With the floodgates of free agency about to open at 12:00 AM on July 1st, fans, owners, and players alike wait to see how the NBA will get shaken up. There are a lot of top targets expected to be on the market, and plenty of possible destinations for them to call home next year. Let’s take a look at my top free agents for 2017, and where I think they should play.
Before I could even finish this article, Paul was signed and traded to Houston. So instead of omitting him from this post, let me briefly describe why I love this trade so much. For those of you who do not know, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the Clippers have been known to have some friction. So much so that Paul and Griffin were willing to forego a hefty pay raise to stay in L.A. in favor of opting out of their player options. Nonetheless, Paul and Griffin were prepared to move out of Los Angeles. So the Clippers, realizing their two biggest superstars were about to leave without the slightest bit of compensation, devised a plan to relatively save their organization.
Here’s where it gets technical. Paul is an NBA veteran and is potentially due for a max contract at the end of next year worth close to $250 million if he were to choose to re-sign for 5 years. However, if he does not sign and simply picks a contract from another team in free agency, he can only make $152 million over 4 years. The fact that he was willing to lose $100 million to leave L.A. truly shows his distaste for the Clippers. And who can blame him? Arguably one of the best pure point guards of all-time, he has never made an appearance in the Conference Finals. With no real potential in L.A., I think he has a right to explore other options to help him find postseason success. I say pure point guard because he is an assist machine, he has unparalleled court vision, and can dictate the pace of the game. Also, standing only 6’0″ tall, Paul doesn’t have the capability to muscle up and score like the other non-traditional superstar PGs in the league today.
Anyway, as I was saying, Paul was going to lose out on $100 million, and the Clippers were about to lose their face of the franchise for nothing. So, the two parties orchestrated a deal to suit both sides. With Houston primed to compete with San Antonio for Paul’s talents, the second the free agency window opened, the Clippers had some leverage for a few more days. L.A. persuaded Paul to accept the player option and promised to trade him immediately. This makes Paul happy, as he gets his guaranteed $24.2 million this year, and his max, 5-year contract next year goes from $150 million to approximately $202 million because he was acquired via trade and not on his own volition so to speak.
So now Paul is happy. Check. The Clippers are happy because they get to work out a deal to acquire 3 mid-tier players and a 2018 first round draft pick when otherwise they would have received nothing. Double Check. The Rockets are even happy because they won the bidding war against the Spurs before it could even begin! Everybody wins! Bravo. All that remains is seeing how Paul and James Harden can work together. Assuming Harden can make a smooth transition to SG, Paul will give him some great touches and open looks, perhaps bolstering him to win MVP in 2018. I think the two can really tear up the league, and I can’t wait to see how it shakes out.
Obviously, there are a couple of bigger names out there, but I want to discuss Griffin first. Before opting out of his contract, Griffin was scheduled to make about $21 million next year. Now, it appears that he’s ready for a max contract of his own. He hasn’t always gotten along with Paul, so I don’t believe CP3 influenced Griffin’s decisions at all. However, now that Paul has packed his bags, Griffin might be more willing to re-sign with the Clippers. That is surely L.A.’s hope, as he is now their #1 target, and they have the budget to give Griffin anything he wants.
However, there are many more variables in play. For example, Griffin has reportedly subtly expressed interest in playing in Boston, and the Celtics hold the key to seemingly every signing this July. With an embarrassment of trade assets, Boston can pick and choose who they want. However, it’s well known that the C’s want to prioritize signing Gordon Hayward, and if that works out, they can easily strike a deal for Paul George. However, if Hayward chooses to re-sign in Utah or to take his talents to South Beach, only then will Boston pursue Griffin. Again, as long as they’re not too late, Boston should have no problem making it happen with all of their draft picks and depth at their disposal.
Still, it’s not that cut and dry. There are a couple of other dark horses in the mix: the Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns, and the New York Knicks. The Nuggets emerging as contenders for a few of these big stars surprised me, but they have the means to make it happen under an aggressive team president in Tim Connelly. It’s hard to see where they will cash their chips, as they are an underdog to get Griffin, and they also covet Paul Millsap and Kevin Love. Clearly desperate for a PF, they may get their wish, but at what cost? Also, Griffin has a lot of self interest in Phoenix, but I’m not convinced that is a realistic option for him at this point in his career. Lastly, the Knicks have some down time to go after a big name. Team president James Dolan has expressed that his focus is on free agency before he will search for Phil Jackson’s replacement. With Carmelo Anthony confirming his interest in staying in New York, Dolan has the leisure of concentrating all of his efforts on Griffin. However, with all of the turmoil surrounding the organization, I find it unlikely that Griffin will choose to sign there.
The Clippers have the inside track to retain Griffin, but it all depends on the Celtics. Griffin will likely hold out making any formal decisions until Boston shows their cards, but seeing as they appear locked in on Hayward and George, that leaves Griffin on the backburner. The safe play will be to re-sign and restart with a new-look Clippers team, which I believe has the potential to surprise, despite the insanely deep and competitive Western Conference.
I loved watching Hayward transform from a role player in Utah to potentially the most coveted player of free agency. After a terrific season, Hayward proved he was no fluke with his leadership and significant stat line during the playoffs. That, without the help of the injured Rudy Gobert for a few key games against the Clippers. I’m sure the Jazz are thrilled with his sudden production, but it comes at a pivotal time in the organization. Will Hayward leave for greener pastures (no pun intended), or will he stay home and bring the Jazz back to the high caliber that they had in the 80s and 90s?
There are 3 front runners in the Hayward sweepstakes: the Jazz, Celtics, and Heat. The Jazz have been campaigning hard with the hashtag, “Stayward”, on billboards throughout the city and on social media. It’s fair to say that Utah has fallen in love with their newfound hero, and are depending on him to return and to keep the Jazz trending upward. It’s a solid option for Hayward, as he is close with his teammates, and he has never suited up for anyone else. After playing in his first All-star game after 7 years in the NBA, he has earned a good contract that Utah can afford, too. If it wasn’t for the Celtics’ stronghold on the market right now, the Jazz would easily be favorites to make Hayward stay.
The Celtics have a lot going for them. They have money, history, and most importantly – a future. Their pitch to Hayward is the fact that he will be a centerpiece in the NBA Finals run in 2018. Not to mention, he already has ties in Boston. Head coach Brad Stevens mentored Hayward throughout his years at Butler. If anyone can take him away from “home”, it’s the family that Stevens has created with the Celtics. You have to remember, Hayward is just entering his prime at this point; he doesn’t need to chase championships yet. But as Boston forms their “superteam” one way or another, it’s probably better to be with them than against them. Better yet, if you have a chance to compete outside of the West, I think you should.
I’ll mention the Miami Heat simply because they have a history of grabbing free agents they shouldn’t. I’d consider them a long shot, but for no other reason than that they are the farthest away from a ring. Goran Dragic and Gordon Hayward would work well together, as they have nearly identical playing styles. With Hassan Whiteside down low, the Heat can definitely pitch a “Big 3 2.0” scenario. Pat Riley is a magician with capturing big talent like this who don’t have experience as free agents, but I wouldn’t bet on it this time. It’s a two-man race between the Jazz and Celtics, and with Hayward remaining mum on the topic, it’s anyone’s guess as to where he’ll end up after July 1st. In my opinion, I think Boston’s offer is too tempting to pass up.
I’m only half way done! Please head over and check out Complete Guide to NBA Free Agency (Part 2/2), and leave your own thoughts below!