NBA Free Agency Preview: Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant Lead Deep Class Of Forwards

Matt Citak
June 26, 2019 - 4:21 pm
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The time has finally come. The much-anticipated 2019 offseason is officially here. This summer will feature the most talented group of free agents the NBA has seen in recent years, and where they end up signing could cause a ripple effect that would change the entire landscape of the NBA for years to come.

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Teams can officially begin talking with free agents June 30 at 6 p.m. In the days leading up to the start of free agency, I will be breaking down the top guards, forwards and centers who are set to hit the open market, and the chances that they end up with the Knicks or Nets. First, I took a look at the guards. Next up are the forwards.

When it comes to the wings, the Knicks really don’t have many currently on the roster. Kevin Knox, the ninth overall pick from the 2018 draft, will return after a disappointing rookie campaign. He averaged 12.8 points in 28.8 minutes per game, but shot just 37% from the field and 34.3% from the 3-point line. New York is hoping the 6-foot-9 forward can take a big step in his development this upcoming season and further solidify his spot in the franchise’s young core. Expect the Knicks to be in pursuit of several different forwards when free agency opens.

The Nets acquired a promising, young 3-and-D forward a few weeks ago in the trade that sent Allen Crabbe to Atlanta. Taurean Prince shot 44.1% from the field last season, but more importantly, made 39% of his 3-point shots. At only 25 years old, the 6-foot-8 forward has encouraging potential. In addition to Prince, the Nets have both of their draft picks from 2018 on the roster in Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa. Musa didn’t spend much time in Brooklyn, but he did look promising in his limited G League action. Kurucs was a pleasant surprise in Brooklyn, working his way into the rotation after a few players went down with injuries. While the Nets have a few encouraging, young forwards on the roster, general manager Sean Marks reportedly has his eyes set on some of free agency’s biggest prizes, which would provide a significant boost to the team’s wings.

KAWHI LEONARD, SF
26.6 ppg, 3.3 apg, 7.3 rpg, 1.8 spg, 49.6 FG%, 37.1 3pt%, 54.6 eFG%

"Board Man" is about to get paid. A lot. Leonard is coming off a spectacular season, one that ended with him holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy, along with the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. While his regular season was special enough, the 6-foot-7 forward took his game to another level in the postseason. In 24 playoff games, Leonard averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds while making big play after big play, highlighted by the game-winning buzzer-beater he hit in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia. Leonard is one of the best players in the league, and with his 28th birthday just a few days away, he should remain one of the elite talents in the NBA throughout the duration of his next deal. The Raptors and Clippers remain the favorites to land his services, but there will be several teams throwing their hats in the ring to try to sign Leonard.

Kawhi Leonard
Pool Photo/USA TODAY Images

Possible Knicks interest: Leonard seems to be New York’s No. 1 priority at the moment with the start of free agency right around the corner. The tremendous, two-way forward is one of only a few players the Knicks are interested in giving a max contract to, according to recent reports. While New York would love to sign Leonard, it remains to be seen whether or not he wants to roll the dice on the historic franchise that has been stuck in the dark days for most of the last two decades.

Possible Nets interest: Similar to the Knicks, the Nets would love to bring Leonard to Brooklyn on a max deal. Pairing him with Kyrie Irving, who is rumored to be set on the Nets, would immediately make Brooklyn the favorites to win it all next year. Recent reports have indicated that both New York teams could be granted a meeting with Leonard at the start of free agency. While their chances remain incredibly slim, if the Nets do indeed get this meeting, then I wouldn’t rule out Brooklyn completely.

