Top 10 storylines for NBA free agency

With NBA free agency set to begin this weekend, visits for some of the top players on the market have already been set up. Where will Blake Griffin land after his former running partner Chris Paul was traded? Will Griffin stay in Los Angeles or look to move on to a contender? The answer to that question will tell us whether the Clippers themselves are going to blow this whole thing up.

Free agency itself is huge in terms of news and rumors. But we can expect the trade front to be extremely active, as well. Will the Indiana Pacers trade Paul George for pennies on the dollar? If so, who might land the All-Star small forward?

In taking a look at the two teams that have met in each of the past three NBA Finals, it is quite possible that ring chasers will look to latch on with the Cavaliers and defending champion Warriors. How might that play out?

These are among the top-10 storylines for NBA free agency. Here’s a look at the rest.

1. Ring chasers

Vince Carter to the Warriors?

There promises to be a lot of talk about potential ring chasers after the initial wave of free agency dies down. Which veterans will decide to sacrifice money for an opportunity at the Larry O’Brien trophy? We saw this last season with Zaza Pachulia and David West taking significantly less to sign with the eventual champion Warriors. It could very well be repeated once again in July.

For their part, the Warriors will have up to eight free agents. They won’t be able to add any reinforcements on the free agent market that don’t include veteran minimum deals. Depending on who Golden State loses, it could very well be a key player in the bargain bin of free agency.

Vince Carter has already expressed interest in joining the defending champs. It also wouldn’t be an absolute shock to see the likes of Nick Young and Zach Randolph do the same thing.

This obviously isn’t solely limited to Golden State. Sure the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs are looking to make big-time splashes during free agency. But both teams will also definitely look to add to their bench with cheap veteran options. Whoever doesn’t end up chasing a ring in Golden State may very well decide to chase (almost literally) the Warriors off the NBA’s version of Mount Rushmore.

2. Magic’s long-term plan

Magic Johnson already put his imprint on the Los Angeles Lakers before the recent NBA Draft itself was conducted. The all-time great dealt Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets for a first-round pick back in February.

He then moved malcontent D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and change, eliminating Timofey Mozgov’s contract from the Lakers’ books. These were two veteran moves for the rookie front office head.

But it’s the selection of Lonzo Ball No. 2 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft that has fans in Southern California excited. Despite his father’s outspoken ways and sense of entitlement, Ball is now being seen as the face of a franchise Johnson once gave Showtime to. Add in the presence of Brandon Ingram, and the Lakers have a solid young duo to build with.

For Johnson, this is all about long-term legitimacy in a conference that’s been dominated by Golden State. He’s not looking for any quick fixes this summer. That’s the reason why Los Angeles has yet to acquire a player in Paul George that has openly displayed interest in returning home (more on that here).

In reality, Johnson and Co. are not going to give up future assets in a trade. Instead, it’s about building with this young core while waiting for the summer of 2018 to come calling. That’s when the Lakers will make a major play for the likes of George and LeBron James.

Though, there’s definitely a scenario in play here that suggests Los Angeles might very well decide to add a top-end free agent. Maybe as a precursor to similar moves next summer. It’s surely something to watch in the land of angels.

3. Rockets’ return to relevance

Courtesy of USA Today Images

Last season saw Houston put up a 55-27 record and earn a top-three seed out west. It wasn’t enough for the team to advance beyond the conference semifinals. This led to general manager Daryl Morey making a strong commitment to contend with Golden State and San Antonio during the summer.

It also led to the acquisition of Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a mega eight-player swap earlier this week. Whether Paul and James Harden are enough to compete out west remains to be seen, but we’re definitely not banking on it. That’s only magnified by the fact that Houston has to make other roster moves to fit Paul under its cap.

This is where the potential of acquiring Carmelo Anthony or Paul George comes into play. Houston has been linked to both stars since acquiring Paul. Heck, the team is reportedly confident it can land one of them.

The issue here is that Houston had to blow up its bench by acquiring Paul. That came in the form of sending Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, among others, to the Clippers for the All-Star.

Even if the Rockets were to land either Anthony or George, depth would still be an issue. Considering both would come via trade, it’s likely Houston would have to then move a combination of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela to make a deal work.

Sure Morey made major waves on Wednesday. Adding someone of Paul’ ilk can’t be flushed down as an irrelevant move. Still, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see what other pieces he adds to this developing roster dynamic.

4. Buyouts coming?

The New York Knicks prefer to trade All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony rather than buy him out. Though, there’s definitely a scenario in play that suggests the Phil Jackson-less Knicks won’t be able to move Anthony.

