Wednesday's NBA: Free agency opens Thursday, Harden declines $47M option with 76ers

Associated Press

Free agency opens Thursday in the NBA, with teams able to begin negotiating at 6 p.m. Eastern with players who are not under contract. Some deals will be struck quickly, others not for weeks, and in almost all circumstances those new contracts won’t be able to be signed until July 6 at the earliest.

Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook have already made their decisions; both could have been free agents this summer and found a combined 84 million reasons not to hit the open market — $47 million for Westbrook to opt-in for the last year of his deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, and nearly $37 million for Irving to do the same with the Brooklyn Nets.

Jalen Brunson will be in demand early, with the expectation that he’ll quickly agree to leave Dallas and become the new point guard in New York. And there will be players who might decide to look elsewhere, or accept huge $200-million-plus deals with their current teams — opportunities that are presenting themselves to Zach LaVine with Chicago and Bradley Beal with Washington.

Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson (13) is expected to sign with the New York Knicks.

The biggest deal of the next few days won’t have anything to do with a free agent: All signs point to two-time reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic being offered a supermax extension in the $260 million range by the Denver Nuggets. The only question there will be how quickly he finds a pen to put to that paper.

Minnesota can give Karl-Anthony Towns a supermax of about $210 million this summer, as can Phoenix with Devin Booker.

Other players are restricted free agents, meaning their current teams will have the right to match offers from other clubs. The most notable name on that list is Deandre Ayton, the Phoenix center who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft but watched others in his draft class get their first extensions last summer.

Some players will be free agents in name only. John Wall, for example, will get $41 million in a buyout from the Houston Rockets, and has already decided that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Clippers next season. The Clippers are expected to use a $6.4 million exception to sign Wall, and that figure matches the money that Wall gave back to make the buyout of what would have been the final year of his contract happen.

“We’ll see what happens as free agency opens up and everything else,” Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said. “I think the sky’s the limit for our team. The sky is the limit. ... And of course, you’ve got to have a little bit of luck to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which is what we’d really like.”

That will be everyone’s goal come 6 p.m. Thursday, to find ways to get closer to the Larry O’Brien, whether that’s in 2023 or beyond.

Such thinking even applies to the champion Golden State Warriors, who have a slew of rotation players — Kevon Looney, Otto Porter, Gary Payton II among them — who just last week were enjoying a parade through San Francisco and are now free to go elsewhere if the opportunities and dollars are right.

“We still do need to surround the team with vets and that’s the plan in free agency,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “It’s easier to get some of the older players, we think, in free agency than young players. Young players are probably the most in-demand in free agency.”

True, and that’s another element of this time of year: Young players, and not grabbing them in free agency this year, but keeping them out of free agency in future years.

Ja Morant will surely be offered a max rookie extension by Memphis, one that will kick in with the 2023-24 season. The Zion Williamson situation in New Orleans will be interesting, as the Pelicans decide how much to offer to — or safely structure a deal for — a No. 1 pick who has missed the majority of his first three NBA seasons because of injury issues. Miami is planning to offer sixth man of the year Tyler Herro an extension, though the Heat will have to determine what number makes the most sense for them going forward.

And, of course, there is a LeBron James angle: The Los Angeles Lakers were a disaster last season and will aim to revamp their roster, plus can give James a two-year extension in August worth nearly $100 million. But before he signs, they have far more pressing concerns.

Officially, it all starts Thursday. A new season is already here.

Harden declines $47M option with Philadelphia

James Harden is taking less with hopes the Philadelphia 76ers can do more.

A person familiar with the situation said Harden chose not to exercise his $47.4 million option for next season and will become a free agent — but with no designs on leaving Philadelphia. Harden made the decision to allow the 76ers the flexibility they need to sign other players this summer, said the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side confirmed those plans publicly.

That will be a major factor when the NBA opens the free agency negotiating window at 6 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, with Philadelphia among the teams that will be expected to target Miami forward P.J. Tucker, among others.

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) will become a free agent after declining his $47.4 million option with Philadelphia.

The most likely scenario for Harden now is this: The 10-time All-Star signs a new deal with Philadelphia, for something close to that $47.4 million number, after the team has addressed other needs and improved its chances of becoming a true championship contender in 2023. If Harden had opted in before his Wednesday afternoon deadline, Philadelphia would have had a much more difficult time in finding financial pathways toward luring free agents.

