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Eight players/teams, hundreds of millions of dollars and one high-stakes All-NBA vote

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NBA award votes were cast at least 40 days ago. The regular season being judged ended even before that. After rounds of high-level playoff basketball, it’s easy to lose interest in these honors.

But All-NBA selections – which the league plans to release this week – can’t be overlooked.

They could determine the fates of several players and franchises.

In 2011, the NBA began allowing a higher max salary for certain young players. The Collective Bargaining Agreement got updated in 2017 to allow certain veterans to earn super-max salaries. The most common route to eligibility: Making an All-NBA team.

Here are eight players and teams with a lot riding on these results:

Kemba Walker, Hornets

The Hornets haven’t given Kemba Walker a playoff-series victory. They haven’t given him an All-Star teammate. They didn’t even give him Marc Gasol before the trade deadline.

But they can potentially give him a super-max contract.

It might be a necessary tool to retain the greatest player in franchise history.

A year-and-a-half ago, Walker said he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. A couple months ago, a rumor emerged Walker was likely to leave in free agency. This has gone south quickly.

Yet, don’t rule out Walker re-signing – especially if the Hornets can offer him a super-max contract projected to be worth $221 million over five years. That’s far larger than Walker’s projected max if leaving, $140 million over four years.

Heck, if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Walker might even return for his regular max, projected to be $190 million over five years.

That begs the question: How badly do the Hornets want Walker back? Their outlook is bleak either way.

Keeping Walker would make them far more competitive in the short term but carry serious downside risk with the 29-year-old point guard. Maxing out, let alone super-maxing out, Walker would also force Charlotte to clear salary unless Michael Jordan is willing to make an unprecedented trip into the luxury tax. So, a lackluster roster would get even further depleted.

Walker leaving would invite other problems, namely the loss of the team’s best player. The capped-out Hornets would have no mechanism to adequately replace him. They’d be heading into a year of purgatory then rebuilding from near rock bottom.

It’s hard to see Walker settling for the regular max if he’s eligible for the super max. But if Walker misses All-NBA and constrains Charlotte’s offer, the regular max could be enough.

Walker seems to take pride in representing the Hornets and living in Charlotte. He also appears fed up with the franchise’s losing.

These opposing forces will pull at him this summer.

A giant bag could soothe everything. Or its absence could be the final straw.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns signed a five-year contract extension last fall that projected to be worth $158 million or $190 million.

Why the $32 million difference? It depends whether Towns makes All-NBA this season.

Eventually, he pushed to trigger that extra money.

Towns averaged 28-13-4 after the All-Star break, up from 23-12-3 prior. Minnesota didn’t suddenly start winning more. But Towns posted shiny numbers.

The Timberwolves would love if Towns maintained that urgency. For all his talent, he has too often failed to assert himself on the court.

But they also might quietly like if he misses All-NBA this season. With Andrew Wiggins already on a max contract, paying Towns an extra $6 million or so per year would further squeeze flexibility.

Towns still looks like he’d be worth the super-max over the next five years. But he could be a bargain at the regular max.

Klay Thompson, Warriors

The near-consistent expectation since the season began: Golden State will sign Klay Thompson to a max contract this summer. If the Warriors offer any less, he’d take it as a sign of disrespect and explore the market.

That implies Thompson will demand the super-max if eligible for the projected five-year, $221 million contract (up from a projected $190 million over five years with the regular max). The difference could be quite costly for Golden State.

If they re-sign Kevin Durant, waive and stretch Shaun Livingston and fill their roster with minimum players, the Warriors’ projected luxury tax depending on Thompson’s contract type:

  • Regular max: $128 million
  • Super max: $161 million

Considering Thompson’s salary, this All-NBA vote could cost Golden State an additional $38 million next season alone.

Of course, Durant might not stay. If he leaves, the Warriors could even avoid the dreaded repeater tax altogether.

But the issue looms next year, when Draymond Green will be up for a big raise. There’s no easy way maintain a championship contender without it getting very expensive.

Thompson’s All-NBA status will go a long way toward determining just how much it costs Golden State to remain elite.

