2019 NBA Free Agents: The Playoff's Impact on Free Agency
Since championships are the only thing that matters, the NBA Playoffs define so many aspects of the NBA. How players and teams perform specifically in the playoffs is extremely impactful on how they’re viewed in the coming free agency. But the lens through which these performances are viewed can vary tremendously as well.
1. The Intentional Non-Contenders - Brooklyn and Los Angeles
For a few teams, the aim of the playoffs wasn’t to realistically contend but to audition for free agents. These are the teams that have good coaches and excellent role players and just need a superstar to make them contenders. These teams usually get knocked out in the first round by superior talent, further highlighting that they’re one good player away.
The Nets did a great job taking Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers before losing the next four games. The Clippers overperformed, winning two games in their series against the Golden State Warriors. Both teams are very good, but need a true super star of their own team to even things up. This free agency class is teeming with players just like that.
2. The Impending Free-Agents - Philadelphia and Boston
The 76ers, despite easily dispatching the Nets, have their own problems to address this summer. The yield from their two big trades, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, are both free agents this offseason, and likely to get max money offers. The goal was to compete for a title this season, but unless they can do better than the Night King when they go back to the North for Game 7, they’ll be out in the Eastern Conference Semifinals yet again, and ‘The Process’ will not have been vindicated.
Keeping both players would be costly, especially since the Sixers gutted their depth and bench in the trades used to acquire them. Other than Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler has been their only consistently good player this series, but at 29, with a game that won’t age well into his 30s, Butler makes any team wary of giving him the max. While Tobias Harris is a bit younger at 26, he’s all but disappeared this series, crucially missing two late 3’s in Game 4 that could have given Philly a 3-1 lead. Letting both walk would be disastrous, though. Decisions, decisions.
Over in Boston, an exhausting rollercoaster of a season has finally come to an end as the Celtics were blown out in Game 5 to lose 4-1 to the Milwaukee Bucks. At the center of all the chaos is Kyrie Irving, one of the big fish in this year’s free agency pond. The Celtics blew out the Bucks in Game 1, famously leading Paul Pierce to announce that the series was over. He was right, from a certain point of view, as the Bucks took their game to another level and ended Boston’s season.
For a team with championship hopes, this season was a disaster. Jayson Tatum regressed after a promising rookie season, Gordon Hayward struggled to return to All-Star form, and Al Horford isn’t getting any younger. What looked like a budding dynasty appears to have been smashed by Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Irving played this series like he had one foot out the door. The other may be following it soon.
3. The Wild Cards - Toronto and Golden State
On the other side of the 76ers-Raptors series, superstar Kawhi Leonard is another soon-to-be free agent. Unlike some other players mentioned, though, it’s no secret that Leonard has a good chance of leaving in free agency, as some might say San Antonio traded him to Toronto out of spite. So this season has been a yearlong audition for Leonard to stay, and the regular season results were spectacular.
In the playoffs, Leonard has taken his game to a whole new level - he’s been arguably the best player in the playoffs - but the cast around him has not been of the caliber that earned the Raptors the 2-seed. Kyle Lowry has fallen in his annual playoff funk, and Pascal Siakam has been a bit exposed in his first playoffs under the microscope; it’s clear the Raptors need Leonard more than he needs them.
While they would happily keep a player who is a Top-3 talent when healthy, the Raptors and President Masai Ujiri have been rumored to want a remodel. If Leonard thanks the Raptors for their time and takes his talents West (*cough* LA Clippers *cough*), they might not be as torn up as anticipated.
Lastly, Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors has been at the center of the free agent discussion all season long. Durant has as much claim to the ‘Best Basketball Player Living’ Crown as anyone, and for that reason the Warriors would obviously love to keep him, despite long-running rumors of his imminent departure.
But the Warriors aren’t “THE WARRIORS” any more, as the attempted Round 1 sleepwalk-to-victory over the Clippers bore out. Now the Warriors are up 3-2 against the Houston Rockets in the Western Semifinals, Durant has been playing at an obscene level, and until someone actually beats them in a 7-game series, they’re the prohibitive favorite. Yet this series feels like the end of an era, and Durant’s strained right calf might accelerate that reality. The Warriors looked a little stale for all their talent; they just might welcome the chance to shake things up.
Even though we’re still in the middle of the 2019 NBA playoffs, it’s hard not to see how the results will impact the decisions players and teams make in free agency. There’s still plenty of playoff basketball left to be played, and more opportunities for some players to change what’ll happen come July.