NBA Feelz: Sentimental Landing Spots for Every Top Free Agent
There are loads of reasons why NBA free agents sign where they do. Money, weather, championship potential—it's all part of the equation.
Money and team situation usually win out. In a select few instances, though, sentimentality plays a role. It's usually paired with another driving force—does LeBron James return to the Cleveland Cavaliers if they don't have Kyrie Irving?—but there are times when emotion trumps winning. Paul George's ongoing dalliance with the Los Angeles Lakers is proof.
Let's tap into those feelz, shall we?
These picks have nothing to do with cap space. The top 10 free agents, as determined by Bleacher Report's latest free-agent pecking order, are being assigned landing spots based purely on pre-existing ties. Restricted free agents are excluded, because it's unfair to toy with their emotions when incumbent teams have the right to match any offer they sign.
Don't worry: This isn't a going-home party. Everyone isn't returning to the team that's closest to their birthplace. It'll happen, but sentiment goes beyond that, so we will, too.
Bear in mind many of these scenarios won't sniff the realm of possibility. This is merely a look at where every top talent would land if their free agency were scripted like any Matthew McConaughey movie between 2003 and 2010.
Stephen Curry: Charlotte Hornets
Stephen Curry was born in...Akron, Ohio. But there's no evidence whatsoever LeBron James appeals to free agents, so we land on the Charlotte Hornets.
Curry grew up in Charlotte, where his dad, Dell, spent most of his own NBA career. He attended Charlotte Christian School and played three seasons at Davidson College in North Carolina. The Hornets are his hometown team.
Would he ever want to play for them, even if it meant leaving behind Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson?
"I don't know," he told the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler in November.
There's a 0.004 percent chance this was code for: "Um, only hell yes! Playing with KD is already boring me. Dude barely shoots from behind the imaginary four-point line. I'm currently registering fake Twitter accounts and sliding into DMs as aliases for Klay Thompson just to pass the time. I'd commit to Charlotte now, but I'm afraid Dray will kill me."
Meanwhile, there's a 99.996 percent chance Curry's "I don't know" means exactly what Fowler says it does.
"He then went on to imply that at an unspecified point earlier in his career a 'Steph in Charlotte' scenario might have been more possible," Fowler relayed, "saying 'obviously I had a strong tie to Charlotte and would have loved to play there. I'm very comfortable in that city.'"
So, in other words, we're saying that there's a chance? That Steph might love the idea of playing for a team where Dell is the color commentator? That the opportunity to recruit his brother, Seth, in 2018 for a full-fledged family reunion is enough to seal the deal? (The 26-year-old is a Dallas Maverick.)
Get the Hornets to trade Nicolas Batum into someone's cap space, use the No. 11 pick in this year's draft to pawn off Miles Plumlee and cut ties with Jeremy Lamb, Briante Weber and Christian Wood. Then we'll talk.
Kevin Durant: Oklahoma City Thunder
Silence fills the air around the catty-cornered table for two inside Mahogany Prime Steakhouse. A peculiar-shaped, fully wrapped gift sits in the middle. It is all that separates the table's alpha-dog occupants.
Russell Westbrook clicks his tongue, clearly annoyed, as his eyes dart around the room, surveying anything and anyone but his fellow late-night dinner-goer. Why is he here? He could be spending time with his wife, Nina, and his son, Noah. Or he could be starting his third Iron Man of the day.
"I'm sorry," Kevin Durant says, suddenly and unremarkably, albeit not insincerely. "I want to come home."
"To Washington?" Westbrook asks, his heart beating ever faster.
"Nah, eff that," Durant answers, the authority in his voice growing. "Ain't about playing anywhere near Maryland. Sounds like a nursery-rhyme-themed amusement park...OKC is home."
Westbrook opens his mouth to offer disapproval. This mulligan wouldn't happen. Not on his watch. But then images of Andre Roberson shooting free throws, Enes Kanter switching onto James Harden and Kyle Singler cashing checks flash across his mind. With that, he removes the gift he brought as a peace offering from the table—funfetti cupcake mix—and concedes.
"Aight, let's do this."
As Durant's smile leaks into breathless chattering about how things will be different this time, Westbrook checks his phone, surprised to see a flurry of texts.
"Sam traded me in 2 SaCRAPmento's cap space!" reads one from Victor Oladipo. "Will u come c me in BKN" says another from Kanter. "WTH is a stretch provision?!?" Singler asks.
