10 best 2019 NBA free agents
Just two months ago, NBA fans were talking about which stars could change teams this summer. Now that those chips have been sorted, with stars like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and DeMarcus Cousins joining new squads, the league’s power dynamics have shifted.
The Lakers are suddenly a contender. The Raptors have new life. The Warriors somehow look even more unbeatable.
It’s early, and a lot could change this season, but we’re already thinking about which big names could be on the move a year from now. Here are the 10 best 2019 free agents as it stands today.
10. DeMarcus Cousins
This is a trial year for Cousins. He signed with Golden State for a few reasons: (1) he won’t have to rush back, as the Warriors are far from desperate to get him on the court; (2) he could win a ring; and (3) Golden State’s revered locker-room culture should present him with an opportunity to rebuild his reputation, much like JaVale McGee and Nick Young have previously. But he didn’t sign with the Warriors for the money — he’ll only receive $5.3 million this season. Cousins is looking to next summer as his opportunity to cash out and land a longer-term deal.
9. Kemba Walker
The Hornets have insisted they won’t give Walker away for pennies on the dollar, but it’s not wrong to suggest they should get something for him while they can. Charlotte fans love Walker, and he seems comfortable as a key piece in the organization, but it seems clear that if he wants to win a title in his career, he’ll have to leave. The Hornets have a new coach, former Spurs assistant James Borrego, and they added veteran Tony Parker as a backup. Charlotte is also high on second-round draft pick Devonté Graham, who has already commanded the respect of his peers. We know LeBron likes Walker; reports indicated the Cavs attempted to acquire him before this year’s trade deadline. Don’t be surprised if he spends part of this season in a Lakers uniform — or, at least, playing for a team other than Charlotte.
8. Al Horford
Horford is one of the most respected players in the league with good reason, but he’s this low on the list because of his age. He’ll be 33 next summer, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll decline his player option ($30 million). Horford is in the perfect situation to make use of his talents, and if the Celtics don’t win a title this year, you can bet the veteran — who’s never won a ring — will want to run it back. We don’t expect Horford to actually hit the market, though he could pull a Kevin-Durant-in-2017 move and opt out to re-sign with Boston for less money, as Danny Ainge and company may want to sign Jaylen Brown to a longer deal and bring back Terry Rozier, who will be an unrestricted free agent.
7. Kristaps Porzingis (restricted)
Porzingis is the Knicks’ present and future – so much so that it’s hard to imagine that team winning more than 30 games this season. Who’s the No. 1 option, Tim Hardaway Jr.? Trey Burke? Rookie Kevin Knox? The only reason for concern, of course, is Porzingis’ injury history. The Unicorn tore his left ACL in February and will miss part of this season — perhaps even much or all of it. But New York needs Porzingis, who was averaging career-best averages of 22.7 points, 2.4 blocks, and .395 three-point shooting before his injury. We’d be stunned if Steve Mills and company even let him flirt with other offers. The Knicks should get a max offer sheet in the Latvian’s world ASAP. They’re eyeing other stars next summer, but they should put first things first and lock Porzingis up.
6. Karl-Anthony Towns (restricted)
Much like Porzingis’ situation, Towns should not hit the market. He will likely sign a max contract with the Timberwolves. But this predicament is a little bit more complicated. Unlike the Knicks, the Wolves have other notable pieces on the roster to play with. Jimmy Butler (next on this list) has a player option in 2019, and Andrew Wiggins is already on the books with a massive deal for the next four years. Furthermore, the Wolves struggled in the playoffs, and despite all his talent, Towns hasn’t fully figured out his role in Tom Thibodeau’s offense. We’re not saying Towns is going anywhere — it’d be a big surprise if he did — but don’t be stunned if the Wolves make some type of move involving Butler or Wiggins so they feel comfortable giving Towns a max contract.
5. Jimmy Butler
Butler is playing on a value deal at the moment, earning only $18.7 million this season – about half of what some other stars, like Steph Curry and LeBron, are making. Thus, it’s widely expected that Butler will decline his player option for next season. He fit in well with the Wolves last season, but injured his meniscus in the first game after the All-Star break and missed over a month of action. The T-Wolves lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Rockets in five games. The 28-year-old, the No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft, will command major dollars on the market because of his impressive two-way play. He should have no shortage of suitors. If nothing changes in Minnesota, we expect him to sign elsewhere.
4. Klay Thompson
This is where things get interesting. We thought long and hard about whether Butler or Thompson belong in the No. 4 spot, but the Splash Brother gets the edge for a few reasons: (1) his slight age advantage (he’s about half a year younger than Butler); (2) his durability; and (3) he’s never had any problems in the locker room, unlike Butler. The Warriors are in a real bind now with their payroll, having dished out a massive – but justified – deal to Steph Curry. But Thompson has said he “probably” would take a pay cut, and his father, Mychal, recently predicted Klay will retire with Golden State. We believe that’s a real possibility because we don’t expect Durant to be on the payroll — but more on that in a bit.
3. Kyrie Irving
Kyrie, 26, was having a beautiful first season with the Celtics before undergoing a procedure in late March to remove a tension wire in his left knee. That procedure led to another, which ended up marking the end of Irving’s season. During his 60 games with Boston, he proved he could be a team’s No. 1 offensive weapon. He averaged 22.0 points, 5.5 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 38.8 percent from outside. Irving hails from New York, and rumors have indicated he and his good buddy Butler want to team up — we think there’s legitimate reason to believe they both could sign with the Knicks or Nets.
2. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi wanted to land with a Los Angeles team before his trade from the Spurs, and all signs indicate he still wants to land with a team in L.A. Sure, he’ll probably suit up for the Raptors — it’d be self-sabotage not to — and Masai Ujiri will probably make a good case for Kawhi to come back. But we don’t see this one in the cards. The fit just isn’t there. Kawhi is from California, and it’s not a secret that he hates cold climates. The real question is: would Kawhi still sign with the Lakers, his initially preferred destination, now that LeBron has joined the Lake Show? We don’t think so. Expect Doc Rivers and the Clippers to luck out and land arguably the league’s best two-way player on a max contract after he declines his 2019-20 player option. Of course, he still has to prove he’s healthy this season.
1. Kevin Durant
During his time with the Warriors, Durant has consistently restructured his deals to ease the team’s cap burden. This summer, he finally got paid, commanding $30 million with a player option for 2019-20. He’ll turn 30 this season. If the Warriors run it back and win yet another title –- which everyone under the sun expects they will — our money is on Durant joining a new squad. He’s never going to garner the respect he thinks he deserves for winning a title in Golden State. Point blank, period, no matter how many he wins. People will always see it as a cop-out, a soft move. Now, if he led a struggling team – like, say, the Knicks – to glory? Now that would win over even his harshest critics. Durant already has two rings and two Finals MVP trophies on his resume, which should get longer this year. Given the everlasting chip on his shoulder, we’d be surprised if he were content to just ride it out and keep accumulating accolades with Golden State. The opportunity to enrich his legacy, and to reverse his reputation, will be too enticing.
Honorable Mention/Notable Names: Khris Middleton, DeAndre Jordan, Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick, Ricky Rubio, Bojan Bogdanovic, Eric Bledsoe, Paul Millsap (team option), Goran Dragic, Harrison Barnes, Hassan Whiteside, Isaiah Thomas
Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]