Not every list of 2019’s top 10 NBA free agents will look the same, but it’s a safe bet that all of those lists will include Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard and Celtics guard Kyrie Irving. It’s hard to imagine leaving Sixers forward Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris out of the top 10 either. And after his first All-Star season, Bucks sharpshooter Khris Middleton deserves a spot in that group too.
In other words, five of the top 10 players expected to reach unrestricted free agency this summer are on the four teams currently atop the Eastern Conference: Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston. Throw in veteran marksmen J.J. Redick (Sixers) and Danny Green (Raptors), as well as key Bucks contributors Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez, and you could put together an awfully talented rotation of free-agents-to-be among those four Eastern contenders.
Those four teams have something else in common, besides having standout players in contract years: They’ll all be disappointed if they don’t make it beyond the second round of the postseason.
The Bucks haven’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2001, but this year’s group looks like it has NBA Finals potential. Milwaukee has clinched the NBA’s best record, has a winning record against all its potential postseason opponents, and features the odds-on favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award, in Giannis Antetokounmpo. A second-round exit would be a letdown.
Right behind them are the Raptors, who blew up last year’s 59-win team with an eye toward making a deeper playoff run. With newcomers like Leonard, Green, and Marc Gasol in Toronto to lead the way – and Raptor-killer LeBron James no longer in the picture – this is another team that feels as if it has a real chance of advancing to the Finals. After a season of nagging injuries and load management, Toronto seems to be getting healthy and coming together at the right time.
While Milwaukee and Toronto are the odds-on favorites to represent the East in the Finals, the Sixers and Celtics certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Philadelphia has gone all-in on its star-studded starting five, and owner Josh Harris has said that the Sixers want to “at minimum” advance deeper in the playoffs than they did last year, when they were knocked out in the second round by Boston. As for those Celtics, they entered the 2018/19 season as the Eastern frontrunners, and still believe they’re the team to beat if they’re playing up to their potential.
The Pacers and the rest of the conference’s still-to-be-decided playoff teams will be looking to play spoiler, but regardless of whether any of those clubs can pull off an upset, no more than two of the Bucks, Raptors, Sixers, and Celtics can advance past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And the outcome of that round figures to have a significant impact on the NBA’s offseason landscape.
If the Raptors are bounced in the second round, it’s hard to imagine Leonard seriously considering a return. A second-round loss for the Celtics would cast even more doubt on the idea of Irving re-signing in Boston. There’s already some skepticism that the Sixers will bring back both Harris and Butler, and an ECF loss would make that an even less likely scenario. The Bucks, who have exceeded expectations this season, are probably the club least likely to undergo major offseason changes, but Middleton will be a popular target in free agency — if Milwaukee is knocked off in round two, it could increase his willingness to test the open market.
On the other hand, the team that makes a run all the way to the NBA Finals will be in a far more secure position entering free agency. If Irving is on the fence about Boston, winning the East would definitely help convince him that the Celtics are capable of continuing to win going forward. Ditto for Leonard and the Raptors.
The idea that a team’s postseason success can influence a top free agent’s offseason decision is a common one. This spring in the Eastern Conference, we’ll get an opportunity to see just how big a factor that is for a handful of star players, as at least two teams are set to fall short of their playoff goals.