"Hold up!" Westbrook exclaims angrily, interrupting Durant and ignoring messages from Alex Abrines, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and, somewhat ominously, Jeff Green. "You made a decision...without talking to me first...again?"
Blake Griffin: Oklahoma City Thunder
We might be going against Blake Griffin's wishes here. He was born in Oklahoma and attended the University of Oklahoma but, as of late April, didn't feel the pull to come home.
"There's this perception [Blake Griffin] would want to go back to Oklahoma City, but I've talked to people around that and they find that so laughable," Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler said on the Basketball Insiders Podcast, via HoopsHype). "Like, 'Look, it's where he's from, but he doesn’t want to play there.' It’s nothing against the city; it's Blake has found an interesting and fulfilling life living in L.A."
Griffin could also just be a realist. The Oklahoma City Thunder will belly-flop into the luxury tax if they carry all their free-agent holds. They don't have the money to offer Griffin a max deal.
Opening enough space to sign him will be a pain in the butt. The most efficient path to $30-plus million in spending power: unloading the salaries of Alex Abrines, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, Victor Oladipo and Kyle Singler without taking anything in return. Then, after that, they would still have to cut ties with Taj Gibson.
It's easy for Griffin to gloss over Oklahoma City given all those hurdles. But let's say general manager Sam Presti works his voodoo and conjures the necessary flexibility. Would Griffin really refuse to give his hometown team the time of day?
Sure, the Los Angeles Clippers can sling a five-year max. But the Thunder have Russell Westbrook! Despite his edginess, he might be nicer to him than Chris Paul. And they have Steven Adams! His mustache game is so much better than DeAndre Jordan's "I'm a member of the Warriors at heart" goatee.
And let's not forget about Andre Roberson, who would stay in this coming-home scenario. He can't shoot, but he's a better perimeter defender than anyone Clippers head coach and president Doc Rivers can afford or find.
So whaddya say, Blake? Are you ready for Skylar Grey's voice to be played in every one of your pregame intros for the rest of your career?
Gordon Hayward: Boston Celtics
Apologies to the state of Indiana. You claim Gordon Hayward as your own, and Paul George wants him to join the Indiana Pacers.
But how can Hayward be sure George isn't secretly plotting a fashion-forward formation with Nick Young on the Lakers? He can't be. That leaves us with the Boston Celtics.
In another cruel twist of fate, Indiana, you also helped birth this scenario. Celtics head honcho Brad Stevens was the Indianapolis native's coach at Butler, and he's expected to serve as Beantown's biggest offseason draw.
It was Stevens who recruited Hayward out of high school, at a time when others were not, as CSNNE.com's A. Sherrod Blakely noted in February—a connection that's stuck with the combo forward as he's climbed his way into the superstar ranks:
"And making it all that much sweeter is that he's getting to enjoy it for the first time with Stevens, a man whose role in Hayward's life and ascension to this point should not be understated. While Hayward acknowledges the role Stevens played in his steady improvement as a player, the role Stevens played in his life was even more significant in his growth as a person."
Playing with Al Horford is fun no matter who you are. Isaiah Thomas and Hayward can trade off ball-handling responsibilities no problem. Boston has the players and draft picks to trade for another superstar or wait out the wide-open windows of the Cavaliers and Warriors.
That's all fine and good—genuine selling points. But this is about the feelz of every situation, and a Stevens-Hayward reunion has the makings of a future tear-jerking novel co-authored by Buzz Bissinger and Nicholas Sparks.
"He's such a good coach," Hayward told Blakely of Stevens, "and such a great guy and mentor to me."
Anyone else crying?
George Hill: San Antonio Spurs
George Hill is from Indiana and he spent five seasons playing for the Pacers. Going full circle is more fun.
The San Antonio Spurs drafted the IUPUI star in 2008. Three seasons later, they flipped him to the Pacers for Kawhi Leonard—a move head coach Gregg Popovich did not take lightly. He said San Antonio waited until the last minute to pull the trigger on that deal because Hill is one of his favorite players of all time.
This isn't unrequited fondness. After the Utah Jazz's Nov. 1 victory over the Spurs, Hill told reporters he zeroed in on Popovich to "just tell him I love him like always" because he's been "one of the most important people to come into [my] life."
