NBA Free Agency Preview: We’re About to Learn What the NBA’s Biggest Stars Value Most


So, what else will we learn this summer?

Start with James Harden, who would have been the belle of the ball had he entered free agency—as had been expected until late Thursday afternoon. Instead, Harden opted into the final year of deal with Philadelphia, with the idea being that the team would then trade him. His destination is unknown, but we’ve already learned this much: Harden values change over stability, and possibly personal comfort over title contention, too.

Among his possible destinations? The Houston Rockets. And we’ll soon learn just how determined they are to start winning again, after three years of misery. Harden wouldn’t single-handedly change their trajectory—but he would juice ticket sales and TV ratings. The Rockets are also reportedly pursuing recent NBA champions Fred VanVleet (Toronto) and Brook Lopez (Milwaukee), who would bring instant credibility; and Memphis bad boy Dillon Brooks, who…might not.

The Grizzlies telegraphed their own value system in early May, when word leaked that they had no intention of re-signing Brooks, a defensive force who often crosses the line with both his physical play and his bravado. Memphis, a rising young powerhouse, effectively deemed Brooks too great a distraction, too great a risk—but some rival will soon eagerly invest in that same mix of tenacity and chaos.

The Warriors, meanwhile, long ago accepted the volatility that comes with Draymond Green, a key figure in their four championships, who by all indications is set to re-sign with them—less than a year after his punch of Poole plunged the team into turmoil, and stirred doubts about Green’s future. But trading Poole made it clearer than ever that the Warriors view Green as indispensable, and worth whatever risks he poses. Plenty of rival teams could pursue Green, and potentially with bigger offers than the Warriors might want to make at this stage. Which means we might also learn how Green weighs the agonizing decision of loyalty vs. (even greater) riches, a quandary that’s as old as professional sports.

Bruce Brown, for instance, just won his first title as an essential role player for the Denver Nuggets—a breakout moment that makes him a hot commodity in free agency, with suitors expected to offer upwards of $12 million in a starting salary. The Nuggets, due to salary-cap rules, can offer only around $8 million, forcing Brown to make perhaps the toughest call of his career.

Risk assessment is intrinsic to every major transaction teams make. Witness the Dallas Mavericks, who in February traded their best defender (Dorian Finney-Smith), a key scorer (Spencer Dinwiddie), and a first-round pick to acquire Irving, in the hope that pairing him with Luka Doncic would make them contenders. Instead, they went into a tailspin that took them out of the playoffs entirely, and now face a different version of the same risk-reward assessment: How much should they pay Irving in free agency, and for how many years? More bluntly: How much do they trust the most mercurial and polarizing star of the era?

Polarizing stars will be dominating much of the July frenzy. Westbrook—who has bounced from Oklahoma to Houston to Washington to L.A. (the Lakers) to Utah (briefly) and back to L.A. (the Clippers)—now enters free agency with a fraught set of choices. He could stay with his hometown Clippers and chase a title alongside George and Leonard, though likely for a salary near the minimum. He could also chase another big payday somewhere else, possibly with no hope of postseason glory. He turns 35 in November, meaning he might not have too many more of those choices left.

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NBA Free Agency Preview: We’re About to Learn What the NBA’s Biggest Stars Value Most

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