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Top takeaways from the first night of NBA free agency

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

NBA free agency might be in its infant stage, but a lot has already happened. With free agency kicking off Sunday morning at midnight, we’re seeing a lot of trends and action around the Association.

Mere hours before free agency started, the NBA released its salary cap figures for the 2018-19 season. Said number will likely lead to many players signing one-year contracts on the open market. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant has already opted to remain with the defending champs and LeBron James could be one step closer to being the King of Hollywood.

These are among the biggest takeaways from the first night of NBA free agency.

The market is bare for non-stars

The NBA released its salary cap for the 2018-19 season, and as expected, it’s $101.9 million. This means that just seven teams are $20-plus million under the cap with half the NBA finding itself over the cap. It’s obviously going to lead to a rather bare market for stars not named LeBron James and Paul George.

What we can expect moving forward is a bunch of second-tier free agents to sign one-year contracts on the market. This would enable them to hit free agency when the cap increases a whole lot more next summer (more on that here).

It’s beneficial to teams that are near the cap or in luxury tax territory, as they’ll likely be able to get solid contributors on the cheap. That includes wherever LeBron James himself decides to sign.

Nuggets keep young core together 

Shortly after the start of free agency at midnight Sunday morning, it was reported that the Nuggets re-signed stalwarts Will Barton and Nikola Jokic to lucrative long-term contracts. Following a near playoff appearance in 2017-18, these are two moves that Denver simply needed to make.

It also puts the Nuggets well over the luxury tax threshold, which should lead to some salary dumps here soon. Those names include the likes of Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and potentially Mason Plumlee. It’s certainly something to keep an eye on as the offseason continues.

Houston-sized gamble pays off

When they acquired Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, the Rockets were taking a pretty big gamble. Would he commit to the team long term? As the 2017-18 season played out with Houston acting as one of the best teams in the Association, it became apparent that Paul would return to the Rockets.

Unfortunately, things seemed to sour between the two heading into free agency. It led to speculation that Paul might depart Houston to join LeBron James with the Lakers. That didn’t happen. Immediately after free agency started, Paul signed a four-year, $160 million contract with the Rockets. He’ll now continue to team up with James Harden in order to help Houston overcome Golden State out west next season.

Mavericks land big fish

Patience paid off big time for the Dallas Mavericks. They were not about to take the Los Angeles Clippers’ bait and yield a whole lot in a trade for DeAndre Jordan. That’s magnified by the fact that everyone knew that Jordan had a opt-out clause on his contract. The All-Star big man utilized that on Friday, paving the way for him to sign with Dallas.

Once free agency opened Sunday morning, that came to fruition. The Mavericks and Jordan reportedly agreed to a contract that will finally bring him to Dallas three years after their failed courtship. Jordan will now team up with Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and Luka Doncic to form a solid foursome in Dallas.

Suns positioning for a star?

In a somewhat surprising move, the dormant Suns decided to waive young guard Tyler Ulis. It saved the team less than $2 million against the cap. Why move on from a solid contributor that’s still nowhere near his prime? It’s rather clear, Phoenix is looking to land a big fish in free agency to team up with young stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. As free agency opened, Phoenix landed veteran wing Trevor Ariza. But that’s highly unlikely to be the end of it.

Who might Phoenix look at with the cash it still has to spend? One name that continues to The Suns have been linked to Raptors restricted free agent Fred VanVleet. Given that they’ve been in the market for an upgrade at point guard next to Booker, that makes sense.

Kevin Durant does the Warriors another solid 

By signing a two-year contract with an opt out next summer, Durant pretty much did the Warriors another solid. This moves saves north of $5 million against the cap, a clear indication that Durant is here to help the defending champs add even more talent after a second consecutive title.

Here’s the nuances of it. Already well over the luxury tax, any player the Warriors sign with their mid-level exception ($5.3 million) would cost the team north of $20 million in total cash. By taking less this year, Durant increased the chances that Golden State adds multiple players of substance. It’s in this that they’ve been linked to Avery Bradley, among others. For Durant, it means that he can opt out next summer and sign a five-year, $221 million super-max contract with Golden State.

The King of Hollywood? 

It’s now almost a foregone conclusion that LeBron James will end up with the Los Angeles Lakers. He flew back to Southern California from a Caribbean vacation on the eve of free agency. Vegas has also showed its hand in a big way here, making the Lakers overwhelming favorites to land King James and changing the team’s championship odds to second-best overall behind Golden State.

Certainly, there is going to be a bit more drama on this front. Even if James signs relatively early in free agency, the focus will then switch to who might join James in Los Angeles. Kawhi Leonard is a possibility in a trade. With second-tier free agents likely to find a cold market, this also increases the chances that James will be able to fill out a solid supporting cast in Los Angeles. Of course, this is all dependent on the three-time champ making it official with the Lakers.

Paul George remains in Oklahoma City

Months of buildup regarding a potential Paul George move to Los Angeles never really lived up to the hype. As free agency approached on Sunday morning, it seems likely that George would instead decide to re-sign with Oklahoma City. That’s what happened.

As the NBA was preparing for the start of free agency, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that George has decided to remain with the Thunder. He’ll now team up with former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook in an attempt to win that elusive title. George’s decision to remain in Oklahoma City, and said decision coming early in free agency, should have wide-ranging ramifications around the Association moving forward.