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KEVIN DURANT, SF
26.0 ppg, 5.9 apg, 6.4 rpg, 1.1 blk, 52.1 FG%, 35.3 3pt%, 57.1 eFG%

Despite the torn Achilles suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Durant remains one of the top free agents available this summer. The expectation is that the two-time Finals MVP will sit out for the entire 2019-20 season, but that is not going to stop numerous teams from offering him a max contract. Before the injury, Durant was widely considered one of the top three players in the NBA. Even if the 6-foot-9 superstar comes back from this injury and is 90% of his old self, he would still likely be a top-10 player. Assuming he doesn’t return until the start of the 2020-21 season, Durant will be 32 years old the next time he steps onto an NBA court. This has led to some teams bowing out of the sweepstakes for him, although neither New York team falls in that category. Durant is going to prioritize his rehab and recovery when making his decision this summer, which could bode well for one of the local teams.

Possible Knicks interest: The Knicks were long considered the favorites to land the services of the 10-time All-Star, and this recent injury has not changed the team’s feelings on him. New York would be more than willing to allow the superstar to take the entire year off to rehab, as we just saw them do something similar for Kristaps Porzingis before trading him to Dallas. The Knicks are confident that the talented forward can return to his superstar form in a year and will convey their faith by offering him a full, four-year max deal as soon as free agency begins Sunday.

Possible Nets interest: The league’s worst-kept secret over the last few months has been that Durant and Irving want to form their own superteam together. With Irving most likely heading to Brooklyn, it appears as if Durant may be right behind him. Dr. Martin O’Malley performed both of Durant's major surgeries throughout his career, including the most recent one on his torn Achilles. Oh yeah, he is also the Nets’ team orthopedic surgeon. The chance to rehab under the watchful eye of the doctor who performed the surgery may be too tempting for Durant to pass up, especially if his best friend (Irving) will be there as well. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Vegas’ most recent betting odds on where Durant will sign, as Brooklyn has emerged as the heavy favorite to land the superstar.

TOBIAS HARRIS, SF/PF
20.0 pts, 2.8 ast, 7.9 rbs, 0.6 stl, 48.7 FG%, 39.7 3P%, 54.9 eFG%

Harris may be one of the more underrated players set to hit the free-agent market this summer. While he doesn’t offer a ton on the defensive end of the court, Harris’ ability to score cannot be denied. Standing in at 6-foot-9, Harris is more than capable of creating his own shot, while proving to be very efficient as a spot-up threat from the outside. Over the last two seasons, the soon-to-be 27-year-old has shot the ball around 40% from the 3-point line. Harris finished with career highs in rebounds, field goal percentage, free-throw percentage and effective-field-goal percentage this past season, all while not being the top scoring option in Philadelphia. He certainly falls on the tier below Leonard and Durant, but with the number of teams with ample cap space this summer, Harris will likely garner a max deal regardless.

Tobias Harris gestures from the court in the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game two of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Possible Knicks interest: Harris would be an intriguing piece for the Knicks to add this offseason due to his age and ability to stretch the floor. He would slot in next to Mitchell Robinson in the front court and would offer New York a promising pair at the four and five for years to come. However, recent reports state the Knicks won’t be giving out any max deals this summer unless it’s to Leonard, Durant or Irving, which would seemingly take them out of the running for Harris.

Possible Nets interest: Harris and Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson have several connections dating back to their time on Long Island, which has caused the two sides to be connected to each other leading up to free agency. In addition, the 6-foot-9 forward would be the perfect fit as a stretch four in Brooklyn’s offense. If the Nets are unable to land Durant or Leonard, then I have a strong feeling that Marks will turn his attention toward Harris as a talented piece to pair with Irving. 

KRISTAPS PORZINGIS, PF (RFA)
22.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 2.4 blk, 43.9 FG%, 39.5 3pt%, 48.9 eFG% (2017-18 stats)

It’s been a while since we last saw Porzingis on the court. A lot has changed since the 7-foot-3 Latvian tore his ACL on Feb. 6, 2018, including the city he calls home. While we don’t know for certain what happened between the big man and the Knicks, we do know that Porzingis had no interest in continuing his career at Madison Square Garden. This led to a midseason trade that sent the 23-year-old to Dallas, and if recent reports are accurate, that is exactly where the restricted free agent will spend the next few years. The Mavericks have the right to match any offer sheet Porzingis signs with another team, and considering the reports this week that they plan on offering him a full five-year, $158 million max deal, it does not appear as if Porzingis is going anywhere. 

