Never ever doubt the NBA free agency period's power to reshape the ever-evolving landscape of our favorite league. Year 2016 promises to be extra unpredictable and exciting now that the salary cap will increase dramatically from $70 million last year to a projected $94 million for the upcoming season. To put that in perspective, the $24-million increase is the equivalent of the total salary cap increase from the 2005-06 season to the 2015-16 season. That’s 10 years' worth of increases squeezed into one season, effectively giving almost every team in the league a chest full of money to throw at the players.
And so, as we’re less than a day from what promises to be one of the nuttiest free agency periods in NBA history, let’s take a look at the five biggest storylines heading into the madness that is NBA free agency.
Kevin Durant hits the market
This year’s free agency will revolve around one man and his decision. If you’ve seen this script before, then you’re probably used to it by now. This time, it’s Kevin Durant who takes center stage and you can be sure that little activity will happen until KD either decides to stay in Oklahoma City or take his proverbial talents elsewhere. The way it looks, Durant has every reason to stay in OKC, especially now that he and Russell Westbrook have more top-to-bottom talent than they’ve ever had since James Harden was with the team.
KD will likely take advantage of the increasingly popular “1+1” contract, which is basically a two-year deal with an opt-out clause after the first year. Another superstar will likely take this route, but more on him later.
In the event Durant takes this route, he can opt out next season and stand to get a long-term deal from the Thunder valued at a whopping $244.1 million or so spread over six years. If he decides to sign a long-term deal with OKC now, his contract would be worth $153 million over five seasons. And in the unlikely event that he signs elsewhere, he “only” stands to gain $114 million on a four-year max contract.
Obviously, smart money would be to go with Durant re-upping in Oklahoma City on a 1+1 deal with the option to play the free agency game next season. Then again, we’ve seen before how the winds of free agency can drastically change with just one decision. Speaking of which…
LeBron James is also a free agent
Okay, this one isn’t going to be as intriguing a story as the Durant free agency because LeBron himself has repeatedly said that he plans to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the question is: Will he sign another two-year deal with an opt out for next season or will he opt for a longer four-year deal this time?
The first scenario means that he can sign a two-year deal worth $56.3 million and then opt out next season to take advantage of the escalating salary cap, projected to be around $107 to $110 million. If James takes this route, he could sign a long-term deal next year worth north of $160 million. The second and less likely scenario is James takes the long-term deal now and signs a four-year max contract worth $137.7 million. Either way, the bank will be broken for the newly minted NBA three-time champ. It’s just a matter of how LeBron decides to go about breaking it.
The Golden State Warriors will be retooling
The Golden State Warriors are in an interesting position because they’re now going to be forced to spend money on their role players, beginning with Harrison Barnes. Say what you will about his underwhelming Finals performance, but with the dramatic increase of the salary cap, Barnes will get paid no matter what. That presents a predicament to the Warriors because they already have two guys with max deals (Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) and another (Steph Curry) who’s in the last year of his deal. Yep, the two-time MVP is going to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Brace yourselves.
Going back to Barnes, numerous reports have said that his camp is looking at a possible four-year, $80-million deal, which is equivalent to a max contract's worth in seasons past. The sharp salary cap increase makes this the new normal for acquiring a player of his caliber. The problem with this scenario for Golden State is, if they do sign him for that price, they’re effectively handcuffing themselves for future flexibility. Curry, of course, is going to get his money because the Warriors have his full Bird rights, which means they can sign him for whatever he’s worth even if the amount pushes the team over the cap.
But the NBA, by and large, is still a business. Teams, even those with seemingly limitless funds, always find creative ways to avoid paying the league's luxury tax. Either the Warriors re-sign Barnes for an amount less than what he’s asking, or they let him go.
What’s Danny Ainge cooking up?
No team in the NBA is arguably in a better team-building position than the Boston Celtics. They’re already a playoff team and yet, they also have a treasure trove of rookies and draft picks that they can deal away to acquire some legitimate pieces. The problem with having all these assets is, at some point, you’re going to have to let go of some of them because you can only have so many players on your roster. That’s especially true for the Celts, who now have five rookies on their team and a handful of picks over the course of the next few seasons.
At some point, Ainge will have to make a deal because he needs to cash out on these assets. The issue is that nobody seems to be taking him up on his offers. Kevin Love has been linked. No deal. Jimmy Butler has been linked. No deal. Even Dwight Howard has been linked. Still no deal.
Look for Ainge to be extremely busy in free agency to land the superstar that he covets.
Stars trading places
As unpredictable as this free agency period is shaping up to be, don’t sleep on the possibility that a lot of stars—maybe even some superstars—will change addresses once the smoke settles. While nothing has been confirmed yet, there have been some rumors surrounding guys like Love, Butler, Howard, Blake Griffin, and yes, DeMarcus Cousins.
Granted, it’s going to be shocking to see any of these guys traded, but like I said, the free agency climate this offseason is unlike anything the NBA has ever seen in its history. A majority of the teams in the league have enough cap space to make a dramatic move or two that could rock the power balance of the whole league as we know it. Think of it as playing NBA 2K16 and making these outlandish trades that you thought could only happen in that world.
Well, it might happen in the real world so brace yourselves in the event shit hits the fan.
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