“Two Max Slots.”
These are the three words (allegedly) uttered by Kyrie Irving to Kevin Durant during All-Star Weekend which briefly set NBA Twitter ablaze. With a bit of distance between then and now — and all the unnecessary time we have to kill until the playoffs start because the season is too damn long — it may be a good time to parse those three potentially league-shaking words out further to see if they actually mean what we thought they meant back in February.
First, a disclaimer. Virtually everything that follows is pure speculation. I do not know anything for a fact. I have no reliable sources. One thing I do know is, when it comes to NBA superstars, assumptions fans and media make and accept as gospel often do not come to fruition. The lived experiences of these men, as elite athletes and highly visible public figures, causes them to be purposely inscrutable in their motivations and decision-making processes. Due to the ubiquity of social media, television, and blog boys like myself, we feel like we know these players as people, but ultimately we do not, and that’s the way they like it. So take it all with a huge grain of salt, but hear me out.
When a camera surreptitiously captured Kyrie (ALLEGEDLY) saying those three words, it opened up a whole new narrative most of us hadn’t previously considered. [And trust me, what this says about modernity and the way we consume these narratives is not lost on me, but it’s a topic for another time.] There have been persistent rumors all year about Durant writing the next chapter of his career outside of Golden State (hold that thought), but up until the video surfaced, the idea of Kyrie leaving Boston in free agency generally — and teaming up with KD specifically — had not gained any real traction. When pressed on the subject, both guys piled on the media in a sort of incensed parallel, which only served to further stoke the flames of suspicion.
So let’s presuppose for a moment these two prickly, eccentric stars are determined to join forces next season. Given the mounting evidence and the way this entire decade has unfolded, it doesn’t sound like a crazy proposition. Their options to do so are rather limited, but they could, even if they haven’t stopped to consider whether they should. [H/t Jeff Goldblum.] Kyrie’s (A-L-L-E-G-E-D) utterance immediately drew everyone’s attention to the shiny object that is the New York Knicks, and rightfully so. The once-great franchise can easily open up enough cap space to accommodate both stars on max contracts, and Durant’s business partner, Rich Kleiman, is a New York native who has publicly expressed interest in being part of the Knicks’ organization going forward. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to connect the dots. Occam’s Razor and all that jazz.
But here’s the thing: there is another franchise in a top-two media market with an eminently reasonable path to opening up two max cap slots. And by the way, this team is already on pace to win 50 games, and wouldn’t have to sacrifice any of its core pieces to add both Irving and Durant. It’s the Los Angeles Freaking Clippers.
Ready to have your mind blown? Then come down the rabbit hole with me. Earlier in the season, I covered how the Clippers had done a masterful job rebooting on the fly, and that was before they aced the trade deadline, both in the short-term (18-6 record since) and in terms of added flexibility going forward, despite trading away what was ostensibly their best player in Tobias Harris. The Clips somehow added useful pieces JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple, Landry Shamet, and Ivica Zubac, while also clearing out long-term money AND snagging two additional first-round picks in the process (one of which is Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick, a potentially lucrative asset). If we zoom out to the thousand-foot view, LA finished 51-31 in 2016-17, good for 4th in the West. Since then, they have lost DeAndre Jordan for nothing in free agency and traded what is effectively their best player three separate times, and yet are on pace for nearly the exact same record as two years ago. The pivot from the Lob City era to whatever the next version of this team will be has been nothing short of remarkable.
The shambolic dysfunction of the Donald Sterling era — and more recently, Doc Rivers’ unfortunate tenure as the team’s basketball czar — has given way to the streamlined organizational efficiency fostered by owner Steve Ballmer and front office honchos Lawrence Frank and Jerry West. By contrast, the Knicks, under the “direction” of owner James Dolan, appear no closer to putting out the organizational dumpster fire which has been raging nearly non-stop since we were all freaking out over the Y2K bug. If you were a superstar (or two) in your prime, which franchise would you want to join?
Look, I understand there is some theoretical cachet to being the guy(s) who bring the Knicks back to their former glory and re-energize the Mecca of basketball. It’s a lovely, romantic idea. Know what else is lovely? Living in Los Angeles full-time, especially when you’re a movie star (Kyrie) and an executive producer (Durant). However much both guys push back with their (again, oddly synchronized) messaging about “just wanting to play ball” or whatever, all the available evidence suggests there is more to this decision than just basketball, and there is no better place for a player to build out his brand than L.A. [With LeBron blazing this trail yet again, for better or worse.]
