Giannis a Bucks Lifer? Lillard in PDX Forever? Cases for Franchise Faces to Bolt
Good news: Your favorite NBA team's cornerstone probably isn't leaving anytime soon. This isn't a take so much as a decision to play the odds.
Plenty of teams recently locked down their franchise faces and eliminated any semi-imminent window-shopping. Other squads have anchors on rookie contracts and ultimate control over their futures for the next half-decade.
Now for some bad news: The face of your favorite franchise might leave in the near future.
Many of the most popular flight-risk conspiracies involve big names who won't reach the open market or gain the leverage to force a trade for three to four years. These situation can be salvaged, if they even need saving.
But preparing for the worst-case scenario is imperative, no matter how far away teams are from a day of reckoning. Primary building blocks leave. Ask the Utah Jazz.
And if your favorite team's most important player is a superstar no more than four years out from unrestricted free agency, this is why he may eventually develop a case of wandering eyes.
The Recently Locked Down Ineligibles
Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry cannot become a free agent until 2022, and Kevin Durant is accepting $9-plus million discounts after one year in a Golden State Warriors uniform. Let's move on.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
One thing is for certain after Blake Griffin's five-year, $172.3 million contract: The Los Angeles Clippers are more likely to tire of paying him before he grows weary of playing for them.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
After signing a four-year extension, the earliest James Harden can become a free agent for the first time in his career is 2022 (player option)...at the age of 32...as a 13-year veteran. Think about that.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry will reach free agency before many others who follow (2020), but the market for point guards over the age of 30 who earn more than $30 million per year isn't booming. Shocking, I know. And once he's possibly ready to flee, at age 34, his free agency won't warrant this kind of deep hypothetical dive.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
John Wall is in the same situation as Harden after inking a four-year extension with the Washington Wizards.
The First-Contract Exclusions
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker could get the (futile) impulse to leave the Phoenix Suns as a restricted free agent in 2019, but that'd be weird. They're showing him so much love.
Case in point: With Kyrie Irving trade rumors swirling, the Suns have informed Booker he will not be shipped elsewhere, according to Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. The only thing remotely worth watching here is how long it takes Josh Jackson to leapfrog Booker in the team's pecking order.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid may not get an extension from the Philadelphia 76ers. That's what happens when you appear in 31 games through your first three seasons. But his future with the organization is hardly in limbo.
Either he remains healthy and the Sixers re-sign him as a restricted free agent next summer, or his sophomore campaign goes bust and he's forced to sign his qualifying offer or find a suitor willing to roll the dice.
In other words: As long as Embiid holds value that resonates with the rest of the league, Philly isn't letting him go anywhere before his second contract.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic might harbor some resentment toward the Denver Nuggets if they don't decline his team option, make him a restricted free agent and give him a raise from the $1.6 million he's slated to make in 2018-19. But that indignation—assuming it would exist—wouldn't last long if they're willing to max him out in 2019.
Should the Nuggets refuse to pay Jokic top dollar in either of the next two offseasons, then we'll talk.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Restricted free agents seldom sign a qualifying offer and play out their fifth year to gain control of their own fate. Kristaps Porzingis should be no different when he hits the semi-open market in 2019.
If the the New York Knicks are smart, they won't even let the non-issue reach that point. They'll iron out an extension with him after next season. Granted, they are the Knicks, and Porzingis has already tacitly rioted through a skipped exit meeting and Twitter hack that so wasn't. Anything's possible.
But sticking Porzingis on flight-risk watch is premature. Players like him don't have the leverage to escape while on their first contract. He's stuck with the Knicks for the foreseeable future—unless, of course, they engage in self-destructive activity that's extreme even for them.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns has joined Jimmy Butler, who cedes franchise status to his younger sidekick, in recruiting Kyrie Irving to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
He's not going anywhere.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Paul George's departure should mark the beginning of the Myles Turner era for the Indiana Pacers.
Turner factors heavily into their future and is a legitimate franchise face, but it's easy to imagine him growing frustrated if the Pacers lean into a half-rebuild around Victor Oladipo and Thaddeus Young. He can't do anything about it; such is the curse of first-contract studs. But he's closer to Porzingis' situation with the Knicks than Towns' comfy gig with the Timberwolves.
The Non-Flight-Risk Honorable Mentions
Mike Conley/Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley and Marc Gasol hold an equitable share of franchise-face stock, so it's impossible to delineate between the two.
