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Top 12 storylines for NBA free agency

Now that NBA free agency is set to start this weekend, we’re seeing rumors thrown around the Association’s water cooler on a never-ending loop. Where will LeBron James land? Will the San Antonio Spurs trade Kawhi Leonard? What is Paul George’s status in Oklahoma City?

With so many questions and so few answers, the storylines heading into free agency are vast. The backdrop here being an NBA landscape that will create a marginal market due to the cap situations of half the teams in the league.

It’s in this that we openly wonder if any other team can step up and be a legitimate threat to unseat the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. The market suggests this is unlikely, but there’s certainly a chance that another super team can be formed. These are among the top-12 storylines heading into free agency.

1. Potential sign-and-trades

Without an influx of spending money to go around in free agency this summer (more on that later), teams expecting to lose players on the open market might very well look to acquire assets in sign-and-trade deals. It’s somewhat similar to what we saw with Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers last summer. While Paul did opt into his deal, it was under the guise that he would ultimately be dealt to the Houston Rockets. In the end, Los Angeles picked up seven players and a future first-round pick.

Of those set to hit the market this weekend, restricted free agents such as Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle and Marcus Smart could all be moved in sign-and-trade deals. Though, it would not be an absolute shock to see LeBron James also moved in this manner. If he were to choose a team like the Los Angeles Lakers, why wouldn’t Cleveland want to acquire a player like the above-mentioned Randle as well as picks while taking on Luol Deng’s inflated contract? It’s certainly something to keep an eye on as free agency starts.

2. Lack of spending money

Things can change between now and the start of free agency. Teams will renounce the rights to impending free agents, releasing cap holds that would otherwise bog down the open market. But as of now, only seven teams have north of $20 million to spend under the cap. Meanwhile, more than half the Association is over the salary cap. Unlike two years ago when the cap spiked to help Golden State land Kevin Durant, it’s going to be challenging for teams to make major plays on the open market.

It goes without saying that teams like Lakers, Sixers and Bulls could benefit from other squads being cash-strapped. Los Angeles has room for two max-contract players. Philadelphia could add to the most-talented young core in the Association. And while ways away from contention, the Bulls could very well add another core piece to go with Lauri Markkanen and rookie lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr.

3. The Dallas Mavericks’ intrigue

Being able to land Euro sensation Luka Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft pretty much expedited the Mavericks’ rebuild more so than any draft pick we’ve seen in recent NBA history. Already capable of being a 20-point performer, Doncic joins a talented young core that includes 2017 Rookie of the Year candidate Dennis Smith Jr. as well as Harrison Barnes. This isn’t a bad trio to continue a rebuild in Big D.

The intrigue here is two-fold. Dallas currently finds itself $23.85 million under the cap. It can add another $5 million by declining the option on Dirk Nowitzki’s contract and signing him to a lesser short-term deal. Already linked to DeAndre Jordan in a potential sign-and-trade, the Mavericks could also make other moves to become instant playoff contenders heading into 2018-19. That’s the value of having assets to move in a potential trade while not adding a whole lot to your cap.

4. Challenging the champs

The Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics of the world certainly would love to have seen a major cap uptick this summer. Alas, that was not to be. Instead, those looking to knock off the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors must get creative in order to make it work.

Houston’s situation is interesting in that any avenue to team LeBron James up with Chris Paul and James Harden would gut the team’s deep supporting cast. It would require either selling off the contracts of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon or moving them in sign-and-trade with Cleveland. Obviously, those are the types of contracts the Cavaliers will not want to take on should they lose King James. It would also require renouncing Trevor Ariza and studly young center Clint Capela. Though, Boston’s avenue might be made a bit easier by its ability to offer up young trade chips to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. That could make this team favorites back east.

5. Rebuild or retool in Cleveland

Let’s work under the assumption that LeBron James decides to bolt from Cleveland for the second time in his career. Under this scenario, the Cavaliers would be forced into making a decision. Would they blow the roster up completely and go into full-scale rebuild mode? Based on what we’re hearing from the Cavs’ brass, that’s an unlikely scenario. The team is planning to keep All-Star Kevin Love no matter what happens with James. It could also be open to a sign-and-trade with the team that eventually lands James.

The question here is whether a retooled Cavaliers roster minus James would even be a legitimate playoff contender. Love has proven more than once that he’s not the No. 1 option on a contending team. Rookie lottery pick Collin Sexton might boast tremendous upside, but his learning curve as a point guard after one season at Alabama is going to be pretty big. The Cavs might lack relevance if James departs, but how GM Koby Altman and Co. work through it will be a major storyline.

6. Will the big men get paid?

More so than any team since Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Golden State has changed the Association on a dime. In order to match up with the Warriors, opposing teams are going to small-ball lineups. And those who boast actual true centers are relying on bigs to stretch the court on offense. DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love come to mind first.

