With LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell now extended, what's next in NBA free agency?

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Kemba Walker retired from professional basketball. Kemba is to James Harden with the stepback as Dr. J is to Michael Jordan with the dunk. This makes sense in my head. Let’s begin with some news from Shams.

The Latest From Shams

LeBron set for Lakers return

LeBron James plans to sign a two-year, $104 million maximum deal to return to the Lakers, league sources said Wednesday, one day after news that James’ son, Bronny, who was drafted 55th overall by L.A. last month, is planning to sign a standard NBA roster deal with multiple guaranteed seasons.

The elder James had opted out of his $51.4 million player option for next season. His new deal will include a player option for 2025-26 and a no-trade clause, according to league sources.

In his six years as a Laker, James has averaged 27 points per game and led the Lakers to the championship in 2020 in the NBA bubble. The Lakers went 47-35 last season, earning the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs before being eliminated by the Nuggets.

Zach has more on free agency and its effects across the league, including where Zach sees the Lakers in the West as the roster stands now.

Rolling Thunder

Tier-by-tier conference breakdown

Everybody I’ve talked to around the NBA (covering the league, doing radio shows, people working in front offices, etc.) is already marveling at what the Thunder can do next season. OKC was bounced by Dallas in the second round — the same Mavericks team that made the finals and just added Klay Thompson to the mix. And yet, we’re still hearing about how the Thunder will be the team to beat in the West.

OKC was the No. 1 seed last season. It also had one of the best offenses and defenses. The Thunder’s young core got valuable playoff experience. Their best player finished second in MVP voting. The team also agreed to add center Isaiah Hartenstein, a big man it lacked for some of the dirty work in the paint. So, the Thunder just might be the best team in the West. We’re still so early into the summer, but wouldn’t it be fun to break the conference into tiers? Let’s get into the hierarchy!

“Cooper Flagg Jerseys Are Ready” Tier: Jazz, Trail Blazers

The Blazers started their rebuild a year ago by moving Damian Lillard to Milwaukee. This is still going to be a very bad team as the young guys develop. The Jazz might finally be leaning into the tank, two years after they should have, when Victor Wembanyama was the prize. The severity of this will depend on if they trade Lauri Markkanen (27 years old).

“The Play-In Would Be a Good Step” Tier: Rockets, Grizzlies, Spurs

I feel very confident the Rockets and Grizzlies will make this a 12-team race in the West for the Play-In. Houston had a great finish to the year and will be better next season. Memphis should be healthy and is a very good team with Ja Morant on the court. It might be too early to include the Spurs, but I will not doubt Wemby.

“You Have to Make the Playoffs, Not the Play-In” Tier: Warriors, Lakers, Kings, Clippers

The Warriors lost Klay Thompson. The Clippers lost Paul George. But both teams have been working hard to fill out the roster. The Kings might look to make a big trade, and the Lakers … well … we’re waiting for them to do something. Nobody here can justify missing the postseason.

“We Know There Is More There” Tier: Pelicans, Suns, Timberwolves

It might be unfair to have the Wolves this low after their conference finals appearance, but that’s how good the West is. They still have to prove they can maintain this newfound level of success. The Pelicans traded for Dejounte Murray and have more dealing to do. They also just need a healthy Zion Williamson. The Suns … well … maybe games will be played on paper this year?

“You Should Win the West” Tier: Thunder, Mavericks, Nuggets

The Nuggets get this spot simply out of respect for Nikola Jokić, but they’ve got to figure out how to replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Mavericks got better and will have a full training camp together with this group. The Thunder might win 65-plus games next season.

Drama Done

Donovan Mitchell is extended. We good?

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ long nightmare is over. After giving up Markkanen (who made an All-Star Game the next season), Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji, three first-round picks and two pick swaps for Donovan Mitchell, the immediate concern was whether they could keep the five-time All-Star in Cleveland. They gave up a massive haul for Mitchell to be their guy, and all the while, people have been linking Mitchell to New York or Miami as his next destination. This summer, the Cavs could finally offer Mitchell a contract extension. And guess what happened?

Wait, you already read it in the subheading. Pretend you haven’t seen it. Let’s start this part over. Ready? Go! And guess what happened? He liked the offer! Mitchell agreed to a three-year, $150 million extension with the Cavs to keep him in Cleveland until at least the summer of 2027, and he’ll have a player option for the 2027-28 season at $53 million. I’ve seen two interesting, divergent thought paths here.

First path: The Cavs now must make two big trades. For the Cavaliers to contend for a title, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley can’t coexist, and neither can Mitchell and Darius Garland. I know people said this because I’m people.

The Cavs just aren’t balanced, can’t really score efficiently and need to play a better brand of basketball. Roster construction didn’t allow them to do that, and it cost J.B. Bickerstaff his job as the scapegoat. There are teams like Sacramento, Memphis, San Antonio, New Orleans and others in need of a defensive-minded center like Allen. Cleveland would be crazy to move Mobley. Finding a spot for Garland might be tougher because the league is saturated at point guard, but he’s very valuable.

Second path: Donovan just secured long-term money and will force a trade in a year. This is definitely a more dramatic thought process, and we do love some drama around this league. This idea wouldn’t be unprecedented. We saw something similar with Paul George in OKC. Even Stephen Jackson pulled it off back in the day with the Warriors. Teams sometimes pitch this to their own players when trying to re-sign them — telling them to take the money because they can be traded in a couple years if it doesn’t work out.

At a minimum, it feels like Mitchell will want to see what happens with the Cavaliers’ roster first. At least Cleveland can stop worrying about the extension talks for now. The team just has to endure that second path being an online topic.

Day 3 Signings

Free agency is slowing, but we have dominos

Free agency has slowed down considerably since Klay Thompson agreed to join the Mavs and Paul George agreed to join the 76ers. But we still had some signings on Day 3, so this is everything you need to know:

What happened? The Warriors agreed to a three-year, $27 million deal with Kyle Anderson to help their playmaking and defense. They might also be working on a sign-and-trade to get Buddy Hield from the Sixers. James Wiseman (No. 2 overall pick in 2020) signed with the Pacers. And Monte Morris is joining Phoenix to help at point guard.

What are we still waiting for? We need to know where DeMar DeRozan is going. Does anybody want Tyus Jones? Can I interest you in Jae Crowder?

Any trades on the horizon? Everybody is waiting to see if the Jazz will trade Markkanen or if the Pelicans will trade Brandon Ingram. Those might be your leaders in the “All-Star might get traded” clubhouse.

Bounce Passes

Lakers head coach JJ Redick said Bronny James earned his selection in the draft and his guaranteed contract.

Darnell Mayberry posits new Bulls center Jalen Smith could be just the kind of player Chicago needs.

Read Anthony Slater on Klay Thompson’s unceremonious departure from the Warriors.

What does Paul George’s new deal say about free-agency’s future?

(Top photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images )

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