Besides, the Memphis Grizzlies are the basketball embodiment of "Family Over Everything." The official end to the Grit 'n Grid era, incited by Zach Randolph's departure, appeared gutting from the outside. So any star-shedding teardown is more likely to come collaboratively, rather than via trade demands or combative free-agency exits.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Look, if you're going to troll Gordon Hayward on Instagram by rocking out to Chris Brown's "Loyal," you cannot at any point down the line coordinate your own controversial departure. That's the rule.
Rudy Gobert won't have the clout to pester the Utah Jazz into a trade until 2020, one year before he reaches free agency. And while that's not uncommon among this group, the market for centers is bizarre. He is still an asset—a genuine cornerstone. But the league is trending in the direction of combo wings and swingmen.
A 7'1" skyscraper who doesn't shoot threes or function as an offensive hub won't have an endless supply of suitors by the time he's taking home $25-plus million per year.
Gordon Hayward/Al Horford/Terry Rozier Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
How do you identify the Boston Celtics' franchise face, really?
Well, you start by removing Al Horford's name from consideration. And then thing get dicey.
Hayward is Boston's best player, but he only just hopped aboard the bandwagon. Isaiah Thomas is the easy, probably correct choice, since he's the longest-tenured star.
And technically, he should have a case to leave. He is a free agent after next season and has Brinks Truck sandals. Seriously. But ramifications from 2016's spending craze resulted in pinched purse strings this summer, and the buyer's climate isn't expected to change much by 2017, as multiple sources conveyed to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.
This is great news for the Celtics after passing on the opportunity to draft Markelle Fultz. It's bad news for Thomas and his custom footwear, which will now be pitted against a slumping market and the league's excess of starting point guards. Ergo, his case for leaving Boston is borderline nonexistent.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Wishful thinkers can hope to take a swing at Kawhi Leonard in 2019 (player option), but we already know how his foray into free agency will end: with a 12:01 a.m. EST agreement to remain on the San Antonio Spurs, potentially at a Tim Duncan-sized discount.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2021
Case for Bolting: What's the deal with the front office?
Threat Level: Deferred
Teams are already "trying to figure out how" they're going to poach Giannis Antetokounmpo, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t Jordan Heck of Sporting News), but he won't hit free agency for another three summers and claims loyalty among his genetic traits. So, the Milwaukee Bucks needn't worry...too much.
Antetokounmpo cannot meaningfully leverage the Bucks into moving him until 2020, when he's a year out from free agency. If they want to poke around Danny Ainge's apocalypse bunker's worth of assets in 2019 as a way of commanding more for their cornerstone, that's fine. But they're in no immediate danger of alienating a player who has given zero indication he's frustrated with the team's trajectory.
At the same time, the Bucks pigeonholed themselves to a make-good dilemma by having Antetokounmpo accept a (slight) discount on his four-year, $100 million extension. They're now committed to adding another marquee name or turning this core into a viable Eastern Conference power, lest Antetokounmpo become disenchanted with their situation.
Has the recently overhauled front office earned this benefit of the doubt, though? Hell no. Haley O'Shaughnessy broke it down for The Ringer:
"In May, John Hammond left his post as the Bucks’ general manager to join the Magic staff. Hammond, well respected in that position, was the brains behind drafting Antetokounmpo, 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. ESPN reported that Hammond wanted to stay with the team he was building, but Milwaukee was not willing to match Orlando’s contract offer, seeing as Hammond’s replacement was already on the bench. Before the end of the 2016 season, the Bucks hired 'one of the league’s fastest-rising executives,' Justin Zanik, as an assistant GM. According to that ESPN report, it was understood that he would eventually succeed Hammond, who at that time had just a year left on his contract.
That’s a-few-dishes-in-the-sink messy; what happened afterward was failing the health inspection. Zanik was not promoted to the head general manager position, and another in-house employee, director of basketball operations Jon Horst, was bumped up instead. If that name sounds unfamiliar to you casual NBA fans, front-office gurus, or anyone who isn’t Horst’s significant other, you’re not alone. Horst, who apparently did not know he was a candidate for the job, prompted headlines like “Just who is the Bucks’ new GM, Jon Horst?” and “Report: Bucks interview Jon Horst (?)”
Once more: The Bucks aren't screwed. Antetokounmpo isn't skipping exit meetings (shout-out Kristaps), liking Instagram posts that throw unsubtle jabs at the organization (shout-out Kristaps, again!) or publicly embracing dissent in any way. That doesn't mean Milwaukee shouldn't be concerned. The honeymoon phase of this marriage is over. Now is when the optics and results start to matter.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2020 (player option)
Case for Bolting: New Orleans is trying to win...and not winning.
