The Worst Possible (Realistic) Landing Spot for Every Top NBA Free Agent
If NBA free-agency disasters were predictable, more of them would be avoided.
With the benefit of hindsight, the New York Knicks wouldn't place a $100 million wager on Allan Houston's knees holding up in 2001—or do almost the same thing with Amar'e Stoudemire nine years later. The Chicago Bulls would've never bet $60 million on a then-31-year-old Ben Wallace's ability to fight off Father Time in 2006. The Philadelphia 76ers wouldn't have ponied up $79.8 million on a post-Achilles-rupture Elton Brand in 2008.
While injuries can turn any contract into an albatross, some go bad for basketball reasons. This class of investments often shows its hand early, with player-team fits so shaky on paper no one should've ever considered putting them into practice.
Timelines don't always align properly. Overlapping skill sets can render certain abilities redundant. Systems don't enhance players or vice versa.
For different reasons we'll explore, the following six combinations look like the worst realistic outcomes for this summer's top free agents.
Jimmy Butler: Dallas Mavericks
On the surface, the Dallas Mavericks have a Jimmy Butler-sized hole on the perimeter. Wedge a high-level, two-way swingman between Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and this roster might take off.
Dig a little deeper, though, and Butler isn't the right free agent for the Mavs, just like they aren't the right franchise for him.
For now, Dallas has intriguing potential with the Doncic-Porzingis tandem, but that's it. The two haven't logged a second on the floor together, as Porzingis injured his ACL long before the Mavs landed him in January. While time is on their side—Porzingis is 23 and Doncic is 20—there might be at least a couple of rounds of turbulence before this duo enjoys smooth flying.
Would the 29-year-old Butler be willing to wait through the growing pains? He didn't grant patience to the Minnesota Timberwolves' similarly young and impressionable tandem of Karl-Anthony Towns, 23, and Andrew Wiggins, 24. The Mavs could muddle their own future if history repeats itself.
"The Mavs' view on Butler (assuming he declines his 2019-20 player option, something he is expected to do) is that he would not pair well with Doncic, that he wouldn't share well, that he wouldn't 'play nice with others here' ... all of which would, in their eyes, stunt the growth of the young franchise centerpiece," Mike Fisher reported for 247Sports.
Dallas probably can't take the risk of committing major money to a potentially disgruntled Butler. He probably can't take the risk that the youngsters might never approach their ceiling. While you could make this work on paper, it's too iffy for either side to take the plunge.
Kevin Durant: Los Angeles Lakers
Kevin Durant may skip 2019 free agency if it's revealed he tore his Achilles, which, as ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the Golden State Warriors fear he did in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday.
Durant holds a $31.5 million player option for 2019-20, and this medical malady might force him to pick it up.
Then again, his preternatural talents are so great teams may still take the risk. ESPN's Bobby Marks hears there could still be a max market for Durant this summer.
So, it's worth speculating about his possible landing spots. Imagine him joining forces with LeBron James in Hollywood. That might be the peak of Los Angeles Lakers exceptionalism—the feeling the basketball gods will always find a way to elevate their favorite franchise.
But logic says it shouldn't happen.
What would lure a healthy Durant from Golden State? A chance to quiet to the critics who say he's only a champion because he joined a ready-made powerhouse. Any team capable of pulling him away will do so by offering the legacy lift of building a contender from the ground up, where his footprints plot any and all championship paths.
The Lakers can't give him that. Their kingdom already has a ruler. The same thing that's potentially pushing him from Golden State effectively raises a barricade around the Purple and Gold.
"NBA sources suggest you can eliminate LeBron's Lakers and Steph's Warriors if Durant's goal remains to avenge his social media critics, to prove he can win on a team that he leads," TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote.
If you just boiled this down to a basketball conversation, L.A. still shouldn't make the final cut. While the talent of a Durant-James tandem is undeniable, the ideal running mate for Durant is a better shooter and less ball-dominant than James.
Kyrie Irving: Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are big-game hunting for multiple marquee talents this summer. Kyrie Irving, if he opts out of the final year of his deal as expected, will be on a short list of the best available players, and he'd have reasons to consider the Clips.
They're not only flexible enough to add Irving and an All-Star running mate, but they also have a formidable supporting cast led by the likes of Lou Williams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Montrezl Harrell and Landry Shamet.
Sounds like a match made in hoops heaven, right? But it's not so simple.
There isn't a lot of overlap with the needs lists of Irving and L.A.
