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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.

Bucks unprecedentedly squander value of a No. 2 pick (Jabari Parker)

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I rated Jabari Parker No. 1 on my 2014 NBA draft board – which obviously turned out wrong.

I was wrong about Parker’s position. I thought he’d be a small forward, but he’s clearly more of a power forward in the modern NBA.

I was wrong about his fit with the Bucks, who drafted him No. 2 (behind Andrew Wiggins, the other player in my top tier that year). Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a star worth building around, and his pairing with Parker has been unfulfilling at best.

I mainly just wrong about Parker’s ability to produce in the NBA. He has twice torn his ACL. He’s a high-usage offensive player who has improved his 3-pointer and passing (at least when healthy). His defense has been lousy, save one game in last year’s playoffs.

But that doesn’t mean pre-draft evaluations should be completely discarded.

Parker is just 23. He’s still trying to find himself in the NBA. The work ethic that helped build him into the No. 2 pick hasn’t necessarily vanished. (By some accounts, it has only hardened.) The perimeter skills that made me see a small forward could be waiting to emerge in full force once he gets healthy and improves his feel.

The last four years should count more than anything else. But completely ignoring his time at Duke and even prior would be foolish. Assessing Parker’s entire record is the optimal way to evaluate him.

And Parker’s entire record makes him a clear candidate for the “second draft,” a term popularized by John Hollinger. Second-draft players were selected high in the actual draft, didn’t pan out with their original team and maybe could use a change of scenery.

Parker will get that with the Bulls, who signed him to a two-year, $40 million contract.

And the Bucks will get nothing.

That’s unprecedented for a No. 2 pick in this draft era.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement gives teams massive control over players drafted in the first round.

A first-round pick, unless he waits three years to sign, is bound to a rookie scale with relatively low salaries. The contract is four years with two team options. The team gets exclusive negotiating rights on an extension after the third year. If no extension is struck and the player completes the four-year deal, the team can make him a restricted free agent, which often chills his market.

Essentially, the drafting team gets first crack of the player panning out on the court. If he doesn’t, the drafting team often holds enough leverage to get value from him another way.

That’s especially true with high first-round picks.

The higher-picked a player was, the more likely other teams also coveted him, the more suitors likely in a “second draft.” A team with a highly picked bust still on his rookie-scale contract can often still trade him.

The Cavaliers traded Anthony Bennett in the Kevin Love deal. Though that was probably mostly about using Bennett’s salary for matching, the Timberwolves certainly didn’t mind getting someone only one year removed from being the No. 1 pick. And, at minimum, Bennett’s salary was useful.

The Pistons traded Darko Milicic to the Magic for the first-round pick that became Rodney Stuckey. Even after two-plus seasons of Milicic struggling, Orlando still had hope the former No. 2 pick would realize his potential.

The Wizards and former No. 1 pick Kwame Brown were so fed up with each other in 2005, Washington suspended him in the playoffs and described it as mutual. But the Wizards still extended Brown’s qualifying offer that summer and used the threat of matching to land Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers.

It is not hard to get something for a high draft pick before his fifth season. But Milwaukee failed in that regard.

The former No. 2 pick, Parker is the highest-drafted player to leave his original team high and dry in free agency at the conclusion of his rookie-scale contract since 1998, when the NBA instituted four-year rookie-scale contracts.

Just five other top-five picks have left their original team via free agency that quickly in that span:

Mario Hezonja (No. 5 pick in 2015)

The Magic declined Hezonja’s fourth-year option, and he signed with the Knicks in unrestricted free agency this summer.

O.J. Mayo (No. 3 pick in 2008)

After four up-and-down seasons with the Grizzlies, Mayo didn’t receive a qualifying offer. He signed with the Mavericks then spent three years with the Bucks. He’s currently banned from the NBA.

Shaun Livingston (No. 4 pick in 2004)

Livingston blew out his knee in his third season, missed his entire fourth season then didn’t even receive his qualifying offer from the Clippers. He bounced around a few years before finding a niche on the Warriors.

Marcus Fizer (No. 4 pick in 2000)

Fizer underwhelmed in four seasons with the Bulls, to the point they left him unprotected in the 2004 expansion draft. Charlotte selected him, which made him an unrestricted free agent, and he signed with Milwaukee. After a season with the Bucks then a couple 10-day contracts the following year, Fizer fell out of the league.

Lamar Odom (No. 4 pick in 1999)

Odom signed a six-year, $65 million offer sheet with the Heat in restricted free agency. The Clippers declined to match. Odom spent a season in Miami then was the centerpiece of the Heat’s trade for Shaquille O’Neal. Odom stuck in Los Angeles and helped the Lakers win a couple titles.

Unlike the Clippers with Odom, the Bucks never officially declined to match an offer sheet for Parker. Milwaukee actually rescinded Parker’s qualifying offer, allowing him to sign directly with Chicago.

