By Greg Oliver
It didn’t take long for the Golden State Warriors to dispatch the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. The Cavs’ meltdown on the road in Game 1 and blown lead in Game 3 at home took the wind out of their sails and enabled Golden State to win its second consecutive title and third in four years — all against Cleveland.
But the NBA Finals in recent years have really served as nothing but an obstacle standing in the way of the most exciting part of the league — free agency. Fans have watched the face of the league in LeBron James switch from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland — winning titles the last two times he’s switched teams.
This year, King James again has the opportunity to opt out of his contract, and the fact that it appears to be a foregone conclusion promises to make him the highlight of another offseason free-agent bonanza.
Speculation on where LeBron will go includes the Los Angeles Lakers (I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that) as well as the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and a slight chance he will return to Cleveland. While you can expect a similar type of courtship that suitors gave James in 2010, each presenting their respective sales pitches, wherever he decides to play will dominate sports headlines for much of the summer.
Some teams will create cap space to sign James, something the Lakers have already done and, in their case, have enough cap space to sign two max-contract players. Yet, whoever misses out on James will still have quality free agents that figure to be available to help franchises in need of some serious talent infusion.
That list includes Golden State forward Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City forward Paul George, Houston guard Chris Paul, New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins and Houston center Clint Capela. Durant has already indicated that he plans to re-sign with the Warriors after opting out, and Paul is expected to stay in Houston, but, along with James, George and Cousins are likely to shop other potential destinations, and any combination of James and George or James and Cousins would certainly boost the fortunes of any team that signs them.
Other free agents include Lakers’ forward Julius Randle, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon and Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan.
Of course, some players are restricted free agents, which means their teams can match offers to retain their rights or have player or team options. Of the top 10 available free agents, James, Durant, George and Jordan have player options while Capela, Gordon, Randle and Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker are all listed as restricted free agents. The notable unrestricted free agents are Paul and Cousins.
There are other free agents whose star power may have diminished in recent years, including Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony, Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki.
While some players will ink long-term contracts with their current teams, even those decisions will have ramifications. Teams will undoubtedly have to clear enough cap space to fit those contracts into the salary cap, which means other players will be jettisoned and, therefore, create additional opportunities for teams looking to improve talent via free agency.
While Major League Baseball has long held the nickname of “Hot Stove League” to describe the wheeling and dealing that takes place each offseason, last year’s winter movement was a virtual dud. Instead, it’s the NBA that has taken on the moniker, perhaps with the nickname of “Sizzlin’ Summer” best suited to describe what has become a plethora of free agency, draft and trade activity that is about to officially kick off.
One thing is for sure: the coming weeks should make for some exciting or, perhaps, frustrating days for fans hopeful of seeing the fortunes of their favorite teams improve in 2018 and beyond.