Six Degrees of NBA Free Agency at the Finals

We are in the midst of the NBA Finals but the offseason rumors have already piled on. How will Kevin Durant's injury affect the summer? Can the Lakers or Celtics land AD? What about Kyrie Irving's big decision? The Crossover on how free agency rumors have interrupted the NBA's biggest stage.
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We knew this summer would come with seismic free agency activity across the NBA, and here we are in the middle of the Finals, and the drama has already begun. Last week I wrote that "what we’ve seen over the past month is closer to an ideal balance between meta-games off the court and genuine drama on the court." This week, at least for the past 24 hours, the focus has shifted back to meta-games and tea leaf reading and everything else that fuels NBA rumors all year long. 

With that in mind, here are six questions percolating beneath the surface in Oakland.

1. How will Kevin Durant's injury affect the summer? This is a tough one. At the moment it feels unseemly to speculate about any kind of butterfly effect, in large part because KD's injury was just that upsetting. What's more, while everyone agrees the Durant injury will reshape the summer, that conversation becomes tricky once it's time to nail down specifics. It's reasonable to say that Durant will command a max deal wherever he signs this summer, but that's all anyone can offer with confidence. It will be at least a few weeks, and maybe a few years, before we can pinpoint everything else that might have changed in the second quarter of Game 5 in the NBA Finals.

For now, here is one bet that's pure speculation: KD will still sign with the Knicks in July, but his injury will lead to more caution from the front office regarding the rest of the offseason. Among other things, that would mean the Knicks likely pull out of the Anthony Davis race, where they seemed to be co-favorites as recently as 10 days ago. Instead, the Durant injury may convince New York to save this summer's cap space. Unless the Knicks could steal an A-lister like Kawhi Leonard or trade the third pick for an All-Star like Bradley Beal, it probably doesn't make sense to spend big beyond a Durant deal in free agency. For example: if Durant is missing the entirety of next season, do the Knicks want to offer four-years/$140 million to 29 year-old Kemba Walker? Probably not. And as for the Davis side of the equation...

2. Can the Lakers finally land AD? ESPN reported Wednesday that trade talks with the Pelicans are intensifying, and while not technically a free agent, Davis is included because this madness will dictate a ton of what happens in July. Both the Lakers and the Celtics remain at forefront, and on LA's side, the motivations are clear. Trading for Anthony Davis is by far the most realistic path to adding an All-NBA star alongside LeBron James. L.A. may also have a shot at trading for Bradley Beal, a decent backup plan, but beyond Beal, the alternatives to Davis are dicey. There's Walker, Jimmy Butler, and then ... Good luck.

The Lakers need this deal to happen. At the moment, Marc Stein at the New York Times reports the following terms of a Lakers offer: "Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and the No. 4 pick in the June 20 draft available in trade talks with the Pelicans, league sources say." Stein adds that the Pelicans would prefer to involve a third team—an indication they're not thrilled with L.A.'s assets—while the Lakers are currently reluctant to include Kyle Kuzma in any Davis package. We'll see on that front. It seems like Kuzma is wisely being held out as a potential sweetener at the 11th hour, either for the Pelicans or the third team David Griffin has been waiting on during these talks.

In general, the Lakers have to feel good. The Lakers don't have a ton of leverage, but the lack of a godfather offer from New York helps. Likewise, the assets L.A. has offered are significantly more lucrative than what San Antonio got for Kawhi a year ago or what Indiana received in the Paul George trade in 2017. There are still tricky internal politics involved with trading AD to LA—I imagine most Pelicans fans and even some staffers would prefer literally any other destination—but even without a third team sweetening the pot for New Orleans, the Lakers offer would be an impressive return. The only question is whether one of two teams will find a way to beat it.

3. Will the Celtics trade for AD regardless? Rich Paul's March comments to S.L. Price in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated reiterated what has been a private stance since at least January. "They can trade for him," Paul said, "but it’ll be for one year. I mean: If the Celtics traded for Anthony Davis, we would go there and we would abide by our contractual [obligations] and we would go into free agency in 2020. I’ve stated that to them. But in the event that he decides to walk away and you give away assets? Don’t blame Rich Paul.”

It'll be interesting to see how much Danny Ainge cares what Rich Paul has to say. For one thing, the threat of free agency in 2020 assumes that the Lakers would miss on AD and then sit on their hands this summer to preserve cap space during another year of LeBron's dwindling prime. That's unlikely. The Knicks could certainly preserve space as well, but jumping to New York in 2020 would mean Davis plays a year on a very good Boston team, likely wins the most games of his career, and then bets his next four seasons on Durant's Achilles recovery. The Celtics, meanwhile, have spent six years building toward a championship, and they have coveted Davis nearly as long. Even if Boston loses Kyrie Irving this summer, Ainge and the front office would still have time to get creative trying to upgrade the perimeter after an AD trade. For that matter, even if they simply add Davis to the rotation and replace Irving with Terry Rozier, the Celtics may have enough talent to compete near the top of the East.