That was mostly a favor to Parker, whom the Bucks seemed content to part with. Hard-capped after signing Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee would have had to dump salary to match and almost certainly wasn’t going to.

But rescinding the qualifying offer also allowed the Bulls to include a team option in the second year of Parker’s contract. Offer sheets must be for at least two seasons (not counting options). If forced to sign an on offer sheet, Chicago and Parker could have made the second season unguaranteed, and it would have been mostly similar. But a team option – which doesn’t require Parker to clear waivers if declined – was preferable to both him and the Bulls.

That Milwaukee allowed a division rival to get Parker on more-favorable terms speaks volumes. That’s how little the Bucks value Parker at this point. They’d rather be nice to him than hinder a nearby foe’s acquisition of him.

What if the Bucks kept Parker’s qualifying offer in place? Would the Bulls have just signed him to an offer sheet with an unguaranteed second season with the expectation Milwaukee wouldn’t match? Would Chicago have engaged the Bucks on a sign-and-trade to ensure getting Parker (though players signed-and-traded must get at least a three-year contract)?

What if the Bucks hadn’t hard-capped themselves by rushing to sign Ilyasova? How much more leverage would have held?

Perhaps, most significantly, what if Milwaukee just traded Parker last season? It was easy to see this situation coming.

Parker played just a few games before the trade deadline, but he at least proved he could get back on the court. And his performance since then was totally in line with projections – and led to a contract that pays $20 million next season. No team would have sent the Bucks a small asset for Parker last February?

The optics would have been bad, Milwaukee dealing a former No. 2 pick for peanuts. But that’s better than losing him for nothing now. The Bucks don’t even gain cap space, as they’re already well over.

Maybe Milwaukee didn’t get any offers before the trade deadline that were better than keeping Parker for the rest of the season and hoping – even against the odds – everything would work out. Maybe pleasing Parker’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, carries more importance than getting value from Parker directly. Maybe the Bucks will be better off with Ilyasova.

But it’s worth recognizing this is a unique way to turn a No. 2 pick into nothing in just four years.

Report: Draymond Green won’t take discount for Warriors, eying super-max contract

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How much longer will the Warriors remain elite?

It’s a luxury-tax question as much as anything.

Stephen Curry unwittingly took a massive discount on his rookie-scale extension, signed when his ankle injuries were more prominent. He said he offered to take another one last season, but for some reason, Golden State turned him down.

Kevin Durant took a discount, larger than the one necessary for the Warriors to re-sign Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, last summer. Durant doesn’t sound eager to take another one.

Klay Thompson already discussed a contract extension that would save Golden State 10s of millions of dollars. His dad sounds more cautious about that, though.

And what about Draymond Green? He’s locked up for two more seasons, so nothing is urgent. But he’ll be eligible this offseason for a three-year, $72,080,137 contract extension ($24,026,712 annually).

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

According to league sources, Green will turn the extension down when it’s offered. That’s because if he earns MVP, Defensive Player of the Year or All-NBA Team honors next season, he will be eligible for a super-max contract

Sources say Green is not expected to take a pay cut on the next go-around.

The salary cap is currently $99,093,000. It’s projected to be $101 million next season and $108 million the following season. What will it be in 2020-21, when Green’s new deal would kick in? Tough to forecast that far out, but I’ll use an estimate of $111 million.

If Green wins Defensive Player or makes an All-NBA team next season – quite plausible, considering he’s arguably the NBA’s best defender – he’d be eligible for a super-max extension projected to be worth about $225 million over five years (about $45 million annually).

Failing that, he could play out the final year of his current contract and try again to to win Defensive Player of the Year or make an All-NBA team in 2019-20. If he does, he’d be eligible to re-sign with the Warriors for that exact same amount – a projected $225 million over five years (about $45 million annually).

Even if Green completes his current contract without meeting the designated-player criteria, he could re-sign with Golden State in 2020 for a projected $193 million over five years (about $39 million annually). Or he could sign with another team for a projected $143 million over four years (about $36 million annually).

All those amounts tower over his largest possible contract extension this offseason.

However, Green will be 30 when his current contract expires. Teams, including the Warriors, might not rush to max him out at that point. Even if he becomes eligible for a super-max deal, Golden State might not deem him worth it.

Still, locking into just $72,080,137 over three years this offseason is probably selling himself short. There’s plenty of room for Green to command more than that and less than his max.

So, expect this saga to continue beyond this summer.

How thorny it gets remains unknown, but Green’s 2015 free agency could be instructive. Green seemed like a candidate for a max contract, and in hindsight, would’ve been well worth it. Talks between him and Golden State broke down the first day of free agency. By that night, he agreed to a lucrative – but sub-max – five-year contract.

Green didn’t want to get shortchanged, but he didn’t push the Warriors as hard as he could’ve, either.

Golden State is a dynasty, but how long can they keep it up?

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CLEVELAND — Dynasty.

