Ranking the 2019-20 Title Contenders: How Kevin Durant’s Decision could change the landscape of the NBA
Coming out of All-Star Weekend, it seems increasingly likely that Kevin Durant leaves the Warriors for New York this summer. After the Knicks cleared two max spots with the Porzingis trade, many began to wonder what they had planned. It only took one video of KD and Kyrie Irving talking and laughing in the hallways of the Spectrum Center for NBA Twitter to start buzzing.
If Durant really does leave the Warriors, the NBA will be in a very interesting place. As fans, we’ve almost become used to the idea of an overwhelming favorite. The Warriors have made FOUR straight Finals, and LeBron James has made EIGHT straight. There hasn’t really been a question about the Finals matchup in too long. Finally, this season, the East is in question, but we all seem to believe the Warriors will defeat the East’s representative.
But if KD leaves, there will really be no overwhelming favorite in either conference. If I asked you right now who the 2nd best team in the West is, I’d probably get a lot of answers: OKC, Denver, Houston, maybe some would even say the Lakers or Jazz. A Durant-less Warriors would probably be right in that mix.
Kevin Durant’s decision is absolutely monumental. He could stay and run it back with the villains that control the league. Or he could leave, he could save his reputation, and become a hero of sorts, bringing parity back to the NBA.
But KD isn’t the only big free agent this summer. Do you wanna guess how many former all-stars will be free agents this summer? Go ahead and guess. It’s TWENTY-EIGHT!! How crazy is that?? To be fair, a good portion of those 28 are totally washed. But there’s still a huge number of stars on the market, check this out.
2019 All-Stars: 8 agents (Dirk and Wade not included here)
2018 All-Stars: 9 free agents
2017 All-Stars: 12 free agents
2016 All-Stars: 10 free agents
2015 All-Stars: 11 free agents
In four months, all of these players will be free agents: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Nikola Vucevic, Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol, Derrick Rose, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and plenty more. This summer can really change things, between the superstars, second-tier guys, and Anthony Davis situation.
Here are my power rankings. For each team, I include their returning players, their expiring free agents, and their cap space/picks.
(Note: Draft Picks are projected. Standings can change, and the lottery will change plenty too.)
RFA= Restricted Free Agent
TO= Team Option
PO= Player Option
Shoutout to Spotrac.com, a great site for salaries, free agency, and projected cap space
Honorable Mention: Brooklyn Nets
The Nets don’t quite deserve “contender” status, but they will definitely be players in free agency, so I’ll put them down as honorable mention for now. It’s incredible what Brooklyn has made out of their situation since the awful trade with Boston in 2013. They’ll be players in free agency. They want Kyrie, but that doesn’t seem as likely. Butler is a more realistic option. Also, look at the picks they’ll have. Brooklyn drafted LeVert 20th, Allen 22th, and Kurucs 40th. They’re good at using those picks.
Returning Players: Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris, Dzanan Musa, Shabazz Napier (TO), Rodions Kurucs
Free Agents: D’Angelo Russell (RFA), DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (RFA)
Projected Cap Space: $55 million
Draft Picks: BKN 1st (17th), DEN 1st (29th), NYK 2nd (31st)
Dream Lineup: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jimmy Butler, DeMarre Carroll, Jarrett Allen
6. Indiana Pacers
With a healthy Victor Oladipo, the Pacers will have a chance. They’ve got the third best record in the East, even without him. You can bet they’re poised to make a deep playoff run next season. Indiana actually has a lot of 2019 free agents on its roster, so there’s some uncertainty, but that also means they’ll have lots of cap space. I bet they’d love to sign a Middleton, Kemba, Bledsoe, Rubio, or Dragic. That level of player could really make them scary. Keep an eye on the Pacers.
Returning Players: Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Doug McDermott, Aaron Holiday, T.J. Leaf
Free Agents: Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Kyle O’Quinn, Tyreke Evans, Wes Matthews.