Boston would be swinging for the fences and sacrificing significant value in any AD scenario—likely parting with Jayson Tatum along with multiple players and/or picks—but swinging for the fences is sort of the point of all this. Davis, wherever he lands next year, is going to be obscenely valuable. He can have a Kawhi-like impact. The last time we saw him in the playoffs, he swept the Blazers and looked like the best player in the NBA. There are obvious reasons to be cautious about renting Davis for a year and for outsiders to be skeptical that Boston would really do it, but the possibility of an all-in bet shouldn't be dismissed, either. I don't think Ainge spent six years hoarding assets so that he could then spend seven years finishing fifth in the East with Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown.

4. If Kyrie goes to Brooklyn—who goes with him? Decoding Kyrie is a losing battle, so I'd like to begin with a "who really knows" disclaimer on all of this. However... Irving has reportedly part ways with his longtime agent, Jeff Wechsler, and is set to sign with ROC Nation Sports, both of which were reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski Wednesday night. ROC Nation has obvious connections to past iterations of the Nets (Jay-Z once owned a small percentage of the team) and less obvious connections to the current iteration of the Nets (Brooklyn CEO Brett Yormark is the brother of current ROC Nation president Michael Yormark). None of that is necessarily definitive in Brooklyn's favor, but if you are one of the last 10 Celtics fans on earth who wanted Kyrie to return to Boston, Wednesday's news was probably not encouraging.

So for the sake of argument, let's say Kyrie is going to the Nets. Why can't Brooklyn get involved in the Davis sweepstakes? The Nets don't have the top line assets that Boston can offer (Tatum and a 2020 Grizz pick), but if the Celtics decide that renting AD is too much of a gamble without Kyrie on board, that leaves the Lakers. Assuming L.A. can't turn the fourth pick into the above-average starter the Pels seem to be looking for, would you rather have: Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, and the fourth pick, or something like D'Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Rodions Kurucs? (Nets fans may be reluctant to sacrifice LeVert, but again: the last time AD played in the playoffs, he looked like the best player in the NBA.)

If I were David Griffin, LeVert is better than any second asset offered by either Boston or L.A., and I'd rather pay Russell the mini-max next to Zion than be forced to offer Ingram the same deal next summer. Ingram probably projects as a slightly better player than Russell, but his fit next to Zion would be more complicated than Russell's. The caveat, of course, is that Brooklyn would have to convince Russell to agree to a sign-and-trade to New Orleans. The sign-and-trade rules are knotty, and so is the timeline if the Pelicans are looking to make this happen before the draft. It's also unclear whether Russell would be interested, which is why the Nets remain a long shot for now. (Russell’s agent, Aaron Mintz, also represents Julius Randle, who fared well under Alvin Gentry in New Orleans last year.) (Just as important for mostly-unrealistic dreaming purposes: Russell, Jrue Holiday, LeVert, Zion, and Randle would be League Pass heroin.)

All we know for sure is that the Nets have enough cap space to add two stars this summer. If they're chasing a 27 year-old Irving on his own and using him to replace Russell, that seems like a lateral move that comes with a ton of risk. But if they're chasing Irving as the star who opens the door to successfully recruiting one or more additional stars alongside him, the Nets become be a real threat to dominate an offseason that was supposed belong to the Knicks, Lakers, Clippers, and Celtics.

5. What about Beal? What about the Sixers? What about the Mavs? It should be noted that these conversations are percolating in Oakland as well—what will the Mavs do with their max cap space alongside Luka and Porzingis? Will the Wizards trade Bradley Beal? Do the Wizards have a GM yet? What will Jimmy Butler do? Where will Tobias Harris sign if he leaves Philadelphia? If D'Angelo Russell is out in Brooklyn and doesn't want to go to New Orleans, where could he land?

With respect, I am going to draw the line at Tobias Harris/Bradley Beal speculation. It's the middle of the NBA Finals. This talk can wait 10 days. But speaking of the Finals...

6. What about Kawhi Leonard? The Clippers will be extremely aggressive. The Knicks could make a hail Mary push of their own. LeBron and the Lakers will certainly make calls. The Raptors will probably enter the summer as favorites to sign him, but not overwhelmingly so. Nobody has any idea how this situation will end, and anyone who claims to have credible intel is probably lying.

In any other NBA season, the intersection between Kawhi’s playoff run and his unresolved free agency would be a little bit mind-blowing. In 2019, it feels fitting.

Now it’s time for Game 6.