NBA Devil's Advocacy: The Argument for Top 10 Free Agents Bolting This Summer

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 18, 2017

NBA Devil's Advocacy: The Argument for Top 10 Free Agents Bolting This Summer

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    With the financial incentives being what they are, it's tough to steer NBA free agents away from their current teams.

    But there's always an argument to be made if you're willing to stretch a little.

    We'll do our best to talk the top 2017 free agents (unrestricted only; restricted free agents aren't in control of their fates) out of the status quo. We'll push them toward new challenges, smear their current situations and try to help them see how much better things could be if they'd just take a leap.

    We'll pitch the head and the heart. We'll play on emotions. We'll make stuff up if we have to.

    We're doing whatever it takes to convince these guys they need to move on.

    And while much of this has to be tongue-in-cheek because no sane person could make the case Stephen Curry should forego one-fifth of a billion dollars, there are actually instances in which it would make sense for big-name free agents to skip the cash and seek out a better landing spot.

    Let us advocate on behalf of the devil.

Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    FA Type: Unrestricted

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Salary: $12,250,000

     

    If you think about it, Serge Ibaka doesn't know these Toronto Raptors. To them, he's a hired gun. A midseason boost. A stranger, basically.

    Does he really want to re-up with a team he joined two months before the end of the year?

    These Raptors seem polite (and they are, because: Canada), and this general manager of theirs, Masai Ujiri, builds winners wherever he goes. But to my eye, he's a little too smart. Ujiri wins every deal, so you can be sure if he re-signs Ibaka, he'll be doing it at less than market value.

    Seriously, try to think of the last trade or contract negotiation that went south on Ujiri.

    Plus, Ibaka can't be sure Kyle Lowry is sticking around. Yes, the Raps have Bird rights on both, so the cap isn't an issue. But there'll be a heavy tax hit if this roster stays intact, and that'll hamstring the organization's ability to add talent in the future.

    Lowry is already 31, and he's the man in Toronto. They're going to max him out and deal with the consequences of his imminent decline. And when he slips, Ibaka could be stuck, and there won't be an easy way for the team to get better because it'll have capped itself out.

    The fit here, right now, is fantastic. Ibaka can play some stretch-5, mop up on defense for Jonas Valanciunas and work in concert with one of the best backcourts in the East. But there's a whole world out there where his skill set is in high demand.

    B/R's Dan Favale called him the "O.G. of floor-spacing shot-blockers." The O.G.!

    Serge, you've still got juice!

    You just made about $12 million in 2016-17. That's peanuts. This is your first ever chance at unrestricted free agency. Embrace it!

    Get out there and collect those max offers. See if the Los Angeles Clippers want to start over. Ask the Los Angeles Lakers if they'd like to get crazy. Get those cheekbones to Hollywood, baby.

    Ibaka might not get a max offer from the Raptors, and even if he does, this is a team whose window is already closing.

George Hill, Utah Jazz

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    FA Type: Unrestricted

    Age: 30

    2016-17 Salary: $8,000,000

     

    George Hill knows there's a curse on the point guard position in Utah, right?

    John Stockton's ghost is real, and in addition to wearing its t-shirts tucked into jeans, it haunts every prospective floor general foolhardy enough to try to play the position he dominated for two decades.

    Think about it.

    Deron Williams was fine for a while but then wound up in New Jersey, and he's never been the same. Believe it or not, he was actually waived this season.

    Dante Exum was supposed to be some kind of savior, but Stockton's ghost got him too. Yeah, ACL—you remember. Now, nobody's even sure if he'll be a trustworthy rotation player by the time his rookie deal is up.

    And just look at what happened to Hill this year. Sure, he fit in perfectly and played the best ball of his career...but he missed 33 games. All things considered, he got off light.

    The point guard position is flooded right now, deeper than it's ever been. But he's got to hit the market and try to land that last big deal anyway.

    The Chicago Bulls need a point guard who can hit a spot-up three next to Jimmy Butler, and he's drilled over 40 percent of his treys in each of the last two years. After watching Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams firing up bricks this year, the Bulls are going to see his stroke and think he's some kind of Mark Price-Ray Allen hybrid.

    Hill pumped up his value with the Jazz, but Gordon Hayward might leave, Rudy Gobert just dinged his knee and Derrick Favors can't be counted on for a full season. Plus, Hill's only been mildly affected by the Stockton curse. So far.

    He needs to get out while he can.

Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    FA Type: Unrestricted

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Salary: $11,286,518

     

    What happens when the honeymoon ends and DeMarcus Cousins starts piling up technicals and not running back on defense?

    What happens when Boogie starts freezing out reporters he doesn't like and the locker room takes on the performative tension of an episode of Real Housewives?

    What happens if Cousins wreaks the same kind of havoc in New Orleans as he did in Sacramento?

