- The 2018-19 NBA playoffs will be high-stakes, with the potential to impact the offseason more than usual.
- Several of the top teams in the NBA have big-name free agents who could decide to stay or leave in free agency, depending on their playoff success.
- Though not every team has major impending free agents, others will have to seriously weigh their futures and their overall rosters if they exit the playoffs early.
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The NBA playoffs are never without stakes, but this year, the potential fallout around the league could be huge.
All 16 teams want to advance, of course, but for some teams, advancing or falling short and what it could mean for their rosters, could have huge impacts this summer.
Some of the top teams in the NBA, including the Golden State Warriors, still the heavy favourites to win the championship, have big-name players slated to hit free agency this offseason.
The same is true in the Eastern Conference, where the top four teams, the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, and Boston Celtics, are widely regarded as near equals, all capable of making the Finals, and all have key players hitting the open market.
For other teams, advancing or falling short could raise some big questions about their rosters.
The results of the playoffs could dictate what happens in the summer.
A loaded free agent class on the horizon
Some of the top free agents this offseason include Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, and DeMarcus Cousins.
What do those players have in common? They are all either on the Warriors, Bucks, Raptors, 76ers, or Celtics, five of the top teams in the league.
Rumours have persisted all season long that Durant and Irving could leave their near-ideal situations in free agency, with several rumours suggesting they could team up on the New York Knicks.
Their situations are quite different, however.
Nobody truly knows what Durant will do this summer – though chatter around the league suggests him going to the Knicks is a done deal, it’s not quite so clear. If the Warriors accomplish their goal and win a third straight championship, will that embolden Durant to leave, believing he’s accomplished all that he can with Golden State? If the Warriors shockingly fall short, will that motivate him to stay or only push him further out?
Given Irving’s year-long waxings on culture, championship pursuits, and a desire to compete in the playoffs, it seems like the playoffs may have a real impact on his decision. If the Celtics do round into form and at least make the conference finals, will that prompt him to re-sign with Boston? If the Celtics lose in the second round, would he look to sign elsewhere?
Those questions ring true for the 76ers’ star core, too. The Sixers pulled off big in-season trades for Butler and Harris this season. The team hasn’t quite blended as they would have hoped, and the playoffs will put to test the debates over cumulative talent or chemistry.
According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, if the Sixers re-sign Butler and Harris to max contracts, then extend Ben Simmons next fall (not to mention impending free agent J.J. Redick), the Sixers’ total bill, with taxes, could be $US500 million. Suffice to say, if the Sixers come up short of the Finals, it will be tough to justify keeping both Butler and Harris at top-dollar. They could end up hitting the open market.
Meanwhile, the Raptors’ gamble on Leonard is well-known. They have had one year to try and woo him. Even with a reported desire to go to L.A., would a Finals run in Toronto make it too hard for Leonard to leave this summer?
The Bucks have been the NBA’s best team this season. They have Giannis Antetokounmpo locked into a deal, but how far they go in the playoffs could determine if they re-sign Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Nikola Mirotic to big deals.
The run-it-back dilemma
Not every team has major impending free agents, but some teams will face similarly big questions about roster construction.
Perhaps the biggest first-round series will be between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. Both teams were handed ugly first-round losses last year, ran it back, and succeeded this year. The bad news is, one of those teams will suffer the same fate this season.
Both teams are stocked with star talent but have few ways of improving. The Blazers have understandably scoffed at the notion that they should blow their perennial 50-win team up just because they haven’t contended for a title yet. But there would presumably be some apprehension about bringing this same team back, particularly when starting center Jusuf Nurkic will most likely be out for most of next season.
The Thunder have made big financial commitments to the trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams. But if that core, flush with two legitimate All-NBA players, can’t advance beyond the first round two years in a row, the Thunder may have to ask where they are headed.
Other teams will have tough questions to ask if they have early exits. What will the Utah Jazz do this offseason, without a top draft pick or a popular market to offer free agents? Ditto the San Antonio Spurs, who have two All-Stars of their own, but no obvious methods of improvement going forward.
Ugly playoff exits could heat up the trade market, as teams look for ways to reshape their rosters.
Free agents with a different mindset?
There could be one counter to the idea that playoff success will impact free agency.
Irving, Durant, Leonard, and Thompson are unique: they’re top free agents, in their primes, who have all won championships already.
Some in the NBA world have wondered if that success could affect their decisions. While most players pursue a combination of a winning situation and a good market, these players have already won at the highest level. That could liberate them to make a choice that simply makes them happiest.
That thinking could be why the Knicks are considered a free agent destination. They don’t offer the best winning situation, but they offer the biggest market in America and a blank slate for free agents to shape.
Those players’ championship experience could in some ways negate the importance of this postseason. Winning is a priority, of course, but perhaps Irving would stay in Boston, even if they lose in the second round. Perhaps Leonard would leave Toronto even if they made a run to the Finals, or maybe he would stay even if they exited the playoffs early because he enjoyed his time there.
The number of big-name free agents and teams with cap space has already set this summer up to be a big one. The results of the postseason have the potential to make it even bigger.
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