There was a darn good reason Kyrie Irving opted into the final year of his contract with the Brooklyn Nets instead of testing free agency: There was no interest from a team with salary cap space that wanted to invest long term in the mercurial guard.
Free agency opens Thursday without Irving and with most of the “available” premium players, such as Washington’s Bradley Beal and Chicago’s Zach LaVine, expected to re-sign with their respective teams.
The first deal that should be announced is Dallas guard Jalen Brunson agreeing with the Knicks on a four-year, $100-plus-million deal that’s been speculated for weeks. Brunson could have re-upped with Dallas for four years and $55 million in February but the Mavericks never officially offered the deal.
Over the past few weeks, the Knicks have cleared salary cap space to make the Brunson deal, although it doesn’t push the Knicks much higher in the Eastern Conference than a mere contender for the eighth seed.
The Hawks made the biggest splash Wednesday by acquiring All-Star guard Dejounte Murray for Danilo Gallinari and multiple first-round draft picks as the Spurs begin their rebuild. Gallinari is likely to be bought out of his contract and perhaps a free agent target for the Celtics.
The coherent theme of this free agency is the Eastern Conference is getting increasingly better with teams retaining their own free agents, such as Philadelphia keeping James Harden on a potential multiyear deal after he opted out of the final year of his current contract at $47 million. The Hornets said they will match any offer for restricted free agent Miles Bridges, who like Brunson, bet on himself and did not sign an extension last summer.
There are teams with salary cap space to sign free agents such as the Trail Blazers, Pacers, and Pistons, but none are expected to be in play for players such as LaVine or Beal. What should be fascinating is the restricted free agent market, especially with a number of players who are likely to be available with offers from competing clubs.
Players such as Orlando’s Mo Bamba, San Antonio’s Lonnie Walker and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton are free agents who are likely to be signed by other clubs. Walker, who has not met expectations in San Antonio, could be a Celtics target because of his youth and ability to defend. Ayton, who helped the Suns to the NBA Finals in 2021, is likely going to be allowed to leave via free agency or a sign-and-trade agreement. Teams such as the Nets could make a potential offer for the former No. 1 overall pick.
It’s not considered a stellar free agent class but there will be a flurry of activity and several opportunities for teams to load up on middle-class type players. As for the Celtics, there are veteran players who could fill valuable roles at moderate prices.
Patty Mills of the Nets just opted out of his contract. Mills, who turns 34 in August, has shot at least 40 percent from the 3-point line in 10 of his 11 NBA seasons. He opted out of a $6.1 million contract, but the Celtics have their $6.3 million mid-level exception to offer.
Former All-Star Victor Oladipo is expected to leave Miami and he could be the type of scorer off the bench the Celtics need. Oladipo could come at a discount price because he’s played in just 64 games in the past three seasons because of injury, but the Celtics could bank on his return to full health.
Sacramento declined the contract option of former first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo, making him an unrestricted free agent. DiVincenzo has been a Celtics target for years and now could be acquired with likely the mid-level exception.
Although there are just a handful of teams with salary cap space, NBA teams have devised creative ways to add players despite being over the cap. Expect a litany of sign-and-trade agreements while other clubs could use their trade exceptions — the Celtics have two that expire within the next few weeks — to acquire players.
And of course, there will be a burgeoning market of players who don’t sign lucrative or mid-level exception deals who are going to be seeking work on smaller deals. That’s how the Celtics were able to sign Dennis Schröder last summer far under his market value.
The Celtics’ $17.1 million trade exception and their mid-level exception will allow them to become active free agent players. They will be an attractive club coming off an NBA Finals appearance. But they will have competition for these players.
While teams are allowed to “negotiate” with desired free agents at 6 p.m. Thursday, there are likely many agreements that have already been completed when the frenzy begins. And while the major free agents are likely to stay put, there will be a flurry of activity with the middle class, making for a compelling next week or so.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.