What These 5 NBA Teams Need to Do to Keep Their Flight-Risk Superstars

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2018

What These 5 NBA Teams Need to Do to Keep Their Flight-Risk Superstars

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    As the entire hoops world watches the Jimmy Butler drama unfold, a select number of NBA teams wonder if they'll be the next to walk in the Minnesota Timberwolves' shoes.

    Butler is far from the first disgruntled superstar to seek out greener pastures elsewhere. He surely won't be the last, either. And while some may look back to figure out where everything went wrong, said exercise is of little value once the relationship has passed the point of no return.

    The key to retaining superstars is solving problems before they even exist, which isn't always possible. If a player has his mind made up about changing addresses, his current employer may be powerless to stop him.

    But organizations want to give themselves the best possible chances of retaining their top talent. It's much harder than it sounds, too, since this isn't a one-solution-fits-all kind of situation.

    Below, we'll try to help by focusing on five teams that could soon be scrambling to convince their stars to stay. Each player must have some level of flight risk—even if only perceived—and be entering free agency within the next three years.

Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving

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    Life is good for Kyrie Irving.

    He's the offensive leader of a club expected to be the Eastern Conference's best. He's 26 years old and will assuredly decline his $21.3 million player option next summer to sign a new deal for perhaps more than nine times as much. He's surrounded both by current All-Stars and future ones, and his franchise still controls multiple draft assets that can further enhance the roster down the road.

    So, how could he be a flight risk? Because this is someone who once walked away from LeBron James and an annual ticket to the Finals seemingly to challenge himself. If Irving helps the Celtics complete their transformation into full-fledged contenders, might he consider seeking out a tougher task, such as bringing the Empire State back to NBA relevance?

    "Kyrie is one of those players who gets bored after a couple of years," Irving's former coach Byron Scott told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. "He's wired differently than most. He needs to be stimulated. He needs another adventure."

    The Celtics can't change Irving's situation too much, but they can put more on his plate in terms of leadership and mentoring his younger teammates. They can also challenge him to grow defensively, something he should have more energy for with a healthy Gordon Hayward and better-developed youngsters helping to shoulder the scoring load.

    Moreover, Boston must keep doing whatever it is that's seemingly making Irving happy to be there. At media day, he spoke of being "comfortable" and "happy," calling it "settling" and "peaceful." If he's enjoying himself on and off the court, it's hard to see why he'd consider heading elsewhere.

Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant

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    Until Kevin Durant puts pen to paper on a long-term deal with the Golden State Warriors, speculation will continue about him becoming the first core member to bolt the Bay Area.

    Rather than signing a megadeal this offseason, he instead opted for another one-plus-one contract, positioning himself for a return to free agency next summer. Rather than quiet talk of his uncertain future at media day, he instead told reporters, "We'll see what happens after the year."

    Though he's entering his third season with the Warriors, Durant is still widely perceived to be an outsider there. He isn't a drafted-and-developed-in-house success story. Instead, he arrived as almost a luxury—a decision that some feel stained his legacy.

    The best thing Golden State can do is separate itself from Durant's next decision. Being too enthusiastic about wanting him to stay might create unnecessary pressure, so it's best to address the storyline as infrequently as possible.

    There's one simple way to stop the questions before they're asked: put out a basketball product so compelling that reporters have to discuss it instead. That doesn't mean the Dubs should tire themselves out again while chasing a regular-season record, but consistently showing seamless two-way chemistry would suffice. At their peak, the Dubs can make basketball appear balletic, and everyone is enthralled when they do.

    They must also maximize and celebrate Durant's talents. Give him the offensive freedom to isolate when he's feeling it, and then publicly support the style. Deploy him as a 7-foot free safety on defense, and then tell anyone who listens that an All-Defensive honor is overdue. Finally, give him space once the season ends—ideally with another title and Finals MVP in hand—cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    The Milwaukee Bucks can breathe relatively easy knowing they have all-galaxy star Giannis Antetokounmpo under contract for the next three seasons. There are no guarantees beyond that, though, as the rest of the Association is already thinking about how to pluck him out of Brew City, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski (via Jordan Heck of Sporting News).

