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Surprise Landing Spots for Top 2023 NBA Free Agents

Greg Swartz

Now just weeks away from NBA free agency, we already know where some of the top stars are going. Or do we?

James Harden is re-signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, unless he goes back to the Houston Rockets. Kyrie Irving is leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers, unless he chooses a bigger pay day to stay with the Dallas Mavericks. There's no way Khris Middleton is leaving the Milwaukee Bucks, right?

There's always a few surprises in free agency, and this year will be no exception.

From Harden heading west to form a new Big 3, to Kyrie Irving reuniting with his former co-star, to Fred VanVleet leaving the Toronto Raptors to join an up-and-coming team and more, here are some surprising (yet, realistic) landing spots for the best of the 2023 free-agent class.

Fred VanVleet: Utah Jazz

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Fred VanVleet carries a $22.8 million player option for 2023-24, but he'll almost certainly turn it down in order to sign a new four- or five-year deal.

Staying with the Toronto Raptors is the most likely scenario. He's guaranteed a starting job and hefty role, has a championship ring to his name there already, and the Raptors possess enough talent on the roster to jump back into contention as early as next season.

If Toronto low-balls VanVleet with an offer, though, there's a rising team in Salt Lake City that could use a new floor general.

The Jazz would be an excellent fit for him. This team still won 37 games last season in a supposed rebuilding year, have a bona fide All-Star in Lauri Markkanen and a future Defensive Player of the Year in Walker Kessler.

Mix in Collin Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kelly Olynyk, Ochai Agbaji, three first-round picks in the 2023 draft and seven extra future first-round picks, and this team has one of the brightest futures of any franchise.

VanVleet could take over Mike Conley Jr.'s previous role as a veteran table-setter, one who can be a complementary scorer to Markkanen and serve as defensive disruptor on the perimeter.

Utah can pay up for VanVleet's services as well, given its $40.1 million in projected practical cap space as well.

If the 29-year-old decides to leave Toronto after seven seasons, the Jazz could offer him a perfect home for the next stage of his career.

Kristaps Porziņģis: Oklahoma City Thunder

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It's time for the Thunder to be buyers again, which should terrify the rest of the NBA.

While this team is loaded with guards and wings, the frontcourt is still a little thin, even with the return of Chet Holmgren. Even when last year's No. 2 overall pick returns, asking his 7'1", 195-pound frame to defend opposing centers is probably unfair, meaning the Thunder should look to add more muscle in the middle.

Kristaps Porziņģis has become one of the NBA's better rim-protectors and floor-spacers, holding opponents to just 53.5 percent shooting from within six feet, a drop of 11.1 percent off their average. He also put up 23.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 blocks and hit 38.5 percent of his threes for the Washington Wizards this season.

The Thunder could use the 27-year-old's rebounding ability as well given that no one outside of Josh Giddey pulled down more than 4.9 a game for an OKC team that ranked 25th in rebound percentage (48.7 percent).

The Latvian should also be thrilled to get off a Washington Wizards team going nowhere and join a franchise with the brightest future in the NBA.

Playing alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Jalen Williams and Holmgren, Porziņģis would help the Thunder get back to the playoffs, a place they project to remain for a very long time.

Khris Middleton: Sacramento Kings

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Khris Middleton has had a fantastic 10-year run with the Bucks.

A three-time All-Star who was an important part of the 2021 title team, the 31-year-old will likely turn down his $40.4 million player option to sign a new multi-year deal to stay in Milwaukee.

If the Bucks don't offer him the contract he wants, or if the firing of Mike Budenholzer and the ages of some of this core (Brook Lopez is 35, Jrue Holiday turns 33 in June) give Middleton any pause about returning, though, the Kings would be an ideal fit.

Sacramento is very much on the rise after reaching the postseason for the first time since Middleton was in middle school and could have an opening at small forward should Harrison Barnes leave in free agency.

Middleton would be an upgrade over Barnes, as he's the superior three-level scorer, ball-handler, passer and defender who brings 74 games of playoff experience to a young Kings team.

While Sacramento only has a projected $21.6 million in cap space, finding a team to take on Richaun Holmes' $12.4 million contract would bump the Kings back into a desirable range for Middleton's next contract.

Plugging Middleton into a starting lineup with De'Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray and Domantas Sabonis would make this one of the very best teams in the west.

Kyrie Irving: Phoenix Suns

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The Suns already tried to trade for Kyrie Irving once, offering a package of Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and a first-round pick at the 2023 trade deadline, per Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If at first you don't succeed…

Irving can stand to make the most money by re-signing with the Mavs this summer, the only team that can offer him a five-year deal. He could also take a $17 million pay cut off a max deal and join the Lakers and their $30 million of possible cap space.

Phoenix can't sign the eight-time All-Star outright but could acquire him via sign-and-trade. Such a deal would reunite him with Kevin Durant and form quite possibly the best offensive trio in all of basketball with Devin Booker.

With Paul now 38 and suffering yet another injury in the postseason, the Suns should be looking at younger options to maximize the remainder of Durant's prime years. While the Irving-Durant experiment ultimately failed in Brooklyn, the Nets had a net rating ranking in the 94th, 98th and 86th percentiles the past three seasons when both stars shared the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.

Of course, this deal only happens if Dallas agrees to trade Irving, a player they gave up a lot to acquire just months ago. If the 31-year-old threatens to leave in free agency, though, the Mavs will have no choice but to try to get something in return.

This would likely mean a player such as Paul coming back to Dallas, or the deal could expand to include Deandre Ayton as well.

There's a lot of crash-and-burn potential with Irving and Durant reunited, although neither would even be the primary offensive option with Booker around.

If Irving doesn't end up in Dallas or L.A., the valley would serve as a sneaky-good landing spot.

James Harden: Los Angeles Lakers

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There's been a lot of smoke around James Harden returning to Houston this summer, a move that continues to make absolutely no sense for either party. Re-signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, especially with Doc Rivers now out, should remain a strong possibility as well.

What about a team that just reached the conference finals, has an opening at point guard and the possibility to carve out roughly $30 million in cap space?

The Lakers actually make a lot of sense for Harden, especially if Kyrie Irving re-signs with the Dallas Mavericks and L.A. has already seen enough out of D'Angelo Russell.

A backcourt of Harden and Austin Reaves would lessen LeBron James' ball-handling responsibilities, assuming he doesn't retire, of course. Anthony Davis' rim protection can make up for a lot of Harden's defensive deficiencies on the perimeter as well.

A Los Angeles native who played his high school basketball in the area until attending Arizona State, this would be a homecoming of sorts for Harden, who would have a real chance at winning his first title alongside James and Davis.

While it would mean parting with some of their key role players (Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Mo Bamba), the Lakers could carve out enough cap space to possibly entice Harden, especially given that this core was four wins away from reaching the NBA Finals, a place the 33-year-old hasn't been to in over a decade.


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