The NBA is nearing its championship round in the playoffs, but a strong majority of the league is already putting its full energy toward summer preparation. Since the class of 2018 NBA free agents is top-heavy, franchises are looking at how to create cap room for a major splash.
But the top-tier players are only part of the story. Who are the best options to potentially hit the market? We’re exploring the best free agents — both unrestricted and restricted, player or team option — who could engage in contract discussions this July.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope landed in Los Angeles on a one-year, $17.7 million pact last summer after the Pistons renounced their rights to him. KCP shouldn’t expect similar money, but the market should be relatively kind to a three-and-D player. He knocked down a career-high 38.3 percent of his triples last season. The Lakers, though, offered that short-team deal to protect financial flexibility in hopes of chasing stars. If he’s OK with a one-year contract and Los Angeles strikes out on LeBron James, KCP could stay. But if he wants a multi-year deal, he’s probably headed elsewhere.
J.J. Redick, Philadelphia 76ers
As much credit as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons deserve for taking Philadelphia to the postseason in 2017-18, the arrival of J.J. Redick was exceptionally important. The veteran marksman finally had the chance to sign a massive contract and did so, but his three-point shooting was worth all $23 million anyway. Simmons intentionally avoided shooting threes, so the Sixers desperately needed a floor-spacer in the backcourt. Redick provided that with a 42.0 clip beyond the arc. Philly should make re-signing him its top priority this offseason.
Enes Kanter, New York Knicks
Despite holding an $18.6 million option for 2018-19, Enes Kanter may choose to become an unrestricted free agent. Considering the thin market for non-stretch bigs, that would be a peculiar decision from a fiscal perspective. He won’t command that as a free agent. Nevertheless, the veteran center is eyeing a long-term deal. Kanter collected 14.1 points and 11.0 rebounds per game last season, so several teams would love to have a chance at signing him. It simply wouldn’t be at the number Kanter would earn by opting in.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Calling him a “three-and-D” player would be generous, since Marcus Smart is a career 29.3 percent shooter beyond the arc. But there’s nothing generous about calling him a nightmare on defense — meant in the most positive way possible. Smart also offers immense versatility because of his ability to handle the ball. He dished a career-high 4.8 assists in 2017-18 and can easily transition between point guard, shooting guard and small forward. Yes, Smart is limited as a shooter, but the restricted free agent will be valued for the other things he can do and energy he brings.
Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
What you see is what you get with Derrick Favors, who’s no longer a top-three player on Utah’s roster. That doesn’t mean he’s not an important piece. Favors is a reliable contributor and only turns 27 this summer. He started 77 games last year, averaging 12.3 points on a career-best 56.3 field-goal percentage. The Georgia Tech product doesn’t make the Jazz a significantly more imposing team, yet he prevents them from suffering a major dropoff when Rudy Gobert leaves the floor. Steady options in the frontcourt aren’t high-dollar players, but there’s certainly a benefit to having them.
Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies
Last summer, Memphis had the good fortune of acquiring a hometown kid needing an opportunity to prove himself. Tyreke Evans signed a one-year, $3.3 million contract. And the Grizzlies received a tremendous season from the swingman, who tallied 19.4 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game. Evans likely played himself out of Memphis, which has north of $86 million committed to four players and can’t offer much. If the interest level in July resembles the rumors of February, Evans should have no trouble finding a multi-year contract with a raise.
Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers
It’s remarkable how much difference a year can make. After the 2016-17 season, Isaiah Thomas was an undersized superstar who overcame personal tragedy to lead the Celtics into the Eastern Conference Finals. Heading into the summer of 2018, though, he’s not necessarily viewed as a franchise cornerstone. Thomas, who said his hip injury won’t affect free agency, will still desire to be paid like one. The more likely outcome is he receives short-term/high-dollar and multi-year/lower-money offers. Will Thomas prefer money or stability?
Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
On talent alone, Jusuf Nurkic is a no-brainer re-signing for the Blazers. He’s only 23 years old and averaged 14.3 points with 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks last season. Portland’s cap sheet, however, is a complete mess, and Nurkic is destined for a hefty contract as a restricted free agent. If the Blazers commit to him on a long-term deal, they’re headed for the luxury tax with a good-not-great roster. But Portland surely doesn’t want to let Nurkic leave for nothing, either. This situation should be one of July’s most intriguing topics.
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
How much do you pay somebody who’s had two serious injuries, is a suspect defender, slightly above average shooter and has already expressed frustration about his role? The Bucks effectively have the first right of refusal on Jabari Parker because he’s a restricted free agent. Although it’s reasonable to believe Milwaukee is uncomfortable paying close to the max on Parker, a desperate team might offer that. So, what are the Bucks willing to pay? If their number is substantially lower, Parker could be headed to a new franchise this summer.
Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
An injury robbed Julius Randle of his rookie campaign and two decent yet impressive seasons followed. He was expendable as trade bait prior to 2017-18, but Randle completely reshaped his perception during the last year. The stretch forward averaged 16.1 points on 55.8 percent shooting, adding 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Since the Lakers have plenty of cap space, no offer sheet the restricted free agent signs should scare them away. But if LeBron James decides to bolt from Cleveland, Los Angeles may have larger priorities than keeping Randle.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Though a knee injury cost Zach LaVine a decent portion of the 2017-18 campaign, the Bulls will likely be confident enough to offer him a long-term deal. Since the shooting guard is a restricted free agent, Chicago doesn’t have complete control of the offer but can match anything. LaVine probably won’t command max money, but there will be several teams willing to pay for someone who can provide 17 points and three assists per game. The Bulls must be prepared to shell out a hefty deal, though LaVine won’t break the bank, either.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Do you like tools? Have we got an Aaron Gordon for you. Quietly, the Arizona product developed into a potential stretch 4 with the Magic. He averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 33.6 percent from three-point range last season. But is Gordon a rising star or a complementary piece? That’s the question Orlando must answer, since it has the ability to match any offer sheet the restricted free agent signs. Prying him loose may require a max contract, yet he has enough limitations as a defender to make the Magic think twice about matching.
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
At this stage of DeAndre Jordan’s career, the NBA knows what he is. The center is an offensive force above the rim and a complete non-factor outside of about eight feet. He’s also a dominant rebounder and formidable shot-blocker. Jordan won’t carry a team, but his presence is enormous down low. However, the market for Jordan could be thin, as most franchises don’t have cap space for a high-dollar player with his skill set. Consequently, it’s reasonable to think Jordan will exercise his option for 2018-19, stay with the Clippers and again be coveted on the trade market next February.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Clint Capela will draw plenty of interest this summer. The 2018-19 campaign will be his age-24 season, and he compiled career-high averages of 13.9 points and 10.8 rebounds with an NBA-best 65.2 field-goal percentage in 2017-18. But would the young center really even consider leaving Houston? Among teams that could afford him, where else would Capela find an MVP candidate, All-NBA guard and such a friendly scheme? The Rockets will likely be sent a hefty offer sheet from a potential Capela suitor, but they shouldn’t let him walk.
DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
Achilles injuries have typically been career-defining moments for NBA players. In most cases, the injury robs them of explosiveness. And for DeMarcus Cousins, that’s especially troubling. Centers simply don’t move like him, and that athleticism has helped the Kentucky product amass 25.9 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals over the last four seasons combined. Even if he doesn’t regain that previous form, Cousins could still be a highly productive player. But as a franchise leader earning $25-plus million per year? That’s definitely a risky move.
Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
The Point God’s first season in Houston was a clear success, and it’s exceptionally unlikely he will leave the franchise. Still, Chris Paul is an unrestricted free agent. Any team with ability to create cap space that doesn’t at least place a phone call to CP3’s representatives isn’t doing its job. All-NBA point guards who defend and shoot like him don’t hit the market often. Even if the Rockets’ offer is shy of the max, the dollar value of his impending contract will be enormous. Don’t expect Paul to sign anywhere else, but be prepared to hear of teams making a call.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Denver has an interesting decision with Nikola Jokic: Do you clog the salary sheet now or risk losing him later? If the Nuggets decline their team option, Jokic would be a restricted free agent. That would give Denver the right to match any contract offer and secure him as a long-term piece. However, the team already has $106 million committed in 2018-19. A max extension — which Jokic deserves — would stretch every dollar the Nuggets have. But if they don’t want to risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent next summer, it’s a price they must pay.
Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George’s offseason started with knee surgery, but the procedure shouldn’t affect his upcoming negotiations. He’ll command a top-dollar deal, and the Thunder should be willing to pay it. Does PG13 want to remain with Oklahoma City, though? Although he and Russell Westbrook are a decent fit, George has long been linked to the Lakers. He’s a California kid who attended Fresno State. Westbrook, however, said at All-Star weekend that George isn’t leaving OKC. The Thunder are positioned well to keep George, but the Lakers certainly will pursue him.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
He is going nowhere. Kevin Durant will not be leaving Golden State. Still, he holds a player option this summer and will technically be on the market when he declines it. That will allow KD, one year after taking a pay cut, to sign a long-term contract. The deal he signed last offseason allowed the Warriors to keep a couple other members of the championship-winning roster in hopes of a repeat title in 2017-18. But as one of the best players in the league, Durant deserves a max contract. That should happen in July.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
The biggest question of the offseason, without a doubt, is where LeBron James winds up. After bringing the Cavaliers a championship in 2016, his legacy in Cleveland will not lack the ultimate goal. But could he really shred the hearts of Cavs fans twice? LeBron may remain in the Eastern Conference because the path to the NBA Finals is a bit more favorable than the West. Cleveland and Philadelphia both make sense in that regard. However, the Lakers and Rockets have also been rumored destinations for LeBron. His decision will define the summer.