It's Too Late for Kyrie-LeBron, but Other Shaky NBA Marriages Can Still Be Saved
It's too late for Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. The All-Star point guard has already requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. His marriage to James, barely one year removed from a title, will have no happy ending.
It doesn't have to be like this for every player and team on breakup watch. Just as the Cavaliers could have done more—or even the bare minimum—to juggle the egos of Irving and James, other squads faced with delicate situations have time to figure out and execute solutions.
Granted, this isn't true for everyone. The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony, for instance, have no shot at reconciliation. Their timelines haven't aligned for a while, and the organization allowed, if not empowered, former president Phil Jackson to drag Anthony's name through sludge for the better part of 18 months.
This counseling session is not for those hopeless cases. It's for the stars and teams who haven't yet obliterated goodwill beyond repair, even though they're on rocky ground thanks to contract situations and/or rumors of mild displeasure and wandering eyes.
Our mission is simple: Find out what these teams and players can or must do to salvage their alliance before it reaches the point of no return.
Russell Westbrook and OKC Thunder
Relationship Status: Happily engaged
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2018 (player option)
Relationship Goals: Leapfrog the Los Angeles Lakers on Paul George's free-agent ladder.
There may not be a need to check in on Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team has shown its willing to be aggressive by landing Paul George under the guise that he's a one-year rental. That might convince Westbrook to sign an extension before the start of next season, this power move assuaging any fears he could have about the Thunder submitting to lesser forms of relevance.
Or maybe not, as ESPN.com's Royce Young explained:
"There was always optimism Westbrook would accept it [the extension], as a way to set the compass on the direction forward, but with George en route and his future unknown, Westbrook might press pause on his decision. Whether it's now or later, Westbrook will get all the same money. ... He can now hit free agency alongside George, both Southern California kids, something you can be sure Los Angeles Lakers executives are already thinking about as they carve out cap space."
Oklahoma City's work here is done in some ways. Nothing else will sway Westbrook this summer. The extension is available to him, per Young. He knows that. If his preference is to wait until the on-court returns are in, then so be it.
All the Thunder can do in the meantime is stay the course. They've committed to paying the luxury tax (for now). They brokered two of the offseason's best contracts, with Patrick Patterson (three years, $16.4 million) and Andre Roberson (three years, $30 million). They have the talent to contend for a top-three spot in the West. Now they have to make sure everything and everyone meshes together and that the George-Westbrook marriage experiences a grace period-free honeymoon.
That last part is a little unnerving. George has never played with an imposing force like Westbrook. And yet, the transition should be seamless. He's already used to playing off the ball. Nearly 35 percent of his shot attempts came from spot-up opportunities last year, when he didn't have a superstar running mate. This pairing needn't be approached with Westbrook-Kevin Durant fragility.
It just needs time to marinate.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee Bucks
Relationship Status: Stable(ish)
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2021
Relationship Goals: Add another marquee name by 2019.
ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t Jordan Heck of Sporting News) caused quite a stir when he said on The Ryen Russillo Show teams are already "trying to figure out how they are going to get" Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the Milwaukee Bucks. But the tumult was relatively short-lived.
Jolts of panic subsided a bit after looking at the 22-year-old's contract and realizing he isn't scheduled to enter the open market until 2021. Any lingering concerns were then quelled by Antetokounmpo's clapping back on Twitter with "I got loyalty inside my DNA."
Alas, even those feel-good vibes proved to have a short lifespan. Antetokounmpo went on to kind of, sort of defend Kevin Durant's decision to join the Golden State Warriors while speaking to fans in the Philippines in Manila (h/t SB Nation):
“A lot of people say they're going to stay on a team and decide to move to a different team. But you guys got to remember: A guy might want to stay on a team, but if the team doesn't do the right things and the right moves for the player to become great. Because, KD, the reason he wanted to stay in OKC was to win, right? So, they didn't win the championship. That's why he decided to leave. So do not hate only the player. Because sometimes it's not up to the player."
