It began on a bizarre night in Toronto, continued to an exhausting night in Oakland, California, and will reach an epic crescendo this weekend when one thing will be fairly obvious about the NBA we used to know: It won’t exist ever again, at least not in the way we’ve become accustomed to watching and observing.
The NBA Finals injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson took away from the series, but the intrigue won’t be dulled when free agency begins Sunday. In fact, it makes things even more curious because things aren’t definite for anyone. Who wants to be the team that passes on Durant due to his Achilles injury when he can raise hell on everybody more than a year from now?
We can’t say for certain that we won’t see a repeat champion because the Toronto Raptors could very well hang on to Kawhi Leonard and run it back for another romp through the East. But we can’t say the same for the incumbents who’ve ruled this last half-decade: the Warriors.
It’s conceivable, though, that the changes that could happen could set in motion events that push a new final four in May of next year for the third time in the 16-team playoff era — a 35-year span. The last two instances in which that occurred were when LeBron James changed addresses and shook up the world in 2011 and 2015, which coincided with Golden State’s maiden voyage to the elite.
And although there’s no LeBron to actually make a move, he’s always present and there’s plenty of star power to go around.
Durant’s health is an issue, but who can truly get inside his head and persuade him the way they might have before that June night in Toronto. Everything changed for the man who seemed like the league’s best player, and his priorities have to be reassessed in the wake of his new reality.
What matters to Durant is anybody’s guess, and that’s not a shot at his personality. Before his Achilles injury, teams could sell him on having his own team without a co-star whose shadow looms as large as his.
Now, does he want that weight? Is his health so tricky that he can’t think about going to a new place alone, with no sweat equity in the franchise or perhaps without the ability to single-handedly lift it to glory?
Everything is in flux. Teams that spent to the brim in 2016 learned their lessons, like the Charlotte Hornets, who likely won’t give Kemba Walker $200 million because of sins of the past.
Even the teams that deftly built their rosters and did so with an MVP player under contract for the foreseeable future face the prospect of wholesale change, like the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to be the only thing nailed down to Fiserv Forum, as the franchise faces critical free-agent questions with Khris Middelton, Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez.
One wrong move and it could all go up in smoke, and the Bucks face the inherent pressure of keeping Antetokounmpo happy, because he’s a free agent in 2021.
Lopez, coming off a good year, faces a different process this offseason and will earn more than the bi-annual exception of $3.3 million. Free agency has a rhythm, beginning with the courtship of the stars and their decisions, followed by the lower-tiered players following suit.
But the lower-tiered players aren’t going to wait on Durant, Leonard and Kyrie Irving to make their decisions. With so much money at stake and the career-altering injuries to Durant and Thompson fresh in everybody’s minds, impact players aren’t likely to wait. They will likely take the “first best deal they see, as opposed to waiting on the biggest check they can get,” a representative for a prominent agency told Yahoo Sports. What does that do? It affects team building, and it affects Plan B’s if teams strike out on superstars. Some teams will have to be realistic about their prospects and swing for singles and doubles instead of home runs.
But it all comes back to the stars, and the recent stories surrounding Irving are equal parts alarming and predictable, as the Boston Celtics need to assign a scapegoat for their underwhelming season.
Is Irving talented but destructive? Or combustible yet gifted? Those are the questions teams are asking themselves as they contemplate what bringing him aboard means, if he’s fit to the best player and most dominant personality in a locker room.
As convenient as the Celtics’ situation can appear, there are now two teams left feeling puzzled as to what Irving wants and what his priorities are. His talent dictates he’s worth every dollar, and the influence he has with Durant is notable. But is he worth the risk?
Speaking of risk, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey looks ready to throw it all on red if he gets his way, trying to add Jimmy Butler to James Harden and Chris Paul.
Several Rockets players have had to endure their names being in the rumor mill for the past week in Morey’s pursuit of Butler in a sign-and-trade scenario with the Philadelphia 76ers. But Butler, who seems to be more of a fit for Philadelphia than he was with Chicago and Minnesota, hasn’t given any indication he’d want to be the third wheel in Houston amidst all the existing drama.
But as much as the scenarios dance around in one’s head, some of them feel slightly confusing. We have Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP and undisputed No. 1 option on the Raptors, willing to go to the Lakers and be subservient to LeBron James and Anthony Davis — two players who watched the playoffs? And although the franchise got its act together to make the Davis trade and clear the decks for another maximum-salary player, Leonard would have to embrace the never-ending drama that comes with being on James’ team. That comes with wearing Forum Blue and Gold. Going to the Los Angeles Clippers seems to make sense on its face, a scrappy team that plays hard and has just enough talent to compete but not an otherworldly type to put it over the top. Leonard going there, especially when the franchise seems to have been quietly courting him this season, seems feasible.
However, we can only project what someone like Leonard wants because he’s offered so little about his preferences. He played for the low-key Raptors and lower-key Spurs, but he was drafted and traded into those situations as opposed to charting his own path. He could very well want to be part of the glamour and attention without having to bask in it. The Staples Center could be on fire and Leonard’s straight face would remain. As for the Lakers’ drama, Leonard seems to be a type that operates in his own sphere and not beholden to the environment.
We know everything and we know nothing.
Nothing about the league’s actual future, but more than enough to know it will never be the same.
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