Bradley Beal, Wizards

Washington knows the danger of offering the super-max to someone who has made only one All-NBA team and won’t hit free agency for another two years. John Wall is the poster child for the super-max gone wrong. His extension hasn’t even taken effect yet, and his contract is arguably the NBA’s worst.

You think Bradley Beal is willing to let that become his problem?

Beal stepped up while Wall was injured and earned serious All-NBA consideration. Beal is extolling his loyalty to the Wizards. Even as he says he wouldn’t rush to sign the super-max if offered, Beal sounds ready to get paid.

Washington should be reluctant. A projected $193 million over four years is a lot of money for a player of his caliber, and it could doom the franchise for years. A super-max extension would also prohibit the Wizards from trading Beal for one year, taking him off the market while his value remains high. Plus, with Wall already on the books, Washington has less margin for error.

I can’t imagine it’d go over well with Beal if the Wizards spurned him because Wall got overpaid first – especially considering the history of friction between those two.

Yet, it’d be incredibly risky for Washington to commit so much to Beal now. There’d be only a narrow path for Beal to lead the downtrodden team to meaningful winning next season. All the while, he’d be ineligible to be traded. Longer term is hazier, which is treacherous uncertainty when someone could get paid so much.

If Beal makes All-NBA, there’s a good case the Wizards shouldn’t offer him a super-max extension. If they don’t offer him the super-max extension, there’s a good chance he’ll resent it.

Where this all leads: If Beal makes All-NBA, that could prompt Washington to trade him.

That wouldn’t be just an unintended consequence of the super-max. It’d be the exact opposite of the super-max’s intended design.

Maybe Beal won’t make All-NBA, which would create its own set of complications. Beal would be just two years from unrestricted free agency, and a non-super-max extension seems unlikely. But at least doors would be open.

If he makes All-NBA, suddenly there’d be a lot of pressure on the Wizards to commit one way or the other on him. Not an ideal situation, especially for a team without a general manager.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Anthony Davis made a trade request.

David Griffin has indicated he might not honor it.

That’s probably a combination of hope and bluff. Griffin obviously wants Davis in New Orleans, but if Davis remains intent on leaving, it’s tough to keep him. However, by announcing a plan to sell Davis on the Pelicans over the next year, Griffin improves his trade leverage.

Of course, Griffin might actually follow through and keep Davis into 2020 free agency. That plan becomes much more tenable (or improves the viability of Griffin’s bluff) if Davis makes an All-NBA team this year.

The Pelicans can already offer Davis a super-max extension this offseason. But if Davis makes All-NBA this season or next, they could also re-sign him to a super-max contract in 2020 free agency. The extension or fresh contract would have the same terms – projected to be five years, $235 million.

That’s a lot more than Davis’ projected max with other teams in 2020 ($156 million over four years).

If Davis misses All-NBA this season and next, New Orleans would still have a financial advantage in its 2020 offer for Davis (projected max of $202 million over five years). Davis could still qualify for the super max with the Pelicans in 2020 free agency by making All-NBA next season.

But that’s obviously a smaller guaranteed edge without him clinching super-max eligibility this season. It’d be incredibly risky for the Pelicans to keep him into 2020 free agency without knowing they’d have the bigger upper hand.

It’s probably too risky to keep him, anyway.

Davis has said the extra money won’t sway him. His trade request affirms that.

But people change their minds.

More money only helps.

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Lillard will make an All-NBA team, but the playoffs would always go a long way toward answering questions that remained.

Would Portland commit now to paying Lillard a projected $193 million from ages 31-34? Would Lillard lock into team control for six more years?

After the Trail Blazers’ run to the Western Conference finals, the answer is clear: Yes.

This is the designated-veteran-player extension everyone should be watching. If it doesn’t work with Lillard – an excellent player and even better leader – it could prompt changes in the next CBA.

Nikola Vucevic, Magic

I see six centers as legitimate All-NBA candidates: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis and Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic’s case is surprisingly strong.

Among those six, Vucevic ranks second in real-plus-minus-based wins, third in PER-based estimated wins added, fourth in win shares and fourth in value over replacement player.

