The bond between two players who have a history of relationships gone awry—Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving—could well determine the biggest winners and losers in this year's All-Star-rich free-agent market.
At the crux of the rising drama and uncertainty surrounding where some of the league's top names will ply their trade next season are signals that Irving is as set on playing for the Brooklyn Nets as Durant is bound for the New York Knicks. Which wouldn't create any problems if not for the fact that Durant and Irving have been plotting for weeks, if not months, to continue their careers on the same team.
So which scenario will prevail? Good question.
It hardly helps that both Durant and Irving have a history of being temperamental and, at times, enigmatic. Irving abruptly went from a preseason pledge to stay with the Boston Celtics to bluntly stating he didn't "owe anybody s--t" when asked again about his intentions in February. No specific reason has been given for his change of heart, although a source close to Irving points to a tiff with team president Danny Ainge about how Irving was attempting to lead the club. Irving also, at one point, pretended to sincerely argue the earth was flat. It's not exactly the kind of track record that engenders confidence when you're about to make him your highest-paid player and team leader.
Durant's reputation for being forthright, meanwhile, has never completely recovered from the discovery that he had a secret social media account through which he commented on his reasons for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder as if he were a fan with inside knowledge—knowledge that Durant had previously publicly denied.
"Whatever Kevin is planning to do," says one league executive who has known Durant since he entered the NBA, "he is going to change his mind at least 25 times before he actually does it."
All of which makes it a challenge to handicap who will end up where. All that is fairly certain is that, eight days from now, more than a half-dozen NBA teams will scrap with one another for the right to hand out maximum-salary contracts to as many as nine players.
While Kawhi Leonard is the most highly sought free agent after winning his second Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors and Durant is likely to miss all of next season recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, whether or not Durant and Irving make their vision of playing together a reality is expected to be the most important, if not first, domino to fall.
Let's sort through what we know as of now...
• Durant and Irving, league sources say, have met twice in recent weeks to discuss their desire to continue their careers on the same team, an idea forged while playing together on the U.S. national team. The first meeting took place in the Bay Area while Durant nursed a strained right calf; the second occurred in New York shortly after Durant had surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
• Questions that linger over whether the strained calf led to the Achilles injury, and if the Golden State Warriors made him aware of that possibility, remain unanswered. But the indication from several league sources is that Durant is not happy with the team, and the presumption is that it stems from whatever role Warriors officials played in his decision to suit up. Coach Steve Kerr says he was told Durant could not further injure himself by playing, which obviously proved not to be true. If Durant was told the same, it would give credence to the notion that, as one league executive claims, "He's really pissed off at the Warriors."
• Ever since Durant signed a two-year deal with an opt-out clause after one season last summer, speculation has run rampant, both inside and outside the Warriors organization, that he intended to leave the Bay Area, with team and league sources pointing to the Knicks as his intended destination. In an overtime loss against the Los Angeles Clippers in November, Durant and Draymond Green argued over an end-of-game decision by Green not to give Durant the ball. Green, later that same night, reportedly questioned Durant's commitment to the team. Although both players later insisted the dispute was overblown and quickly resolved, sources familiar with Durant's off-court business say Durant has since purchased a new home in New York and moved his belongings there.
Durant already has multiple ties to the Knicks. General manager Scott Perry was an assistant GM with the Seattle/Oklahoma City franchise when the team drafted him. Durant is the godfather to a daughter of Royal Ivey (Lyric Ella), a fellow University of Texas alum, former Thunder teammate and now a Knicks assistant coach. DeAndre Jordan, who played for the Knicks this past season and is also a free agent, is another Durant confidant. Rich Kleiman, Durant's agent and business manager, is also a New Yorker and a Knicks fan who allegedly has long dreamed of being part of the organization.
• Irving, meanwhile, also recently purchased a new home in South Orange, New Jersey, but league sources say he is pressing Durant to join him with the Nets and is trying to recruit Jordan as well. Durant did have his Achilles repaired by a Nets team physician, Dr. Martin O'Malley, but the New York Post's Mark Fischer quoted one of O'Malley's medical colleagues warning not to read too much into that.
• While sources close to Durant and the teams involved say neither the Knicks nor Nets are concerned about signing him to a maximum four-year deal even if he's unavailable most of next season, his injury has shrunk the number of teams interested overall. One league executive said the Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, who were both at one point interested, have backed off their pursuit because they are focused on building off their playoff success this past season.
• Though Durant is the one who's injured, Irving enters free agency as damaged goods as well. The chemistry issues that undermined his current team, the Celtics, have executives throughout the league as concerned about his leadership skills as they are enthralled with his talent. Signing him as a package deal with Durant is far more appealing than doing so as a lone addition, where he would be the best player on the team, recreating the dynamic that failed so miserably in Boston.
• While the consensus is that neither Durant nor Irving intend to return to their current teams, the picture is less clear among league executives about where Leonard will end up.
While the odds-on favorites are the Clippers—fulfilling Leonard's supposed interest in playing where he grew up—one Eastern Conference vice president says the Raptors still have a "fighting chance" to re-sign him, while a Western Conference VP says the Lakers are operating as if "they think they have a strong shot" at adding Leonard after acquiring New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis to play alongside their incumbent star, LeBron James, in a deal that can't be officially consummated until next month.
To offer Leonard a max salary, however, the Lakers would have to push back the timing of their proposed deal for Davis to late July—which multiple reports state will not happen—or move additional players to open salary-cap room, which would then require a number of veterans to take league-minimum salaries to fill out the Lakers roster.
The Knicks, sources familiar with the team's thinking say, also believe they will get a chance to pitch Leonard on joining Durant in New York if Irving and the Nets strike a deal without Durant as part of it.
• The list of former or current All-Stars on the market grew with the report that Celtics center Al Horford is opting out of his contract and, as with Irving, not planning to return. The other key guys are Khris Middleton, Leonard, Durant, Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson, although Thompson never expressed an interest in leaving the Warriors and is even less likely to do so after tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the Finals.
Speculation is that Horford has been made aware that a team is willing to give him a much more lucrative deal than the Celtics are, prompting his change of heart. The Pelicans, Clippers and Dallas Mavericks have all been mentioned as teams willing to make that promise, league sources say.
• More than a few of the players listed above, along with 76ers free-agent forward Tobias Harris, could land maximum-salary contracts—or terms close to one—in part because of their appeal in landing or keeping another bona fide max-salary player, several league executives say.
The Knicks, for example, are not likely to offer Walker anything close to a max-salary deal unless A) they strike out on Leonard and Irving, and B) acquiring him is the link to signing Durant. Butler and Harris appear to be in the same pool: players who could command bigger contracts if signing them is a prerequisite for landing Durant or Leonard or keeping James happy. Similarly, the Bucks are expected to offer Middleton a max-salary contract to maintain their chance of keeping resident superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo when he enters free agency following the 2020-21 season. Thompson is almost certain to receive a max-salary offer, with the Warriors looking to persuade their fanbase the team will be (eventually) worth paying top dollar for tickets in its new San Francisco arena.
Which brings it all back to KD, who also developed a kinship with Butler on the national team and supposedly expressed a desire that they play together. Just as he supposedly told Thompson they had unfinished business after they suffered their respective injuries. Will these envisioned alliances or intentions become a reality? Which ones? In light of all the aspirations of players and teams alike, there's only one certainty:
Someone is not going to get what they had hoped for.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.