Projected Cap Space: $49 million
Draft Picks: IND 1st (26th), IND 2nd (56th)
Dream Lineup: Ricky Rubio, Victor Oladipo, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner
5. New York Knicks
Many people around the league really think Durant’s heading to NYC. He would arguably be the best player in the East, depending on how you feel about Giannis and Kawhi. As we all know, the Knicks have two max slots, so they could pair KD with another superstar. That could put them higher than 5th, but I thought this was a good place to slot them for now. However, everyone talks about them getting KD and Kyrie, but there are plenty of consolation prizes available. Butler, Cousins, Walker are three that come to mind. I’m not saying it’s a smart move to give them the max, but the Knicks very well may do so. And of course, they have their pick.
Returning Players: Dennis Smith Jr, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier (TO)
Free Agents: DeAndre Jordan, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay (RFA), Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet (RFA)
Projected Cap Space: $75 million
Draft Picks: NYK 1st (#1), HOU 2nd (#51)
Dream Lineup: Kyrie Irving, Dennis Smith, Kevin Knox, Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson
4. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers have a weird team right now. They played well together in the few games after the Tobias Harris trade, but there’s plenty of uncertainty with the fit of their best players. The top of the East is very tight, it’s hard enough to rank these four for this season, let alone next. I’m putting Philly at 4th mostly because three of their starters are free agents. It seems like they want to keep all three, but who knows what the players will decide? And if they keep all three, they’ll be incredibly shallow again.
Returning Players: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jonathon Simmons, Zhaire Smith, Jonah Bolden
Free Agents: Jimmy Butler (PO), Tobias Harris, JJ Redick, James Ennis (TO), Mike Scott, Boban Marjonovic, Amir Johnson, Furkan Korkmaz (RFA), Justin Patton (RFA)
Projected Cap Space: $41 million
Draft Picks: PHI 1st (#23), CHI 2nd (#34), SAC 2nd (#44), PHI 2nd (#53)
Dream Lineup: Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
3. Milwaukee Bucks
What a season the Bucks have had. A few weeks into the season, I wrote this article about Coach Bud and the Bucks’ turnaround. They’ve still got the best record in the NBA, 2/3 of the way through the regular season. However, Milwaukee has a lot of expiring contracts on its roster. Their 2nd best through 6th best players are all free agents. Chances are, they try to re-sign their guys. They have bird rights, meaning they can spend over the salary cap to sign them. So financially, it would make more sense to run it back. And they’re young enough that that makes sense.
Returning Players: Giannis Antetokounmpo, George Hill, Tony Snell, Ersan Ilyasova, DJ Wilson, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown
Free Agents: Khris Middleton (PO), Eric Bledsoe, Nikola Mirotic, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon (RFA), Christian Wood
Projected Cap Space: $19 million
Draft Picks: MIL 1st (#30), MIL 2nd (#60)
Dream Lineup: Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
2. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are concerned about only one thing this summer: Kawhi Leonard’s free agency. If he leaves, they won’t be contenders at all. If he stays and the Warriors lose Durant, they’ll be in the top tier of title favorites. Their only other valuable player that’s expiring is Danny Green, who can be replaced with the mid-level exception. Marc Gasol should pick up his $26 million option. If they keep Kawhi, they’re contenders.
Returning Players: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby
Free Agents: Kawhi Leonard (PO), Marc Gasol (PO), Danny Green, Pat McCaw, Jeremy Lin
Projected Cap Space: $-23 million
Draft Picks: TOR 2nd (#58)
Dream Lineup: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
1. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are #1 for one reason: Anthony Davis. The trade deadline passed, and it seems like the Pelicans really don’t want to send AD to the Lakers. Boston can make the best offer for Davis if they include Jayson Tatum. This summer is gonna be huge for the Celtics, between the Davis situation, and Kyrie Irving’s free agency. Trading for AD might be the best pitch they can make to Kyrie, so those two could end up being related, too. Not to mention all the expiring role players they have. If I had to bet, I’d say they trade Tatum, one more player, and picks for Davis this June. Horford’s player option is for $30 mil, so he’ll pick it up, and I bet they hang onto Marcus Morris. That’s a scary team. If Durant leaves, they may be the best team in the NBA.
