Why Kevin Durant’s free agency is more about those who come after him

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Kevin Durant is set to begin his season-long game of chicken, one in which those outside of his camp — including NBA general managers — try to ascertain what the two-time Finals MVP wants come the summer of 2019.

His situation mirrors that of seemingly every megastar about to enter free agency. That is, there are rumors abound of What Kevin Durant Really Wants, none of the verifiable. The same goes for his contemporaries: Jimmy Butler wants to be in Los Angeles or New York, but as the number one option; Kawhi Leonard wants to be in Los Angeles, but also perhaps he wants to stay in Toronto; Kyrie Irving wants to team up with Butler; DeMarcus Cousins a big bag of money from just about everyone (this one is probably the closest to accurate).

The story around Durant is that he could want to break out on his own, grab a long-term deal, and once again the certified top option on his own franchise. A three-time champion after another trophy with the Golden State Warriors this season, Durant would re-shape his narrative as The Number One Guy with a new team.

Whether any of this is actually true is, truly, unknowable.

We have entered into a version of the NBA in which players are trying to both commodify their talents best they can while obtaining increasing agency over their own careers. It has helped that salaries in the NBA have risen such that top players don’t need to barter with franchises to ensure their financial security. Those days are over. If they could, all 30 NBA teams would offer a max contract to Durant on 12:01 AM. He’s going to get paid, no matter what.

To that end, players get to make choices based on exceedingly private factors that aren’t always known — even with continuing rumors floating heavy — as agents and handlers try to retain leverage for future bargaining.

These factors, by the way, reported early in the season have the distinct disadvantage of time working against them. Remember when Paul George was headed for the Los Angeles Lakers and nowhere else last season? It doesn’t matter whether the reports were untrue or if George simply changed his mind. The result is that he remains an Oklahoma City Thunder.

So now for the rumors about Durant.

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 27: Kevin Durant (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Potential landing spots for Durant include the Los Angeles Clippers, Lakers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and even the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant will no doubt be looking to sign a five-year max deal which probably puts him out of reach for the Warriors, lest they decide to drastically change the plan for their core moving forward. Klay Thompson needs a new deal, and the contracts of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston will need tending to the season following.

I tell you all that to tell you this: there is zero sense debating where Durant will land come July 1, 2019. The “facts” are already well-known. They could also all be complete bullshit.

The teams who have the most open cap space are easy to Google. With a little research, it’s also pretty easy to understand which of those teams can do a little financial footwork to get in a better standing come summer. As of writing, the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Chicago Bulls all lead the way in potential open cap space, along with the previously aforementioned Nets, Clippers, Lakers, and Knicks.

Chop out the teams that couldn’t sign Durant to save their lives, and you end up with a short list. Chicago, New York, the Clippers, the Lakers, and Brooklyn seem most suited for his rumored wishlist.

While it would be better content from me to tell you with great certainty which team leads the way in the Kevin Durant Sweepstakes, I cannot. It would be disingenuous. Instead, what’s most interesting when it comes to Durant is the sociological experiment that has become NBA free agency in 2019.

That is to say that money has become so great in this league that after a certain threshold it just doesn’t matter how much it is anymore. It has been posited before that as salaries have risen in the NBA, the ability for players to realistically value dollar numbers of contracts has started to decline. It’s hard to wrap your brain around a contract that’s a quarter of a billion dollars. What’s $50 million here or there when you have the ability to choose with complete impunity?

The summer of 2016 was a boom for a few players, but not for the NBA employment pool at-large. Nevertheless, salaries continue to rise and the cap is projected to go up yet again as we move year-to-year. Along with player agency, the idea that max salaries matter more to players is starting to fade. Leonard certainly didn’t think so when he decided to eject himself from San Antonio, giving up the vaunted Super Max contract in the process. With a max deal guaranteed for Durant should he want it, the same could be assumed heading into his free agency period.

