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NBA free agency: Where will James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Draymond Green land?

NBA free agency
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Technically, pending free agents won’t decide their future until Friday after 6 pm ET. In reality, though, those free agents have understood the landscape much earlier.

And why wouldn’t they? This NBA free agency period marks the pivot point of their NBA career, for better and for worse. This also marks a crossroads for NBA franchises either hoping to retain or acquire a key free agent.

Plenty of circumstances can change this week. For now, though, below is an early NBA free agency primer for the top candidates and what to expect.

Khris Middleton, F, Milwaukee Bucks

khris middleton
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: Middleton’s free-agency destination could alter the Eastern Conference landscape and disrupt the Milwaukee Bucks’ hopes to rectify their first-round loss as a No. 1 seed. Don’t expect Middleton to shift any tectonic plates, though. He may have declined his $40.4 million player option. But Middleton did that in hopes to land a long-term deal after suffering various injuries, including a sprained MCL (final 10 games of 2022 playoffs), left wrist (first 20 games of 2022-23) and right knee (another 18 games in 2022-23).

Despite that history, the Bucks will likely grant Middleton a long-term deal for two reasons. One, the Bucks can backload Middleton’s contract so that they owe him less money at the beginning his deal. Middleton has remained a valuable part of the Bucks for the past 10 seasons as a three-time All-Star and a key contributor during their 2021 NBA title run.

Middleton will surely attract plenty of suitors. It’s hard to imagine he will have a better situation than Milwaukee, which features a two-time MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo), one of the league’s best two-way players (Jrue Holiday) and quality depth. The Bucks also hope that Adrian Griffin’s hiring as head coach can mitigate any of Mike Budenholzer’s coaching shortcomings that contributed to the Bucks’ first-round playoff exit to Miami.

James Harden, PG, Philadelphia 76ers

james harden
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: Unlike when the Houston Rockets accommodated his trade request to the Brooklyn Nets three years ago, Harden’s future won’t cause a seismic shift anywhere. Harden and the Rockets might flirt about reuniting, but the talks won’t go anywhere. Considering concerns about his durability and postseason inconsistency, other NBA teams won’t express that much interest, either.

That will essentially leave Philadelphia as the only significant option. No doubt, the Sixers are genuinely interested in retaining Harden assuming he declines his one-year, $35.6 million player option. Daryl Morey, the Sixers’ president of basketball operations, has valued Harden’s scoring and playmaking since their time together in Houston.

The Sixers replaced Doc Rivers with Nick Nurse as head coach amid optimism his system can help Harden’s game. And the Sixers are grateful that Harden took a relative discount last summer to build the rest of the roster. Though Philadelphia will likely reward Harden with a lucrative new deal, the organization will try to guard against spending on a player that won’t have many competitive offers elsewhere.

Kyrie Irving, PG, Dallas Mavericks

kyrie irving
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: The Mavericks and Irving will stay reunited both out of convenience and necessity. Irving’s reported plea for LeBron James to come to Dallas won’t happen. Why? James won’t request a trade. The Lakers also wouldn’t accommodate it, given the Mavericks’ lack of assets. Irving won’t receive his previous wish to go to the Lakers, either. How come? Irving won’t take a pay cut. The Lakers are no longer interested in him because of his injury history and unpredictable behavior. Irving will likely receive lukewarm interest elsewhere for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks don’t want to lose Irving. Dallas already experienced a key free-agency departure last year (Jalen Brunson). And they sacrificed plenty to acquire Irving from Brooklyn before last season’s trade deadline (Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, 2029 first-round pick, 2027 second-round pick, 2029 second-round pick). And in fairness to Irving, the Mavericks’ failure to make even the Play-In tournament last season largely had little to do with him. It had more to do with Dallas’ poor depth around Luka Doncic before and after the trade deadline.

Dallas also believed Irving mostly co-existed well with Doncic and had a positive locker-room presence. Therefore, the Mavericks feel comfortable keeping Irving amid optimism the partnership will improve with more on-court reps. It appears unclear, however, if Dallas would offer Irving a max contract worth five-years, $272.9 million. Given Irving’s declined market value, Dallas may be able to get away with retaining Irving on a relatively discounted price for fewer years.

Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors

draymond green
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: The Warriors and Green both want to continue their partnership. Green opted out of his $27 million player option, however, in hopes to seek a longer-term deal and receive clarity on his market value. If Green receives lucrative offers from winning teams, he will certainly consider it. Should that happen, it would be interesting to see if the Warriors would change their stance on a sign-and-trade so they receive at least something in return. Consider the Sacramento Kings as one of those possibilities.

Nonetheless, the Warriors and Green are both mindful of each of other’s value after four NBA title runs in six Finals appearances. With the Warriors dealing Jordan Poole to Washington, they also should save salary and a potential source of awkward tension following Green’s training camp punch. The Warriors never condoned Green’s behavior, and praised Poole’s professionalism through the rest of the season. But the Warriors decided to further lean on their core players, including Green, because of their more consistent play. Even if some uncertain negotiations await, expect Green to stay in a Warriors uniform.

