Over the last two seasons, the proposed solution to nearly every N.B.A. team’s problems has been simple: Sign Kevin Durant when he hits free agency. Now that he is about to hit the open market, only a handful of teams will even have a chance to talk to him.
The rest? They’ll have to try something else.
Durant can meet with his current team, the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. At 12:01 a.m. Eastern on Friday, teams (including the Thunder) can begin discussing contract specifics with him or any other free agent. With the salary cap expected to increase to around $90 million, and a free agent class that is fairly thin on superstars, more than a few gigantic deals will be handed out to players that probably do not justify the expense.
Durant turns 28 shortly before the 2016-17 season begins, and he already owns four scoring titles and a career average of 27.4 points a game. He is a deceptively large forward — despite being listed at 6-foot-9 he was photographed at Team USA practice next to the 6-foot-11 DeMarcus Cousins and was clearly an inch or two taller — and is one of the most versatile and dominant offensive players in the game’s history.
Landing Spot: It is still highly likely that Durant will choose to stay with Oklahoma City, either through a max extension or through one of the so-called 1+1 deals that would make him a free agent next season. The next most likely landing spot is Golden State, a team that won a record 73 games a season ago, but is likely looking to retool some to make them less vulnerable to the attacks Cleveland used against them to win the N.B.A. title. Golden State also has the financial flexibility to give Durant anything he wants.
Decisions are likely to be announced for many players as early as Friday morning. Players can agree to terms with a team on Friday, but contracts cannot be signed until July 7. As DeAndre Jordan proved with dramatic flair last season — he agreed to terms with the Dallas Mavericks and then chose to return to the Clippers at the last minute — nothing is final until the contract is signed.
A look at the free agent pool reveals plenty of players who can help teams get better. Here’s what to look for during the N.B.A.’s “silly season.”
These guys aren’t going anywhere
LeBron James may have opted out of his player option for the coming season, but he has stated that he intends to remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers and there is little reason not to believe him. After winning his third career championship, and his first in Cleveland, there is little left for James to prove. Anyone familiar with him, however, knows he has no intention of backing off.
It is hard to believe that 38-year-old Dirk Nowitzki would leave the Dallas Mavericks, even though he was briefly rumored to have drawn the interest of the Warriors.
Tim Duncan was also on the verge of free agency, but he quickly erased any drama by exercising a $5.6 million player option to stay with the San Antonio Spurs. He may choose to retire, but there is officially no threat of him pulling a “Hakeem Olajuwon to the Raptors.”
The best available players not named Kevin Durant
The biggest prize beyond Durant and James is Andre Drummond, the dominant center of the Detroit Pistons. Just 22, Drummond had a breakout season, averaging 16.2 points and a league-leading 14.8 rebounds a game. He is remarkably durable and despite making Shaquille O’Neal look like Mark Price in terms of free-throw accuracy, he is the type of player a team can build around. Unfortunately for teams interested in his services, he is a restricted free agent, and Detroit will probably match any offer that comes his way.
Two intriguing players in terms of defense and chemistry are center Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks and small forward Nicolas Batum of the Charlotte Hornets. Both veterans help a team on offense and defense and do a great job of making the players around them better. Horford’s age, and Batum’s lack of flash, do make them unusual players for a huge payday.
There are some strong options at guard available in DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors and Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies. Conley, 28, is the best point guard available, and DeRozan, 26, is a two-time All-Star at shooting guard who has averaged more than 20 points a game in each of the last three seasons.
There are a number of restricted free agents available that could help any team that could find a way to pry them away from their current homes. Shooting guard Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards averaged 17.4 points a game last season and has shot 39.7 percent from 3-point range in his four-year career. Shooting guard Allen Crabbe of the Portland Trail Blazers made a huge leap this season, shooting 39.3 percent from 3-point range as a bench player and seems ready for a starting role. And swingmanEvan Fournier of the Orlando Magic continued his steady development into a force at small forward, but the team’s trade of Victor Oladipo makes it unlikely that they would not match any offer that came in.
Landing Spots: For this group, staying home is the most likely option. Drummond will almost assuredly agree to a huge offer sheet with another team, but the Pistons will simply match it. Similarly, Horford is a good bet to remain in Atlanta but could be a good fallback for Golden State if they do not get Durant. Batum will hopefully realize that he found a perfect home for himself in Charlotte and will not be tempted by losing teams that would not really benefit from his skill set. DeRozan is expected to stay with Toronto and Conley, while potentially once a good fit with the Knicks, probably is headed back to Memphis after the Derrick Rose trade.
Long on talent and long on question marks
If it felt like Hassan Whiteside came out of nowhere to become a dominant force for the Miami Heat, that is because he did. In 2014, he played for Al Mouttahed Tripoli in Lebanon, Jiangsu Tongxi in China, the Iowa Energy and Sioux Falls Skyforce in the N.B.A.’s developmental league, and then the Heat. But the 7-foot Whiteside finally got a real shot in the league and averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and a league-leading 3.7 blocks a game last season. There is no doubt someone will roll the dice on a gigantic contract for a 27-year-old potential franchise center, but there are enough issues in terms of character and advanced statistics that question if he makes his team better that smarter teams may show some caution.
While Whiteside may occasionally create his own problems, that is nothing compared to what Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli did to themselves in terms of their pending restricted free agency with their performances in the N.B.A. Finals. Expected to cruise to back-to-back titles, the Golden States Warriors crashed and burned thanks in large part to Barnes and Ezeli becoming shadows of themselves when it mattered most. They missed countless shots and seemed to make the team worse every time they were on the floor. That being said, Barnes is a 6-foot-8 forward who can play the four in a smallball lineup while knocking down corner 3-pointers, and Ezeli is a 6-foot-11 center capable of running the floor and dominating on both ends when healthy, so there should be plenty of money headed their way. The teams that sign them will simply have to plug their noses and pretend the playoffs never happened.
The team that signs Dwight Howard will have to pretend the last four seasons never happened if Howard is going to get anywhere near the contract that people once envisioned for him. Still just 30 years old, Howard was once one of the biggest stars in the game, and he still has the ability to occasionally dominate, but back problems robbed him of much of his consistency and his ugly exits in Orlando and Los Angeles and his dramatic tenure in Houston have resulted in the public largely souring on him.
For teams looking for a center, there is no one whose stock rose higher in the playoffs than Bismack Biyombo of the Toronto Raptors. Asked to step into a starting role because of an injury to Jonas Valanciunas, Biyombo thrived as a shot-blocking finger-wagging showman who held his own under difficult circumstances. The 23-year-old has come a long way since accepting a tiny deal with Toronto last season following Charlotte essentially giving up on him after four seasons. He is no sure bet to continue his spectacular play — his career averages of 4.6 points and 6.5 rebounds a game are not misprints — but he is tall and young and the N.B.A. loves that combination.
Teams will also be kicking the tires of Joakim Noah, who is tall but no longer young. Injuries ended a tumultuous season for Noah in which he was failing to adapt to Coach Fred Hoiberg’s new system, but as a former defensive player of the year, who is also an underrated playmaker on offense, he is not likely to done at 31. But teams will have to figure out how much he realistically has left.
And perhaps the biggest question mark of all belongs to swingman Lance Stephenson. Things have been awfully messy since his breakout season for the Indiana Pacers in 2013-14. Failed stints with the Bobcats and Clippers seemingly had him on his way out of the league, but a 26-game run with the Memphis Grizzlies at the end of the season re-established some of his value. A six-year veteran, Stephenson is still just 25 and has flashed the ability to play on both ends of the court. But his value and ability to keep his head on straight are questions teams will have to think long and hard about.