Folks, we have ourselves a bromance. And coincidentally, we also have a leg on which to stand.
Tony Parker is 35, recovering from a torn left quad and entering the final year of his contract. Patty Mills is a free agent. Dejounte Murray is 20 years old. Bryn Forbes is only allowed to play meaningful minutes in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio needs a quality point guard who can orchestrate the offense but also play off Leonard.
Paying Hill won't be easy. The Spurs begin the offseason over the cap. Chiseling out between, say, $18 and $23 million per year for Hill demands they renounce all their own free agents while dumping either Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge or Pau Gasol.
It's a tall order. But the world needs Coach Pop and Hill together again, chitchatting on team plane rides, sharing a bottle of pinot noir over dinner on road trips and reminiscing about the time Hill told his barber to make him look like Zack Morris' hair color vomited on Sisqo's scalp.
Plus, there's something poetic about Hill's teaming up with Leonard and Davis Bertans—two of the three players for whom he was traded.
Jrue Holiday: New York Knicks
Sentimental landing spots abound for Jrue Holiday.
He was born in Chatsworth, California, and attended UCLA, so there is naturally the Lakers. But soon-to-be boss of Magic Johnson, LaVar Ball, never responded to telepathic inquiries into whether he'd approve of the signing.
Holiday was drafted by and spent his first four years with the Philadelphia 76ers, so there's them. They have hordes of cap space and planned to take a "hard look" at their former point guard as of January, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. But, you know: been there, done that.
And so, we have the New York Knicks. They own the early Bird rights to Holiday's brother and fellow free-agent Justin. This feels like a flimsy connection until you know that the Holiday boys have long dreamed of teaming up.
"If we can play together, that would be a dream come true and we'd be successful doing it," Justin told the New York Post's Marc Berman in March. "We both want to win and both know each other's game in and out. We both know what we're going to get from each other when we play together. It just makes sense."
It gets juicier.
"Now it's time to talk, time to figure it out," Justin told Berman after the Knicks' regular-season tire fire came to a close. "We'll take some time off. We'll sit and talk eventually. I'm excited to see him. The family thing first and we'll figure it out after."
The New Orleans Pelicans can still try to be the official host of all future Holiday family reunions. They own Jrue's full Bird rights and can dangle the mid-level exception in an attempt to entice Justin. But the Knicks need a point guard, because they always need a point guard, and have more flexibility under the cap.
Renounce all their other free agents, and they'll flirt with $20 million in space. Dumping Kyle O'Quinn's and Lance Thomas' deals would net them more than $30 million, and their wiggle room explodes if they're able to save money in a Carmelo Anthony trade. They have a relatively clear path to affording the franchise's best brotherly duo since the days of J.R. and Chris Smith.
Serge Ibaka: Washington Wizards
Sending Serge Ibaka home isn't an option unless the NBA sticks a team in the Republic of Congo or even Spain. He could try syncing up with former teammates Kevin Durant, James Harden or Russell Westbrook, but it's our moral obligation to reject mass exoduses from the Eastern Conference. LeBron James cannot be allowed to Harlem Globetrotter over everyone until the end of time.
So how about a reunion with former head coach Scott Brooks? These two seemed to like each other enough. Ibaka, remember, came to Brooks' defense near the end of his term in Oklahoma City. Ibaka told Hoops Hype's Jorge Sierra just after the Thunder's 2014-15 season ended:
"Why are you going to fire him? What has he done? Injuries were not his fault. Why would he go? He has not done anything, he's not responsible for the injuries. He did his best with the team he had. Would other coach do better with a team with so many injuries? What could [Brooks] possibly do about it? The team is with him. You can't blame him for what has happened."
Brooks was canned less than a week later.
But that's beside the point. The Washington Wizards could stand to pivot out of the Ian Mahinmi-Jason Smith experiment, and Ibaka blends enough of their skill sets—rim protection from Mahinmi, shooting from Smith—to be a viable solution.
If only Washington could afford him.
Ibaka has "basically" agreed to a new deal with the Toronto Raptors that pays him around $20 million per year, according to Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler. The Wizards can wipe Mahinmi, Smith and Bojan Bogdanovic from their ledger and would still fall around $5 million short of that offer, since they're already $12.4 million over the cap. Keep Smith while finding a taker to absorb Marcin Gortat, and they're in business.