Returning Players: Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, Robert Williams
Free Agents: Kyrie Irving (PO), Al Horford (PO), Aron Baynes (PO), Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier (RFA), Daniel Theis
Projected Cap Space: $-14 million
Draft Picks: BOS 1st (#24), SAC 1st (#14), LAC 1st if the Clippers MAKE the playoffs (#18 right now)
Dream Lineup: Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Hayward/Brown/Morris, Anthony Davis, Al Horford
Honorable Mention: Dallas Mavericks
Dallas will have Luka and Porzingis together next year, PLUS some real cap space. Plus, their pick goes to Atlanta as part of the Luka / Trae Young trade, but it’s top 5 protected. If the Mavs get lucky and their pick is top 5, they can add another young star to their roster. Right now, they’ve got the 9th worst record, which would give them a 20% chance at top 5. They’re only a game ahead of the next spot, a 26% chance. That’s not bad. It’s also crazy how much space they’ll have thanks to the Harrison Barnes trade. Cousins, Middleton, Vucevic, Mirotic, Randle, are all intriguing. Note: Porzingis is restricted, but he’ll be a Mav for next season for sure, probably longer
Returning Players: Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway, Courtney Lee, Justin Jackson, Ryan Broekhoff, Jalen Brunson
Free Agents: Kristaps Porzingis (RFA), Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell (PO), Dirk Nowitzki, JJ Barea, Trey Burke, Dorian Finney-Smith
Projected Cap Space: $52 million
Draft Picks: DAL 2nd (#42), DAL 1st if it ends up top 5
Dream Lineup: Luka Doncic, Cam Reddish, Tim Hardaway, Kristaps Porzingis
Honorable Mention: Los Angeles Clippers
It was a very interesting deadline for the Clippers, who got great value for Tobias Harris and cleared some extra space with the Avery Bradley deal. They traded Harris and expiring contracts for Landry Shamet, Ivica Zubac, and the Miami 2021 pick. Unprotected. Now they’ll have two max slots and then some, plus a promising young core including Shamet, Zubac, SGA, Jerome Robinson, and Montrezl Harrell. Not to mention their chance at Kawhi seems like a coin flip. Even if they don’t land a big free agent, the Clips have a young core with potential and they’re in an attractive market in LA.
Returning Players: Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Jerome Robinson, Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Wallace
Free Agents: Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green, Patrick Beverley, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ivica Zubac (RFA)
Projected Cap Space: $60 million
Draft Picks: POR 2nd (#48), LAC 2nd (#52), LAC 1st if they MISS the playoffs (8 seed right now)
Dream Lineup: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lou Williams, Kawhi Leonard, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harell
5. Los Angeles Lakers
If you have LeBron James, you have a chance. But as we’ve seen this year, LeBron alone isn’t enough to compete with the top teams in the West. However, I’m not sure if there’s really a path to another superstar unless the Pelicans change their mind and send Davis to Los Angeles this summer, which doesn’t seem likely. Klay’s staying. It seems Kawhi would prefer the Clippers. Looks like Durant’s down to Golden State or New York. There’s been some buzz about Kyrie but it seems like a pipe dream. Maybe they could land a Jimmy Butler or a Kemba Walker a DeMarcus Cousins, but I’m still not sure if that puts you on the level of OKC, Houston, and Golden State, even without KD. The good news is that their vets are expiring, so they’ll have plenty of room to improve their team around LeBron and the young guys this summer. The question is who they’re gonna get. And the 2020 free agent class is awful, so this may be your chance
Returning Players: LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga
Free Agents: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Mike Muscala, Reggie Bullock, Tyson Chandler, JaVale McGee
Projected Cap Space: $43 million
Draft Picks: LAL 1st (#13)
Dream Lineup: Lonzo Ball, Jimmy Butler, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, DeMarcus Cousins
4. Houston Rockets
The Rockets made a conscious decision to go all-in on the Harden/Paul/Capela/Gordon team, trading lots of picks, and locking up their cap by giving Paul a long-term contract. While those decisions were logical and they didn’t have much choice, their championship window is rapidly closing. CP3 hasn’t been himself this season, and Harden has to absolutely carry the team, as we’ve seen. There’s no way they’re beating KD and the Warriors with this style, but maybe if Durant leaves they’ll have a better shot next season.