Set to make $54-plus million over the next two seasons, the 33-year-old Anthony is definitely on the downside of his career. He shot just 43 percent from the field last season and has seen numerous injuries plague his Broadway career.

No contending team is going to pay that amount of cash for a player in Anthony who has regressed. That’s taken to a whole new level with the summer of 2018 free agent class being absolutely loaded. This doesn’t mean teams aren’t going to show interest in Anthony as a potential buyout candidate.

The same can be said for Dwyane Wade of the Chicago Bulls. After moving on from Jimmy Butler in a trade this past week, Chicago is in full-scale rebuild mode. Wade and Rajon Rondo will likely be bought out, especially after the former decided to opt in to his contract. In this, the Cavaliers will likely show interest in Wade (more on that below).

Other veterans that could also be bought out include Brook Lopez (Lakers), LaMarcus Aldridge (Spurs), Joakim Noah (Knicks), Luol Deng (Lakers) and Monta Ellis (Pacers). That will definitely add to a solid free agent class for teams looking to take out the Warriors next season.

5. T’Wolves look to compete

There's every reason to believe the Bulls will trade Jimmy Butler.

Minnesota is coming off a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw the team improve its win total by just two games. It was a shock to many, especially considering expectations were that Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins would lead the Wolves into playoff contention.

Still as talented of a young team as there is in the Association, Minnesota made sure to upgrade its roster less than two weeks following the end of the NBA Finals. It came in a trade with the Chicago Bulls that brought in All-Star guard Jimmy Butler. One of the top-10 two-way players in the NBA, Butler adds yet another huge dimension to a Wolves roster that’s overflowing with talent.

The idea of Butler and Wiggins handling perimeter duties with Towns dominating inside has the Wolves not only thinking playoffs, but top-end contention out west.

Now heading into free agency, Minnesota is looking to upgrade even more. Butler himself has already reportedly recruited fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry to team up with him in the backcourt. Meanwhile, Ricky Rubio remains on the trade block. The Wolves’ primary goal here is to upgrade at point guard. And with so many options at that position, they’re definitely in a good position to do so. Heck, Derrick Rose could also be a strong possibility for Tom Thibodeau’s squad (more on that here).

6. Looking for help from Durant and Curry

The defending champion Golden State Warriors will have eight free agents, including MVPs Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Normally, this would be cause for alarm. But like mostly everything Warriors related, there’s a plan in place here.

Curry will likely receive his $200-plus million payday after being the most underpaid player in professional sports over the past three seasons. Durant will get his money next summer, but is expected to take less this year in order for Golden State to keep its core group together.

Sure the Warriors are likely to lose a few pieces. Look for Ian Clark and Shaun Livingston to potentially find larger paydays elsewhere. Each should chase the cash after winning two titles in the past three years. But the Warriors have a young group set to take the next step. That includes 2016 second-round pick Patrick McCaw, who played a larger than expected role during the playoffs. He’s a future starter in this league.

The larger issue here is whether Golden State can afford to retain a combination of Andre Iguodala, Zaza Pachulia and/or JaVale McGee. Iggy, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, is expected to draw a ton of interest on the open market. Some suggestions have him earning north of $20 million annually. If that’s the case, Golden State won’t be able to retain him. This would be an absolutely huge loss.

Though, Durant has decided to wait until the rest of free agency is settled to sign his new deal with the Warriors. This will give the team flexibility to find replacements. That list will include potential ring chasers such as Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and Nick Young, among others.

Golden State may actually be in a prime position to upgrade its supporting cast. As we saw last year with Pachulia and David West taking vet minimum deals, Oakland has become an optimal landing spot for veteran free agents. Don’t expect that to change in July.

This could all be magnified further should both Durant and Curry decide to take less than max deals. Each has proven to be a team player. It’s not an extremely unlikely possibility that both will do what’s best for the top team in the NBA this summer. After all, each one will eventually earn that $200-plus million deal with Golden State.

7. Phil Jackson-less Knicks

Kristaps Porzingis is a name to watch as NBA trades go down

The New York Knicks made it abundantly clear that Jackson didn’t fit into their long-term plans. Here’s a team that paid him $50,000 per day to absolutely sink an already drowning ship.

With Jackson now gone from his previous role as team president, the Knicks will look to build a solid young core group behind phenom Kristaps Porzingis. That’s a dramatic turnabout from a couple weeks ago when Unicorn himself was placed on the trade block by Jackson.

One of the biggest questions here is what New York plans on doing with Carmelo Anthony. The team is still reportedly dead set on trading him. But it remains to be seen if there’s a market for an aging, regressing and expensive 33-year-old malcontent. If not, look for the Knicks to buy Anthony out. Though, the team would surely love to acquire a couple assets for the watered-down future Hall of Famer.

