September 30, 2022

A few thoughts here as Day 2 of NBA Free Agency unfolds…

Kevin Durant Contest, Day Two

All eyes are on Phoenix when it comes to Durant, the Nets star who would target the Suns as his next favorite destination. Still, as I wrote at length Thursday about how a deal centered on restricted free agent center Deandre Ayton and small forward Mikal Bridges might work for both sides, the first feeling is that it would take more than that. Or, to be clearer, something different.

As Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News pointed out following the Rudy Gobert-Minnesota blockbuster that unfolded on Friday, the Nets’ asking price for Durant — two All-Stars, as we were told – maybe just increased. There’s no way the Suns will trade Devin Booker, who just agreed to a four-year, $224 million extension.

Cam Johnson deserves to be watched as a potential player who could move the needle for the Nets. But truth be told, it’s too early to tell if Durant will get his Valley of the Sun wish here.

In the meantime, let’s explore the more macro question: Why Does Durant seem focused on Phoenix as the best place to pursue his storied career? There are probably a lot of factors at play here – the chance to wrestle again, the Los Angeles-adjacent venue, his relationship with Booker, and respect for Chris Paul. But in terms of personal dynamics, his close relationship with Suns coach Monty Williams might top the list.

They were together for one season in Oklahoma City, that 2015-16 campaign when Williams was associate head coach under Scott Brooks and Durant was in his final Thunder days before heading to Golden State in free agency. The pair had previously grown close during this season, but the bond deepened further after Williams’ wife and mother tragically died of their five children, Ingrid, in a car accident on February 9. 2016. A quick story that I will never forget from that time…

During All-Star weekend in Toronto that year, I planned to stop in Oklahoma City for a Durant interview on my way back west (I’m based near Sacramento). But before the news of Ingrid’s passing broke, Durant’s longtime business manager, Rich Kleiman, called to let me know the interview was cancelled. Naturally, I asked why.

He shared the terrible news of what had happened and described Durant – like so many others close to Williams – as devastated. All these years later, people who went through that with Williams say Durant’s respect for him grew tremendously seeing the gracious way he handled all that pain. (If you’ve never watched the incredible speech Williams gave at Ingrid’s funeral, do so.)

Shortly after Durant made his controversial choice to join the Warriors, he was back with Williams on the USA squad that won Olympic gold in Rio with Durant as the top scorer. They have remained close ever since. Does that mean he’s related to Phoenix? No way. But it might help people understand some of his motivations right now.

As for the possibility of Miami also appearing to be in play, I’m told there’s a significant hurdle on that front. Durant, it seems, would only want to play on a Heat team that includes Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry. So even if the Heat were willing to offer Butler a deal in order to satisfy the Nets’ (understandably expensive) demand, it would leave Durant unhappy from the get-go.

As others have pointed out, Adebayo comes with a complication of its own, even beyond the fact that Durant probably wants him to stay. Since teams aren’t allowed to have two players on designated rookie-max extensions that showed up via trade, Brooklyn would have to trade Ben Simmons to bring in Adebayo. If the Heat’s best offer centers around Tyler Herro, I just don’t see how that gains traction. And in terms of Durant’s favorite destinations, that’s why it looks like the Suns have a chance to do some magic here.

From Gary Payton II to Portland and the Ripple Effect of Damian Lillard

The Payton deal with Portland – three years, $28 million, by our Shams Charania – has all kinds of layers. First, the Golden State side.

While the Warriors’ luxury tax concerns are understandable given that every dollar spent has been multiplied by seven, the optics of that loss are going to be tough on owner Joe Lacob and his group. Not only was Payton an important part of their elite defense, a great fit in their offense and an absolute game changer in the NBA Finals after rushing after his broken elbow, but he was also a favorite of the fans.

These are first-world issues for a fan base that has seen their team dominate for most of the past decade, but it’s a problem nonetheless. A source with knowledge of the Payton-Warriors talks said Golden State is offering the taxpayer a mid-tier exception for two years (starting at $6.4 million per year).

According to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, Payton’s deal with Portland includes drive option. By the way, sources claim that Steph Curry and Draymond Green were part of the process with Payton but clearly failed to persuade him to stay.

