10 best NBA free agents who might actually change teams

By David Kenyon

The NBA offseason is typically an exciting time. Big names hit the market, rumors swirl and fans of several rebuilding teams dream about landing a superstar. But some of those marquee players aren’t realistically available.

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant and Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul, for example, aren’t leaving their current franchise. Yes, they’ll technically be free agents, but it would take a dramatic heel-turn for them to bolt.

Instead, we’ve focused on identifying the highest-caliber players who could be free agents in July and have reason to seriously consider a new NBA home.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

What is Isaiah Thomas? Is he a former scoring champion who can’t be the foundation of a title-contending team? Or is he someone who can carry a franchise? Since that predicament has no clear answer, Thomas’ valuations will likely be all over the map. He posted a 109.8 offensive rating with the Lakers in limited minutes, per NBA.com, so there’s evidence to suggest at least one franchise will heavily pursue Thomas. Perhaps that’s not enough for the massive contract he seeks, but Thomas should have several opportunities to leave Los Angeles.

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

It’s a rough year for Jusuf Nurkic to hit restricted free agency. Not only are most teams strapped for cash, the need for traditional big men is sinking to an all-time low. That’s not a conducive blend of factors to someone who averaged 14.3 points and 9.0 rebounds while attempting only seven three-pointers all season. Questions about whether he gives consistent effort are an issue, too. Yet at his best, Nurkic is an efficient scorer, physical rebounder and decent defender. Though the Blazers are positioned well to retain him, there could be an offer sheet too large for them to overlook the concerns.

Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee can hope Jabari Parker fulfills his potential, but hope is not a winning strategy. During the postseason, per NBA.com, the Bucks managed a 100.6 offensive rating in his minutes compared to a 114.9 mark when Parker hit the bench. Maybe that’s an outlier. But Milwaukee needs to seriously consider if a player with two ACL tears in three years and a disjointed relationship with the outgoing head coach is worth the eight-figure salary in restricted free agency. Parker’s relationship with Giannis Antetokounmpo could be what keeps him in Milwaukee.

Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are a rarity this offseason; They actually have cap space. And the results of their LeBron James and Paul George pursuits could help shape whether Julius Randle is back in the fold. As a restricted free agent, he can sign an offer sheet that Los Angeles has a chance to match. But if the Lakers renounce his rights in order to clear cap space for big-name chasing, Randle will transform his breakout season into a leading role elsewhere. He averaged a career-high 16.1 points while shooting 55.8 percent from the floor in 2017-18.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Aaron Gordon has his Magic playing great ball.

The Magic have been trapped in a rebuilding phase for a half-decade. Could they really let Aaron Gordon, a potential building block, leave in restricted free agency? He’s developed into a legitimate playmaker, providing 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last season. However, his 33.6 three-point mark — while an improvement — and 43.4 overall clip aren’t necessarily precursors to greatness, either. From an outside perspective, Orlando should pony up any price to keep Gordon. The franchise simply cannot replace his production. Still, the risks of matching a max offer sheet are apparent, too.

DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

Since he holds a $24.1 million player option for 2018-19, DeAndre Jordan might stay put. Because of the declining desire for traditional bigs, it’s unlikely he’d find a similar salary on the open market. If Jordan feels this is his best opportunity to land a lucrative long-term deal, though, he could enter unrestricted free agency. Should that happen, Jordan probably decided that long-term security is move valuable to him. And the Clippers might be hesitant to pay Jordan — who turns 30 in July — like he’s a cornerstone when he’s more of a complementary star.

Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

From a basketball standpoint, Clint Capela won’t find a more promising opportunity. He’s a rim-running, shot-blocking center playing around a pair of MVP guards and a bunch of shooters. Plus, the Rockets hold his Bird rights, so they can exceed the salary cap to retain the restricted free agent. That’s the main reason Capela may stay with the Rockets. However, the team is eyeing LeBron James in free agency. That pursuit, if successful, will require a healthy bit of cap gymnastics. Capela probably isn’t going anywhere, but we also can’t guarantee it.

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

Truly, it’d be a shame if Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins never have a chance to play together in the playoffs. General manager Dell Demps isn’t committed to keeping Cousins, though. NBA players have often struggled to fully rebound from Achilles injuries, and New Orleans already has a crowded cap sheet. Should his market remain thin, that could be beneficial for the Pelicans. Yet they run the risk of turning off Cousins if a contract offer is both short term and below the max. New Orleans has leverage, but it’s also in a precarious spot.

Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook is insistent Paul George will remain in Oklahoma City. One report says otherwise. Buckle up, NBA fans. The Thunder should have no issues offering George — an unrestricted free agent, once he opts out — a max contract, so his decision is simply a matter of preference. Does he want to continue playing next to Westbrook on an established roster or return home and sign with a youthful Lakers squad? Other franchises will likely express interest, but OKC and LA are the clear leaders. George will have a challenging decision to make.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Every time the Cavs mess up in the postseason — from poor defense to non-competitive losses to mind-numbing late-game mistakes — it’s easy to think, “Yup, that’s why LeBron might leave again.” In the four years since he returned to Cleveland, James brought four Eastern Conference crowns and an NBA title. So, his mission is accomplished. Throw in a clear disconnect with team owner Dan Gilbert, and LeBron has plenty of reason to decline his 2018-19 player option and seek a move elsewhere. And whether it’s the Sixers, Rockets or Lakers, he’ll have plenty of intriguing suitors, too.