Plus, there are the factors that shouldn’t matter, but often do. Vucevic has the narrative of working his way into first being an All-Star in his eighth season and ending Orlando’s six-year playoff drought. There will definitely be no voter fatigue with him.

I don’t expect Vucevic to make All-NBA, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if, as voters researched their picks, he holds up well. If he gets on some ballots and many voters are divided on other candidates, it’s possible for Vucevic to sneak onto the third team.

Even if that happened, though, is it possible he’d actually get a super-max contract?

It’s hard to see the Magic – whose front office inherited, rather an acquired, Vucevic – paying him that much. He’s 28 and has made the All-Star team only once. Orlando barely snuck into the playoffs in the East with him. He had a very fine season, but that doesn’t mean his long-term trajectory has completed changed.

I’d be quite surprised if the Magic gave him a regular-max contract (projected to be $190 million over five years). A super-max contract (projected to be $221 million over five years)? That’s barely even imaginable.

[Correction: Newly signed designated-veteran-player contracts, as opposed to extensions, must cover precisely five seasons.]

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo seems happy in Milwaukee.

The Bucks can secure him in 2020.

Antetokounmpo is too inexperienced to sign a veteran-super-max extension this offseason. But because he made All-NBA last year and will certainly make it again this year, he’ll already clinch eligibility to next year sign a super-max extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years.

A lot can change in year, including Antetokounmpo’s desire to stay in Milwaukee. But the Bucks can do their part to keep Antetokounmpo happy between now and then. That starts with advancing from the Eastern Conference finals, where Milwaukee is tied 2-2 with the Raptors. The Bucks can also pay the luxury tax to keep their strong supporting cast intact next season. Follow that with another deep playoff run next year, and Antetokounmpo seems highly likely to stay.

Still, the only certainty once Antetokounmpo makes All-NBA this year, will be in his eligibility for a super-max extension next year. His and Milwaukee’s views on it once it can actually be signed can’t be known until then.f

Report: There is mutual interest between the Knicks, Julius Randle

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The Knicks priority this summer is big game hunting: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, maybe Kyrie Irving (if one of those first two come). They have the cap space (or can get to it easily) and the lures of New York and Madison Square Garden. They want to be players.

Whether they land a superstar or not — and right now “not” seems the more likely outcome, reading the tea leaves around the league — they will need to round out the roster with good players to fit next to rookie R.J. Barret and young prospects such as Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.

Enter Julius Randle.

From Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated:

Other free agents on the Knicks’ radar include their own free-agent center DeAndre Jordan, Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins and twins Markieff and Marcus Morris. New Orleans Pelicans forward Julius Randle and the Knicks also have mutual interest, according to sources.

“We are going to have the opportunity to meet with the guys we want to meet with,” [Knicks president Steve] Mills said without offering details or confirming names.

Randle, just 24, has seen his stock go up in recent years and averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Pelicans last season. His game is a throwback, he uses his strength and athleticism to bully his way to buckets. He also shot 34.4 percent from three, forcing teams to respect him from the arc.

Randle could fit well with the Knicks. The question, as always, is at what price.

As for the others mentioned in the report, DeAndre Jordan may well land wherever Kevin Durant signs (they are good friends). Cousins and the Morris twins are second-tier players, meaning once the stars make their picks teams will be looking to round out rosters and those guys will start getting more and more calls. (The Warriors can only offer Cousins a little more than $6 million to return, another team will likely come in higher, but what worries teams more is the years, he very well may not get more than two.)

Drew Brees sent Zion Williamson a signed jersey that said “Passing the torch to you”

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New Orleans is a football town.

The Pelicans are trying to carve out their space in that market — and landing Zion Williamson with the No. 1 pick in the draft has helped generate the kind of excitement they need — but the Big Easy is all about the Saints. Quarterback Drew Brees is treated like a deity in that town.

Brees welcomed Williamson to town Tuesday by giving him an autographed jersey, one that read, “Passing the torch to you.” It also came with a card that said, “Zion, welcome to the family. Let’s dance.”

The best part of this is Williamson’s reaction — he is genuinely in awe. Much like when he teared up on the night of the draft (when we all knew he was going to be taken No. 1 for months), Williamson just seems humble and taken aback by everything through this process.

Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.