These are innocent sentiments, telltale of nothing. But the Bucks took him up on an offer to take less in his next contract. Last September, he accepted a four-year, $100 million extension when he could have signed for $106 million, like Otto Porter Jr. did when the Washington Wizards matched his offer sheet in July. While that's not much of a pay cut, it's still a discount—and a pretty big one when you consider Antetokounmpo could have tried coaxing a fifth year from Milwaukee over the summer.
Retaining talent isn't enough. Keeping Tony Snell at four years, $46 million is solid, but the Bucks are facing a tough decision with Jabari Parker. He's now two ACL injuries deep and due for a raise next summer. They can't let his new deal hamstring their flexibility.
Contracts for Matthew Dellavedova (three years, $28.8 million remaining), John Henson (three years, $31.7 million) and Mirza Teletovic (two years, $21 million) do that for them. Teletovic comes off the books in 2019, at which time Dellavedova and Henson will be movable expirings. But the Bucks are better off going for another marquee name now. Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Khris Middleton (player option) are up for deals in 2019, and Parker will be one year into his pact if he sticks around.
Breaking into Kyrie Irving trade talks is a worthy gamble, but his arrival eats into incumbent talent. Attaching sweeteners to their unwanted cap-cloggers, plus drawing a firm line in the sand with Parker, is the Bucks' quickest path to cap space—and it'd be a good idea for them to explore it now, well before the eleventh-hour window.
DeMarcus Cousins and New Orleans Pelicans
Relationship Status: It's complicated
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2018
Relationship Goals: Introduce DeMarcus Cousins to the postseason.
The New Orleans Pelicans should not regret trading for DeMarcus Cousins. Acquiring him, for the price they did, is a deal you make every time. It won't look so hot if he leaves next July, but the Pelicans are rolling the dice on a potentially transcendent frontcourt marriage between him and Anthony Davis. Good for them.
Still, the NBA doesn't hand out gold stars for trying. The Pelicans need to sell Cousins on a long-term future. Getting him to the postseason for the first time in his career is the best way to make that pitch. And perfecting his partnership with Davis is the only way for them to get Cousins into the playoffs.
Defense doesn't register on the laundry list of concerns. New Orleans played like the league's stingiest team in the 394 minutes its Twin Titans shared the floor. Davis doesn't receive nearly enough credit for switching almost everything, and Cousins can be quite reliable, both as a rim protector and occasional rotator, when he's fully engaged.
Figuring out the offense is a more complicated endeavor. The Pellies pumped in 102.5 points per 100 possessions with their biggies on the floor, good for a bottom-five mark. That number climbed to 109 over their last 10 appearances, but basketball in mid-March and beyond is rife with noise.
Surrounding Davis and Cousins with league-average and above shooters stamps out many of the warts built in to multi-big combos. The Pelicans haven't done that, per se, but they might be fine.
Jrue Holiday will shoot better than 30.4 percent on spot-up threes. Rajon Rondo has put down 39.2 percent of his standstill treys amid legitimate volume since 2015-16 (83-of-212). Solomon Hill buried 37.8 percent of his wide-open triples through an uninspiring 2016-17 and should get more of those looks next year. New Orleans might even survive using E'Twaun Moore at small forward for certain stretches.
That's merely part of the equation. The Pelicans must still get Cousins and Davis to play off one another. Sacrifice is inevitable. Both will need to take on more catch-and-shoot duty. Dual-big pick-and-rolls should be a thing.
Hiring Chris Finch, an assistant coach and offensive architect from the Denver Nuggets, is a good start. Cousins and Davis are working out together over the offseason—another great sign. Nothing matters, though, unless they put this all together for next season. That's all the face time with Cousins they're guaranteed to have.
LaMarcus Aldridge and San Antonio Spurs
Relationship Status: Shaky
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2018 (player option)
Relationship Goals: Lean in to small(er) ball.