Threat Level: Moderate
Anthony Davis is on the verge of requesting a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans...in the minds of Celtics fans everywhere.
It is "widely" assumed Boston will make a run at Davis if the Pelicans flop this year, according to The Vertical's Chris Mannix. This sounds about right. Ainge is the biggest endorser of his own assets. Targeting a demigod like Davis after successfully wooing Hayward and Horford is right up his alley.
New Orleans shouldn't care. Davis, like Antetokounmpo, is a couple summers away from having the juice to force a trade. Demand a relocation sooner, and he'll forfeit the super-duper-mega designated player extension, for which he should be eligible in two years.
The Pelicans are on the clock, because teams with top-five players who have just one playoff cameo to their resume are always on the clock. But this is far from the 11th hour.
And yet: Read between the lines, and you detect a hint of frustration mixed with traces of conviction, exasperation and optimism from New Orleans' wunderkind.
"We're doing everything, whether it's signing players, trading players...whatever it is to just try to make sure that we try to be a winning organization," Davis said, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "We have the tools right now to be successful. ... Right now, I think we look good on paper. So we've just got to figure it out."
DeMarcus Cousins will be the barometer for Davis' own tenure. And the Pelicans know it. They have to. They've undergone too many face-lifts during Davis' five-year stay—rebuilds that transitioned into accelerated attempts to win, which devolved back into rebuilds, only to become expedited attempts to win yet again.
Roster turnover amid this stretch has, fittingly, been abnormally high. The Pelicans have retained, on average, 59 percent of the previous season's minutes since Davis entered the league. That ranks 23rd in the league over this span—one spot behind Antetokounmpo's Bucks—and pins them to a rather unimpressive sector of teams.
Re-signing Cousins goes a long way toward establishing long-term goodwill. Fail to sell him on a future in New Orleans, and the Pelicans are back at a familiar juncture, trying to decide whether they should rebuild or peel rubber toward assumed relevance—only this time, unlike all the others, they'll have about a year before Davis' free-agency timeline gets in the way of their own.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2018 (player option)
Case for Bolting: The Warriors are the Warriors, while the Cavs remain the Cavs.
Threat Level: Through the roof
LeBron James checked in as a serious flight risk long before now. League sources told The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor the four-time MVP could sign with the Los Angeles Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers next summer before this year's NBA Finals even ended.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' offseason has done nothing to assuage conjecture. Owner Dan Gilbert didn't pony up enough to retain general manager David Griffin—a James favorite—and then lowballed his first-choice successor, Chauncey Billups, according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes and Marc J. Spears.
Lump this in with the failed pursuits of Butler and Paul George, and James entered mid-July "frustrated and concerned" about the direction of the Cavaliers, per the USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. Adding Derrick Rose is akin to dressing this wound in a used Band-Aid that Irving cannot wait to re-open, then deepen.
The point guard is trying to force his way out of Cleveland, in large part because he "no longer wants to play alongside" James, according to Windhorst. Orchestrating a three- or four-team trade that nets a rangy wing and quality point guard arguably makes the Cavaliers better. Such a return is also unrealistic.
Next to nothing the Cavaliers do from here will close the galactic gap separating them from the Warriors. And that's all this is really about in the end: getting James another title. Cleveland isn't in line to do that right now, and all the extracurricular drama might coalesce into a guilt-free departure.
Neither the Clippers nor Lakers indisputably promise James a more realistic crack at the Warriors, but he'll have other suitors—27 of them, to be exact. Plus, the Lakers have designs on adding two superstars next summer, according to Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus. Tussling with the Warriors before the NBA Finals won't seem so bad if Lonzo Ball, Brandon Igram and someone like Cousins or George are your primary running mates.
Perhaps the Houston Rockets dredge up more cap space to pitch James on playing with James Harden and banana-boat buddy Chris Paul. Or maybe Ben Simmons' combination of health and social-media recruitment convinces James to finish The Process. The Spurs, masters of late-career maximization, should even have cap space.
Whatever the free-agency landscape looks like next year, James will have options—many of which, from the looks of things, will dwarf what's waiting for him back in Cleveland.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2021
Case for Bolting: Getting a third superstar partner won't be easy—if it's ever possible.
Threat Level: Low
Damian Lillard is the closest anyone on this list comes to Kawhi Leonard status.