Add to that the fact that the Warriors lost Otto Porter Jr. to Toronto on Friday and Nemanja Bjelica decided to play for the Turkish champion, Fenerbahce, and it was a tough 12 hours in the bay. As the rebound moves go – in more ways than one – re-sign fan-favorite free-agent center/comrade Kevon Looney to a $25.5 million three-year contract Friday was an absolute must.

Now let’s go to the corner of Portland.

Although it was widely speculated that Lillard would accept the two-year extension offer worth more than $100 million that was expected to land him, sources say the Trail Blazers still needed to have a strong offseason to persuade. Lillard to sign until the 2026-27 campaign (when he turns 36). The deadline here isn’t until the start of the regular season, and I’m told that’s not sure yet.

The addition of Jerami Grant (via a trade with Detroit) this offseason was a major step in the right direction on that front, as Lillard’s desire to play under the 28-year-old forward was no secret. They thrived as teammates before, of course, winning gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with Team USA. Grant’s defense is also indispensable, as Portland have finished 27th, 29th and 29th respectively in the defensive rankings over the past three seasons.

The draft was much more of a question mark, as Blazers general manager Joe Cronin’s choice to retire mystery man Shaedon Sharpe of Kentucky with the seventh pick was a long game. The Anfernee Simons deal is another bright spot, though the price tag was oddly high (four years, $100m) for the fourth-year guard who had a stellar year when there weren’t many of significant basketball played in Portland (Lillard, of course, only played 29 games because of his abdominal surgery, and Portland went 27-55). Big man Jusuf Nurkic also returns, agreeing to a four-year, $70 million deal that keeps the Lillard favorite in town.

Still, as far as Payton is concerned, it’s the kind of gesture that’s sure to make Lillard smile. Not only is he desperate for elite wing defenders by his side, but Lillard is also close to Payton’s father, Hall of Fame point guard and fellow Oakland, Calif. helped guide him for years now.

Additionally, Payton II, his father, and Lillard were all replaced by the same agent, Aaron Goodwin of Goodwin Sports Management. There’s also the Northwest tie for Payton II, as he was beloved during his two years at Oregon State (2014-16).

In other words, the Warriors’ loss is the Trail Blazers’ gain as they try to keep the Lillard era alive.

Progress (in the playoffs) for the Kings?

I love the Kings’ offseason so far – flawed as it is. First-year coach Mike Brown will certainly struggle to get this group to defend at a high level, and that could mean their cap is low enough to continue the longest playoff drought in the league. Especially given the number of quality teams out West (like, say, the Timberwolves!).

But the additions of Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray are substantial solutions to their filming woes, and they come on very reasonable contracts (two years, $19 million for Monk through free agency; four years, $65 million dollars for Huerter via a trade with Atlanta). Franchise centerpiece De’Aaron Fox has everything to do with these moves as the Kings just had to find a way to give him the kind of supporting cast that helps take his game to a new level while helping Domantas Sabonis to thrive too (remember, the 26-year-old All-Star forward is a free agent in the summer of 2024).

Fox’s history in Kentucky with Monk makes this move all the more significant and, potentially, impactful. Monk (a career-high 13.8 points; 39.1 percent from deep on 5.1 attempts per game) was a rare bright spot in the Lakers’ otherwise abysmal 2021-22 campaign. Additionally, Monk’s move unofficially justifies the Kings’ choice to let Donte DiVincenzo walk in restricted free agency.

Their choice to draft Murray over Jaden Ivey with the fourth pick will be debated and analyzed for years, but the Iowa product is widely seen as a special young player who should be able to help immediately.

There could certainly be more to come, too, with the Kings having had recurring talks with Atlanta over John Collins (in a deal centered on Harrison Barnes) for months now. There could also be opportunities around Durant’s situation, with teams like the Kings potentially able to benefit from a third-team role.

You don’t have to agree with the approach, but it’s a team in win-now mode. Still. And given the pressure this front office is under, with general manager Monte McNair and assistant general manager Wes Wilcox working the final years of their respective contracts, there has been significant progress here.

(Photo by Mikal Bridges, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul: Brad Penner/USA Today)