    Jrue Holiday can't sign a long-term deal with a team Boogie might wreck and abandon. Even if Cousins leaves as a 2018 free agent, Holiday could be stuck sifting through the rubble with Anthony Davis, which is basically what he's done since joining the Pelicans in the first place.

    It hasn't looked fun.

    Consider, too, how Holiday's production dipped once Cousins came aboard. Despite playing about one more minute per game, his scoring and assist averages declined after the trade. And his shooting percentages fell off a cliff, too.

    Maybe that's growing pains, or maybe that's just how it's going to be.

    Hill should look at the West, and try to see a path to contention during the four- or five-year span of the next deal he signs. He'll find it's just not there.

    But then, look to the East.

    He could sign back with his former Philadelphia 76ers and be part of a great uprising. Failing that, why not give the Brooklyn Nets a look? Their system is a point guard's dream—all spacing and open lanes. Both of those clubs have nothing but cash to burn and, odd as it sounds, are stabler environments than New Orleans, where Cousins could go radioactive at any time and both the coach's and general manager's seats are permanently hot.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    FA Type: Player Option

    Age: 32

    2016-17 Salary: $20,072,033

     

    If Paul Millsap is fine with being in the unwatched NBATV first-round series every year and having nothing close to a championship ceiling in the final seasons of his already unusually long prime, he should stay.

    If he's cool with Dennis Schroder, entrenched as the starting point guard, playing exclusively in fifth gear, posting a lower Defensive Real Plus-Minus than backups Malcolm Delaney and Jose Calderon, and producing a negative on-court net rating, he should stay.

    If he wants to gamble on a second consecutive season of Dwight Howard not fouling up his own locker room and ruining the chemistry of his fourth straight team, he should stay.

    But if Millsap wants to win big and/or get maxed out in the process, he should go.

    That anomalous 60-win season feels like it happened 100 years ago, not in 2014-15. And all the principals from that improbable run, save Millsap, are gone. It's time for him to complete the exodus.

    Imagine what he could do alongside Nikola Jokic in Denver or Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota. His presence on either of those already improving rosters could vault the Nuggets or Wolves into the top four of a shifting Western Conference, and both have the flexibility to sign him.

Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    FA Type: Player Option 

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Salary: $16,073,140

     

    The Utah Jazz have been on a gradual, mostly uninterrupted four-year rise. Which leads to the logical-but-dangerous assumption that the ascent will only continue. But four years is a long time in NBA terms, and no amount of past upward momentum guarantees more in the future.

    "The Jazz's return to the NBA playoffs creates big possibilities for the future of a franchise that has rebuilt and rebranded itself with a core of homegrown players," wrote Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune. "Yet this advancement also has the aura of a last stand."

    One part of that aura has to do with impending financial decisions on George Hill and Gordon Hayward, while another stems from Derrick Favors' uncertain future. Still, a third ties to the veterans currently playing major roles; Joe Johnson won't hit playoff game-winners forever.

    So Hayward has to consider that, perhaps, this is as far as the current iteration of the Jazz is going.

    And that's where Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics come in.

    Boston has hoarded its picks and cash for what seems like forever, biding time until the right move comes along.

    Whatever happens with the Jazz this postseason, Hayward can look at Boston this summer and see the following; his college coach, a roster that just bested the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in a soft conference, multiple All-Star talents, former lottery pick Jaylen Brown, another lottery draftee who could be No. 1 overall and a max salary slot*.

    Let's also remember Hayward agreed to leave the Jazz once before, when he signed a four-year offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets in 2014. Utah matched, but it won't have that right this time.

    The math's not complicated here.

     

    *If it renounces rights to its other free agents and moves a middling salary like the one belonging to Avery Bradley.

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    FA Type: Early Termination Option

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Salary: $20,140,838

     

    Blake Griffin must be sick of all this.

    Who wouldn't be?

    Being hated by every opponent, listening to Chris Paul berate everyone for everything all the time, trying to decipher Doc Rivers' raspy instructions when his voice deserts him five minutes into every game—it's a lot to handle year in and year out.

    And don't underestimate the emotional toll of playing for the best basketball team in Los Angeles for several years straight while the woeful, mismanaged, delusional, lottery-bound Lakers still get more love. Maybe if the Clips won a title, they'd overtake the Lakers in popularity and shed their second-class stigma.

    But probably not.

    And anyway, we know the Clippers' ceiling with this group is the second round, which is a persuasive argument on its own for Griffin go skip town.

    This thing has run its course in L.A., and even if Griffin knows the Clippers can win 50-something games and advance past the first round most of the time, he'd be better served taking a shot on a new team with a less certain ceiling. 

    Otherwise, his career is going to start feeling a little too much like Groundhog Day; start the season on fire, get hurt, miss 20-30 games, get healthy, flame out in the playoffs, repeat.