Beyond the lifestyle choice, the basketball situations aren’t even remotely comparable, the 14% chance of the Knicks driving their tank brigade directly to the gates of Zion notwithstanding. The Clippers have only seven players under guaranteed contracts for next season: Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet, and Tyrone Wallace. Those guys are good! Add KD and Kyrie to that nucleus, and without doing anything else (plus the collateral damage LA would have inflicted on Golden State by poaching Durant), they already have a rotation which, on paper, can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league. Time the transactions correctly and negotiate effectively — two things for which the front office has probably now earned the benefit of the doubt — and they could potentially re-sign some combination of Zubac, Green, Temple, and Beverley to team-friendly deals while still paying little-to-no luxury tax. In this scenario, losing their lottery-protected first-round pick to Boston — a source of hand-wringing and conspiracy theories throughout the season — turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as they will save the cap hold which would otherwise be associated with the salary slot for a lottery pick. For once, I can say it without a hint of sarcasm: thanks, Jeff Green!
Compare this bulletproof infrastructure to what they’d be looking at if they signed in New York. The largest guaranteed cap hit on the Knicks’ ledger next season currently belongs to the ghost of Joakim Noah, and I have no earthly idea what to do with this piece of information. In terms of actual humans one could reasonably expect to suit up for them next year, there’s a cadre of untested youngsters: Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith, Jr., and Mitchell Robinson, along with a couple non-guaranteed surprises they will probably bring back in Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson. Perhaps they re-sign DeAndre Jordan — he is one of Durant’s best friends — but his physical and schematic impacts are not what they once were, and chances are New York would botch the negotiations anyway and overpay him based on his reputation. [Speaking of brands, such a miscalculation of value would be just about the most on-brand thing possible for the Knicks.] Sure, this supporting cast offers the hazy silhouette of a competitive team somewhere down the line, but why would two superstars as established as Durant and Irving sign up for that? And if the argument is, “Don’t worry, the front office is going to trade the young guys for veterans anyway,” is there anything in the Knicks’ organizational DNA up to this point which would remotely suggest they are competent enough to thread such a needle? Obviously the calculus changes quite a bit if the ping-pong balls bounce their way next month, but if the 1-in-7 chance doesn’t bear fruit — of course the Knicks would bottom out the year the league flattens the lottery odds — coaxing KD and Kyrie into casting their lot with JD and the Straight Shot is going to be a much tougher sell.
Who knows? Maybe this is all a pipe dream. Maybe one or both guys do go to the Knicks. Maybe the Clips are left to “settle” for signing Kawhi Leonard (not a bad outcome in itself, load management aside), or maybe they don’t reel in any of the big fish and are stuck with a bunch of cap space no one wants to take and no draft pick. As long as they don’t blow it all on a bunch of mid-tier guys who don’t move the needle, at least they’re no worse off than they were beforehand. None of those potential outcomes should dissuade them from taking big swings this summer.
Speaking of which, there is one other highly available superstar with an apparent taste for the LA lifestyle about whom the Clips might want to make a few phone calls. LA’s “other” team has only been tangentially linked to the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but if the Pelicans flat refuse to deal with the Lakers, and Kyrie bolts from Boston (regardless of destination, but preferably to the Clips), the calculus surrounding the entire ordeal shifts considerably. Perhaps a team with some shiny new free agents, good young players, and a couple extra future firsts they picked up along the way might be able to sneak into the bidding unnoticed. Matching salaries would be a tricky business (though the Clips do have Gallo’s $21M expiring contract on the books for next year as well as a couple fairly sizable trade exceptions), and some CBA gymnastics would be involved in getting all of the assets New Orleans would undoubtedly demand into the deal, but in the modern NBA, if you will it, it is no dream. Some form of deal centered around Gallo, SGA, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet, and the Philly and Miami picks would at least jump-start the conversation, particularly if Boston ends up taking itself out of the running (or taking Jayson Tatum off the table). And holy hell, would a core of Davis/Durant/Kyrie/Lou-Will/Harrell be fierce.
Throw in how such a coup would stick in the craw of Lakers’, Celtics’, and Warriors’ fans for the rest of eternity, and we’d be looking at a shift in the league’s power structure so seismic it would make the assembling of the Heatles back in 2010 feel like a minor tremor. Sure, this all sounds like a crazy idea. But is it any crazier than two of the ten best players alive saying, “Hey, I know: let’s go play for the shittiest owner in sports and join a roster with no players who will be ready to contribute to a Finals team for half a decade, in a market where the media – who we demonstrably hate — will rip us to shreds for any failures, and a conference that’s increasingly top-heavy”? If KD and Kyrie are going to collude, they should at least be smart about it. Cripple the Warriors’ dynasty, the twilight of LeBron’s career, and the Celtics’ grand plans for contention all in one fell swoop, avoid apex Giannis until the Finals every year, AND get to live in LA and build your brands all the while. What am I missing?
[Yeah, yeah, I know the answer is “Zion.” Let’s revisit this after May 14th, shall we?]
Top Photo Credit: Getty Images