Five Thoughts Before Free Agency and Summer League

As recently as *checks Far Side calendar* two days ago, it was widely assumed that most of the NBA’s star free agents were staying put. But you know what they say about assuming, and suddenly everything is in chaos:

Leaving aside that my couch cushions could hand out a richer contract than the Phoenix Suns right now, this is shaping up to be a more intriguing free agency offseason than I predicted.

A few unexpected-but-delicious tidbits have emerged from the release of the Summer League rosters, too. Add in the gargantuan excitement about Victor Wembanyama and the rest of this highly-touted rookie class, and Vegas is shaping up to be one heck of a show.

Here are A Few Things I Think I’m Thinking About:

1) Sound, Fury, And Nothingness?

Kyrie and Harden moving away from Dallas and Philly, respectively, would certainly be fun. But can either move the needle?

Kyrie hasn’t positively impacted a team since Cleveland, seven years and a couple of lifetimes ago (he was fine on Dallas this last season, but it’s not like the team became better after he arrived). I’ve spent years defending Harden, but this diminished version of The Bearded One inspires precisely zero confidence as a playoff performer.

No matter what happens, Denver will enter the next season as the championship favorites, with the Suns right behind (I know what I just said about assuming, but I’m confident Kyrie isn’t taking a minimum deal to play for Phoenix. Guess I haven’t learned my lesson). It’s hard to see any free-agent movement changing that calculus.

Either player in Miami makes at least a little sense. The Heat desperately need a perimeter ballhandling threat, and both fit the bill. But being part of the Heat means prioritizing winning above all else, and neither Harden nor Kyrie has exhibited that particular trait. Does Harden with the Clippers improve their outlook? Theoretically, but the fate of the Clippers still hinges entirely upon the health of the two star wings. Harden is an ancillary character there.

I firmly believe that any player can be a winning player in the right context. But it’s unlikely that Kyrie or Harden will be able to find the championship puzzle missing their particular jigsaw pieces this summer.

2) Free agent depth

We covered this to an extent, but I want to reiterate that this class is brimming with useful players even outside of the big names.

First, there are all the free agents or option-wielding players widely expected to return to their teams but who may go rogue: Draymond Green, Brook Lopez, Miles Bridges, Jerami Grant, Khris Middleton, D’Angelo Russell, etc. At least one or two of those guys will go somewhere unexpected.

Then there’s the next tier: useful role players. Dillon Brooks is the defensive wing any number of teams could use (Cleveland? Dallas? Houston, maybe?). Eric Gordon can still bomb from deep and defend a little. Nobody knows what will happen with Grant Williams, but he’s an asset on any roster. Christian Wood has many defensive problems but is one of the best-scoring centers in the league. Nickeil Alexander-Walker showed vast defensive improvement last season and came up big several times down the stretch for the Timberwolves. Trey Lyles is the rare stretch-four who can actually stretch the floor.

These aren’t the sexiest names, but they can fill real roles on teams that hope to make playoff runs. The increased parity in the NBA has opened up more opportunities for players to make a difference. When it was the Cavs and Warriors in predetermined Finals every year, it kind of didn’t matter where any other players went. Now, though, we’re going to enter another season where 12-14 teams expect to make the second round of the playoffs. Any random NBA minute has never had a greater chance of mattering more than it does now. It’s an awesome time to be a fan!

3) Indiana’s Summer League squad raises eyebrows

It’s pretty rare to see First-Team All-Rookie players go back to Summer League for the start of their sophomore seasons, but Bennedict Mathurin and his staunch teammate Andrew Nembhard (who made my All-Rookie team) will both reportedly be in Las Vegas for the Pacers.

Teams don’t usually want important young building blocks risking injury, but more reps for both to develop weaknesses and address potential new roles could be in the works. Nembhard seems likely to get more run as the full-time point guard, something he often did during Tyrese Haliburton’s injury absences last year. I’d imagine Mathurin will get some time orchestrating the pick-and-roll (or practicing passing, like, at all) and defending the other team’s best wings.

But I’m not sure! Perhaps they won’t play at all. As I said, it’s an unusual situation, and I’ll be monitoring it to see how they’re handled. Expect more words from me on this after SL starts.

4) The Rockets Summer League roster is loaded

Tari Eason was a real-life Wreck-It Ralph as a rookie. Darius Days was a SL standout last year. I once heard fourth-overall pick Amen Thompson described as a cross between Ricky Rubio and young LeBron, which certainly got my attention. Cam Whitmore was projected top-five at one point and somehow slid to 20th in this year’s draft. Houston’s first-rounder from last year, Jabari Smith, is also on the roster, which raises some of the same questions as the Pacers’ rookies.

Houston as a franchise is at an important turning point. In theory, they have more young talent than they can reasonably fit, but in practice, they still don’t have that one guy who profiles as the surefire franchise linchpin (unless you’re particularly high on Jalen Green; I’m not totally sold yet).

The challenge now is to show progress from last year’s Chernobyl-sized disaster. Leaving aside any off-the-court concerns, new coach Ime Udoka will certainly put more accountability into place than previously existed. And the Rockets should be active in the free agent market, leading me to my next thought.

5) Free agency hinges upon Houston

Houston has been linked to almost all free agents of note at one point or another. James Harden was a possibility (until Green went on Paul George’s podcast and said bringing Harden in “could help, [or] it could hurt.” Apparently that hurt Harden’s feelings.) Fred VanVleet is another point guard they’ve eyed. Dillon Brooks, Kyle Kuzma, and even Brook Lopez (why?) have been linked to the Rockets.

It’s clear Houston is done accumulating youth. They want to bring in some veterans to make a play-in push and get their scattered youngsters pointed in the right direction.

The Rockets have twice as much cap room as any other team in the NBA, so they have to throw big cash around to meet the salary floor requirements. Texas famously has no income tax. That spending power is going to pull someone, and maybe someones; the butterfly effect of who they land could cause a tornado to rumble through the rest of the league.

I’ll return soon with some Summer League and Free Agency reactions. Until then, enjoy the craziness that commences at 6 p.m. tonight!

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.