How did we get here? It’s a perfect storm of contracts ending, short-term deals in the summers of 2017 and ’18, and the salary cap continuing to rise. Remember all those bad contracts signed in 2015 and ’16? They’re all coming off the books now. And all the short-term deals signed the last two summer have players hitting free agency this summer, with the salary cap projected to hit an all-time high of $109 million for the 2019-20 season.
While half the league is poised to have considerable cap space, not all cap space is created as equal as the Collective Bargaining Agreement would have you believe. For example, Indiana and Utah are projected to have a ton of cap space. Both have good teams built around star players Victor Oladipo and Donovan Mitchell, respectively. But neither is a free-agent destination. Both teams are less likely to land star talent in free agency than they are via trade or in the draft. That means that their cap space is more likely to go toward retaining their own players and adding good but not great players to fill out their rosters.
The following five teams are poised to make major splashes in free agency. It’s no coincidence that four of the five play in the league’s two biggest markets and the fifth is no stranger to spending big for a championship. Beyond that, they each have reasons that prime free agents will want to jump on board, ranging from talent on the roster to coaches to franchise history.
The Lakers want to add a marquee free agent to join LeBron James. (Getty)
Los Angeles Lakers: $37 million projected cap space
The Lakers made the biggest move in the NBA last summer when they signed LeBron James. When you land the best player in the NBA, you win the summer. But that doesn’t mean L.A. is satisfied or done. They struck out on adding any other major players last summer, but instead of overreacting, GM Rob Pelinka and team president Magic Johnson switched gears and signed a bunch of role players to one-year contracts. That approach should pay off this summer.
With James in the fold, he can also play primary recruiter. His pitch is simple: sign here to play with me and some developing young guys and we’ll bring the Lakers back to their former glory. With Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart all still on their rookie-scale deals, there are many ways Los Angeles can go about adding talent. They’ll make overtures to California-native Kawhi Leonard, as well as Kevin Durant. If Jimmy Butler flames out in Philadelphia, you can add him to the list as well.
One other spot to watch for the Lakers? The center position. It’s the only place where L.A. doesn’t have either an established star or a young player they love. If DeMarcus Cousins shows he’s recovered and back to something resembling his old self, look for the Lakers to feature heavily in the mix for the big man.
If Los Angeles strikes out, they’ll likely run back this summer’s strategy. The difference this time around is that there is a lot more talent on the market. And some star could unexpectedly become available via trade — Anthony Davis or Damian Lillard, anyone? — so staying flexible is the key for Pelinka.
New York Knicks: $30.5 million projected cap space
It’s been a while since the Knicks have been relevant, but that could all change in the span of one summer. New York has enough cap space to get within range of adding a max free agent. They aren’t quite there with this projection, but once they are within spitting distance, teams usually get there. After falling down for far too long, and with the Brooklyn Nets looming across town, the Knicks are going to look to get back on top in Gotham.
The primary target for New York is expected to be Kevin Durant. He’s been tenuously linked to the Knicks for almost a year now. His business partner and agent Rich Kleiman is a noted Knicks fan. There are some cracks in the foundation with Golden State after Draymond Green went at Durant recently. And after sacrificing for a few years with the Warriors, many believe Durant is ready to have his own team again.
Beyond Durant, the Knicks will push for Bronx-native Kemba Walker to at least give them a meeting. They have an easy sell: come back home and bring us back to glory. That could be hard for Walker to pass up.
And playing in New York still means something even if you aren’t from there. NBA players have become stars in far smaller markets, but this is the Big Apple. Most of the rest of the world still considers New York to be the unofficial capital of the United States. And players revere playing in Madison Square Garden more than any other arena in the world. To play there nightly, while lifting the Knicks out of the doldrums, would be a dream scenario for a lot of players.
Add some solid returning talent to all that, and New York starts to look pretty good. Tim Hardaway Jr. has grown into a solid scorer, one that will look even better when he’s in a complementary role. Kristaps Porzingis will be back and, assuming he’s fully recovered from his torn ACL, is a burgeoning star. Frank Ntilikina is a defense-first point guard who is coming into his own. And Mitchell Robinson has turned heads in his rookie season.
New York is going to swing for the fences this summer. If it lands Durant or Walker, or can somehow persuade Kyrie Irving to leave Boston (despite Irving’s assurances he is re-signing with the Celtics), the Knicks will be back on the radar in a big way.
Los Angeles Clippers: $53.7 million projected cap space
L.A. is the Lakers’ town. Despite several iterations of “The Clippers are coming!” this has never changed. It probably never will. That doesn’t mean the Clippers are going to stop trying. Under owner Steve Ballmer, they’ll push harder than ever to turn Los Angeles from purple and gold to red and blue.
