Give credit to the NBA for creating the most exciting offseason of all the major professional sports. One week after crowning a champion, the league holds its annual entry draft, featuring exciting prospects that fans have come to know from watching college basketball games. Then on July 1, fans wait with breathless excitement to see which superstars might be changing teams for the season to follow.
That's followed by NBA Summer League games, before the league finally winds down until the opening of training camps in late September. Unless, there's a World Cup or Olympic tournament to be held (like this year) featuring some of the best players in the game. David Stern found a way to keep NBA interest high throughout the year, and that work has been expanded even further by his successor as commissioner, the forward-thinking Adam Silver.
Which leads us to the much-anticipated summer of 2019. Big name stars like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker are potentially hitting the free agent market, with Anthony Davis trying to force a trade out of New Orleans.
We’ve all heard the rumors about Durant and Irving potentially teaming up with the Knicks, Nets or Clippers, while Davis has his eyes on the league's two biggest markets, New York (Knicks) and Los Angeles (Lakers).
But the titanic summer of 2019 changed dramatically when Durant went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Durant had surgery in New York on Wednesday and now faces a lengthy rehab which could force him to miss most or all of the 2019-20 season. And, while the debate will continue over whether Durant should have tried to play at all with a weakened lower right leg, the business reality will still be there when the free agent market opens at 5 p.m. Central time on June 30.
Durant essentially has three options.
He could opt-in to the player option for the final season of his existing contract at $31.5 million dollars, essentially rehab on the Warriors' dime, and then hit the free agent market completely healthy next summer. Or, he could opt out and sign a five-year max contract with Golden State, essentially committing the rest of his career to the Bay Area. Finally, he could opt out, and sign a four-year max deal with a new team (like the Knicks) that would be willing to let him rehab for the 1st year of his contract and then play a starring role in his age 32, 33 & 34 seasons.
Would the Knicks be willing to pay Durant $38 million next season, knowing he's not likely to take the court at all? Given the long history of futility with that franchise, it's certainly possible, especially if it means they can also get a commitment from another top player. But if Durant decides to exercise his player option and put everything on hold for another year, what do the Knicks do then? Keep their cap space available for another year or move on to other options like Irving, Butler or Walker?
That didn’t work out so well when they missed out on LeBron in 2010 and settled for Amare Stoudemire. The Knicks would love to trade for Davis, but reportedly the Pelicans aren’t all that enamored by a package that would include the No. 3 pick in next week’s draft, plus some combination of young players Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.
Other teams face the same quandary. The Clippers and Nets have cleared the cap space to sign two max free agents, but if Durant is off the board, is it really worth it to bring Irving in as the featured player, considering his track record in Cleveland and Boston? After making unexpected runs to the playoffs this past season, will either the Clippers or Nets be willing to risk disrupting the team chemistry they built by adding a combustible talent like Irving? And in Brooklyn’s case, would adding another point guard disrupt the progress made by D’Angelo Russell, coming off an All-Star appearance in his fourth NBA season?
And what about Leonard? For most of the season, NBA analysts assumed Kawhi was only a one-year rental in Toronto, with a likely return to his southern California roots and a max contract with the Clippers this summer. But with the Raptors on the verge of winning the first championship in franchise history, does Leonard change his mind knowing Toronto could be the Kings of the North and the NBA's Eastern Conference for several years to come? Does Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers move on to Butler, who hasn’t exactly been the poster child for team harmony in recent years?
Leonard says next to nothing to the media, so it's impossible to say which way he could be leaning right now, but if he stays in Toronto and Thompson signs a new max deal with the Warriors, suddenly the epic shift in the balance of power we were expecting may not happen at all. Butler could wind up re-signing in Philadelphia and Walker very well could take the five-year supermax deal to stay in Charlotte.
About the only player who seems destined to have a change of address is Chicago native Anthony Davis. Unfortunately, he won't be coming home to play for the Bulls, but there's a chance John Paxson could get involved in a potential multi-team deal that sends Davis to the Lakers.
The Bulls' front office has a high regard for Lonzo Ball's potential as the ultimate pass-first, defensive-minded point guard. Ball was the 2nd pick in the 2017 draft, and he's looked good in flashes for the Lakers. But his development has been slowed by injuries in each of his first two seasons, and he's a dreadful shooter, including just 43.7 percent from the FREE THROW LINE!
Is Ball a better option than drafting North Carolina point guard Coby White or trying to sign one of the upcoming free agents like Patrick Beverley, Derrick Rose, Ricky Rubio, Cory Joseph or restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon?
My answer to that is a clear cut NO! The Bulls would be best served by drafting the best player available at No. 7, then making an aggressive offer sheet to sign Brogdon away from the Bucks, who have several free agents to deal with this summer, including All-Star Khris Middleton. With Eric Bledsoe signed to a new long-term extension, maybe the Bucks let Brogdon go if the price tag gets too high. And, if the Bucks match the offer sheet, the Bulls would still be able to move down to one of the other options on their list of free agent point guards. Plus, Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison are still under contract for next season and the Bulls could always bring back restricted free agent Ryan Arcidiacono, and start looking ahead to a 2020 draft class that’s expected to be loaded with impact point guards.
The summer of 2019 may not bring a seismic shift to the NBA landscape, but never discount the potential for a series of unexpected trades and signings that keep fans checking their phones throughout the next month.