Free agency shifted in a seismic fashion Monday night when Kevin Durant was helped off the court with a right Achilles injury.
Jun 10, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) warms up before game five of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
No element of NBA free agency was more intriguing than the Durant mystery tour. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are thought to be at the front of the line, but shuffling salaries to accommodate Durant know brings a staggering medical subplot if the Golden State Warriors’ hunch of a ruptured right Achilles checks out via MRI exam on Tuesday.
Durant can still opt in to the final year of his contract with the Warriors at $29 million for next season. Even minus a full season, demand will be steep for a post-op Durant when free agency opens June 30.
The Special K free agency class, carried by All-Stars KD, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Kemba Walker, was shuffled in a serious way with the impact to be measured over months, not days. But Durant himself doesn’t have long to sort out his own plan.
The Warriors are likely willing to sign Durant long term, even with a torn Achilles, and no doubt the Knicks, Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and more are willing to back up the Brinks truck to bring KD’s brand to their clubs.
Durant signed at a relatively discount rate — shaving more than $69 million off the luxury tax bill for the team — and made possible the retention of Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston.
Golden State has other big decisions looming.
Klay Thompson is a free agent on June 1 as he closes out his four-year, $69 million deal. The Warriors are expected to offer Thompson a max contract.
With Durant’s future up in the air, will KD and Irving still attempt to unite with the Nets? Where does this leave the Knicks?
The drama ratchets up a notch given the level of uncertainty around Durant.
Five flash takeaways on the shifting pecking order in 2019 free agency:
—Shopping season gets tricky for Knicks
Superstars on the shelf are nothing new for the Knicks. Most of the last two seasons the Knicks have been idling with a subpar roster and felt they would reach the finish line on the rebuild in June via the NBA draft and about 10 days later, when the vision included Manhattan billboards welcoming a new anchor — Durant, Klay, Kyrie and Kawhi being the marquee targets.
Hopes of Zion Williamson being part of that nucleus were dashed when the ping-pong balls in the lottery left the Knicks with the No. 3 pick.
Now the plan for building around Durant means another year living in a partial holding pattern.
With a torn Achilles, Durant would be unlikely to play a second during the 2019-20 NBA season.
—Second tier gets a bump
Jimmy Butler made a strong impression in a partial season with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was viewed as the top second-tier star expected to enter the market this summer because of his age (30 in September) and the excessive minutes played under Tom Thibodeau with the Bulls and Timberwolves.
But Butler will be coveted by teams looking for a sidekick for existing playoff talent, including the Los Angeles Lakers, a team coveting veteran leaders who play both ends of the court. Butler is also viewed as a fit for the Dallas Mavericks, who’d pair the lockdown defender with Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic to form a playoff-ready Big Three.
Houston, if it finds a taker for Chris Paul’s albatross contract, would also want Butler as a no-nonsense Robin to James Harden’s Batman.
Among the other known and proven players who should rise on offseason lists are Hornets guard Kemba Walker and Celtics forward Al Horford.
—Warriors and risk factors
Durant’s injury changes not just free agency, but the NBA. He won’t play next season and as Warriors coach Steve Kerr put it, “It’s a bizarre feeling for all of us right now.”
There are conflicted feelings in Oakland for obvious reasons. Team president of basketball operations Bob Myers said the gravest concern for Golden State was reinjuring Durant’s calf. But the first time he attempted to attack the basket on Monday, Durant’s lower right leg exploded.
Golden State’s talent is plentiful. Keeping Thompson is key to staying relevant in the highly competitive Western Conference, even more so today with Durant’s future in doubt.
To retain Thompson and Durant with Curry and Green — a trade candidate if ownership decides the luxury tax bill is too steep — plus carry the rest of the 12-man roster, the Warriors need to be willing to pay more than $1 billion in luxury taxes over the next five years.
“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame. If you have to, you can blame me,” said Myers. “Let me tell you something about Kevin Durant. He loves to play basketball. The people that questioned whether he wanted to get back to basketball were wrong. He’s a good teammate. He’s a good person. It’s not fair.”
If Durant opts out, the Warriors will likely use trophies and consistent Finals appearances to sell established players on a title run. That could appeal to the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Paul Millsap, Trevor Ariza and JJ Redick.
—Anthony Davis and Kawhi jump the line
Kawhi Leonard is the No. 1 free agent available this summer and with Durant out until this time next summer, we’d rate All-Star 7-footer Anthony Davis as No. 2 on the known-to-be-available list in 2019.
Davis suitors were informed Monday of the high asking price from the Pelicans, but the Knicks and Lakers are ready to invest — and with very good reason.
No player hiked his value more this postseason than Leonard. “Load management” is about to become a must-have conversation in front offices everywhere due to Leonard’s modified rest-heavy schedule compared to Durant’s burdensome workload since arriving in Oakland.
The Raptors were determined to get their money’s worth in meaningful playoff games by using Leonard in only 60 regular-season games. Durant played 78 and averaged 34.8 minutes per game.
Each end of the spectrum was realized Monday night. Leonard’s payoff is coming July 1.
—Trickle-down effect floats boat of Middleton, more
Butler isn’t the only All-Star who could get more calls in light of the catastrophic Monday for Durant.
Bucks All-Star guard Khris Middleton is coveted by all three Texas teams and the Nets, among others. More than a shooter, Middleton’s length and the looming contract due Giannis add up to an exodus. For the same reasons — cost vs. budgeting for tomorrow — free agent point guard Malcolm Brogdon is as good as gone in Milwaukee.
With all the bustle around the Nets, restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell’s breakout season means he could become a trade chip — hello, Pelicans? — if a bridge to a Kawhi or Kyrie plus Davis pairing can be constructed.
Subtracting Davis remains a losing proposition for the Pelicans, but it’s no stretch to imagine a starting five of Jrue Holiday, Russell or Jayson Tatum (via trade from Boston), Julius Randle, Zion Williamson and Harrison Barnes (UFA, Sacramento Kings).
—By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media