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    FA Type: Player Option

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Salary: $12,000,000

     

    Full disclosure, this is the toughest devil's advocate case to make.

    If Kyle Lowry re-signs on a max deal with the Raptors, he can make just a hair under $203 million on a five-year pact, per Craig Battle of Sportsnet. Leaving would mean giving up that extra fifth year and lowering his annual raises to five percent, which would net him a four-year deal worth $152 million.

    All indications are that Toronto will spend as much as it takes, so that super-max figure is legitimate.

    "You have to remember that, everything that has happened to this team in the last few years, Kyle has been at the forefront of that," Ujiri told reporters. "No question," he responded when asked if the Raps would try to bring Lowry back. "Before the injury, you could argue he was one of the top five players in the league this season."

    It's hard to say leaving $50 million on the table (in a winning situation) makes sense, particularly for a 31-year-old in search of his last huge payday.

    But OK, let's think about this for a second.  

    Lowry can get life-changing money either way, and maybe Toronto will have lost its luster if the Raptors bow out in the first or second round this year. Ibaka may be gone, DeMar DeRozan can't possibly have a better year than the one he just had, and maybe Lowry wants to try out another destination with a higher ceiling.

    Again, that's a tough sell. If LeBron James slips and surrenders control of the conference to anyone, the Raptors (with Lowry and Ibaka) seem well positioned to take charge.

    But maybe the Spurs get aggressive, clear some space and come calling with a sub-max deal. Maybe Lowry's hometown Sixers promise him several statues and political office if he'll come back and mentor Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

    He's got options is all I'm saying.

Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    FA Type: Early Termination Option

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Salary: $22,868,828

     

    For starters, Chris Paul is at least agnostic in the Apple vs. Microsoft gadget war. Note the odd iWatch and Android phone combo in this pic.

    Maybe that doesn't sit well with Clips owner and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and maybe Paul's tired of finding free copies of Windows 7 in his locker.

    More broadly, shouldn't Paul want to play somewhere the coach's kid isn't taking up cap space? Somewhere with a front office that'll actually get him some shooters and, for Pete's sake, a small forward?

    Somewhere the sixth man doesn't come in and chuck away leads with yo-yo dribbling and 41 percent shooting?

    Paul is still in his prime, dominant enough to make a major difference wherever he goes. He could elevate virtually any team to contention on his own, and a competent management structure could outfit him with more sensible help.

    Plus, at some point, he's got to start wondering if the Clippers curse never really left but instead morphed from one that damned the franchise to the lottery every year to one that capped success in the second round.

    Arguably, the latter is crueler.

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    FA Type: Player Option

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Salary: $26,540,100

     

    The following is excerpted from a letter Kevin Durant wrote to himself on July 7, 2016, the day he officially signed with the Golden State Warriors. It's sealed in an envelope that says in bold print, "DO NOT OPEN UNTIL YOU'RE A CHAMPION."

    Durant opens this envelope in late June of 2017, just a few days after he and the Warriors finish celebrating their second title in three years. It says:

    Dear Kevin,

    You did it. You reached the mountaintop by catching on with a team that might have won a ring without you...that did win a ring without you two years ago. But hey, you helped knock off LeBron, got that jewelry and can live happily ever after knowing all it took for you to achieve success was Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and a roster purpose-built to dominate.

    Now go prove you can do it alone.

    Regards,

    Kevin

    Sometimes, we're our own best motivators. 

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    FA Type: Unrestricted

    Age: 29

    2016-17 Salary: $12,112,359

     

    Nothing this good lasts forever, and if Curry is smart, he'll get out ahead of the Warriors' imminent collapse.

    Steve Kerr is too worldly and has too much big-picture perspective to spend many more years doing something as trivial as coaching basketball.

    Draymond Green is probably going to go missing for several months after Golden State's victory parade in June only to wind up playing in the Panamanian professional leagues when he can't locate his passport.

    Klay Thompson is this close to giving up basketball and concentrating full time on being a dog-walker.

    The point is: Golden State is going to disband in short order, and Curry should avoid being the last man standing, especially as he heads into his 30s.

    Turning down the money will be a difficult decision. Curry has been the best value (which, if you flip it, also means most underpaid) in the league from the moment he signed his last deal. So walking away from over $200 million will sting.

    But consider all that Under Armour money, and don't forget how much Curry makes away from the court from other sources. According to Forbes, Curry's income from endorsements was nearly quadrupled his on-court earnings last year.

    He's already set for life, and when he eventually writes his tell-all book about being a secret government operative during the summers (perfect coordination and uncanny marksmanship have their darker, espionage-related uses), he'll have more money than he knows what to do with.

    So why not skip out on a dynasty that can't last forever and, I don't know, go save those hometown Charlotte Hornets on a minimum deal?

     

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    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated and accurate through Thursday. Team salary information via Basketball Insider.