Outside of that, it looks like the Knicks might very well be active in free agency. There’s mutual interest between the team and Indiana Pacers free agent guard Jeff Teague. We’re likely not looking at New York buying into the max contract hype in July. But it would not be a surprise to see the team add a solid veteran or two to go with Porzingis and rookie guard Frank Ntilikina​.

Then again, there’s a scenario in play here that suggests the Knicks might just blow it up completely. That would include trading away Porzingis as a way to bring in assets while moving the absurd contract of one Joakim Noah (more on that here).

This might idea might have gone by the wayside when Jackson was fired, but there’s a chance the new front office brass will run with it. After all, Porzingis himself would bring back an absolute haul in a trade.

8. Finding help in Cleveland

We already knows that Cleveland made a play for Jimmy Butler before he was traded to Minnesota. The team is also working on a multi-team trade to bring in Paul George from Indiana.

These are lofty expectations, especially considering Cleveland doesn’t have real assets to acquire a top-end player. Kevin Love isn’t valued around the league, and the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs don’t have draft picks to spice up trade offers.

Instead, Cleveland will have to go the route Golden State. Add veteran ring chasers on minimum contracts as a way to build up the bench. We’ve seen this with the likes of Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson in recent seasons.

Though, additions of that ilk are unlikely to narrow the gap between Golden State and Cleveland after the former defeated LeBron James and Co. in five games in June’s NBA Finals.

Pretty much the only way Cleveland can fend off a repeat by the Warriors is to look at the buyout market. As mentioned above, Chicago could move on from Dwyane Wade completely. If so, the idea of him teaming up with James once again makes percent sense. It also wouldn’t be a shock to see Wade take significantly less in hopes of collecting another ring. The same can pretty much be said for Carmelo Anthony, who remains best buds with LeBron.

Still without a general manager, it will be interesting to see how Cleveland attacks free agency. It became abundantly clear in June that this team isn’t on the same level as Golden State. Unless something changes in July, title hopes in Cleveland will continue to face. That in and of itself could lead to James’ departure for sunnier days in California.

9. Danny Ainge’s time to shine

NBA draft, Paul George trade

The time is now for the Boston Celtics to pull the trigger and add a couple top-end pieces to go with Isaiah Thomas. Enough of collecting draft picks for future years. Enough of exhausting top-three picks on rookies after earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

With Cleveland as vulnerable as it’s been since James returned to Ohio, Boston has to make its move right now. This should include going hard after both Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin in free agency. Heck, Thomas himself has already recruited the latter to come to Boston.

It became clear last year that Boston doesn’t have enough consistent scorers to rely on behind Thomas. In today’s NBA, running an offense through Al Horford is not an optimal plan. Despite his elite-level defense, Avery Bradley remains a streaky shooter. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder seems to top out as a fourth or fifth option on a title contender.

This could lead to the Celtics deciding to actually part ways with a bit of their core in order to bring in a player like George to team up with Thomas and a max-type player in free agency.

We’re also extremely interested to see if Ainge continues to with his youthful remake of the roster. Last year’s top-five pick Jaylon Brown seems to be off limits. And for good reason. He projects as a All-Star here soon.

However, is it possible that rookie No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum could be had? Add in two likely top-five picks next year and the veteran assets Boston boasts, and there’s absolutely no reason for Ainge to go through July without adding two elite-level players. If that were to happen, the Celtics might very well find themselves as the favorites back east heading into the 2017-18 season.

10. Clippers to blow it up?

Chris Paul is gone. In return, the Clippers added seven new players to what might be a completely revamped roster. Blake Griffin will test free agency and could very well move on. J.J. Redick is not going to re-sign with the Clippers. And now, there’s a possibility that Los Angeles decides to trade DeAndre Jordan.

For a team that’s won 50-plus games five consecutive seasons, it’s simply remarkable the changes Los Angeles is going to go through this summer.

Sure there’s a chance the Clippers re-sign Griffin in free agency. They also now have the ability to add another top-end player to go with him. But one has to wonder if this would be nothing more than Los Angeles circling the wagons. It was already non-competitive against Golden State with Paul in the mix.

And now that Paul himself is on the conference rival Houston Rockets, why not just blow this whole thing up and start anew? Not only would this include letting Griffin walk and trading Jordan, it might also signal the end of Doc Rivers tenure in Southern California.

While all eyes will be on Magic’s show in Southern California, there’s a subset of stories taking hold in Clipper-land. It’s most definitely going to be interesting to watch.