The best way for the Clippers to get there? Add a superstar free agent. They’ll be in the mix for all the same players as the Lakers: Durant, Leonard, Butler and Cousins. They don’t have LeBron James already in place, but that just means whoever they do sign doesn’t have to share the spotlight. They don’t have the history of the Lakers behind them, but that means a player can build his own legacy.
One thing the Clippers do have over the Lakers? Considerably more cap space to add pieces around their marquee signing. And if they go this route, they’ll have playing time (the NBA’s most important non-monetary currency) to offer by the bucketful. Clearing out the entire roster of all but guaranteed money leaves just Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Montrezl Harrell, Jerome Robinson and Lou Williams.
That group isn’t a bad starting place. Gallinari is a respected veteran scorer, Williams remains one of the best sixth men in the NBA, Harrell is coming along as an energy big off the bench and Gilgeous-Alexander has garnered some steam as a rookie.
Oh, and Doc Rivers is still coaching this team. Rivers carries a ton of weight with players, especially those of the veteran variety. With the burden of also running the front office lifted, Rivers has turned in some of his best coaching the past two seasons. He’s the kind of guy who can sway a player to sign, because he knows Rivers will give them a chance to win every game.
Brooklyn Nets: $51.2 million projected cap space
It’s been a long time coming, but the Nets have finally dug out from under the rubble of their disastrous 2013 trade with the Boston Celtics. They own all of their own first-round picks now and they’ve managed to add some intriguing young talent despite being without lottery picks for several years. Brooklyn is led by a progressive front office that refused to make excuses and just kept pushing the message of moving forward. And head coach Kenny Atkinson has consistently drawn praise for how hard his teams play and how well-prepared they are.
The Nets aren’t the Knicks, and they certainly don’t have the history or market of the Lakers or Clippers. But Brooklyn is pretty high on the list of places players like to be. It’s still New York. And the Nets have one of the best arena-and-practice-facility combinations in the NBA.
GM Sean Marks will get meetings with top free agents Durant and Butler, and maybe even Leonard. They can also make a similar pitch to Walker similar to the Knicks’, but with an even clearer path to playing time, because the Nets would have to move on from D’Angelo Russell to clear the space to sign Walker.
But where the Nets can really cleanup is by targeting the players who are a tier or two lower, such as Khris Middleton, Nikola Mirotic, Terry Rozier, Bobby Portis or Willie Cauley-Stein. Because the cost would be lower, it could allow the Nets to add two players. Rozier, Portis and Cauley-Stein are all restricted free agents, which would allow Marks to take part in one of his favorite pastimes: crafting an offer sheet that either gets him the player he wants or clogs an opposing team’s cap sheet.
Brooklyn also returns some fun young players. Caris LeVert’s recent injury was scary, but it also showed how much respect he’s already earned around the NBA, as several players chimed in to wish the blossoming wing well in his recovery. Add rapidly improving young center Jarrett Allen and shooters Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris to the mix, and you’ve got a team free agents wouldn’t mind joining.
Dallas Mavericks: $51.3 million projected cap space
The Mavericks are kind of like the Knicks and Nets in that they haven’t been relevant for a little while now. But that’s changing with Luka Doncic, and adding a couple of big pieces will only change the narrative even more. With owner Mark Cuban at the helm, Dallas has never hesitated to spend and this summer will be no different.
By signing DeAndre Jordan to just a one-year deal last summer, the Mavs kept all their flexibility for this coming July. They’ve got just three guaranteed contracts on the books: Doncic, and young point guards Dennis Smith Jr. and Jalen Brunson. Harrison Barnes and Dwight Powell are likely to opt in to the final years of their deals, as even in a summer flush with cap space.
This puts Dallas in the mix for all the top players. Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson have always had a thing for centers, so Cousins could be a top priority if he’s healthy. They’d love to bring Butler back home to Texas. And if Leonard ever wanted to return and really stick it to the Spurs, he’d sign with Dallas.
But the Mavericks are likely to go further with a similar approach as the one the Nets might take: spread that cap space among several options. Dallas is likely to have a vastly different roster than the one they have now. That’s going to cause Rick Carlisle to have to adjust, but he’s one of the best coaches in the league. If anyone can pull it off, Carlisle can.
And don’t underestimate the lure of playing with Doncic. Several NBA veterans love Doncic’s game. Everyone praises his competitive spirit, unselfishness and high basketball IQ. He’s young but beyond his years in many ways. Veteran players rarely want to shepherd along a young group, but a guy like Doncic is different. He’s someone players want to play with.