NEW YORK: Let the talking begin. The trading, too, and eventually the signing.
Free agency officially opens Thursday in the NBA, with teams able to begin negotiating at 6 p.m. Eastern with players who are not under contract — although, in reality, free agency and the slew of offseason movement is already off and running.
James Harden declined his $47 million option for next season with Philadelphia on Wednesday and became a free agent — but told the team he intends to stay on a new deal that will allow the 76ers the flexibility they need to sign other players this summer, according to a person with direct knowledge of that situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither Harden nor the 76ers confirmed those plans publicly.
And Harden’s decision came almost simultaneously Wednesday with another massive move — the San Antonio Spurs are trading All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks for Danilo Gallinari and three first-round picks, according to another person with direct knowledge of the terms of that deal who spoke to AP with anonymity because the trade had not been announced by either side. ESPN first reported the completion of that deal, which pairs Murray with another All-Star in Trae Young in the Hawks’ backcourt.
Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook have already made their decisions; both could have been free agents this summer and found a combined 84 million reasons not to hit the open market — $47 million for Westbrook to opt-in for the last year of his deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, and nearly $37 million for Irving to do the same with the Brooklyn Nets.
Jalen Brunson will be in demand early, with the expectation that he’ll quickly agree to leave Dallas and become the new point guard in New York. And there will be players who might decide to look elsewhere, or accept huge $200-million-plus deals with their current teams — opportunities that are presenting themselves to Zach LaVine with Chicago and Bradley Beal with Washington.
The largest deal, in terms of actual dollars, coming in the next few days almost certainly won’t have anything to do with a free agent: All signs point to two-time reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic being offered a supermax extension in the $260 million range by the Denver Nuggets. The only question there will be how quickly he finds a pen to put to that paper.
Minnesota can give Karl-Anthony Towns a supermax of about $210 million this summer, as can Phoenix with Devin Booker.
Other players are restricted free agents, meaning their current teams will have the right to match offers from other clubs. The most notable name on that list is Deandre Ayton, the Phoenix center who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft but watched others in his draft class get their first extensions last summer.
Some players will be free agents in name only. John Wall, for example, will get $41 million in a buyout from the Houston Rockets, and has already decided that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Clippers next season. The Clippers are expected to use a $6.4 million exception to sign Wall, and that figure matches the money that Wall gave back to make the buyout of what would have been the final year of his contract happen.
“We’ll see what happens as free agency opens up and everything else,” Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said. “I think the sky’s the limit for our team. The sky is the limit. ... And of course, you’ve got to have a little bit of luck to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which is what we’d really like.”
That will be everyone’s goal come 6 p.m. Thursday, to find ways to get closer to the Larry O’Brien, whether that’s in 2023 or beyond.
Such thinking even applies to the champion Golden State Warriors, who have a slew of rotation players — Kevon Looney, Otto Porter, Gary Payton II among them — who just last week were enjoying a parade through San Francisco and are now free to go elsewhere if the opportunities and dollars are right.
“We still do need to surround the team with vets and that’s the plan in free agency,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “It’s easier to get some of the older players, we think, in free agency than young players. Young players are probably the most in-demand in free agency.”
True, and that’s another element of this time of year: Young players, and not grabbing them in free agency this year, but keeping them out of free agency in future years.
Ja Morant will surely be offered a max rookie extension by Memphis, one that will kick in with the 2023-24 season. The Zion Williamson situation in New Orleans will be interesting, as the Pelicans decide how much to offer to — or safely structure a deal for — a No. 1 pick who has missed the majority of his first three NBA seasons because of injury issues. Miami is planning to offer sixth man of the year Tyler Herro an extension, though the Heat will have to determine what number makes the most sense for them going forward.
And, of course, there is a LeBron James angle: The Los Angeles Lakers were a disaster last season and will aim to revamp their roster, plus can give James a two-year extension in August worth nearly $100 million. But before he signs, they have far more pressing concerns.
Officially, it all starts Thursday. A new season is already here.