LaMarcus Aldridge didn't end up meeting with the New York Knicks as a free agent in 2015 after bristling at their attempts to make him a full-time center, via The Ryen Russillo Show. The San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, are shills for yesteryear-ball. While much of the league has tilted toward the Golden State Warriors' contemporary, positionless model, they've steered into bigger, plodding lineups that aim to dictate pace and bump off offensive flow.
San Antonio, to its credit, seems ready for change. Pau Gasol is now the only real center on the roster. Joffrey Lauvergne comes close, but he's more emergency combo big than everyday 5.
That leaves Aldridge to soak up more time at center—a semi-foreign concept. Almost 50 percent of his minutes came at the 5 in 2015-16, and he spent nearly one-third of his playing time there last season. But this is a different transition. It won't include as much spin beside another big who splits defensive assignments.
Just 121 of Aldridge's minutes came as the lone wolf up front last season. That's barely 5 percent of his court time, through which San Antonio deployed an anemic offense (91.8 points per 100 possessions) ferried entirely by its defense.
Signing Rudy Gay equips the Spurs to dive deeper and more effectively into this experiment. He's best suited at the 4 following his Achilles injury. If he's not ready to rock by opening night—or even if he is—they can also double-dip at the point guard position, while Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, slide up to the 3 and 4.
A four-man combination of Green, Leonard, Dejounte Murray and Patty Mills has yet to log any time together, so the Spurs would be navigating uncharted territory by playing them with Aldridge at the 5. But veering ever so slightly into the sweeping small-ball craze is their best shot at keeping pace with the Western Conference's other superpowers.
Besides, they don't have anything to lose. Aldridge is already unhappy, according to USA Today's Sam Amick, and with the free-agent market for non-unicorns being what it is, he may not have the standing offers necessary to justify opting out next summer. The Spurs will face the same roadblock in attempts to trade him.
Both parties, at this point, might as well step outside their comfort zones, together, in hopes it incites something sustainable and spectacular.
LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers
Relationship Status: On life support
Earliest Entry into Free Agency: 2018 (player option)
Relationship Goals: Steamroll the East without Kyrie Irving.
No exaggerations here.
Rumblings about LeBron James' interest in leaving the Cavaliers started trickling out before the conclusion of the 2017 NBA Finals. He became "frustrated and concerned" about how the team's offseason was unfolding less than three weeks into it, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. And then, on top of that, Kyrie Irving requested a trade because he "no longer wants to play alongside" the four-time MVP, according to Windhorst.
So yes, the Cavaliers and their competitive lifeline are having relationship problems. And Cleveland can only hope another effortless march into the Finals quashes any desire James has to shop around.
Winning the Irving trade isn't a viable goal. More than half the league has phoned the Cavaliers about a potential deal, per Wojnarowski, but superstar sellers never emerge from these negotiations victorious. Irving isn't addition by subtraction unless Cleveland brokers a three-team deal that nets both Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton—an implausible outcome at best.
Playing up the crummy East is the Cavaliers' most appealing option. Heading west offers comfier off-court digs, but James still has to go through Golden State, the team no one in the league, including Cleveland, has successfully caught this offseason.
Securing even a half-respectable return for Irving positions the Cavaliers to continue blitzing through the East. The Boston Celtics have Gordon Hayward, but they're a superficial threat until proven otherwise. If the Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards are better, it's only because the East is worse; neither has done anything to put the Cavaliers on notice.
Get enough to prop up the present without swerving completely away from the future, and new general manager Koby Altman will strike a balance that's long since expired in Cleveland. Maybe that's asking too much. Perhaps that scenario doesn't exist. If it does, what is it? Bledsoe and Josh Jackson? A three-team deal that lands Bledsoe and Andrew Wiggins? Bledsoe and Carmelo Anthony? Bledsoe, Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris?
Whatever package the Cavaliers wind up settling on, they can't play the part of a franchise bracing itself for ruin. They have to, at the bare minimum, haul in enough for James to believe his merry-go-round of NBA Finals cameos won't soon face an imminent threat. That feeling of inevitability has always been and will forever remain Cleveland's trump card.