Anthony Davis and the NBA's Biggest Star Dilemmas This Offseason
Every NBA team faces tough decisions over the offseason. Some are just more, ahem, superstar-sized than others.
This latest dive into summertime headaches and dilemmas-in-waiting is tied almost exclusively to the trade and free-agency markets. The league doesn't have enough worthwhile extension candidates to go (too far) down that rabbit hole.
Problem situations are selected with team control in mind. Potential departures from Kevin Durant (player option) and Kawhi Leonard (player option) are ineligible issues. The Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors, respectively, will not choose to let them walk and cannot do anything more to retain them.
Cut-and-dried breakups remain off the table as well. If Jimmy Butler (player option) or Tobias Harris sign with new squads because the Philadelphia 76ers aren't peddling max offers, that's more so on the team. Ditto for the Milwaukee Bucks with Khris Middleton (player option). None of them are supermax candidates, and their markets are well-established.
Trade demands, question-mark contract situations and organizational crossroads continue to be the matters of contention we're after.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley's future in Memphis is more of a light dilemma. His postseason sentiments suggest he's ready to move on, and the Grizzlies are building themselves back up outside of his win-now timeline, but they don't have to move him.
Pairing him with Ja Morant, the presumed No. 2 pick, is arguably ideal. The rookie floor general gets a mentor, and Conley can defend some 2s in dual-point guard lineups. Keeping an All-Star-level player might crimp the Grizzlies' draft stock, but next year's pick is owed to the Boston Celtics with top-six protection, and tanking to retain it doesn't make as much sense under the new lottery format.
Still, Conley will have suitors, with the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Utah Jazz expected to be chief among them. The Grizzlies don't have much business holding on to a soon-to-be 32-year-old who is owed $67 million over the next two seasons if prospective suitors are willing to restock their asset cupboard.
Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
Whether that's by choice is an unofficial matter of common sense.
Of course Paul isn't untouchable. He remains one of the NBA's highest-IQ passers and top defenders at his position, but he is 34, cannot cook off the dribble like he used to, has battled hamstring issues in each of the past two seasons and, above all, will earn $124.1 million over the next three years. He is at best a roadblock to fleshing out the rest of the roster and at worst regressing fast enough to become a functional liability.
Houston isn't getting net-positive value for Paul at his price point. As Bleacher Report's Ken Berger reminded us, no team is viewing him as its Plan A. The Rockets will have to accept packages assembled around cap relief and role players if they're serious about moving him.
That prospect of a lukewarm return is nothing if not a deciding factor. Houston will not move Paul while improving its championship chances without a miracle.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Pascal Siakam doesn't fit the description of "superstar," but he may be well on his way. More importantly, his extension eligibility is intriguing enough to warrant brief discussion.
At least a handful of teams will be open to paying him max money next summer. The 2020 free-agency class is awfully thin after Anthony Davis (player option) and Draymond Green. Siakam will end up being a top-five available name unless a couple of studs sign one-plus-ones this offseason.
The Raptors aren't under impossible pressure in this situation. They can match any offer Siakam receives next year. But they have to more seriously consider hammering out an extension if he's willing to take anything less than the max.
Even a slight discount may not be enough to get them overthinking. Their approach to the summer of 2020 no doubt depends on Kawhi Leonard's free agency this year (player option), but they're ticketed for serious cap space with or without him.
Siakam's projected hold ($7.1 million) is paramount to that flexibility if Leonard stays put. Putting him on the books for more than four times that amount so far in advance almost assuredly prevents the Raptors from chiseling out an additional max slot. Their decision gets easier should Leonard leave, but Siakam's pay raise turns into an issue of timing versus opportunity if they're trying to upgrade a championship contender.
Could-Be Dilemma: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Let's make this absolutely clear: The Lakers do not have a LeBron James problem yet. Their marching orders and direction are clear for now. Their situation doesn't get super hairy unless they come up empty-handed this summer.
And, well, that seems possible!
The Lakers are not the clear-cut favorite to land any of this year's top free agents. They have been tied to all of them, but challenge yourself to identify The One.
Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are non-starters. Kawhi Leonard is a long shot. Kyrie Irving (player option), despite his reconciliation with James, is a slightly smaller long shot. Khris Middleton isn't going anywhere unless the Bucks get cheap.
Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker seem more realistic. Neither one is a given. Tobias Harris is a palatable consolation prize for many jilted buyers. The Lakers aren't one of them. He doesn't save them from confronting James' future on his own.
Just like that, the well runs dry on James' co-star options. No matter, though. The Lakers have the trade market, along with the assets to cobble together a competitive Anthony Davis package.
Except, what if the New Orleans Pelicans send him somewhere else? Do the Lakers pivot to Bradley Beal? What happens if the Washington Wizards don't make him available? Where do the Lakers go from there?
Heading into next season without an additional superstar isn't a viable option. James turns 35 at the end of December, and the Lakers already squandered one year of his prime. Punting on another one leaves them with a single-season window before he can enter free agency (2021-22 player option).
That begs the question(s): If the Lakers whiff on every superstar front, however unlikely that seems, will they be compelled or flat-out forced to trade him? Or is there a scenario in which they don't nab another A-lister, keep him, and next season doesn't go down as a lost year?
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal's snub from the All-NBA teams might simplify the Wizards' offseason. They no longer have to decide whether to offer him a four-year extension worth $191 million.
That doesn't mean the Wizards are totally off the hook. Beal's exclusion only delays the inevitable. A max salary for him in 2021 will run $36.5 million no matter what, and he can qualify for a five-year, $247.3 million extension next summer by earning All-NBA honors.
Washington has to reconcile the cost of its backcourt in either scenario. Beal and John Wall are on track to combine for $81 million in salary by 2021-22—at minimum. Beal has the power to push that bill closer to $87 million.
Letting the duo marinate for a little while longer should have its merits. It doesn't. Not really.
Next year is going to be a wash. More than half the roster is entering free agency, and Wall's recovery from a ruptured left Achilles tendon is slated to cost him most of 2019-20. The Wizards won't get a genuine feel for where they stand until his return at the absolute earliest, and that's assuming he doesn't need a grace period to reestablish himself.
It could be 2020-21 before Washington is at full bore. The next general manager may not have that kind of time.
Trading Beal as an expiring contract is different from flipping him this offseason, with two years left on his deal and his All-NBA candidacy fresh on everybody's mind. As The Athletic's Fred Katz put it, his "trade value could be at its highest shortly into free agency, when the Wizards could prey on desperate teams with cap room who miss out on big-name free agents they wanted."
This isn't a decision Washington has to make now. Hiring a general manager takes priority, and it'll be a bit before the free-agency dust settles and Beal's market assumes its most aggressive form.
But the Wizards know next season will be a slog, and that they're guaranteed nothing thereafter. If they're turned off by that uncertainty or the inevitable cost of a Beal-Wall partnership, making the call to move on needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Keeping Anthony Davis long term appears out of the question for the Pelicans.
Executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin "has begun listening to teams and their inquiries" following a recent sit-down with Davis, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. The Pelicans are working from a position of power after winning the rights to draft Zion Williamson, but they're not exactly in an enviable spot.
Generating godfather offers for Davis isn't a problem. He will have plenty of suitors no matter how much the market shifts. That the Anthony Davis landscape might be shifting at all, though, is slightly unsettling.
Rival executives identified the Celtics, Lakers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks as the four teams best equipped to break bread with the Pelicans, per Charania. Interest from three of those four is at least partially conditional.
Brooklyn cannot piece together anything close to the most attractive offer after sending Allen Crabbe, the No. 17 pick and a 2020 lottery-protected first-rounder to the Atlanta Hawks for Taurean Prince and a 2021 second. Boston has the goods to trounce the field, but Kyrie Irving's free agency—more on this in a second—might coax team president Danny Ainge into waiting on his decision before dangling the moon for Davis.
New York's best offer is contingent upon first bagging another star or two. Mortgaging the future for Davis doesn't make as much sense if he's arriving on his own one year out from free agency. The Los Angeles Clippers, who were on Davis' list of preferred landing spots at the trade deadline, are in the same boat.
Other suitors will come out of the woodwork, and the Lakers' kitchen-sink package from February isn't going anywhere. But the Pelicans might suddenly be working with a more finite or less impressive market. And if they're not blown away by a no-brainer proposal in the aftermath of free agency, they'll have even tougher questions on their hands:
Do they just send Davis to the Lakers? Hold on to him into next season? Would a standout NBA debut from Williamson get him to reconsider? How much does Davis' market take a hit if he doesn't?
