NBA free agency opened in a billion-dollar bang, with the Brooklyn Nets landing two of the summer’s biggest names.
Teams and players were able to begin negotiations at 6 p.m. EDT on Sunday, and they quickly had reached agreement on deals collectively worth more than $1.4 billion. Shortly after the deadline passed, the Nets emerged with perennial All-Stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, a bounty for an organization that finished with the league’s worst record two years ago and hasn’t won 50 games since 2002.
Durant, who is expected to miss all of next season after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon during the Finals, announced his intention on Instagram to sign a four-year, $164 million contract with Brooklyn. The 2014 MVP also weighed offers from the New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Clippers and his former team, the Golden State Warriors.
Word of Irving’s four-year, $141 million max agreement began leaking earlier this week, once it became clear that the All-Star point guard had no interest in returning to the Boston Celtics. Irving, who hails from New Jersey, is one of two point guards headed for a homecoming of sorts. The Celtics moved swiftly to replace Irving with Kemba Walker, a college star at Connecticut plucked from the Charlotte Hornets with a four-year, $141 million deal.
Kawhi Leonard, the summer’s top headliner, did not join Durant in announcing his plans Sunday. The 2019 Finals MVP is expected to meet with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers and the Toronto Raptors in Southern California this week before making his decision.
Much of the early flurry involved incumbent teams retaining their own star talent. The Portland Trail Blazers agreed to sign franchise point guard Damian Lillard to a four-year, $196 million supermax extension. The Warriors agreed to ink Klay Thompson to a five-year, $190 max contract even though the All-Star guard suffered a torn ACL during the Finals. After trading for Kristaps Porzingis in February, the Dallas Mavericks made a pact on a five-year max deal worth $158 million to keep him. And the Orlando Magic, fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2012, agreed to re-sign All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million deal.
Among the early agreements, Irving’s decision arguably commanded the greatest influence on the rest of the free agency period and the 2020 title race. First, it dashed New York’s long-held dream of pairing Durant and Irving, and it scuttled recent talk of a possible reunion between Irving and LeBron James on the Lakers. Second, it helped the Nets land Durant, who has the potential to vault his new team to the top of the Eastern Conference once he returns in 2020-21.
For the Lakers, who have occupied center stage since trading for All-Star forward Anthony Davis in June, Irving’s move to the Big Apple brought clarification. With Irving and Walker both out of the picture, the Lakers will look at Leonard, Philadelphia 76ers wing Jimmy Butler or Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell in their search for a third max-level star. The notion of Irving and James rekindling their Cleveland Cavaliers partnership was tantalizing, but Irving’s quick decision to join the Nets – without even meeting with the Lakers – suggests he wasn’t interested in returning to life as a sidekick.
James and Co. face stiff competition for all their remaining targets. The Lakers will pitch Leonard on the merits of joining a “Big Three,” less than a month after the two-time defensive player of the year led Toronto to the title without a second superstar. The other top challengers – the Raptors and Clippers – can promise a larger offensive role and a quieter life outside James’ orbit.
Butler, meanwhile, has been linked to the 76ers, Clippers and Houston Rockets, and he was in Miami on Sunday, hoping to work out a possible sign-and-trade agreement with the Heat. The 29-year-old wing sacrificed some of his offense when joining Philadelphia, but he would be cast as a clear third option in L.A. In Miami, he would return to life as the centerpiece.
Russell also has options. The 23-year-old point guard is the highest-profile restricted free agent who isn’t considering a return to his incumbent team. The Minnesota Timberwolves have expressed interest in pairing him with franchise center Karl-Anthony Towns, who is also 23, but would need to clear salary to make it happen.
The Lakers traded Russell away two years ago and now find themselves with a hole at point guard after dealing Lonzo Ball to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. While Russell’s status as a ball-dominant scorer and subpar defender makes him a less-than-ideal fit alongside James and Davis, the Lakers are keen on forming a star trio rather than spreading out cap space among role players.