Buying or Selling NBA's Hottest Free-Agency, Trade Rumors

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 29, 2019

Buying or Selling NBA's Hottest Free-Agency, Trade Rumors

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    If you don't like the way NBA free agency is going for your favorite team, just wait five seconds for the next push notification on your phone.

    Things can change that quickly this time of year, and as reports and counter-reports buzz around like warring swarms of insects, it can be difficult to keep your bearings. Teams and players both have incentives to leak reports that advance their interests, and the news-breakers tasked with delivering those nuggets aren't in a position to ignore gossip just because the motivations of their sources aren't always pure.

    That means it's up to us to parse fact and fiction—or at least acknowledge there's a vast plane of gray area between those two extremes.

    Here, we'll scrutinize the most interesting recent reports on the trade and free-agency fronts, choosing ultimately to buy or sell. It's a tough job, but sources say somebody has to do it.

Lakers Targeting Kawhi, Kyrie?

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    The New York Times' Marc Stein reports the Los Angeles Lakers, newly minted owners of a third max-salary slot, have eyes for NBA champ Kawhi Leonard and former LeBron James teammate Kyrie Irving.

    Leonard's Los Angeles link has always been the Clippers, but perhaps the Lakers' clean-slate approach puts them in position to compete with the Clips' top-down organizational attractiveness. You can imagine Leonard would have a hard time looking past the opportunity to play with James and Anthony Davis, even if his ball-dominant game might not be the best fit alongside those two.

    Irving seems like a longer shot. He got himself traded away from James in Cleveland, and though he sought the King's advice (and apologized) during a tumultuous 2018-19 season, it's still tough to envision an official reunion will come to pass. And that's before considering the strength of the Kyrie-to-Brooklyn option.

    Here's the thing, though: Stein isn't reporting the Lakers are going to get either of those guys. The word he used was "target." Which...of course the Lakers are targeting those two. You don't move heaven and earth to clear that kind of cap space—juuuuuust enough to sign a seven- to nine-year veteran to a max deal—unless you have very specific ambitions.

    It's true the Lakers have taken a "get star, figure out the rest later" approach to their last two offseasons. So maybe they did clear all that room without a particular player in mind. But one thing we know about the Lakers' recent transactional goals: They're never modest.

    Verdict: Buy

Brooklyn No Longer the Leader in KD Sweepstakes?

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    The signs have been clear for a while that Kevin Durant will head to the Brooklyn Nets.

    Kyrie Irving, the guy KD was originally expected to team up with on another New York squad, is all but inked with Brooklyn now, according to Brian Lewis of the New York Post. If the Durant-Irving union is staying together, it's happening with the Nets.

    In addition, Durant recently sold his home in Malibu, California, and then bought a new one in New York, according to B/R's Ric Bucher. KD also relocated the headquarters of his business, Thirty Five Ventures, to New York earlier this year.

    Yes, the Golden State Warriors can offer him the most money. And yes, a player who just ruptured his Achilles might also have heightened interest in the fifth year the Warriors can provide. The Dubs have a chance.

    Still, even if nothing is guaranteed in free agency, Durant to the Nets was starting to feel like a lock.

    That is, until Ian Begley of reported, "Sources familiar with the matter told SNY that the Nets are not the front-runners or favorites to sign Durant at the moment."

    Two paragraphs later, Begley noted, "The Knicks still believe they have a chance to land Durant." There's no way to be sure, but that line could be an indicator of where the sources that doubt Brooklyn's front-running status may reside. Having primed fans with grand visions of signing two top-tier free agents, it behooves the Knicks to preserve that hope as long as they can—at least from a PR perspective. At least if New York doesn't land KD, it can say it got close.

    Things can change quickly in free agency, and there's no reason to doubt a source told Begley exactly what he reported. It's just that the overwhelming weight of previous evidence still points to Durant's signing with Brooklyn.

    Verdict: Sell

The Hornets Lowballed Kemba?

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    If you're a hopeless cynic (raises hand), you could spin the recent reports about Kemba Walker's future as a means to an end. Specifically, they could represent Walker's public effort to secure a full five-year max from the Charlotte Hornets.

    Walker's camp could have leaked Charlotte's unwillingness to max him out and then quickly followed up by letting it slip that the Boston Celtics were right there waiting to snatch him up with with a four-year max offer.