That doesn't read like someone who will ever be itching to leave the Portland Trail Blazers. Nor does his response to someone saying he should fly the coop to snag a title: "I'm willing to not win it," he tweeted in May. "If I can't build it where I am."
More telling than that, Lillard cannot even properly envision playing for another team without disclaimers. Asked where he'd sign if Portland wasn't an option, Lillard responded: "If [the] Blazers said they didn't want me, [the] Utah Jazz or Lakers."
At most, these sentiments suggest the Jazz and Lakers should conserve their cap space four years down the line. Otherwise, Lillard doesn't project as a flight risk or the next disgruntled superstar.
Still, you never know. Lillard will be 30 entering the final season of his deal (2020-21). That summer, incidentally, is when the Blazers finally figure to have significant cap space. Their situation could change on the heels of a few salary dumps, but financial flexibility doesn't always translate to offseason coups.
Portland needs at least one other marquee talent to pair with Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Rivaling the Western Conference's elite is otherwise out of the question. Landing that headliner will be tough when drafting outside the lottery, and the Blazers aren't known for stealing star free agents. Lillard and McCollum haven't even been able to persuade Carmelo Anthony to waive his no-trade clause; he still only has eyes for the Rockets, per the New York Post's Marc Berman.
Lillard doesn't need to be the next Irving or Kevin Durant. The relationship between himself and the Blazers may just naturally expire. By the time 2020 or 2021 rolls around, Portland could be looking to jump-start another rebuild that runs counter to Lillard's window—in which case a departure, be it via trade or free agency, could be what's best for both parties.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2019
Case for Bolting: Gordon Hayward syndrome.
Threat Level: Low to moderate
Kemba Walker won't be on one of the NBA's best contracts for much longer. He enters free agency in 2019, at which time, assuming his three-point stroke holds, he'll command superstar money.
The Charlotte Hornets shouldn't have to think twice about re-signing him. He will still be their best player by then, and at 28, this next deal will span through his best years without leaking too far into the beginning of his twilight.
Walker, for his part, might not have a fierce inkling to look around. The point guard pool shouldn't be much shallower two years from now, and he'll have spent the past four seasons playing on what turned out to be a cut-rate deal. Getting max money, and perhaps a fifth year, from Charlotte could be enough to prevent rendezvous with other admirers.
Except, let's not discount the potential for Walker to want something more. Like most others, he isn't tipping his hand two years in advance, nor does he appear unhappy. He has developed into an All-Star with the Hornets, and head coach Steve Clifford remains one of the most underrated sideline-stalkers in the league.
Playing somewhere else, though, could help Walker generate more national recognition during the last leg of his prime. His departure wouldn't be an indictment on the Hornets. They won't have the army of assets the Jazz did when trying to keep Hayward, but they should have cap space to burn along with a collection of suddenly palatable short-term commitments to dangle in trades.
Instead, Walker's exit would be more about a change of scenery.
His rise in Charlotte isn't being buried, but it's been somewhat lost amid the Hornets' early playoff exits and lottery appearances. If their fortunes don't turn, another team could offer him something similar to what the Celtics promised Hayward: a bigger stage, the buoyed All-Star case that comes with it and, maybe, a more realistic shot at contending for a title.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2018 (player option)
Case for Bolting: OKC's revolving door of star running mates.
Threat Level: Low to moderate
Russell Westbrook renders this subject moot if he signs the designated player extension that general manager Sam Presti has made clear is in front of him, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. That he hasn't put pen to paper yet, though, may be telltale of something—like hesitation.
Trading for George as a potential rental—and then journeying, as of now, into the luxury tax—proves the Oklahoma City Thunder will foot the bill for relevance. But this all-in play is also a reminder of how fluid their situation tends to be.
Westbrook might pass on the extension now to let next season play out and George's dalliance with the Lakers unfold before making a decision. And no one can blame him. The Thunder are, clearly, willing to reward his loyalty, but he's already seen a small parade of star and fringe-star talents march outside Oklahoma City.
James Harden ended up with the Rockets for financial reasons. Serge Ibaka landed with the Magic under similar circumstances (expiring contract), and because the Thunder needed to deepen the roster. Durant flat-out left.
Watching George leave may be the final straw. The Thunder would still have Steven Adams and a path toward monster cap room in 2019, but Oklahoma City isn't a free-agent hotspot. It's never needed to be.
Now, with George set to face a slew of other options, it needs to be. And if it's not, the Thunder won't just be at risk of missing out on George and all the other big-name options that become available over the next few years.
They'll be in danger of losing Westbrook, too.