    Antetokounmpo hasn't given Milwaukee reason to worry. In fact, he's stressed the importance of loyalty and laid out his goal of bringing the Bucks a championship. But he still qualifies as a flight risk for the sheer volume of interest he'll command on the open market. The 23-year-old is physical anomaly even among his NBA peers and is already productive in an unprecedented manner.

    He could handpick his next destination and perhaps some or most of his supporting cast. If his title odds look too long in Milwaukee, he could improve them with one signature elsewhere.

    "If Giannis or any superstar doesn't feel that the team has created an environment around him to win, they're not going to be satisfied," Bucks team president Peter Feigin told ESPN.com's Nick Friedell. "Mentally, that's all they want to do is win. ... We've got to in the next two years start competing for a championship."

    On the surface, that's a lofty aspiration for a club that won 44 games last season and hasn't reached the second round of the playoffs since 2001.

    But Milwaukee has more talent than its record reflected last season, which it hopes will grow more apparent under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. The frontcourt shooting from free-agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova will improve spacing immensely, and Pat Connaughton and rookie Donte DiVincenzo could be two new flamethrowers in the backcourt.

    This team has 50-win potential this season and every reason to believe it can compete for the Eastern Conference crown within the next few years, but the clock is ticking. Antetokounmpo is good enough to carry a club deep into the postseason. The Bucks must prove they're ready to take that journey with him.

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

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    Anthony Davis has two guaranteed seasons left on his contract with the New Orleans Pelicans, followed by a $28.7 million player option for 2020-21. In February, he voiced his intention of honoring the full length of that commitment.

    "I'm here until 2021, and then I'll make a decision from there," Davis said, per Scott Kushner of the Advocate. "I don't plan on leaving in the next couple of years or anything like that. I've always said I wanted to be here, and that's still true."

    However, three years can fly by in the NBA, and Davis could accelerate that timeline if he chooses. In other words, the Pelicans can't rest on their laurels. They have to paint a realistic championship picture for the three-time All-NBA first-teamer to see.

    They should start by choosing a roster-building strategy and sticking to it. Sacrificing first-round picks for immediate help—as this organization has done too often as of late—is a win-now strategy. Replacing DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo with Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton seems more akin to a youth movement. Even worse, neither strategy has yielded a competent wing rotation yet.

    The Pelicans need more keepers, quickly. Jrue Holiday likely is one, Randle or Nikola Mirotic might be another. After that...E'Twaun Moore? Frank Jackson, hopefully? This roster needs better wings and more depth.

    While New Orleans owns both of its 2019 picks and might have a decent amount of cap space next summer, the organization doesn't necessarily have that long to wait. Davis will become eligible for an extension next summer—the largest contract in league history, according to ESPN's Bobby Marks. His signature may be far easier to obtain after an encouraging postseason showing.

Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard

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    It isn't hyperbolic to suggest the Toronto Raptors have everything riding on the upcoming season.

    Kawhi Leonard can become a free agent next summer. Ditto for Jonas Valanciunas, Danny Green and C.J. Miles. If this isn't working and Leonard wants out, it wouldn't be surprising to see an exodus out of the North—including a Kyle Lowry trade.

    In other words, the Raptors have no margin for error. They have 82 games and a playoff run to maximize the ability and impact of a player who suited up nine times last season and last cleared 31 minutes in May 2017. Oh, and first-year NBA head coach Nick Nurse is the one who's tasked with connecting all of the puzzle pieces.

    "I think I kinda look at this whole preseason and training camp as us trying to search for some different combinations just for the sake of it," Nurse said, per Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun. "We gotta get to know them. They gotta get to know me a little bit and we'll see a lot of learning and a lot of growth going on here."

    Assuming good health, the Raptors should see a lot of winning, too.

    They were the East's top team a season ago at 59-23 and were the only squad with top-five efficiency rankings on both offense (third) and defense (fifth). In Leonard, they're adding a former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year who averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists the last time he was healthy. In Green, they're getting a player with 100 career postseason tilts under his belt.

    Expectations are rightfully high. Meeting them is the only way to feel relatively good about securing Leonard's future. The stoic superstar is impossible to read; even his unique laugh deserves an in-depth breakdown. But if he's as laser-focused on basketball as it seems, then winning big would be significant. A franchise-first Finals trip should give him plenty to think about ahead of 2019 free agency.


    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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