And yet, we're going here anyway: If—and this is a big, fat, friggin' if—Durant, Irving and Davis are all going to play together next season, it would probably be for the Boston Celtics or New York Knicks.
How It Happens in Boston
Boston is already considered a potential, if not outright favorite, landing spot for Davis. Jayson Tatum is perhaps the whole reason the New Orleans Pelicans held onto their window-shopping superstar past the trade deadline, and the Celtics still have a small armory of picks to include in possible packages.
Initial reports stated that Davis had no interest in re-signing with Boston, but that alone would never be enough to deter team president Danny Ainge. More importantly, Davis conveyed a different message over All-Star Weekend:
Getting Durant to the Celtics is the far more difficult undertaking. Indeed, he met with them during his free-agency summit in 2016, and his camp has "consistently shown respect and admiration" for the organization, per NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely. But they don't have a path to opening the cap space it will take to sign him ($38.2 million).
Connect the dots, and there still might be something here.
Durant called Irving "one of my best friends" while speaking with The Athletic's Shams Charania in December. And then video surfaced of them hatching their free-agency plans in the Spectrum Center hallway over All-Star Weekend:
This is definitely not what they were doing. But Irving did wait for Durant to wrap up his All-Star-MVP speech when no one else did:
And if postgame jersey shenanigans aren't a sign of an unbreakable bond built around their desire to join forces in the near future, then nothing will ever be:
Anyway, the Celtics aren't adding Durant via free agency. Nor are they brokering a sign-and-trade. The Golden State Warriors would be smart to get compensation for Durant if he's really a goner, but the Celtics project to have a payroll well past the luxury-tax apron next season. They'd need to finish under it as part of any sign-and-trade, which isn't a feasible ask when Golden State will also be a taxpayer.
Durant has to pick up his player option for the logistics to work, just as Chris Paul did during the 2017 offseason when he forced his way onto the Houston Rockets. That allows Boston to build packages around Gordon Hayward or Al Horford (player option); both have salaries that support one-for-one swaps.
The Celtics could then turn around and cobble together their best Davis offer as planned. They need to send out about $21.6 million to make the math work, but that's a relative breeze. Tatum, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams get them past that threshold, and they can sweeten the pot with a combination of their own picks, the Los Angeles Clippers' 2019 first-rounder (lottery protection) and the Memphis Grizzlies' 2019 choice (top-eight protection).
Potential hangups abound. Durant would be leaving roughly $6.7 million on the table next season by exercising his player option. He has taken discounts at every turn while with the Warriors, but the prospect of a multiyear agreement might finally appeal to him when he turns 31 in September.
Golden State could also balk at facilitating his departure. Horford isn't guaranteed to opt in, and Hawyard needs a strong close to the regular season and playoffs for his contract to be considered a net asset. The Warriors don't have the wiggle room to find better replacements on the open market, but the luxury-tax implications of carrying another max contract are tougher to stomach when Durant isn't the player on that deal.
And, of course, New Orleans is a wild card. Any offer headlined by Tatum should do the trick, but you never know. The Pelicans' next general manager could decide to chase a return that tilts more toward immediate playoff contention, or the Celtics could end up needing some of their draft-pick equity to grease the wheels of Durant's arrival.
How It Happens in New York
The Knicks are working at an inherent disadvantage when going up against the Celtics. They have cap space, but they're trying to sculpt their superteam from scratch. Boston at least has an inside man with Irving. New York needs either him or Durant to be dead set on coming aboard to have its own recruiter.
Even then, the Knicks won't necessarily be offering the most enticing Davis package. That hinges on the outcome of the draft, and whether they land Zion Williamson.
New York has positioned itself for top-shelf odds in the lottery, but that doesn't mean what it did in years past. Each of the league's bottom-three teams have a 14 percent chance of netting the No. 1 pick—or, as pessimists will point out, an 86 percent chance of not getting Williamson.
Maybe fate throws the Knicks a bone and gives them the first overall selection. Their path to this Big Three would still be fraught with obstacles, albeit none as trying as their lottery odds.
