reward cutters with ingenious passes, read what set an opponent is running before busting it open, and then quietly cede points along the way.
39. Seth Curry
Depending on the particulars of what his team needs, Curry could spend his time sprinting through curls, running high-pick-and-roll, or waiting in the corners—hitting threes, in any event, at an elite level. This is a rare gift, though clearly it runs in the family. A shooter can exert a certain influence on a game by stretching the floor in a certain, specialized way. It’s marksmen like Curry, however, that allow their teams to adapt on the fly as needed. It’s tricky to find a starting role for Curry given his size and lack of playmaking vision, but any team that makes room for him will find their offense all the more flexible for it.
40. JaMychal Green
Rather quietly, Green has added enough stretch to his game to make him a player of interest. A quality rebounder and defender with the ability to clear the lane is an assest, particularly when they’re quick enough on their feet to live in both worlds. If a defender doesn’t put a body on Green, he might charge the lane for an offensive board or cut down the lane for a dunk. Green won’t solve all a team’s problems, but he’s switchable on defense, stable on offense, and holds his own. That’s good enough.
41. Taj Gibson
Stout, smart, and ever reliable. Gibson has been one of the better players going over these past two seasons in Minnesota, though now the team finds itself at a crossroads with regard to his future. When the Wolves traded Jimmy Butler for a return package headlined by Robert Covington and Dario Saric, it seemed the goal was to install Saric as a long-term option next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Instead, Saric was traded away on draft night so that Minnesota could move up to the No. 6 pick. There’s room to bring Gibson back. It remains to be seen if there’s enough interest on both sides.
42. Willie Cauley-Stein (Restricted)
In advance of free agency, Cauley-Stein’s agent, Roger Montgomery, has openly campaigned for the Kings to let his client walk. “I’m hopeful they will not even give Willie his qualifying offer so Willie can be an unrestricted free agent,” Montgomery told the Sacramento Bee. Months prior, Cauley-Stein himself complained about the restrictions of his role and expressed a want to do more. Whether he really could—or should—is up for debate. What’s not is who holds the power to decide; unfortunately for Cauley-Stein, the only way for him to assume that kind of role is if the Kings allow it.
43. Garrett Temple
Sometimes it’s enough to be a fine team player. Nothing about Temple’s game is spectacular—even his defense, the ostensible calling card of his game, isn’t quite up to All-NBA standards. He just plays with enough intelligence and effort to make a difference. It could come by hounding an opposing superstar or finding ways to salvage dragging possessions. Temple can handle and pass and shoot a little, he can play across multiple positions, and he competes. There’s a lot to like about the effect he has on a game, even if it isn’t always obvious.
44. Rudy Gay
In the modern NBA, Gay just makes far more sense as a quick-footed power forward than a ho-hum small forward. Credit Gregg Popovich for leaning the idea, and Gay for reinventing himself admirably during his two years in San Antonio. Gay is stil a bucket-getter at heart, though the means through which he gets those buckets has evolved over the years. This version lets the ball come to him a bit more than he used to, even if that just means better planning and timing for an isolation.
45. Jabari Parker
As refreshing as it is for a player to openly admit disinterest in playing defense, Parker’s candor doesn’t make his limitations any less real. The former No. 2 overall pick has never scored quite so effectively as he did in 25 games for Washington last season. Still, Parker isn’t the kind of scorer who can carry an offense and doesn’t seem too keen on doing anything else. There’s always room in the league for professional scorers. Parker just needs a role tailored to accommodate him, with expectations set accordingly.
46. Terry Rozier (Restricted)
Rozier isn’t likely as good as his 2018 playoff run would suggest nor as limited as his follow-up season showed. At question is whether Rozier himself knows this; the 25-year-old guard has been straightforward about his pursuit of a starting spot, though his offense doesn’t exactly justify it. His defense might, though only under carefully tailored circumstances and with a franchise willing to practice patience as the rest of his game comes along.
47. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
At this point, Caldwell-Pope may be best known for being in the right place with the right agent at the right time. Good fortune aside, he’s a solid enough wing player entering the prime of his career. Caldwell-Pope isn’t quite as consistent a shooter as his teams would like, but he tends to hover around league-average from beyond the arc and can do a bit more with the ball than typical 3-and-D types. Considering how competitive the market will be for shooters this summer, you could do a lot worse.
48. JaVale McGee
So often the idea of JaVale McGee exceeds the reality, though credit where credit is due: the 31-year-old center gave the Lakers decent, extended minutes last season. Whether that was enough to get him out of the veteran-minimum marketplace remains to be seen.
49. Ed Davis
By trade, Davis is a rebounder and defender—one who happens to score almost incidentally. There’s not a lot of money in it, by NBA standards, though Davis has carved out a nice career for himself on hustle alone. Teammates adore him. Coaches respect him. There’s nothing especially modern about Davis or his basketball sensibilities, but a physical backup five is an enduring commodity.
50. Maxi Kleber (Restricted)
A fledgling three-and-D big who came into his own for the Mavericks last season. It’s hard to peg Kleber as a player, considering that he’s entering his third NBA season but already 27 years old. Improvement from this point will likely be incremental. But Kleber is already the kind of big who can stabilize a defense in rotation, swatting enough shots to make opponents reconsider their drives.
Article written by Rob Mahoney #SportsIllustrated