The days of superstars valuing maximum leverage and mobility over maximum salaries may be over. At least for these summer days. When free agency officially begins June 30, several league executives said they expect the market's top superstars to snap up every and any maximum salary offers as soon as they are made.
"I can't see top ones waiting around," one Eastern Conference vice president said. "The injury stuff has to scare guys. It's going to be, 'How much? I'm in.' KD and Klay have changed the narrative. Actually, it started with DeMarcus."
That's KD, as in Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins. All All-Star, franchise cornerstone-level players who suffered major injuries in the last two years. Throw in NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard—who missed all but nine games of the 2017-18 season with right leg issues and had to be nursed through this season—and you have four stars who now or at some recent point saw their careers flash before their eyes and are part of this year's free-agent market.
Durant, 30, is the most interesting case, in part because he is recovering from the most devastating injury: a ruptured right Achilles tendon suffered in Game 5 of the Finals.
While sources familiar with Durant's thinking say he planned to decline his player option of $31.5 million next season when he signed a two-year deal last summer, his desire to replace it with the largest and longest contract allowed by league rules—five years, $221 million—has been heightened by an injury that is likely to keep him out all of next season.
While a consensus of league executives said they expect Durant—in part because of his 7-foot height, slender frame and ability to effortlessly score from anywhere on the floor without making a move—to still be one of the league's best players upon his return, he is contemplating the most difficult of questions: "What if I'm not?"
As a result, multiple sources said, Durant is looking for as much financial security as he can get after signing short-term deals in two consecutive years.
That might even provide the slightest glimmer of hope for the Warriors to retain him, along with Thompson, who is expected to receive and accept the fattest contract he qualifies for from the Warriors (four years, $190 million) the minute it is provided. Thompson is recovering from a torn left ACL suffered in Game 6 of the Finals.
To be clear, the overwhelming expectation from multiple sources with knowledge of Durant's thinking is that he is headed for one of the two teams based in New York—the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks—though even people with direct access to Durant are split on which one he favors at this point.
One source close to Durant emphasized, however, that the injury has the two-time Finals MVP assessing all his options in a new light and that he has not made a final decision.
Two people who have spoken with Durant since he ruptured his Achilles reiterated he is not happy about the Warriors' role in forming his belief that playing on a strained calf—the original injury that forced him to miss the end of conference semifinals against Houston, the entire Western Conference Finals and the first four games of the Finals—would not lead to something worse.
But those sources also independently declined to completely rule out his return to Golden State for two reasons: maximum financial security and the chance to continue playing with point guard Steph Curry. While Durant said he won't be open to being recruited to a particular team, one person familiar with his current state of mind wouldn't dismiss the persuasive power of a Curry appeal.
If Durant's primary objective is indeed to attain as much financial security as he can, that would seemingly also provide the Warriors with leverage to keep him, since they are the only ones by league rule who can pay him $221 million over five years. If the Nets or Knicks sign him outright as a free agent, the most they can offer him is $167 million over four years.
But several executives expressed confidence the Warriors would readily agree to a sign-and-trade that would allow Durant a $221 million payday and to play for the team of his choice as, one, compensation for blowing out his Achilles attempting to help them win a third consecutive title; and, two, to net a subsequent trade exception and perhaps a future second-round pick or even a heavily protected future first-rounder over seeing him leave without any sort of compensation. By league rule, the trade would have to be consummated six months after the supermax deal was signed, but with Durant expected to miss the entire season, that would simply be a formality.
The choices for this summer's other top-line free agents are equally unclear...
• There has been speculation that Leonard might be the outlier in the rush to secure max deals this summer by signing a shorter-term contract with the Toronto Raptors, thereby giving him a chance to chase another championship or two but still leave open a return in his prime to his hometown of Los Angeles. It's a desire he reportedly expressed at one point when he made it clear last summer he no longer wanted to play for the San Antonio Spurs. In light of Leonard's injury history, however, most executives expect him to sign a full five-year, $190 million deal if he decides to stay with Toronto. The latest indications are that the combination of winning a championship and a $50 million-plus difference in what he'd make has moved the Raptors past the Clippers as the favorites.
"Los Angeles being home is really the only reason he ever talked about going to the Clippers," one Eastern Conference general manager said.
• Cousins is the cautionary tale for any star considering a deal for less money to keep his options open. When the Pelicans first acquired him from the Sacramento Kings, league sources say the team tried to open talks on a five-year deal for less than the max of $179 million they could offer. Cousins spurned both that and a shorter two-year, $40 million deal, only to tear his Achilles tendon a mere five months before he was due to become a free agent last summer. He ultimately settled for a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Warriors.
"DeMarcus should have a contract worth at least $150 million right now," the Eastern Conference VP said. "Instead, he's going to get a one-year deal for $8 million to $12 million."
• Sub-max offers could be determining factors elsewhere as well. Tobias Harris, league sources said, is being offered less than a max contract by the Philadelphia 76ers, giving both the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets hope they can swoop in and lure him away. The Nuggets would have to renounce the rights to re-sign veteran power forward Paul Millsap, but a rival Western Conference executive said they appear willing to do that.
• The Sixers' other key free agent, Jimmy Butler, has drawn interest from the Nets, presumably as a backup plan to pair with Kyrie Irving should Durant choose the Knicks or remain with the Warriors. But Butler, the Western Conference executive said, has interest in being the third star with the Los Angeles Lakers, even if it means accepting slightly less than a maximum salary. This is a shift by Butler and could reflect the value of the Lakers in his eyes now that they are about to pair Anthony Davis with LeBron James. When Butler originally asked the Minnesota Timberwolves for a trade last season, his preferred destinations were Los Angeles (to join the Clippers), New York or Miami, but the Lakers did not make the list.
• And what of the Clippers, who for so long looked as if they were primed to challenge for the unofficial throne of Los Angeles by adding Leonard and/or Durant and/or Thompson to a team that pushed the Warriors to six games in the first round?
Assuredly they have a Plan B, but absent the previous three names mentioned, it isn't one that will vault them past the Lakers. At least, if indicators are correct and Durant and Leonard waste no time making their intentions known, the Clippers won't have to wait long to put it into action.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
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