His decision Wednesday backed up what Harden said May 12, when Philadelphia’s season ended in the second round of the playoffs — a six-game loss to top-seeded Miami.

“I’ll be here,” Harden said that night when asked about his future. “Yeah, I’ll be here. Whatever makes this team, whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”

Harden is a three-time scoring champion and averaged 22.0 points and 10.3 assists during his time with Brooklyn and Philadelphia last season. The seven-time All-NBA player was the 2018 NBA MVP and a member of the league’s 75th anniversary team.

Timberwolves, Prince reach 2-year, $16M extension

Minneapolis — The Minnesota Timberwolves are bringing back reserve forward Taurean Prince, who became a vital part of the second unit in his first season with the club.

Prince and the Timberwolves have agreed to a two-year, $16 million contract extension, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

The person spoke Wednesday to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team has not yet announced the extension, which will keep the 6-foot-7 Prince off the market when NBA free agent and trade negotiations formally open Thursday night.

Acquired last summer from Cleveland in a trade for popular point guard Ricky Rubio, Prince warmed up to coach Chris Finch's system after a slow start and shot a career-best 45.4% from the floor in his sixth season in the league. His shooting rate inside the 3-point line was also a career high at 56.5%, giving Finch the ability to play Prince at either forward spot depending on the size of the lineup.

Prince was drafted with the 12th overall pick out of Baylor and landed in Atlanta to start his NBA career in 2016. Since then, he's been traded three times in the last three years — to Brooklyn, Cleveland and Minnesota. He started 200 of the 260 games he played in over his first four seasons, but since then has only 18 starts in 110 games.

Finding a fit with the Timberwolves was far more important than a few extra minutes on the floor, Prince has said.

“The camaraderie of the group,” Prince said during the playoffs when asked about why he wanted to stay. “Everybody that’s here, you've got 10, pretty much 15 guys that are on the same page at all times whether on the court or off the court. Hanging out and stuff. You don’t get that. I really haven’t felt that since college. That’s a big step.”

Prince was the only one among Minnesota's top 11 players in terms of usage last season who was eligible for free agency, so this is not expected to be a particularly active summer for the Timberwolves. The top priority is keeping their cornerstone in place with an extension for center Karl-Anthony Towns.

Still, new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly has proven to be an aggressive roster manager. With point guard D'Angelo Russell entering the final year of his current contract with a salary cap hit of more than $31 million, he's a candidate to be moved to allow for the addition of more complementary pieces to Towns and star guard Anthony Edwards.

Late Wednesday, the Timberwolves exercised team options on two other key backups, guard Jaylen Nowell and center Naz Reid.

Nuggets and Wizards agree to 4-player swap

Denver — The Denver Nuggets have agreed to a deal that would send guards Will Barton and Monte Morris to the Washington Wizards for former Detroit Pistons guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith, a person with knowledge of the negotiations said Wednesday.

The Denver Nuggets have agreed to a deal that would send guards Will Barton and Monte Morris to the Washington Wizards for former Detroit Pistons players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith, a person with knowledge of the negotiations said Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the deal hasn’t been announced. It's not likely to be finalized until the league's offseason moratorium is lifted on July 6.

The trade becomes the latest move by Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth to reshape the lineup around two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic. Barton and Morris were both starters last season on a Nuggets team that was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by eventual champion Golden State.

ESPN and The Athletic were the first to announce a deal was in the works.

Barton averaged 14.7 points and Morris 12.6 points on an injury-riddled Denver team that was missing point guard Jamal Murray (ACL recovery) for the entire year and Michael Porter Jr. (back) for most of it.

Both Barton and Morris have been key components, but the emergence of Bones Hyland gave the Nuggets the flexibility to orchestrate this type of trade.

The Nuggets have agreed to a deal that would send guards Will Barton and Monte Morris to the Washington Wizards for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith, a person with knowledge of the negotiations said Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

Caldwell-Pope started 77 games for Washington, where he averaged 13.2 points and shot 39% from 3-point range. On top of that — and this should endear him to Denver coach Michael Malone — he's a strong perimeter defender.

The 29-year-old Caldwell-Pope won an NBA title with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020.

Smith is on the verge of joining his 13th NBA team. He started last season with Charlotte and was dealt to the Wizards in February. He played in 28 games for Washington.