Maxing out both Durant and Irving requires close to $70.9 million in cap space. If they renounce all their own free agents while carrying salaries for Williamson ($9.7 million hold), Damyean Dotson ($1.6 million non-guarantee) and Allonzo Trier ($3.6 million team option), they're looking at around $67.9 million in spending power.
Durant and Irving could shave a little off the top of their salaries to preserve New York's asset base, or the Knicks have to make another move. Renouncing or trading Trier would get them within $500,000 of the magic number. Offloading Frank Ntilikina's $4.9 million salary opens more than enough room.
Once the Knicks sign Durant and Irving, and after Williamson inks his rookie deal, they would use the No. 1 pick to anchor a Davis acquisition. Salary matching becomes an issue at that point. They have to send out another $11.9 million or so in addition to Williamson's money.
Depending on what the roster looks like post-free agency, the Knicks would need to give up something like Williamson, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr. and either Ntilikina or Trier for Davis. And that doesn't include any future picks the Pelicans might demand.
New York's world gets shattered if the No. 1 pick goes elsewhere. Lower cap holds on later selections would make it easier to dredge up Kyrie-KD money, but assembling Davis trades around RJ Barrett, Ja Morant or Cam Reddish may not beat out whatever the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and other teams are still dangling.
Throwing more picks into the equation would beef up the Knicks' efforts. They have all their own future first-rounders, plus the Dallas Mavericks' selections in 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (lottery protection). Both obligations are contingent upon Dallas conveying this year's pick to the Atlanta Hawks (top-five protection), but New York would have the bandwidth to shower New Orleans with three or four firsts attached to any non-Zion overture.
Whether that tickles the Pelicans' fancy is another matter. And if it does, the Knicks have to reconcile the opportunity cost. Successfully navigating this minefield would leave them with Davis, Durant, Irving, Mitchell Robinson, maybe Dotson and, well, little else.
Who Ya Got?
Let's be clear: Unless we're talking All-Star rosters, the odds are heavily stacked against Davis, Durant and Irving repping the same team next year.
Neither Boston nor New York is ideally set up to pay and acquire all three, and counting on Durant to flee a dynasty so he can build something different alone verges on bonkers regardless of what we think we know. When forced to choose, though, it makes sense to roll with...the Knicks.
Don't worry: The irony of this also being bonkers isn't lost on anyone. New York's primary selling point, aside from cap space, is decades of incompetence. Win with the Knicks, and you're immortalized in a way you can't be anywhere else, because the Knicks don't win.
They have four postseason berths and one series victory since 2001. Their player-development track record is shaky at best, mostly because they don't keep the players they start developing. Look no further than the Kristaps Porzingis bailout as evidence of both this and their exceedingly poor track record of player relations.
Ownership isn't doing the Knicks any favors, either. Never mind if James Dolan is actually detached from the day-to-day operations. The past two decades are littered with poor hires, countlessly aimless directions, the Charles Oakley debacle and a 2007 sexual harassment case in which the team paid out an $11.5 million settlement to former executive Anucha Browne Sanders.
Players have more power than ever, so the Knicks' resume may be of minimal concern. New York carries cachet as a city, and in this instance specifically, they have a more flexible blueprint.
The Celtics' pipe dream begins with Durant taking a serious pay cut in 2019-20. That potentially derails the fantasy before it ever gets off the ground. If not that, then he might see joining Irving's current digs as a move that isn't his own.
Meanwhile, Davis' distaste for staying in Boston might also still be a thing, as Charania noted for Stadium:
Plenty has to go right for the Knicks to finish baking their pie in the sky. But they have borderline-effortless access to double maxes. Losing the Zion Williamson sweepstakes is their biggest possible pitfall, and even that may not be a mood-killer.
Is another top-four prospect, Knox, Smith, filler and a bunch of future firsts the strongest Anthony Davis offer? Not even close. But the context of that offer matters.
If the Knicks are mortgaging it all for Davis, it's probably because they've poached Irving, in which case the Celtics would be more reticent to unload Tatum. And the Lakers' best package is still going to be headlined by the same mix of prospects, many of whom will be coming up on extensions and second contracts.
So congratulations, Knicks! You're the team most likely to actualize what remains beyond unlikely.