So many marquee names. So much money for teams to spend. This Sunday, starting at 6 p.m. Eastern Time, the N.B.A. could witness one of the wildest off-seasons in league history.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers are trying to lure Kawhi Leonard out of Canada after he just led the Toronto Raptors to the championship. Kevin Durant is considering the Knicks and the Nets, as well as the Clippers, along with a return to the Golden State Warriors.
Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton join Leonard — plus the injured but still deeply coveted duo of Durant and Klay Thompson from the Warriors — as the headliners in a deep free-agent class. It’s a lot to track — especially with nine teams expected to have at least $30 million in salary-cap space and roughly 200 other free agents in a league that offers only 450 full-time jobs.
The forecast for considerable movement is promising, given the go-for-it sentiment that has infected numerous front offices. The league’s sudden lack of a clear-cut favorite for the first time since Golden State’s championship run began in 2015 — provided Leonard decides not to return to Toronto — invites daring and deal-making.
Just don’t forget that the bar is rather high for any summer to go down as an all-timer, thanks to the N.B.A.’s reputation for transactional bedlam. To refresh you on how competitive this category can be, here are five standout off-seasons that set the standard for chaos:
1996: The Shaq-Daddy of Them All
For all the anticipation that the July marketplace generates in the modern N.B.A., we have yet to see an off-season that can match 1996 for leaguewide madness.
The Knicks signed Allan Houston and traded for Larry Johnson. Michael Jordan re-signed with the Chicago Bulls on a one-year, $30.4 million contract — lavish compensation at the time. The Miami Heat handed out the league’s first-ever contract exceeding $100 million, to Alonzo Mourning, then saw their seven-year, $98 million contract with Juwan Howard voided by the league for violating salary cap rules, sending Howard back to Washington. In mid-August, after things had died down, Phoenix dealt Charles Barkley to Houston.
But all of that was the (deep) undercard to Shaquille O’Neal’s first foray into free agency. Jerry West, then the Los Angeles Lakers’ general manager, persuaded the representatives for Kobe Bryant, 17, to insist that their client would play abroad if he wasn’t allowed to join the Lakers. Then West also traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Bryant’s draft rights. That created nearly $5 million in extra salary-cap space.
On July 11, 1996, Charlotte and the Lakers finalized the Bryant trade. Seven days later, after West had created another $2 million-plus in cap space by trading Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to the Vancouver Grizzlies, O’Neal agreed to a seven-year, $120 million contract to leave Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic for the Lakers.
Shaq has maintained that an infamous Orlando Sentinel poll just two days before he committed to the Lakers sealed his decision to leave; 91.3 percent of more than 5,000 respondents had said he wasn’t worth a seven-year, $115 million deal. The Magic had gone 60-22 in the 1995-96 season, O’Neal’s last in Orlando. They have not won 60 games in a season since.
2003: The Helicopters
When the Golden State Warriors followed a 73-win season in 2016 by signing Kevin Durant, there was an outcry that the Warriors were ruining basketball by hoarding superstars.
Often forgotten is that a similar scenario nearly played out with the San Antonio Spurs in the summer of 2003 — except the howling was muted in an era that predated social media and the proliferation of sports TV debate shows.
The Spurs’ response to beating the Nets in the 2003 finals was to stage one of the most ornate free-agent recruiting efforts ever to try to sign the Nets’ franchise star, Jason Kidd. The Spurs put up Kidd at a fancy golf resort in San Antonio in a nod to his other favorite sport, leading to multiple sightings of news helicopters overhead.
The Nets, though, won Kidd over after he returned to New Jersey. Duncan, the All-Star big man, and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich made a trip East to continue lobbying Kidd, but the future Hall of Fame point guard ultimately decided to stay with the team he had just led to back-to-back finals appearances.
2010: The Decision
It was a line that not only defined an off-season but that will likely follow LeBron James well beyond retirement: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”
He said it as part a widely panned television event conceived to give the best basketball player of his generation, and a native son of Akron, Ohio, an unparalleled platform to announce that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. That James took advantage of the enormous interest in his decision to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club was largely lost as people wrote him off as egotistic and debated whether his plan, to join forces with Dwyane Wade and, later, Chris Bosh on a South Beach superteam, was an insult to the stars of the past who tried to beat their friends rather than join them.
It didn’t calm things down any that the league’s new-age Big Three, seemingly assembled by the players themselves as much as by Pat Riley, Miami’s team president, subsequently held a welcoming parade at American Airlines Arena. They came out in their uniforms, Bosh flexed and yelled, and James promised “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …” championships.
Significant money was doled out to Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and David Lee, but none of the other deals that summer could compare to Miami’s machinations.
The league’s Player Power era, with James as the foremost star, was officially underway. N.B.A. off-seasons would never be the same — as James showed us again in 2014 when he left South Beach to go back home to the Cavaliers.
2016: The Cap Spike
Had the Warriors won the 2016 finals, chances are Durant never joins them. But, as any N.B.A. fan knows, they blew a 3-1 lead and lost to LeBron’s Cavaliers. Even so, Golden State also needed the good fortune of a mammoth cap spike. A huge increase in the league’s new television contract and the players’ union’s refusal to let the league infuse the money gradually hiked the salary cap by a whopping $24.1 million. That enabled the Warriors to sign a superstar they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise — and it also led to a leaguewide spending spree that is rarely remembered fondly.
The Lakers committed $137 million to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. The Knicks gave $122 million to Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee. Several more questionable deals were signed, which made the major paydays to franchise stalwarts such as Mike Conley (five years, $153 million from Memphis), DeMar DeRozan (five years, $139 million from Toronto) and Bradley Beal (five years, $128 million from Washington) seem reasonable by comparison.
The Cousins signing, to many, presumably made the 2018-19 season a foregone conclusion.
But a different deal decided the season. Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors, shocked the N.B.A. by trading away his franchise star, DeMar DeRozan, in a mid-July swap that netted Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It seemed to be an enormous risk, with the Raptors coming off a 59-win season. Also both players Ujiri acquired were, effectively, rentals. On top of that, Leonard’s health was in doubt after he sat out nearly all of the 2017-18 season in San Antonio.
But Ujiri’s off-season dice rolls, which also included his decision to replace Coach Dwane Casey, led to Toronto’s first title. James, for the first since 2005, missed the playoffs entirely.