This leads us to our point. By opting into his contract, Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is admitting that he wouldn’t receive a long-term deal in free agency akin to the $24.1 million he’s slated to make on his current deal. What does this mean for the above-mentioned Cousins, especially as he recovers from an Achilles injury? How will it impact restricted free agents such as Clint Capela and Jusuf Nurkic? It’s a major storyline to follow.

7. Celtics, Sixers look to make a play back east

While Philadelphia sets its sights on a potential LeBron James chase in free agency, Boston seems to be favored to land fellow All-NBA performer Kawhi Leonard in a trade. Such is the nature of the beast in an Eastern Conference that will likely be dominated by these two teams over the next decade. That’s not hyperbole. Both the Sixers and Celtics have put into motion long-term plans. They’re now about to see it pay off in a big way.

Philadelphia could ultimately have the ability to sign James outright without having to move assets to the Cavaliers in a sign-and-trade deal. It could then use the likes of Dario Saric and Robert Covington as trade chips to build a tremendous supporting group behind James, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Talk about a juggernaut. Boston’s situation isn’t as similar in that it would have to move either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum in a deal for Leonard. Even then, a big four of Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and either Brown or Tatum would be hard to beat back east.

8. Kawhi Leonard’s impact

Even more so than James, Leonard’s situation could impact the broader landscape of the NBA heading into next season. If he’s ultimately dealt to Boston, that team becomes the immediate favorites back east. On the other hand, a trade to the Lakers would set into motion a trickle-down effect unlike anything we’ve seen since James left Cleveland for the first time many moons ago. By acquiring Leonard prior to the start of free agency, Los Angeles would be put in a better situation to land James. It would immediately make Magic Johnson’s squad a contender out west.

All of this is really dependent on what the Spurs do. While they’re reportedly done with Leonard, there’s no sense of urgency to move him. They can wait until much later in the summer to make a move, much like what we saw with Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers last year.

9. Chris Paul and the Rockets

Rockets guard Chris Paul

A report surfaced earlier this offseason that things are not right between Paul and the Rockets. It apparently stems from him being promised a max contract when Houston acquired the 10-time All-Star from the Clippers in a trade last summer. Paul himself is reportedly not willing to take anything less than the max.

Certainly, there’s no way to tell how factual these different reports are. Even then, it’s no longer a foregone conclusion that Paul will return to the Rockets. A recent reports suggests that the Lakers might look to team Paul up with best bud LeBron James in forming one half of the banana boat crew. What we do know is that Paul’s presence on the Rockets made them a true championship contender last season. His friendship with James has also led to speculation that they might team up in Houston. How this situation plays out will tell us everything about the Rockets’ ability to contend next season.

10. Chasing a ring

With only the mid-level exception to offer pending free agents, it sure looks like the defending champion Golden State Warriors will be inactive on the open market. Given that Golden State has seven free agents of its own, this has to be cause for alarm in Northern California. But as we’ve seen in the past, there’s this thing called ring chasers. How many proven veterans will be willing to take either the league minimum or less money under the MLE (under $6 million) to chase a ring with the Warriors?

It’s a somewhat similar situation when it comes to the team that lands LeBron James in free agency. Unless it’s Philadelphia, he’s not going to said team alone. In today’s NBA, that means any squad adding James would likely have to sell off proven veterans to make it work. Can said team then bank on free agents joining it on the cheap to chase a ring with LeBron?

11. LeBron James’ final destination

This is obviously the biggest storyline of the NBA offseason. Coming off his eighth consecutive Finals appearance, Mr. James can shake up the competitive balance of the Association on a dime. Should he join the Lakers with either Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, they would immediately become title contenders. A move to Philadelphia would make that team the likeliest contender to unseat Golden State next season. Then again, LeBron could opt for the comfort of Cleveland, leading to the Cavaliers being favorites to win the east once again.

In a vacuum, LeBron’s decision can shake up the NBA’s landscape. But when we add in the potential of other stars joining him, that’s magnified even further. He wants to unset the Warriors after having lost three of the past four Finals to the defending champs. But how likely is it that he’ll be able to do that in Cleveland or another city? It’s the biggest question of the summer around the NBA.

12. Lakers betting their future on this summer

President Magic Johnson has already noted that he’ll step down from that role should he fail to land a star player over the next two summers. Under Johnson’s leadership, Los Angeles has done everything possible to put itself in position to land two max-contract players in free agency. It’s also said to be honing in on a player in Kawhi Leonard who wants to call Southern California home.

The issues here are more vast than one might want to let on. Johnson himself says he feels no pressure heading into free agency. That’s foolish. By virtue of not trading assets to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George last summer, it’s looking more and more like the Lakers aren’t going to land the hometown boy. What if Los Angeles then missed out on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard? How would the franchise be able to justify this moving forward? It’s certainly a franchise-altering summer for the Lake Show.