What to know about NBA free agency: The drama begins with Kyrie

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This year’s NBA Draft was a small-market affair: Once the dust settled on the trades, only two of 14 lottery picks – Houston’s Jabari Smith and Washington’s Johnny Davis – landed in the top 10 TV markets of the league. By contrast, the upcoming period of free agency, which officially opens Thursday at 6 p.m. EST, will be dominated by big-market intrigue.

The drama begins in New York, where the Brooklyn Nets must sort through complex negotiations with Kyrie Irving at the risk of upsetting Kevin Durant, and the Knicks appear to have cap space burning a hole in their pockets. Meanwhile, star guards James Harden (Philadelphia 76ers), Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls) and Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards) are all due for lucrative new offers.

In the West, the Golden State Warriors will incur another massive luxury tax bill as they try to keep their title-winning slate together, while the Dallas Mavericks, their Western Conference Finals opponent, fend off the Interested suitors for vanguard Jalen Brunson. In Los Angeles, the Lakers are desperate for a reset after a humiliating 33-win season, while the deep-pocketed Clippers are bound to be aggressive with Kawhi Leonard expected to finally return from a knee injury this fall.

Keep in mind: Cap space is tight around the league and the unrestricted free agent pool is light on superstars, so pulling off a major shakeup will require some serious front-office creativity. Before the rumors heat up this week, here’s what’s at stake for five of the NBA’s biggest hitters.

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brooklyn nets: A disastrous first-round outing after months of uncertainty around Irving put the Nets in the spotlight. The 30-year-old keeper hinted in April that his return would be a formality, but a different picture has emerged in recent weeks.

Irving is used to getting as much money as his teams are legally allowed to pay him, and he’s eligible for a five-year deal worth nearly $250 million. Understandably, the Brooklyn property and front office are reluctant to commit to such a long term given Irving’s injury history, spotty availability and vaccine-related absences. Last week, reports surfaced that Irving was evaluating his alternatives, including the Lakers, but he’ll likely find he’s not as coveted by other suitors as he might think.

The Nets face the biggest pressure of any team in the league: If they can’t reach a deal with Irving, Durant would end up with a shell of the budding superteam he thought he formed the last year with Harden and Irving. Would such a sudden change in fortune cause Durant to ask for a trade?

In addition to those fundamental challenges, the Nets have a ton of notable contributors who can hit free agency, including Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, Goran Dragic, Nic Claxton and veteran big men Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. Even if Irving and Durant re-engage, Brooklyn is going to have their hands full to fill out a roster capable of fighting.

New York Knicks: It doesn’t exactly take a code breaker to decipher New York’s intentions. Knicks executives showed up on the field in the Mavericks’ April playoffs, then hired Brunson’s father, Rick Brunson, as an assistant coach in early June. During the draft, New York traded its lottery pick and gave up Kemba Walker’s salary in a trade to increase its buying power in pursuit of guarding Dallas and other targets.

Brunson, 25, would plug in well as New York’s starting point guard, and he just finished a career season in which he averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists. Still, Brunson’s strong playoff performance — he averaged 21.6 points per game and had 41 points in a first-round win over the Utah Jazz — will have Dallas highly motivated to keep him. How high, exactly, are the Knicks willing to go for their man?

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Los Angeles Lakers: Russell Westbrook proved to be a terrible fit in his first season with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but the Lakers have given every indication they expect him to return for the final year of a contract that will earn him $47.1 million. First-time coach Darvin Ham, who was hired in May, went so far as to call Westbrook “one of the best players our league has ever seen”, adding that the 33-year-old guard “still has it.” a ton in the Chariot.”

Either way, the Lakers need to seriously explore all options to trade Westbrook, who posted a career-low player efficiency rating last season. If they can’t find a suitable deal, the Lakers will end up with a very heavy cover sheet and huge holes at the wing positions. Cycling through veteran minimum palliatives didn’t work last season, and they’re bound to be a less desirable destination for free agents after cratering 11th in the West.

It should also be noted that James, 37, is eligible for an extension this summer. In February, the four-time MVP flirted with the possibility of returning to Cleveland and teaming up with his teenage son, Bronny, on the road. Whether James agrees to the nearly $100 million two-year extension will shed significant light on whether he plans to retire with the Lakers or seek greener pastures in July 2023.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Warriors hadn’t even staged their championship parade before the Clippers became a popular pick to topple them in 2022-23. On paper, there’s a lot to like with a roster of veterans led by Leonard and Paul George as well as a supporting cast loaded with shooters and switchable defenders. The Boston Celtics’ wings and frontcourt athletes caused the Warriors problems in the Finals, and the Clippers, if healthy, would present similar challenges.

Above all, Steve Ballmer is the rare owner willing to try to follow the Warriors into a spendthrift arms race. The billionaire former Microsoft executive took a hefty salary at the trade deadline, and he’ll surely be keen to retain forward Nicolas Batum, the Clippers’ top free agent. Another intriguing option is John Wall, who was signed by the Rockets last season but could reach a buyout deal on an expiring contract that will net him $47.4 million. If Houston finally releases Wall, he would have the chance to chase a title and play real minutes in the Clippers’ backcourt.

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Golden State Warriors: Shortly after winning its fourth title in eight years, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told a San Francisco radio station that he thought Golden State would be “even better next year.” It’s not exactly a good catch: Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson barely played together during the 2021-22 regular season; 2020 No. 2 pick James Wiseman never saw the pitch due to his lengthy rehabilitation from injury; and promising rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody will have another season to mature.

Before the Warriors can repeat as champions, however, they will have to sort through a long list of free agents, including starting center Kevon Looney, defensive backcourt specialist Gary Payton II and veteran wingers Otto Porter and Andre Iguodala. Looney, 26, should be the top priority as his interior defense and rebounding have proven vital throughout their title run.

To keep the group together, Golden State could end up topping $425 million in payroll, luxury taxes and snooze taxes in 2022-23, according to an estimate from CBSSports.com. To put this unprecedented level of spending into context, the NBA’s salary cap was $112.4 million last season. There’s no need to shed tears for owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber as Forbes pegged the Warriors’ franchise value at $5.6 billion last October, second in the NBA behind the Knicks. .

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