Irving is a dominant scoring guard. Isn't that Williams' description? Statistically, there was hardly a difference between the two on offense this past season. While Irving finished eighth in ESPN's offensive real plus-minus, Williams was only four spots behind. Their per-36-minute marks were almost identical: 26.0 points and 7.5 assists for Irving, 27.1 and 7.3 for Williams.
Irving is also a lead guard, the same position Gilgeous-Alexander plays. While the rookie doesn't put up nearly the same production, would the Clippers want to put a roadblock in front of him just one year after they traded up to acquire him?
From a macro view, would L.A. even want Irving to take control of this young roster? The six-time All-Star failed to lead a deeper, more talented Boston Celtics team. Why would the Clippers be any different?
Unless a superstar swingman like Durant or Kawhi Leonard handpicks Irving as his preferred running mate, the Clippers and the point guard can find better fits than each other.
Kawhi Leonard: New York Knicks
If there's an A-list name in free agency, it's probably been connected to the New York Knicks at some point.
Happens all the time, right? Only this year might be the one. The 'Bockers aren't blindly dreaming this time around. They might be legitimately attractive, as their typical market strengths are now add-ons to the basketball pitch—not the other way around. New York has gobs of cap space, intriguing prospects and enough draft capital to potentially bankroll a blockbuster trade.
The Knicks should be able to bend the ear of elites, and not just for the leverage play of driving up their prices with other suitors.
"According to NBA sources, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry expect to get a meeting with Raptors star Kawhi Leonard and at least have a puncher's chance," Marc Berman reported for the New York Post.
In Leonard's case, though, it shouldn't take long for him to realize he wants things the Knicks can't provide.
If the SoCal native continues hoping for the familiarity and comfy climate of home, he has no reason to consider the Empire State. If he decides winning is more important than getting back to his Cali roots, the Knicks lose that argument to the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets and any other team in on the bidding.
If the soft-spoken superstar wants a comfortable media market, the Big Apple sits on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Maybe Leonard sees the situation differently, but there are no obvious arrows pointing him toward NYC.
Klay Thompson: New York Knicks
Klay Thompson won't find greener grass away from Golden State.
The situation is perfect. The Warriors keep him in annual championship contention, while he provides them with historically good perimeter shooting and some of the best backcourt defense in the business.
"When guys go into free agency, they're looking for situations like mine," Thompson said in September, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater.
There may be no need for negotiating. Should the Warriors put a five-year, $190 million max offer in front of him, he's expected to sign it with no hesitation, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. If they pinch pennies, they might force him to look elsewhere—almost assuredly in his native Los Angeles.
That leaves New York out in the cold, partly for geographical reasons beyond its control, partly for being ill-equipped to take advantage of Thompson's talent.
The splash sibling is one of the deadliest snipers we've seen. The Knicks launched this season's ninth-fewest triples. Thompson is most lethal off the catch. New York was dead last in assist percentage and 21st in catch-and-shoot three-point attempts.
From lifestyle to play style, the Knicks are no match for Thompson.
Kemba Walker: Charlotte Hornets
Sorry, Charlotte Hornets, but if you love Kemba Walker, you'd let him go.
The franchise's all-time leading scorer and only current All-Star has made no bones about his desire to stay with the only NBA team he's ever known. But after making just two playoff trips over his first eight seasons—none that made it beyond the opening round—he's starved for success.
"I want to win," Walker told reporters at his exit interview. "I want to win. That's something that I'm going to have to really sit down and think about with my family, with my agent, with the people closest to me in my life that will help me make that decision."
Unless Walker lets offseason optimism pour over him, he'll have a tough time buying any blueprint to winning Charlotte might show him.
Despite a high-priced collection of players, this is not a win-now roster. This season's No. 2 scoring option was Jeremy Lamb, a single-digit scorer in five of his seven NBA campaigns. He's now an unrestricted free agent and perhaps will soon be overpaid if his mini-breakout was merely a contract-year mirage. Charlotte's highest-paid player, Nicolas Batum, averaged 9.3 points per game and ranked 185th in player efficiency rating.
But the Hornets aren't built for the future, either. They had nine players log 1,000 minutes this past season; only two will be 25 or younger when the next one starts. One is Malik Monk, 21, a supposed shooter with a career 37.6/33.5/87.1 slash line. The other is Miles Bridges, 21, who has bounce but maybe a role player's ceiling.
If Walker can set sentimentality aside, he'll see his best basketball options exist outside Buzz City.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.