    The trail is fairly clear. Marc Stein first called the Celtics a "stealth suitor," and then ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski dubbed Boston the front-runner.

    After that, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith delivered the financials (h/t Dan Feldman of NBC Sports): "My sources tell me that Kemba Walker has informed the Charlotte Hornets and Michael Jordan he does not want to be there. He was offered a five-year deal. It wasn't the supermax deal he was qualified for. It was somewhere in the ballpark of $160-plus million."

    There's another potential layer of intrigue here, which is that Walker, perhaps knowing Charlotte never intended to offer a full max, tried to preemptively win the PR war by saying he'd consider staying at a discount. If he knew he was going to leave anyway, at least he'd leave Hornets fans with a final gesture of selflessness.

    Ultimately, though, we're here to judge the veracity of the reported lowball offer.

    That's easy. As long as Michael Jordan has headed the ownership group, stinginess has been a hallmark. Charlotte has never paid the luxury tax on his watch, and keeping Walker at the full max would have risked changing that. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer reported Jordan simply wasn't going to sign off on a deal that would have incurred the tax.

    That settles it. The Hornets are more concerned with saving money than keeping the only All-Star they've got.

    Verdict: Buy

Are the Rockets Really Going to Get Jimmy Butler?

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    The Houston Rockets have been after Jimmy Butler for a while, shoving past petty concerns like a complete lack of cap space and broadcasting to the world that they're ready to swing a complicated, rare sign-and-trade with the Philadelphia 76ers.

    The Athletic's Sam Amick reported the Sixers' willingness to cooperate was "looking likely."

    That's a major development, and a surprising one. It suggests Philadelphia is A) wary of losing Butler despite its ability to offer him more money than anyone else, and B) more interested in adding a massive trade exception than preserving flexibility and possibly avoiding the luxury tax.

    Butler could be a tough locker-room fit in Houston. If there's any truth to the disputed reports of Chris Paul and James Harden's rift, adding another abrasive personality to the mix could prove disastrous. Houston loves stars and could certainly use Butler as a primary wing defender and shot creator, but the volatility of a Butler-Harden-Paul trio is difficult to overstate.

    What's more, Houston's gambit depends on Philly's willingness to play ball. The Sixers would be justified in shutting down sign-and-trade talk if only because engaging helps the Rockets get better. Unless the 76ers really want that trade exception, there's a case to be made that the smarter course is ignoring Houston's calls and leaving it stuck with just two stars.

    Also, there are simpler routes out of town if Butler intends to leave. Earlier in the same piece, Amick noted:

    "There are many scenarios seemingly in play, but sources say one in particular looks increasingly possible: Butler teaming up with [Kawhi] Leonard on the Clippers. There are strong indications that Leonard is interested in having Butler as a running mate, and it's the sort of powerful pairing that would certainly vault the Clippers into contention."

    A Butler-to-Houston sign-and-trade could happen. The Rockets have made bold, improbable moves part of their roster-building plans in the past. But considering the Sixers' odds of wooing Butler with more money, as well as the presence of other destinations that make more sense than Houston, it's still hard to believe the Rockets will pull this off.

    Verdict: Sell

Klay Thompson to the Lakers?

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    The Los Angeles Times' Brad Turner reported Warriors free-agent guard Klay Thompson would listen to offers from both L.A. teams if the Dubs don't shove a full five-year max across the table. That checks out logically as a classic leverage play, one Thompson would be foolish not to make.

    But the second part of Turner's report, that the "Lakers are back in the running," can't possibly be applicable to Thompson. Other free agents, sure, but not a guy who won't be back on the floor until (optimistically) February or March.

    L.A.'s roster is stripped bare, which means it can't afford to spend its new max slot on a player who may not contribute to a title chase until late in the season, if at all. The Lakers have other options to pursue, ones who can help all year. After wasting one season of James' prime in 2018-19, signing Thompson would create the risk of squandering another.

    As it is, the Lakers will have a hard time fielding a competent roster around three max-salaried stars. If they use up their $32 million in space on a guy who'll be rehabbing most of the year, it would be impossible to compete at the level they desire.

    Verdict: Hard Sell