The summer of 2019 could be the start of an era in the NBA in which players decide to sign with new teams based off of minutiae unknowable to the public, away from “basketball reasons” and in Durant’s case, even championships. Yes, the Chicagos, New Yorks, and Los Angeleses will dominate destinations for big-time free agents. But it might no longer matter that a teams in those locations don’t hold any advantages, basketball-wise, over their rivals.

It’s a brave new world in the NBA, and the league’s superstar-centric marketing combined with ever-rising popularity and TV revenue have led us to this logical nexus between player, cash, and choice. No doubt whatever Durant does, it will be most telling about what we’ll see from the signings of max-level players who come after him, in 2019 and beyond.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.

 

Cavaliers’ Dean Wade to miss 3-4 weeks due to shoulder injury

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In Cleveland’s search for a fifth starter to play the three next to Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, Dean Wade might be the best of the group. Not that the numbers are great for him or anyone (Cedi Osman is the best statistically) but the eye test makes one think Wade could be the answer.

We’ll have to wait a while to find out as Wade will be out 3-4 weeks with an AC joint sprain in his left shoulder, the Cavaliers announced. Friday night against the Magic he suffered an aggravation to a previous injury.

Wade has been a quality floor-spacer for the Cavaliers this season, shooting 41.1% from three, and is averaging 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds a game, playing a little more than 24 minutes a night.

When he returns, hopefully coach J.B. Bickerstaff will give him a little more run with the rest of the Cavaliers core (when they are healthy).

Donovan Mitchell is not looking back on summer, says now is happiest he’s been in league

Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks
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The New York Knicks chose not to go all-in last summer and bring Donovan Mitchell home. The kid who played his AAU games in Manhattan and grew up a Knicks fan watching games at the Garden was open to it, but the Knicks lowballed the offer and Koby Altman and the Cavaliers swooped in.

Mitchell returned to New York Sunday, but he wasn’t looking back — he’s happy where he is now in Cleveland, on one of the up-and-coming teams in the league. Via Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“What’s done is done, and I’m happy as hell to be where I’m at,” he said. “At the end of the day, this decision was made and I don’t think I’ve been happier since I’ve been in the league. But I think for me it’s always going to be motivation to come back and play well in my hometown, but you could say that about anybody. But with what happened this summer, it’s over with, it happened and I’m happy to be with the Cavaliers.”

Whether Rose holding back picks — concerned about having enough ammunition to bring in the next star to New York to go with Mitchell — was a mistake will play out over time. It depends on what bold move Rose makes next with the roster. Whatever decision he makes will be compared to the “what if” of Mitchell, fair or not.

Mitchell has been better than expected in Cleveland — averaging 28.4 points a game shooting 42.1% on 3-pointers — and has fit beautifully in the backcourt with Darius Garland, as well as with the front line of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Together those four form the cornerstone of a team that could contend for a title in the coming years. Mitchell is loving every minute of it.

That group (minus Allen, who remains out with a lower back contusion) wasn’t enough on Sunday against a desperate Knicks team. New York got the 92-81 win behind 23 from Jalen Brunson (Mitchell also had 23).

 

Three things to know: Anthony Davis, Lakers playing up to Darvin Ham’s vision

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Anthony Davis, Lakers playing up to Darvin Ham‘s vision

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.” —Lakers coach Darvin Ham before NBA training camps opened. 

This is what Darvin Ham envisioned.

In his last five games, Anthony Davis is averaging 35.6 points on 66.7% shooting with 13.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks a game. He has been dominant — and his 55-point game leading the Lakers to a win over the Wizards on Sunday put him in historic company.

What Ham envisioned was more than just Davis playing the five and going back to an All-NBA — if you ask Patrick Beverley or Kristaps Porzingis after the game, MVP — level, it’s that the rest of the team would follow.

So far it has. In its last 11 games, the Lakers are 8-3 with the third-best offense in the NBA and a top-10 defense over that stretch, with a +7.2 net rating. What’s more, the shooting woes that dragged them down early in the season have also righted themselves.