That word gets thrown around too casually in sports. However, we can legitimately use it referencing these Golden State Warriors, especially after Friday night when they held the Larry O’Brien Trophy aloft for the third time in four years (and they won 73 games and went to a Game 7 of the Finals the one year they didn’t pick up a ring). The team has everything a dynasty needs. It has the banners — and now back-to-back titles. It has the legendary players that will help define a generation in the league — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. It has players who can put ego aside and do what is best for the team, who can handle a regular season filled with injuries and uneven play with their eye on the big prize at the end.

The Warriors are a dominant force that will enter next season — regardless of what happens this summer in free agency — as the team to beat. They have set the bar to clear — LeBron James may be on the move again because he needs a better situation to challenge these Warriors. The only question that seems left:

How many more years can they keep this up?

“We want to keep this thing going as long as we can,” Curry said, although understandably the Warriors’ players didn’t want to discuss the future as much as celebrate the present Friday night.

“Any question that kind of talks about the future and whatnot, you don’t want to cheat the moment,” Curry added. “So we’ll have plenty of time over the summer to talk about what next year’s going to look like and what it’s going to take for us to get back to this stage next year.”

What it’s going to take to keep these Warriors rolling is to keep their core four together.

Right now, none of them are pushing to get out the door and have a team of their own — Durant has said he’ll re-sign with the Warriors and Klay Thompson said he’d take a discount to stay. Those two were considered the most likely to want to step out on their own according to sources around the league. If they stay, the Warriors remain a force for years.

That’s because none of those core guys are old — Curry just turned 30 in March and Durant will do the same before next season starts, while Green and Thompson are 27. They are at their peak and will be for another four or five years. Andre Iguodala is 34, but aside that the heart of their rotation is not old — and GM Bob Myers keeps finding guys such as Jordan Bell and Patrick McCaw who can help now while on their rookie contracts. There will be changes in the role players around the core — they likely lose Kevon Looney in free agency this summer and probably David West, but they will have the taxpayer midlevel exception to add someone — but so long as the core is together this team will contend.

The challenge is financial — all four of those core guys are max contract players. At what point do the Warriors’ owners balk at the cost?

Curry got his max last summer (after being on one of the most cap-friendly contracts in the league), but also last year Durant took nearly $10 million less than he could have to help the team keep Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Shooting down some odd speculation in the media (or maybe wishful thinking in some quarters), Durant said he will re-sign with Golden State this summer. However, he will not take that discount again, he will get his max starting at $35 million and the only question is how long the contract is for (four years, or does he take a one-plus-one so he is fully vested and can re-sign a five-year Bird rights deal with the Warriors next summer?).

Thompson is a free agent in 2019 and has talked about taking a discount to help keep the team together (probably not an extension, though, where he would leave as much as $80 million total on the table, he will just take less than the max in 2019). In 2020, Green will come up for a new deal that starts at $25 million.

The Warriors are in the luxury tax now ($32.7 million this season) and in the 2019-20 season will go into the repeater tax, jumping that bill up even higher — in 2020 they could pay $150 million or more in luxury tax, with a total team salary bill north of $320 million (that’s nearly double what they paid this season, already the highest salaried team in the NBA).

The Warriors owners have said they are willing to pay the tax for a winner (moving into a new building in San Francisco in a couple of years will help, that will open up revenue streams). Look at what Warriors’ co-owner Joe Lacob told the Athletic this week.

“I tell Bob (Myers, Warriors GM) every day, our job is not to let it end. It may change, just like we changed when we added Kevin and (let go of) some really good players that won the championship in ’15.

“So we have to recognize that and be willing to make some changes each year that are required. Some will be of our doing and some will sort of be handed to us….

“What I’d love for us to be able to do is have a Spurs-like 20-year run of being very consistently good and competing for championships, and that’s my job.”

A Spurs-like run of sustained excellence requires a lot of things to go right. It requires a little luck, too. The Warriors organization, however, is in as good a position as any team to do it.

Back to our original question: How many more years can they keep this up?

The Warriors aren’t going anywhere for the next three to five years at least — this dynasty has won three titles in four years, but it could be five-in-seven, six-in-nine, or more when all is said and done.

And if ownership gets its wish, the Warriors will not be done then.

David West: Public has ‘no clue’ about Warriors’ behind-the-scenes issues

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The Warriors just won their second straight championship and third in four years. They have staked a credible claim as the greatest team of all-time. Their stars – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – are young enough to keep the title window open years ahead.

So, all is right with Golden State?

Maybe not, David West and Shaun Livingston indicate.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

Marcus Thompson of The Athletic:

West is essentially bragging – and inviting reporters to dig deeper now. Perhaps, whatever he’s alluding to will come out.

Durant, Green and even Curry have more complex personalities than often acknowledged. I can see how there’d be conflict.

But the Warriors have a strong culture and a lot of talent, the latter important because winning cures nearly all ills. Problems that would sink other teams are less likely to undermine the Warriors.

Mainly, I just want to know the details of what West is talking about.