Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and the NBA's Biggest Offseason Star Dilemmas
This summer will get complicated for certain NBA teams with incumbent stars—and we mean difficult.
LeBron James' free agency (player option) isn't a convoluted issue for the Cleveland Cavaliers. If he wants to come back, they'll be happy to have him. If he wants to leave, they can't stop him.
Deciding whether 33-year-old Chris Paul is worth max money isn't a complex predicament, either. It's a 1-percenter's headache at worst.
Voluntary breakups don't qualify either. Maybe the Portland Trail Blazers will work the phones on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Ditto for the Toronto Raptors with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. And for the Washington Wizards with Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and John Wall. But these teams would not be reacting to expiring salaries, other departures or, as of now, broken relationships. They'd be reversing course largely by their own hand.
Potential trade demands, problematic contract situations, organizational crossroads, extensions that compromise future spending—these are the matters of contention we're after.
Rookie-Extension Pickles—Plus a Nikola Jokic Puzzle
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Signing Devin Booker to an extension becomes a nonissue if the Suns make a splash this summer. They have open-ended access to more than $15 million in cap space if they renounce Alex Len and Elfrid Payton (restricted) and waive Alan Williams (non-guaranteed). Their wallet will only deepen if they trade or stretch the expiring contracts for Tyson Chandler and/or Jared Dudley.
Hammering out an agreement with Booker gets a little more complicated if the Suns fail to land any impactful players. Giving him a max deal would bring his 2019-20 cap hold to $27 million and make it a touch harder to chisel out big-time room.
It wouldn't be impossible, though. Chandler and Dudley come off the books next summer, and TJ Warren's salary is scheduled for a one-year decline. But the Suns' spending power would be at the mercy of whatever money they give to smaller fish this year. Re-signing Payton, for instance, beefs up their bottom line.
Working with Booker's restricted free-agent hold would be more efficient. He'd count against the books for roughly half of his max ($13.8 million)—a huge difference. But the Suns must be sure they have the rapport with him to survive the delay. Fracturing the relationship in any way is bad for business, even if they retain the right to match whatever offer sheets he'd sign.
Another wrinkle: Phoenix also has to figure out whether Booker's worth max money at all.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
The Knicks are in the same boat as the Suns. Pushing off Kristaps Porzingis' extension gives them more room to maneuver in 2019 if they play their cards right this summer. His cap hold would be higher than Booker's hit ($17.1 million) but still nearly $10 million less than his max salary.
Convincing Porzingis to wait without causing a stir figures to be more of a challenge, though. He and the Knicks have not always been on the best terms. He skipped his exit interview last year, which prompted then-team president Phil Jackson to publicly put him on the chopping block.
Water under the bridge? Maybe. But Porzingis is working his way back from a torn left ACL. A peachy-keen relationship with the suits upstairs won't diminish his attraction to financial security.
Waiting on an extension will be in the Knicks' best interest no matter what. It doesn't matter how much faith they have in his durability or how worried they are he'll grow disenchanted without a deal. Unless he is accepting a discount, they're better off preserving next summer's flexibility. But what's best for them and what's most likely to keep Porzingis happy could be two different things.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Locking up Karl-Anthony Towns this summer should take priority if the Timberwolves are resigned to remaining capped out through 2019.
Related: They should extend Towns.
If Jeff Teague opts into the final year of his contract, the Timberwolves will have more than $90 million tied up in him, Jimmy Butler's cap hold, a maxed-out Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng. Waiting to give Towns his own max wouldn't help them. They're not slated to have meaningful play money either way.
Then again, if the Timberwolves think Teague will opt out and they can find new homes for Dieng and Wiggins before next July, they could wait on Towns' extension in hopes they'll put his curtailed hold to good use.
Given the contract-dump gymnastics involved, delaying the inevitable wouldn't be smart. Wiggins' five-year, $146.5 million deal isn't one Minnesota can offhandedly unload, and the prospect of making Towns wait for his agreement after extending the former is laughable. But hey! You never know...
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic's contract situation falls outside the rookie-extension spectrum. He wasn't signed on the typical new-guy scale after being selected in the second round of the 2014 draft. But he's up for a raise all the same.
