How the NBA draft sets up a league-altering free agency

NEW YORK — The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. Anthony Davis has been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. And Zion Williamson has officially been drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans. With the 2019 NBA draft behind us, a long-awaited free agency is almost here.

What are the biggest things to watch over the next few weeks? How did draft night change the landscape?

Here are eight questions and storylines to monitor closely, including Kawhi Leonard‘s destination, the Boston Celtics‘ next moves, the Lakers’ roster questions and more.

More: Pick-by-pick analysis | Trade tracker

1. The King of the North is now The Kingmaker

The NBA Finals showed Kawhi Leonard is not only one of the most dominant forces in the NBA, he’s quite arguably the best player in the sport. In the wake of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson going down with injuries that will sideline them for most or all of next season, Leonard becomes the best player available on the market. He has the power to determine the direction of the league next season and beyond.

If Leonard remains with the defending champion Raptors, they will not only be one of the favorites to emerge from the East, they will have a legitimate shot at back-to-back titles. But if Leonard goes to the other favorite to secure his services, the LA Clippers, they could suddenly become favorites to win the West.

There isn’t another player on the market with that kind of power, giving the 2019 Finals MVP the opportunity to shape the league’s future.

2. How are the Lakers going to fill out their roster?

Outside of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and 2019 second-round pick Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers have only four players on the books in Kyle Kuzma, Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones — and all but Kuzma could wind up on the move between now and July 6, when the NBA’s moratorium on transactions comes to an end.

Depending on when the Lakers time their trade with the Pelicans for Davis, they’ll have two options: spend a large chunk of money on one big piece, or split it up among several rotation players. Either way, Los Angeles will have an extremely thin roster around its two star forwards.

When James united with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami in 2010, the Heat had Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and a roster full of castoffs. At this point, it’s hard to see the Lakers even being that deep — and James is about to turn 35.

If anyone is capable of making it work, it’s LeBron. Still, that’s an awfully big burden to put on James and Davis. The West is wide open, but the Golden State Warriors had more star power atop their roster and greater depth than these Lakers will have. That still wasn’t enough. It’s going to take a lot of creativity from L.A.’s front office to pull this off.

3. What do the Knicks do now?

The Knicks came into the offseason hoping to wind up with some combination of Zion Williamson, Davis and Durant. Now the Knicks are facing the very real prospect of winding up with none of those players.

Williamson officially landed with the Pelicans on Thursday, Davis was traded last week, and Durant — even if he does go to New York — probably won’t play next season because of a ruptured Achilles.

All of that leaves the Knicks in a precarious position heading into free agency. They are still expected to pursue Durant and other top free agents, but New York has maintained it isn’t going to be chasing lesser players just for the sake of using its cap space. That could leave the team’s long-suffering fan base stuck with the possibility of competing for the league’s worst record yet again.

If growing pains are a product of RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox getting up shots and Mitchell Robinson growing on defense all while Durant recovers from his injury, that’s one thing. If it is happening with no prime-time players waiting in the wings, that’s very different.

4. What about the Clippers and Nets?

Both teams made surprise runs to the playoffs last season with hard-working, hungry rosters all while setting up the summer with multiple max salary slots in free agency. Now the question is: What will each team do with all that space?

The Clippers have been chasing Leonard all season, hoping to lure the Southern California native back home as the centerpiece of what they hope is a championship roster. But after Toronto’s title, L.A. is no sure thing. The Nets have been heavily linked to Kyrie Irving in recent weeks, and the Boston Celtics have been expecting Irving to leave for some time now.

This is a high-stakes game for both franchises. With space and a loaded free-agent class, this is the time to strike. So how would they adjust if they strike out?

Just ask the Washington Wizards how quickly things can turn. In 2016, the Wizards thought they were going to wind up with Al Horford. But when Horford landed in Boston, Washington ended up committing to Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith.


5. Pelicans open the Zion era with a continued roster overhaul

Pelicans VP David Griffin turned the Lakers’ No. 4 selection into a suite of picks including Nos. 8, 17 and 35 in this year’s draft, plus a 2020 first-rounder from the Cavaliers that will convert to two second-rounders if it remains in the top 10 next year. Add that to the haul of future picks the Pelicans received in the trade with the Lakers and they suddenly find themselves with as much draft ammo as any team in the league.

New Orleans used its 2019 picks to take Texas center Jaxson Hayes, Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Marcos Louzada Silva of Brazil. Now the Pelicans not only have Williamson to build around, they have a bevy of long athletes who can fly up and down the court — the preferred style of play for head coach Alvin Gentry.

Add in the fact that the Pelicans have over $30 million in salary-cap space and they could both chase a playoff spot in 2020 and have the ability to improve through the draft for years to come.

Will they be real players in free agency?

It was a crazy ride for the Suns on draft night — one that began with the choice to trade down from No. 6 to No. 11, acquiring forward Dario Saric from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the process.

At that point, Phoenix stunned everyone by taking North Carolina forward Cameron Johnsona wing who ESPN’s Jonathan Givony projected to be taken at No. 30 and multiple teams thought would be a second-round selection. Instead, Johnson was selected in the lottery and the Suns passed up the chance to take point guard Coby White at No. 6.

Then, 13 picks later, the Suns got their point guard of the future by trading a 2020 Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick to the Celtics for the No. 24 pick, which they used to draft Virginia guard Ty Jerome. Coupled with a trade earlier in the night that sent forward T.J. Warren and the No. 32 pick to the Indiana Pacers, Phoenix dramatically altered its team and still could have over $20 million in cap space this summer to pursue a high-priced free agent.

If Thursday night was any indication, expect more fireworks from the desert.

7. Interesting moves by the Pacers

The Pacers are a professional, reliable franchise typically run with sound reasoning and discipline. That’s why their moves on Thursday caused several raised eyebrows around the league.

The first was the Warren trade. While shrewd from a cap standpoint — especially considering Indiana received pick No. 32 simply for absorbing a player proven to be a reliable NBA scorer — some wondered if it foreshadowed Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young heading elsewhere in free agency.

Similar speculation followed Indiana’s first-round selection of Georgian center Goga Bitadze. There is already a healthy debate around the league as to whether the Pacers’ current young big men, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, can play together. Similar debate will follow regarding Bitadze’s fit, leaving open the possibility of a trade down the road to remake Indiana’s roster.

Indiana has money to spend and is expected to target Ricky Rubio in free agency to play alongside Victor Oladipo in its backcourt. But the Pacers clearly have more work to do before their offseason is through.

8. Celtics fail to swing a big deal

Coming into Thursday night, the Celtics were expected to make some noise with their three first-round picks. But reality wound up being much different.

Boston did make a pair of deals, though both were of the minor variety, moving back four spots in the draft in one trade and securing a future first-rounder in another. As a result, the Nos. 14, 20 and 22 picks in Thursday’s draft eventually turned into Indiana swingman Romeo Langford, Tennessee big man Grant Williams, Purdue point guard Carsen Edwards, LSU guard Tremont Waters and the Bucks’ 2020 protected first-round pick.

Those three additions, plus the likely departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, leave the Celtics with a team featuring 10 players who are 25 or under at the moment — along with close to $25.8 million in room, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, to try to add another impact player to the roster.

This time a year ago, Boston was expected to enter this night with a high lottery pick (courtesy of the Sacramento Kings) and the possibility of adding Anthony Davis via trade. Instead, the Celtics wound up with a few middling selections and potential cap space.

When Boston was coming off its Eastern Conference finals appearance a year ago, things were supposed to be far, far different than this.

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