New Orleans is far from screwed relative to most teams that have navigated superstar trade demands. This is still a pivotal offseason, and Davis' future, from his availability to what he can get the Pelicans, continues to want for anything resembling an obvious answer.
Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics (Player Option)
Kyrie Irving's free agency would be more of a cut-and-dry dilemma for the Celtics if the Anthony Davis sweepstakes weren't hanging over their heads.
Danny Ainge reportedly believed acquiring the Pelicans superstar guaranteed his point guard's return as of mid-May, according to The Athletic's Frank Isola. That logic makes it easier for the Celtics to go all-in with packages built around Jayson Tatum. It has also taken a hit.
Both the Knicks and Lakers already loomed as threats to the Celtics' retention of Irving. The Nets can now be added to that list—potentially as favorites. As Wojnarowski wrote after they agreed to an Allen Crabbe dump with the Hawks:
"Boston guard Kyrie Irving—who is expected to become a free agent—and Brooklyn have a strong mutual interest, league sources told ESPN. The Nets have $46 million in salary-cap space to sign two maximum-contract free agents. Brooklyn's dream scenario is to lure Irving and Golden State's Kevin Durant to the franchise, league sources said.
"The Knicks are pursuing the same partnership, but league sources say that Irving's interest in the Nets has increased and Brooklyn has emerged as a serious contender to attract Irving. The Nets could keep restricted free agent guard D'Angelo Russell on a max—or near-max—deal to play with a free-agent star, too."
To top it all off, "People around Irving have described the probability of him returning to Boston as a free agent as low," according to SNY's Ian Begley. A lot might change over the next few weeks, but the Celtics cannot be feeling so hot right now.
What they're left with now is a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Do they go hard after Davis to entice Irving into staying? Or do they wait until Irving's free agency plays out before they cannonball into the Davis bidding?
Weighing the opportunity cost is difficult. Ending up with only Davis is hardly a nightmare scenario, but Irving is critical to keeping him past next season. And if the Celtics are operating under the guise they won't have Irving and won't be able to guarantee Davis sticks around, they cannot afford to use Tatum as blockbuster bait—in which case they might have to pull out of the AD running altogether.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
One aspect of the Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker dilemma is already solved: They know he doesn't have both feet out the door. As he told The Athletic's Jared Weiss:
"Oh no question, Charlotte's definitely my first priority. That's where I've been for eight years, and that's all I know. Not many people get a chance to play for one NBA team throughout their career. When I go on my Instagram, I see, 'Kemba leave! Kemba get out of Charlotte!' People don't understand, when they say you need to go 'here' and win, that winning is not guaranteed anywhere."
The Hornets now have to figure out whether Walker's loyalty is conditional. Do they have to trade for another big name to keep him happy? Or, more likely, is his interest in returning contingent upon landing a max contract?
Walker is eligible for a five-year, $221.3 million megadeal after earning third-team All-NBA honors. His regular-Bird max comes in at five years and $189.7 million. Do the Hornets offer him some version of the full boat? Something close to it? Does he need the fifth year to sway him?
Paying Walker and worrying about the financial ramifications later isn't in play. The Hornets will be feeling the heat immediately. Walker's regular max vaults them into luxury-tax territory without upgrading the team or accounting for Jeremy Lamb's return. Owner Michael Jordan has never swallowed that pill before, and Charlotte isn't talented enough as currently constructed for him to change course now.
Maxing out Walker is even riskier down the line. He just turned 29. The Hornets have no guarantee a four- or five-year deal will age well. He should be movable for a season or two, but the optics will inevitably change when he's 31 and (potentially) making somewhere between $37 and $45 million. Just look at the perception of Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, who only just wrapped the first year of a new contract and extension, respectively.
Charlotte will have an easier time navigating Walker's future if he's looking to re-enter free agency in 2021 or 2022. Don't bet on it. He is coming off a four-year, $48 million extension that turned into a bargain and knows he can get max money. That same pay grade may not be available to him in two or three summers.
This is Walker's chance to get the bag, and barring an unforeseen twist, it boxes the Hornets into a no-win situation. Either they lose their cornerstone for nothing, or they pay him the kind of money that isn't conducive to escaping the middle-rung perdition they're consigned to now.