Free Agency

LeBron, Kawhi and chaos: Four key questions that will alter NBA landscape

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LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard (Getty Images)

The NBA season has come and gone. A second consecutive championship for the Warriors left Golden State supporters celebrating in the streets of Oakland during yet another parade, but for plenty of other fans, this past season felt a bit predictable.

But change is on the horizon, and there is much to look forward too as we head into next season. The answers to these four questions will alter the landscape of the league as we know it...

Where will LeBron James land?

James' impending free agency will bring the NBA offseason to a complete stop. He is the first domino to fall as part of a huge summer, and he has the opportunity to take a franchise to title contender status immediately with his presence.

The way in which the capped-out Cavs bowed out to the Warriors in the NBA Finals seemed to signal the end of James' run in Northeast Ohio. This has brought a level of speculation and fervor to the free agency period that has not been seen in quite some time (or at least since the last offseason LeBron had us all waiting and analyzing every move he made).

James' decision seems to be largely based on beating the Warriors. Front offices are trying to build their own "superteams" to combat the four All-Stars in Oakland. The Lakers have emerged as a primary suitor with a better chance of competing given their ability to add James and another max player. The 76ers are also lurking with much better talent than the Cavs can currently offer.

A new team could emerge as a challenger to the Warriors, bringing excitement to a fresh series with Golden State and changing the dynamic of a conference race. Of course, it would help if James had another star next to him...

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What's next for Kawhi Leonard?

The usually unflappable Spurs are finally having to deal with an uncomfortable situation. Ever since Gregg Popovich became head coach in 1996, the "Spurs Way" has never faltered. Now, the run of unwavering loyalty to Popovich and the organization has come to an end.

Leonard has indicated that he no longer wants to play in San Antonio. Multiple reports point to Leonard and his camp feeling betrayed by the organization over his quad injury, and the relationship has quickly soured. Comments throughout the season by Popovich and Tony Parker certainly didn't help.

It has been made clear that Los Angeles is his preferred destination (the Lakers being the frontrunners). The Spurs have made a point of saying that while they will listen to trade offers, but it is their preference to keep Leonard in a Spurs uniform. Just last offseason, Popovich was able to repair his relationship with LaMarcus Aldridge, who also sought a trade out of San Antonio, so it's not out of the realm of possibility Popovich somehow changes Leonard's mind with a last-minute meeting.

However, recent reports point to the relationship being irreparable. With Leonard's contract up after next season, the more likely scenario is that the Spurs decide to move on from their disgruntled star.

With all reports pointing to Leonard's desire to play in LA after his contract expires next season, the Lakers have some leverage. And while the Celtics may offer the best assets in a trade, they will be hard-pressed to give up the farm knowing Leonard's desire to be in Los Angeles.

More importantly, the Lakers understand that in acquiring Leonard they are almost assured of James joining him via unrestricted free agency. The duo of James and Leonard - with the outside possibility of Paul George joining as well - immediately vaults the Lakers into championship contention.

Rarely does a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP become available in his prime. And even more rare is teaming him with one of the best to ever play the game. A LeBron-Kawhi combo would also open the door in the East for a new contender...

Who will capture the Eastern Conference crown?

Assuming James leaves Cleveland, the top of the Eastern Conference will have a much different look than it has in the previous four seasons. If he decides to join the 76ers, they easily vault to the top of the conference and become the favorites to come out of the East. But even if James makes the decision to play in the Western Conference for the first time in his career, the East will be stronger than it has been in quite some time.

The Celtics and Sixers were on the verge of dethroning the Cavs this year, and this was at least a year before they were scheduled to do so given Boston's injury troubles and Philadelphia's youth.

With the emergence of Ben Simmons as a modern-day Magic Johnson and a healthy Joel Embiid offering a great imitation of Hakeem Olajuwon, the Sixers look like a team that will be competing for championships in the near future. If last year's No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz can reconfigure his shot and earn significant minutes, the 76ers suddenly become a team that has three of the best young players in the league.

As currently constructed, the Celtics might be the most logical challenger to the Warriors. The injury-plagued squad gave James and the Cavs all they could handle in the Eastern Conference finals. If not for a legendary Game 7 performance from James (35 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists) and the Celtics shooting 7-of-39 from beyond the arc, Boston would have represented the East in the NBA Finals.

The injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving gave the young Celtics core a chance to play meaningful minutes down the stretch of the regular season and in competitive playoff games. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier each played like stars in key moment. The addition of a healthy Hayward and Irving to go along with Al Horford should have the Celtics as the favorites to represent the East next season.

But those aren't the only young guys to watch...

What will these rookies do for an encore?

The 2017-18 rookie class was one that will go down as one of the best we have seen. Tatum, Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma, Lauri Markkanen and more all performed beyond what was expected in their rookie seasons.

Mitchell and Simmons inspired some of the most heated Rookie of the Year conversations in quite some time. While Simmons came out on top, both were equally deserving. Mitchell led the Jazz to a playoff berth and first-round upset over the Thunder, and Simmons emerged as the future of the 76ers alongside Embiid. Tatum's playoff performance has some thinking that he may end up as the best player from this class when all is said and done.

Simmons, Mitchell and Tatum could each serve as franchise cornerstones and prominent faces of the league for years to come. Their sophomore seasons will be highly scrutinized, but they will also give the NBA the next wave of stars as well-known players slowly walk toward retirement.

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