The NBA is about to enter its annual silly season. From July 1, NBA teams can start talking to free agents. On cue, every July is laden with headlines as NBA Twitter collectively loses its mind over the Hamptons, emojis, taking talents or bringing them back.
Except this year you wouldn’t know it. Since the NBA Finals finished on June 13th the Celtics traded away the 2017 number 1 pick, The Process peaked, Jimmy Butler was traded, the Lakers traded away the 2015 number 2 pick, Paul George told the Pacers he was leaving, the father of the 2017 number 2 pick turned into a pro wrestling heel, Phil Jackson got fired, and Chris Paul got traded to the Rockets. In fifteen days, the league has been turned upside down. And yet, there’s still two days left before free agency. From this Saturday, expect to be hearing from these teams a lot.
Whether the Utah Jazz can keep Gordon Hayward is the first domino of 2017 free agency. Keep him and they continue building momentum into the top half of the Western Conference. Lose him and it’s on to Plan B. At 27, Hayward is the centrepiece of the young Jazz core and the most coveted player in free agency. He’s entering his prime, yet still young enough to grow with the rest of the roster. The Jazz can offer him one year and $48 million more than any other team (due to a rule in the collective bargaining agreement that gives the team that drafted a player an advantage), which tilts the odds in favour of him staying in Utah. With that being said, the Eastern Conference is weaker than the West. And while any route to the Finals must go through Cleveland, the path to get there is easier. This makes Miami and Boston attractive options. Hayward’s decision will have a bearing on what Utah then decide to do with George Hill – keep him, or get younger? – and whether they go after a replacement for Hayward like Blake Griffin or Serge Ibaka, or take a flyer on a guy like Danilo Gallinari who is more of a like-for-like replacement.
The Boston Celtics will immediately direct their attention to Gordon Hayward. Hayward played under current Celtics coach Brad Stevens in college in 2009 and 2010, so naturally Celtics fans are feeling (over)confident. Should Hayward decide against Boston, Blake Griffin is the consolation prize.
When If they get their target, they’ll then chase Paul George via trade with the Indiana Pacers. This move is risky, since George has already indicated he’ll test the market when he comes off contract this time next year, effectively making next season a one-year rental for his services. If the Celtics whiff on Hayward and Griffin, they may look at Danilo Gallinari if the price is right. Either way, Boston is built for the future so standing pat now won’t drastically alter their trajectory.
Never sleep on the Miami Heat in free agency. They have a top 5 coach, no state taxes and an enticing climate. They have good pieces (Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow) and have resurrected careers (Dion Waiters, James Johnson). Add a prime free agent like Hayward, Griffin or Paul Millsap and they’ll be in contention for the Conference Finals. The Heat missed the playoffs by a game this year, but had the league’s second best record in the second half of the season. Make the playoffs and they probably knock off the 1-seeded Celtics. That’s how good they were. If they miss their prime targets, perhaps team president Pat Riley will toss his bag of rings on the table for Serge Ibaka or Danilo Gallinari. But as usual, they’ll figure.
With the draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler via trade from the Bulls, the Minnesota Timberwolves are – apologies if you’ve heard this before – playoff-bound in 2018. Butler is a top 15 player in the NBA. He adds defence and experience to a young core whose slow development (not unusual for 22 year olds) has frustrated coach Tom Thibodeau. They’ll rekindle their long-held interest in Paul Millsap – a great fit on this roster – and look to upgrade from Ricky Rubio at point guard where there are a tonne of prospects available (Kyle Lowry, George Hill, Patty Mills, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday). A good offseason combined with a potential drop-off from the Clippers, Memphis and Portland will see the Wolves break the NBA’s longest playoff drought.
The Dallas Mavericks are trying to maximise Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight years. They’ve surrounded him with some talent (Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel), picked up a nice point guard in Dennis Smith Jr. at the draft, and Rick Carlisle is one of the six active head coaches to have won an NBA championship. They won’t contend this season, but having just missed the postseason for just the second time in 17 years, owner Mark Cuban will demand the playoffs. Dirk will opt out of the last year of his deal and re-sign for a significant discount to give Dallas room to sign a max player. They could use some help on the wing as well as more three-point shooting, so Hayward, Gallinari or JJ Redick would all fit nicely.
The LA Clippers weren’t content to wait until 12.01am on July 1st to enter talks about re-signing free agent-to-be Chris Paul, so they traded him to Houston. He’d already informed the Clippers of his intention to sign with the Rockets, so faced with the possibility of getting nothing, the Clippers moved him. New LA front office consultant – and NBA logo – Jerry West likely balked at giving Paul a $200m contract. Getting back what they did is a nice return. With their best player now gone, they’re probably questioning whether to take the next step and blow it all up. Re-signing Blake Griffin and JJ Redick will cost a lot for a team whose ceiling is the second round, and even with Paul gone they have no cap room to sign free agents. They’re in salary cap purgatory. Griffin could make it easy for them and walk. Redick most likely will. It’s a sliding doors moment for the Clippers. Lob City is over but coach Doc Rivers has little appetite for a rebuild and owner Steve Ballmer won’t want to relinquish being top dog in LA. Whatever happens, expect plenty of movement in or out of LA.
2017 Champions (and ‘destroyers of competitive balance everywhere’) Golden State will always garner free agency interest. They have a couple of their own (Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala) who will most likely re-sign – although look for at least one team to throw a godfather offer at Iguodala. Fortunately for the Warriors, it’s a little known rule in the NBA that title favourites get to choose the best available ring-chasing vets. With their five best players tying up most of the cap, the Warriors have crumbs to fill out the rest of the roster. Luckily it’s not an issue attracting players when you’re the most pass-happy offence in one of the best cities in the country. The success of David West, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee is a template for other guys at the end of their careers. Keep an eye on Pau Gasol, Vince Carter or Kyle Korver to be the new old guys in The Bay.