Possible Knicks interest: Charles Oakley getting his number retired at Madison Square Garden is more likely to happen than a reunion between Porzingis and the Knicks.

Possible Nets interest: There has reportedly been mutual interest between Porzingis and the Nets for a while now, as the Latvian listed Brooklyn as one of his preferred trade destinations before being dealt to the Mavericks. While Porzingis would fit in nicely as the stretch four in the Nets’ lineup, Mavs owner Mark Cuban isn’t letting him leave Dallas this summer.

KHRIS MIDDLETON, SF
18.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.0 stl, 44.1 FG%, 37.8 3pt%, 51.9 eFG%

Middleton has developed into quite the talented wing over the last few seasons. Fresh off his first All-Star appearance, the 27-year-old has proven to be a very valuable piece to the Milwaukee Bucks team that led the NBA in wins this past season. A career 38.8% shooter from long range, Middleton is the perfect forward to have on the court alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, helping to stretch the floor and open up space for the league’s MVP. Middleton declined his $13 million player option last week, making him an unrestricted free agent. While the 6-foot-8 forward will certainly have his fair share of suitors lining up for his services, Middleton and the Bucks are reportedly planning to work out a long-term deal for him to stay with Milwaukee, where he is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million max deal.

Possible Knicks interest: The Knicks appear to be trying to avoid handing out max contracts to the second tier of free agents this summer, which would likely eliminate them from the Middleton sweepstakes.

Possible Nets interest: While Middleton would be a great fit in Brooklyn, the Nets are focusing on the top free agents this offseason. Even if they swing and miss on guys like Durant and Leonard, Harris would likely be their next target to pair with Irving over Middleton.

JULIUS RANDLE, PF/C
21.4 ppg, 3.1 apg, 8.7 rpg, 0.7 stl, 52.4 FG%, 34.4 3P%, 55.5 eFG%

After a tumultuous start to his career in Los Angeles, Randle came into his own while in New Orleans this past season. The 6-foot-9 forward set career highs in points and rebounds, but more importantly saw his 3-point shooting percentage increase by more than 12% from the previous season. Randle has shot over 52% from the field in each of the last two seasons, and at only 24 years old, he still has plenty of room to grow. Randle declined his $9 million option with the Pelicans for this season, which has allowed him to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. The former seventh overall pick should have plenty of suitors this summer, especially once the big-name free agents start finding their new homes. The young forward is somewhat of a liability on defense, but considering how well he handles himself offensively, someone is going to offer Randle a big contract.

Possible Knicks interest: The latest reports indicate that there is mutual interest between the Knicks and Randle. Considering the amount of cap space New York has entering free agency, landing Randle on a big, short-term deal might be the Knicks’ best course of action if they strike out on the top free agents. Randle and Mitchell Robinson would form a strong frontcourt together, and New York would be betting on Randle to continue to show improvements from year to year. It wouldn't be the offseason Knicks fans dreamed of, but signing Randle and someone like D’Angelo Russell could end up being the smartest route for New York.

Possible Nets interest: Randle would be an interesting fit in Brooklyn’s frontcourt alongside Jarrett Allen. If the Nets are unable to land a second max free agent with Irving, I expect Marks to turn his attention toward Harris and Randle to serve the role of the stretch four that Brooklyn has been searching for in recent years. Harris is a better fit, but Randle will command less money, which would allow the Nets more flexibility to go after other solid role players. The Nets would have to strike out on their top targets first, but if that happens, Randle could find his way to Brooklyn.

Matt Citak is a web producer for WFAN. Check him out on Twitter at @MatthewCitak.