How NBA free agency works and why it's so crazy this year
Get up to speed for the most interesting summer ever
The Toronto Raptors' surprising run to the NBA title coincides with probably the most interesting summer in league history. We've never before seen such a combination of elite players and fascinating story lines hit free agency at the same time — including, as you may have heard, finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
So, for everyone in Canada who got more into basketball over the last couple of months: superb timing. There's a lot more fun around the corner. But NBA free agency is a bit complicated (especially this year), so we figured we'd help you out with the basic knowledge you need to understand and enjoy what's coming. We'll start with how things work in general, then get into the specific teams and players who will be making headlines soon.
Here's 2019 NBA free agency, explained:
When (and how) does it start?
This Sunday, June 30, at 6 p.m. ET. That's when the negotiating window opens for players whose contracts have expired. At that point, teams are free to reach out to any free agent (and/or his reps) to make an offer, talk contract terms or set up a meeting. To do so before that is considered tampering, and punishable by the league, but let's not be naive: backchannel communications are well underway. In the meantime, players are allowed to re-sign with their current teams anytime they want. But none of the top guys (more on them later) are expected to do that before listening to other teams.
Can free agents sign new contracts right away?
No. They have to wait until July 6 at noon ET. That means there's a moratorium of about six days where, with a few exceptions, teams aren't allowed to sign any players or make any trades. If you hear about a team "signing" a guy between June 30 at 6 p.m. ET and July 6 at noon ET, it's actually just an agreement. It's rare for someone to back out of a deal, but it happened a few years ago when DeAndre Jordan reneged on his verbal agreement with Dallas and re-signed with the L.A. Clippers after a bunch of his teammates showed up at his house and talked him into staying. The whole thing was pretty hilarious.
How much money can teams offer the best players?
The NBA has a salary cap for total team payroll, and also for individual players. The maximum salary isn't the same for every player. The longer a guy has been in the league, the more money he's allowed to make. He can also make more by re-signing with his current team. The league has incentivized this, though the cost of leaving isn't really all that big — at least in terms of annual salary.
Here's an example: as a player with between seven and nine years of NBA service, Leonard is eligible for a maximum contract of four years and about $140 million US ($35 million a year) if he leaves Toronto for another team. If he stays, he can get five years and $190 million ($38 million a year).
Can all free agents go to whatever team wants them?
Unrestricted free agents can. Generally, players need three or four seasons of NBA service to earn that status. Otherwise, they're restricted free agents when their contracts expire. They can sign an offer sheet with another team, but their current team has the right to match it and keep them. The team gets two days to decide. If it elects not to match, the player is gone and his old team receives no compensation. This is much different from the NHL, where compensation can reach as high as four first-round picks for a top-end restricted free agent.
RFAs are much less common than UFAs because teams will usually lock up their promising young players with pretty fat contract extensions before their rookie deals expire. The most enticing RFA this year is Brooklyn's DeAngelo Russell. He's a 23-year-old guard who just came into his own this season, averaging 21 points and seven assists. The Nets are reportedly looking to sign as many as two more-established stars, so they could let Russell go to make room for them.
Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon might also be poachable because the Bucks are feeling the salary-cap crunch. A lot of teams would like to have Kristaps Porzingis, but Dallas is reportedly ready to re-sign him to a max contract after trading for him this season while he was recovering from a knee injury with the New York Knicks. They'd probably match any offer for him.
Which teams are the front-runners to land the big guys?
Not everyone has enough room under the salary cap to add a top player(s). Even fewer have the cap space and an attractive playing/living situation to offer stars. The NBA has a "soft" cap, so teams are allowed to go over it, but only to re-sign their own players. And that subjects them to luxury-tax penalties, which escalate the more a team exceeds the cap. There are additional charges for going over in consecutive years. It can get pretty pricey, so most owners will only tolerate paying the tax for a short period of time, if at all.
The Clippers seem to be in the best position right now. They've been preparing for this summer for a long time. They've cleared the cap space to sign two max players, and they're a much better-run organization than they were a few years ago. Owner Steve Ballmer is a super-energetic salesman, and he even hired Sports Illustrated's main NBA writer a year ago to help with free-agent pitches. Plus, they don't need to sell anyone on their city. L.A. has fantastic weather, lots to do, and a celebrity-centric ecosystem that appeals to a lot of NBA stars.
The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets also have the cap room and cache to land up to two stars. The Boston Celtics haven't been a top destination for modern NBA players, but GM Danny Ainge is aggressive and he'll have room for a max guy when Kyrie (and probably Al Horford) leaves. The Lakers always think they're in the mix because they play in L.A. and they're the NBA's most popular franchise. They were short on cap space after trading for Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James, but they made a last-minute move to open up just enough room for a max player. But that would leave their roster dangerously thin.
Toronto has all its eggs in the Kawhi basket right now. If he bolts, it's unlikely they'll have the room to replace him with another star. That would also likely take them out of championship contention.
Who are the top unrestricted free agents?
It's a bumper crop. Most of them are playing it close to the vest, so even the most plugged-in NBA reporters seem to have little idea of where everyone ends up. But here are the most desirable players available and the educated guesses on their destinations:
Kawhi Leonard: We covered his options in detail in this piece, but here are the broad strokes: Every team with cap space wants him, but it looks like a tossup between Toronto and the L.A. Clippers. Kawhi returning home to Southern California seemed like a slam dunk for a long time, but the Raptors are right in the mix now after Leonard led them to a surprising NBA title. He's also reportedly taking meetings with Philadelphia, the Knicks and maybe even Dallas. The Lakers still think they have a shot, even though they don't currently have the cap space to pull it off. Most guys in his position take a max contract, but Leonard is reportedly considering a short-term deal with the Raptors that would allow him to defend the title and become a free agent again next summer. Quick note: Kawhi technically isn't a free agent until he declines his contract option for next season. That's going to happen soon because it's for way less money than he can make on the open market. Don't worry: it's not a sign that he's not coming back to Toronto.
Kevin Durant: The former MVP was considered the most coveted pending free agent all season, but tore his Achilles during the NBA Finals and might miss all of next season. Still, multiple teams are reportedly willing to give him a max contract — including Golden State, who KD seemed set on leaving before getting hurt. His most likely landing spots look like the Knicks, Nets or Clippers.
Klay Thompson: He'll miss a big chunk of the season after hurting his knee in the last game of the finals, but Klay is an underrated star and one of the best three-point shooters of all time. Like Durant, he'll get max offers despite his injury. Odds are he stays with the Warriors, but the Clippers are reportedly angling for him too.
Kyrie Irving: He's a high-maintenance personality who couldn't get along with LeBron James in Cleveland and just submarined Boston's season with his moodiness. But he's one of the best pure scorers in the game and really fun to watch, so he's attractive to teams looking to make a splash. The NBA insiders seem most confident of Kyrie's destination: Brooklyn.
Kemba Walker: The No. 10 scorer in the NBA last season is the heart and soul of the Hornets, but probably knows he'll need to leave Charlotte if he wants to win a title. Everyone seems to want him as a copilot with another star, and lately Boston is rumoured to be interested in him as a go-to guy.
Jimmy Butler: The 76ers want to re-sign him, but plenty of teams like him as a second banana to a better star. Houston doesn't have the cap space to land him outright, but is reportedly trying to work out a sign-and-trade deal if Butler can convince Philly that he'll leave for another team and at least this way they'll get something for him.
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