Which is to say: They won't be in business. Mahinmi's contract is immovable without attaching a first-round pick or prospect, and Ibaka isn't worth gutting the roster. If he's willing to accept below-market value to rejoin his mentor with the trademark lenses, then yes, Washington can spend for sentiment.
Kyle Lowry: Philadelphia 76ers
With the exception of Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens reconnecting in Boston, there isn't another lovey-dovey get-together more likely than this one.
This would be a weird match under normal circumstances. Lowry is 31, and the Sixers aren't ready-made to deliver him a ring.
They can, however, hand him max money without thinking twice. He's eligible for a deal that starts at around $35.4 million in Year 1, and the Sixers can offer that much and still have $15-plus million to burn if they play their books right.
Are a full-blown max that the Raptors may not offer and built-in nostalgia enough to keep Lowry from prioritizing championship contention over everything else? Maybe. Or maybe not. It might not even matter.
The temptation attached to forging the greatest bromance of all time with Joel Embiid should be enough to reel in Lowry on its own.
Paul Millsap: New Orleans Pelicans
Figuring out a way to get Paul Millsap back on the Jazz is fine. The Portland Trail Blazers signed him to an offer sheet in 2009, so they work as well.
But Millsap was born, went to high school and attended college in Louisiana. New Orleans is the natural destination...with the unnatural fit.
DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis don't leave room for Millsap. He can log spot minutes at the 3, but he should be soaking up more time at center than small forward when he's not a 4. Gutting the roster just to bring Millsap off the bench as part of a three-pronged attack is senseless, which brings us to an impasse.
So, buh-bye, DeMarcus.
Davis and Cousins have played 394 minutes together in 17 games. That's clearly enough time (it's not) to know they don't belong with one another (they probably do).
Rather than risk Cousins leaving for nothing as a free agent next summer, the Pelicans could look to move him while including one of their less favorable deals in the package. After that, they need to dump enough salary from the group of Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik, Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore to present Millsap with a competitive offer.
Slicing up the roster to pay max or near-max money for a 32-year-old is obviously a great idea and not at all shortsighted (it's actually a terrible idea that is horribly shortsighted). Millsap is a much better fit next to Davis than Cousins (true), and re-signing Jrue Holiday would give New Orleans a Big Three capable of knocking off the Warriors (false).
There's no reason for the Pelicans not to pull out all the stops for Millsap (there are a ton). They looked into trading for him back when the Atlanta Hawks pretended to be holding a fire sale, and he deserves to experience his second-ever Mardi Gras. If that's not a perfect match, then there's no such thing.
Chris Paul: New Orleans Pelicans
Why continue not making Western Conference Finals appearances with the Clippers when you can do the same with the Pelicans?
Lots of people think Chris Paul will find his way to San Antonio if he flees Hollywood, and he spent a great deal of his life in North Carolina. But he began his career in New Orleans. He played six years there. He left under bizarre circumstances, almost as a member of the Lakers, only to end up across the hall at Staples Center, with the Clippers.
This isn't even solely about the warm and fuzzy twinge making its way down your back right now. There is a competitive advantage to rejoining New Orleans, this time under the Pelicans moniker.
Where the Clippers may have peaked and their window closed, Anthony Davis won't turn 25 until March. And DeMarcus Cousins will only be 27 when next season tips off. If there's anyone who can bring together an offense that includes both of them, it's Paul. And as they are still playing through their best years, he can confidently ebb into his twilight without wondering whether his teammates can alleviate his workload.
Heading back to New Orleans, in some ways, does for Paul what returning to Cleveland did for LeBron James. The hometown ties aren't there, but the pressure to win a title slinks off, even if only slightly. He's all of a sudden the superstar, still in his prime, doing right by a franchise he left behind.
Hear that? It's the financial logistics throwing a wrinkle into this feel-good reunion.
To even come close to paying market value for Paul, the Pelicans must renounce Dante Cunningham and Jrue Holiday, then cut another $17-22 million in salary. Trading Omer Asik and Solomon Hill into other teams' cap space gets them oh-so-very close to Paul's $35.4 million max, but neither of those deals gets done without a pot-sweetener.
Blazing through that many obstacles for a 32-year-old point guard who could start declining on a whim is excessive. Even if Paul is willing to take less, the potential ramifications of a roster purge aren't going away.
On the flip side: Think of how moving his "My Next Chapter" piece for The Players' Tribune would be.