This hot streak started against a soft part of the schedule, but road wins over the Bucks and Wizards show it isn’t a fluke. This is a team gaining confidence, and while it likely will not sustain this level of success for the remaining five months of the season, it’s a sign of what this team is capable of when clicking.

Los Angeles also still has a lot of work to do. Even with this recent run they are 10-12 and sit 12th in the West — they have to keep this going long enough to get into the playoff mix. Then we can discuss what kind of postseason threat they are.

Two Wizards notes out of their loss to the Lakers Sunday.

First, Bradley Beal left the game in the first quarter with hamstring tightness. He did not return and after the game there wasn’t much of an update on whether he will miss time, and if so how much. It’s not a good sign for a Wizards team without much margin for error.

Also, Daniel Gafford had maybe the dunk of the year. This is insane.

2) Damian Lillard returns to court and Trail Blazers

With Damian Lillard sidelined by a strained calf, the Trail Blazers dropped 7-of-8 and fell to .500 on the season (11-11). They were not the same team.

Sunday he returned — looking unbothered by any calf issue — and suddenly the ball was moving again, and the offense clicking in a win over the Pacers. Lillard was 5-of-10 from 3 on his way to 21 points, but just his presence opened up the offense so Jerami Grant could score 28. Anfernee Simons, coming off his insane 45-point night, added 22.

Lillard doesn’t have to carry Portland, he doesn’t have to drop 40 every night to have a chance to win (see Doncic, Luka). Grant and Simons can help carry the scoring load. But this is also a team without much margin for error, so they struggle without the threat of Lillard, the floor shrinks and the ball doesn’t move the same way.

With Lillard back, the Trail Blazers are a threat every night. In a tight West — the Trail Blazers are tied with the Clippers and Warriors for the sixth seed — they can’t afford any more slumps like the recent one. And they can’t afford to be without Lillard for an extended stretch.

3) Does he have a puncher’s chance? Floyd Mayweather wants to buy NBA team

The instinct is to bet against Floyd Mayweather ever owning an NBA team for a couple of reasons, but when you’re talking about a boxer with a 50-0 career record, bet against him at your own risk.

Mayweather said at a recent public event he was working to buy an NBA team and has made a $2 billion offer for one.

“I’ve been working on buying a NBA team outright. One of my other business partners, Brent Johnson, he’s here. So we’ve been working on the NBA team for a while now. It’s kinda, it’s rough…

“It could be the Vegas franchise. It could be the Seattle franchise or I could be buying a franchise that’s already up and running. So the first offer, we offered them a little over $2 billion for majority ownership. Do I have it? Absolutely, I have it, but it didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s a lot when you have so many different businesses all around the world. It’s a lot.”

There are two key questions about Mayweather’s being able to purchase an NBA team.

The first is, does he really have the money? Mayweather says he does, and last year said his net worth was above $1.2 billion. Whether that is true, and whether that money is liquid or if it’s tied up in speculative investments, is not something we know (it’s not like Mayweather has to make his financial situation public). However, you can be sure it’s something the NBA would have its accountants look into — Mayweather would have to open his books to them to get into the club.

The second issue is Mayweather’s history of controversies — including homophobic comments and pleading guilty to domestic violence charges. The NBA vets its owners looking to avoid public relations blowback, and you can be sure a Mayweather ownership would lead to a lot of hard questions for a league that paints itself as progressive.

Even if he has the $2 billion and the league approves him, Mayweather will need partners in this process. The only NBA team publicly known to be for sale is the Phoenix Suns and the sale price for that may be double the $2 billion number Mayweather threw out. As for potential expansion teams (probably headed to Seattle and Las Vegas), those are years away according to league sources (think the second half of this decade), and the entry price to get into those is going to be well above $2 billion.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Jose Alvarado put up a 38-spot for the Pelicans and had the New Orleans fans singing his name.