Almost nobody expects the Nuggets to wait on his new deal. Declining his team option makes him a restricted free agent and gives them to the right to match any offer he receives. Pushing his max payday to 2019 throws him into the unrestricted pool, where he'd have control over his destiny.
Still, the temptation to hold off should be strong. Working with Jokic's sub-$2 million cap hold would allow the Nuggets to party-crash next summer's free-agency class. Darrell Arthur (player option for 2018-19), Wilson Chandler (player option for 2018-19) and Kenneth Faried will all be off the books by then, and they hold a club option for Paul Millsap.
If they plan their moves for this year accordingly, the Nuggets could be looking at max room and then some. They might even be able to get there without bouncing Millsap from the ledger.
Is that enough to let Jokic ride off into unrestricted free agency, without an ironclad guarantee of his return? Probably not. But next year could be the last chance the Nuggets have to spend like whoa for a while. They have to weigh all possible directions.
New Orleans' 'What the Bleep Is Boogie Worth?' Snafu
DeMarcus Cousins isn't making the New Orleans Pelicans' job any easier.
They were already tasked with determining his post-Achilles-injury value to a team that waxed opponents with an Anthony Davis-Nikola Mirotic frontcourt marriage. Now, they must also decide whether his social media activity is trying to tell them something.
Cousins unfollowed the Pelicans on Instagram, citing his extreme grownness. Of course. After all, nothing says "hardcore adulting" like taking the time to purge your Instagram feed of the franchise you've been with for the past 15 months.
Perhaps Cousins' social media catharsis is in response to something the Pelicans said or did. Sources told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe they've contemplated offering the big man a two- or three-year deal worth less than the max. Confirming that information through back channels or direct conversations would no doubt bruise the ego of an All-NBA star routinely in the mix for the league's unofficial best-center-alive honor.
Assuming this Instagram incident isn't the byproduct of a preordained divorce, the Pelicans will enter the offseason being pulled in a zillion directions.
Letting Cousins walk won't open up cap space, but re-signing him would drag them into the luxury tax. They could retain him and look to strike a trade later, but that only works if he's worth the price on his next contract.
Shepherding Cousins out of town feels like the safest play. The Pelicans will risk ruffling Davis' feathers two years out from free agency (player option), but saddling themselves with potentially immovable money poses a far bigger danger.
At least this way allows them to access the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception this year and pitch Davis on a free-agency blitz in 2019, when they should have access to $20 million or more in space.
San Antonio's 'To Trade, or Not to Trade, Kawhi?' Conundrum
Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs have emotional fences to mend.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year appeared in nine games this season and wasn't around his team during its five-game playoff run because of a quad injury. This wouldn't have been huge deal if the Spurs were on board with his absence—or even in the know whatsoever.
Coach-president Gregg Popovich essentially confirmed widespread speculation by telling reporters they should contact Leonard's "group" if they wanted an update on his health. That implied a substantive level of discord and has invited trade overtures. As Lowe put it: "Vultures are circling."
San Antonio has given interested parties the "brush-off," according to Bleacher Report's Ken Berger. Popovich salvaged the organization's relationship with LaMarcus Aldridge last summer. He deserves the opportunity to do the same with Leonard.
But brokering peace between player and franchise is only one part of a complicated process. The Spurs must also decide whether Leonard is worth the designated player extension he's eligible to sign before the NBA's books reset for next year.
This would have been filed under the "Um, duh" tab one year ago. It can't be anymore. Leonard's distance from the Spurs is one thing. His right quad injury is another. Offering a five-year extension worth just over $219 million to a player who wasn't, by his own group's measure, healthy enough to rejoin the rotation is a gargantuan dice roll.
It behooves the Spurs to monitor his performance into next season and revisit his contract situation when he hits free agency in 2019 (player option). He'll have to qualify for the designated veteran contract with an All-NBA nod, another DPOY award or league MVP victory, but that shouldn't be a problem if he's still the superstar he's supposed to be.
Good luck pitching Leonard on this wait-and-see approach. Tensions are peaking between him and the Spurs, and he played the good soldier by delaying his rookie-contract extension so they could work with a smaller cap hold in 2015. Depriving him of additional long-term security now, on the heels of a major injury, won't sit well with him or his group.
ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright reported in late March the Spurs intended to offer Leonard the DPE this summer. If that remains the plan, this lover's spat will resolve itself. If it doesn't, Leonard could demand a trade, leaving San Antonio to do the impossible: receive adequate compensation for a top-five talent entering a contract year after he barely played the season before.
Charlotte's 'Kemba Won't Be a Bargain Forever' Debacle
Kemba Walker doesn't know whether he'll begin next season with the Charlotte Hornets. This is to say: He's in the same boat as us.
"I have no idea," he told reporters after Charlotte's regular-season finale when asked about his future. "That is out of my control."
The Hornets seem primed for an overhaul. They have a new general manager in Mitch Kupchak and hired James Borrego, a career assistant with minimal NBA head coaching experience (30 games), to replace Steve Clifford.
Flipping Walker would be the natural next step in a prospective teardown. His $12 million salary should more than double as a free agent next summer, and shelling out near-max money for a then-29-year-old point guard doesn't jibe with a typical rebuilding window.
This presumes the Hornets have the stomach to start over. They might not. They don't have a clear path to a squeaky-clean slate after traveling great lengths in recent years to remain mediocre. They'll need to shed salary to avoid the luxury tax next season, and moving Walker alone won't lay much of an asset base.
Suitors won't want to mortgage the future for him. The Hornets should count themselves lucky if auctioning off Walker gets them a first-round pick or prospect while unburdening their books from one of many long-term deals.
And even then, what contract can they realistically sneak into a Walker-based swap? The three years and $76.7 million left on Nicolas Batum's pact probably won't fly. The $43.4 million Cody Zeller is owed over the next three seasons will be too steep for most trade partners.
Looping in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (two years, $26 million) and Marvin Williams (two years, $29.1 million) is feasible, but the Hornets can see the light at the end of their agreements. Attaching Batum is the only way they can expect to carve out meaningful flexibility before 2020 or 2021.
Another two or three years of limited spending power makes for a profound Walker trade deterrent. Charlotte would have room to develop Malik Monk, this year's first-rounder and future selections, but being bad without Brooklyn Nets-level wiggle room is rough. Without other salary dumps to complement a Walker exit, the Hornets could be tempted to run it back and yet again aim for a middle-seeded postseason bid.
Oklahoma City's 'Is Lone-Wolf Russ a Long-Term Building Block?' Problem
Can the Oklahoma City Thunder afford to pay Russell Westbrook $205 million over the next five years if Paul George leaves? The question has to be asked. It implies this summer's nightmare scenario, but the worst case is hardly far-fetched.
More than a few are treating it as reality. The Los Angeles Lakers have mountains of cap space. The Philadelphia 76ers are expected to join the party, per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey. The Thunder are working off an unconvincing first-round exit. George could bolt.
Oklahoma City is left to wallow in a functional double bind if he does. Westbrook is the franchise. He's outlasted James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant. Trading him would be an emotional gut punch and pave the way for a protracted rebuild without even a loose endpoint in sight.
Plus, what kind of team jettisons a top-10 star in his prime under contract for the next four or five years?
Try one with foresight.
Losing George does not arm the Thunder with the breathing room to even begin replacing him. They'll be comfortably over the cap without him before deciding on the futures of other incumbent free agents—namely Jerami Grant and Josh Huestis.
Holding out for 2019, when Carmelo Anthony's salary comes off the books, guarantees nothing. The Thunder will still have more than $77 million committed to Westbrook, Steven Adams, Terrance Ferguson (team option) and Andre Roberson. And their cap commitments will soar if they keep Alex Abrines (restricted), Patrick Patterson (player option) and their own first-round pick.
General manager Sam Presti will have to turn over every rock just to grind out $20 million in room next summer. Waiting another year, for the 2020 offseason, promises additional flexibility, but only if the Thunder keep their books lean until then.
That doesn't track with Westbrook's window. He'll be 32 by the time 2020-21 tips off. Punting on the next two years of his prime isn't an option—not when he's so reliant upon athleticism and raw burst to steamroll opponents.
George will render all of this moot if he re-signs with the Thunder. They can bankroll Westbrook's next five years if he's paired with another superstar. But they have to at least see what they can get for him if George leaves. Otherwise, their future becomes a matter of whether Westbrook's lone-wolf exploits can endure long enough for them to reinvent the roster around him again.