Returning Players: James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Nene, Isaiah Hartenstein
Free Agents: Iman Shumpert, Gerald Green, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, Danuel House
Projected Cap Space: $-13 million
Draft Picks: None
Dream Lineup: Chris Paul, James Harden, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela
3. Denver Nuggets
Denver has had an incredible regular season. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic have broken out, their improved young bench has been producing, and everyone is healthy. They’re still incredibly young, everyone is under contract for next year, and they’ve got the potential to make another move. Paul Millsap has a $30 million team option, who knows whether he’ll be around, but the rest of the roster is gonna be just fine. They still have Michael Porter too, who knows what he could be. Either way, things should only get better for the Nuggets next season.
Returning Players: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Juan Hernangomez, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter, Mason Plumlee, Jared Vanderbilt
Free Agents: Paul Millsap (TO), Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles (RFA)
Projected Cap Space: $-11 million
Draft Picks: WAS 2nd (#37)
Dream Lineup: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Juan Hernangomez, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
OKC has done an incredible job recovering from Durant’s departure in 2016. It only took them a year to replace him, trading a couple of their role players for Paul George. Then they shocked the world by re-signing him last summer, and now he’s taken a leap and become a real MVP candidate. They’ll be returning most of their player next season, and Andre Roberson will be back from injury. The Thunder may be the 2nd best team in the West right now, and if KD leaves, they’ll have a real shot at beating Golden State.
Returning Players: Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder, Jerami Grant, Andre Roberson, Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Abdel Nader
Free Agents: Patrick Patterson (PO), Nerlens Noel (PO), Raymond Felton, Markieff Morris
Projected Cap Space: $-38 million
Draft Picks: OKC 1st (#25)
Dream Lineup: Russell Westbrook, Dennis Schroder, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams
1. Golden State Warriors
This was tough, but even without KD, I think I have to give Golden State the edge. They won 73 games with Steph, Klay, Barnes, Draymond, and Bogut. To be fair, their bench was insane that year. Iguodala and Livingston were better, and they don’t have a Barnes nowadays. If Durant leaves, and we’re assuming Klay stays (he will), they’ll have their Mid-Level Exception, $5.3 million, but no cap space. That’s what they used on Cousins last summer. They’d still be an incredibly scary team, and we’d all be reminded of what Steph Curry and Klay Thompson can do. It sure will be interesting if KD leaves. The bench should be alright with Iggy, Livginston, McKinnie, and Cook. I wouldn’t be surprised if they retained both Bell and Looney, but Bell’s restricted so they’ll have him for sure. Then they’ll have to use that $5.3 million on a Durant replacement.
Returning Players: Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jacob Evans, Damian Jones
Free Agents: Kevin Durant (PO), Klay Thompson, Jordan Bell (RFA), Kevon Looney, Jonas Jerebko, Quinn Cook (RFA)
Projected Cap Space: $-12 million
Draft Picks: GS 1st (#29), GS 2nd (#59)
Dream Lineup: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Danny Green, Draymond Green, Jordan Bell
Note: Obviously, their “dream” lineup would include KD, but we’re looking at a league where he leaves.