Fred VanVleet, PG, Toronto Raptors

fred vanvleet
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: Don’t be surprised if VanVleet becomes the most coveted free agent. Expect VanVleet to receive inquiries that can sign him outright with cap space or with teams hoping to convince Toronto to execute a sign-and-trade. Technically, the Raptors aren’t completely eliminated from keeping VanVleet after he declined his $22.8 million player option. He has affection for the Raptors for signing him as an undrafted player, for developing him into an All-Star and for winning an NBA championship (2019).

It appears, however, that Toronto has spent the last few seasons progressing toward an eventual rebuild. VanVleet should spark plenty of interest, including from winning teams. This might prompt Toronto to agree to a sign-and-trade so it at least can collect assets to ease its transition period.

Brook Lopez, C, Milwaukee Bucks

brook lopez
Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: This could become tricky for both the Bucks and for Lopez. Milwaukee should want to keep Lopez because of his value as a rim protector, versatile scorer and positive lockerroom presence. The 35-year-old Lopez has had injury concerns lately, however, and a long-term deal bodes some risk. Lopez would likely attract plenty of interest, including rebuilding teams that may spend more in hopes of having an established veteran.

Nonetheless, the Bucks are better off securing Lopez to a long-term deal even if they have to face consequences for it later. Milwaukee still has a championship window and shouldn’t underestimate how Lopez helps tie everything together with his well-rounded game and character.  It’s hard to tell any player not to worry about fielding other lucractive offers, especially for role players. Lopez also has already won an NBA championship, too. So the onus likely will fall more on the Bucks into digging deep in their pockets than on Lopez for taking a relative discount.

Bruce Brown, G, Denver Nuggets

bruce brown
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: Initially, it seemed inevitable that Brown would return in hopes to win another NBA title. After the Nuggets won the NBA championship, Brown told the Denver Post that he wanted to stay and downplayed money concerns. At the Nuggets’ championship parade, coach Michael Malone pulled Brown up at center stage before hilariously telling the crowd that he isn’t going anywhere. Now that the championship buzz and alcohol consumption have simmered, the Nuggets face an uncertain reality. Brown declined his $6.8 million player option with intentions to sign a long-term deal with Denver. But he will likely receive offers from other teams that value his defense and want to strip the Nuggets from some of their championship armor.

Denver faces some spending limitations, and as the Post reported, can offer him up to only $7.8 million. Both parties can make it work, though, if Brown becomes open toward signing a two-year deal with a player option his second season in hopes to secure a long-term extension next year. It would be hard for someone in Brown’s position to turn down better offers elsewhere considering this will be his first relatively big contract. Still, it’s hard to put a price tag on the Nuggets’ value with their talented roster and team-oriented culture likely leading to another title run. 

Jerami Grant, PF, Portland Trail Blazers

jerami grant
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: It appears Grant’s future hinges on Damian Lillard’s. If the Blazers’ star tells the front office directly that he wants a trade, the organization may reluctantly gauge the market on what it could receive in return. Should Portland determine it can receive some relative value from the deal, then expect the Blazers to execute a sign-and-trade with Grant. There’s no point in retaining Grant if the Blazers face a rebuilding project.

If Lillard indicates he wants to stay or at least doesn’t request a trade directly, however,  then the Blazers will continue to hold onto their star player. As a result, the Blazers would then re-sign Grant to a multi-year deal that could pay him around $30 million. Portland would much prefer following that path. The Blazers believe they can compete even in a crowded Western Conference with a healthy Lillard, Grant, Jusuf Nurkic and a handful of talented young players. Soon enough, Portland might hear from Lillard if he feels the same way.

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Jordan Clarkson, G, Utah Jazz

jordan clarkson
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: Both parties want to keep this partnership going. And why not? After winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in the 2020-21 season, Clarkson excelled in 2022-23 in a full-time starting role while averaging career-highs in both points (20.8) and assists (4.4). Although Clarkson has cemented his 11-year career as a prolific scorer, he has refined his efficiency with his shooting and playmaking. The Jazz also appreciate Clarkson’s work ethic and coachability while still keeping the locker room loose with his amenable personality.

Nonetheless, Clarkson declined his $14.26 million player option in hopes of securing a more lucrative and longer deal. It remains to be seen what outside interest Clarkson will generate. But it wouldn’t be surprising if Clarkson can land three-year deals for at least $20 million per season. The 31-year-old Clarkson has entered his prime and hasn’t shown signs of his game declining. Though he missed the Jazz’s final 17 regular-season games with a finger injury, Clarkson is expected to be fully healthy entering next season.

Nikola Vucevic, C, Chicago Bulls

nikola vucevic
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: Vucevic’s future depends on what direction the Bulls want to take. If they believe they can still squeeze out more playoff appearances with their underperforming group, the Bulls will likely re-sign Vucevic on a lucrative multi-year deal. Should the Bulls determine they are just spinning their wheels in mediocrity, the Bulls will likely deal Zach LaVine as well as execute a Vucevic sign-and-trade. Vucevic has the requisite modern-day big man skills. But he lacks the athleticism needed to truly excel in the modern game.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram