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Who are the NBA’s key free agents and where are they most likely to land?

Paul George averaged 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game last season for the Thunder. Chuck Burton/AP/File/Associated Press

Editor’s note: Some players announced their decisions early Sunday morning, after this column was published. To find out who’s going where, click here.

It’s finally here, the NBA’s version of Christmas morning, where teams that have planned for this free agency period can throw around big money with the hopes of luring their next star or valuable role player.

Players enter this period hoping to cash in. But in reality, very few players will procure maximum or mega deals this summer. And the names of the ones who will are obvious: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George.

But there will also be some disappointed players when the market dries up. It was just a year ago that Celtics guard Avery Bradley was seeking $20 million per season when his contract expired. And who can forget Isaiah Thomas telling reporters two years ago at summer league in Las Vegas that the Celtics better “back up the Brink’s truck” when he hits free agency.

Well, this is the summer for that Tacoma duo and, because of injuries and the market, both will be fortunate to net $10 million per season.


There will be winners and losers in these sweepstakes. And if teams are patient enough, they will get bargains later in July, players who had hopes of landing a lucrative deal but watched as more heralded players soaked up all the salary cap space.

Here is a list of the top free agents and their projected destinations:

LEBRON JAMES: Because James opted out of his contract, it’s basically down to three teams — the Cavaliers, 76ers, and Lakers. Cleveland owns James’s Bird rights and can offer a maximum deal. The 76ers have the space to sign two maximum players, but there is a question as to whether James would want to play with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, with the potential of his presence hindering their progress. The Lakers are the most likely landing spot for James. He lives in Los Angeles in the offseason. There is allure to being the next great Laker, and the team has enough young talent for James to catapult it to a contender. Destination: Lakers.


KEVIN DURANT: Durant opted out of his contract, but the Warriors have every intention on signing him to a long-term deal despite the luxury tax ramifications. There will be no suspense here. Destination: Warriors.

PAUL GEORGE: George opted out of the final year of his deal with the Thunder and is pondering his options, one of which is returning to Oklahoma City. George enjoyed his season with the Thunder, and the team definitely has unfinished business after being eliminated in the first round. The Lakers also want George so they can pair him with James, but George is likely to stay in OKC for at least another season. Destination: Thunder.

CHRIS PAUL: Paul is a free agent after playing the last year of his contract with the Rockets. He is most likely to return to Houston after it came within a game of reaching the NBA Finals. Destination: Rockets

DEMARCUS COUSINS: He was in line for a mega extension with the Pelicans but he tore his Achilles’ in January and may have to settle for a short-term extension. The Pelicans flourished without Cousins, with Anthony Davis playing at an MVP level, but New Orleans has to upgrade its roster to continue to compete in the West. Destination: Pelicans.


DEANDRE JORDAN: He opted out of the final year of his contract with the Clippers and now appears headed to the Mavericks, whom he spurned three years ago after verbally agreeing to a deal. It’s a natural fit because Dallas needs a center and the Clippers are ready to move on. Destination: Mavericks.

The market for restricted free agents is just as interesting. There are a slew of talented players eligible to receive offer sheets from other clubs, which their current teams have the right to match. Marcus Smart of the Celtics is in that category.

The Mavericks were expected to make a bid for Smart, but since they are the favorites to land Jordan, will they have enough money to bid on Smart?

Other restricted free agents include Houston’s Clint Capela, Chicago’s Zach LaVine, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker, the Lakers’ Julius Randle, Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, and Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic. The player most likely to change teams is Gordon, who has yet to fulfill his vast potential and may need a change of scenery. Indiana is seeking a playmaking forward like Gordon.

There is an intriguing group of lesser-regarded free agents who could help teams greatly, including Thomas, Bradley, Denver’s Will Barton, Memphis’s Tyreke Evans, Utah’s Derrick Favors, Houston’s Trevor Ariza, Philadelphia’s J.J. Redick, Phoenix’s Elfrid Payton, New Orleans’s Rajon Rondo, the Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, San Antonio’s Rudy Gay, and New York’s Michael Beasley.


The Celtics have free agents in Aron Baynes, Greg Monroe, and Shane Larkin. Boston wants Baynes back but he can only sign an extension with a moderate raise because the team doesn’t own his Bird rights. Monroe is likely headed to another club on a moderate deal after showing flashes with the Celtics but then losing playing time during the playoffs. Larkin is likely gone after the Celtics signed Brad Wanamaker, but he played well enough to earn a deal elsewhere as a backup point guard.

The next week should be fascinating, and it all starts with LeBron’s decision. We’ve experienced this before.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.