With the NBA’s post-season in full swing and historic playoff games being played almost nightly, there are some storylines to watch as the race to a championship unfolds.
Here are a few things to watch, especially if some of the ongoing series don’t play out as some had hoped when the season started some seven months ago:
Kyrie And The Celtics
During the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, all of the turmoil in Boston seemed to have cleared. For months the Celtics looked like a group forced together more nights than night, with All-Star Kyrie Irving looking more and more likely to exit the situation than re-sign as he had pledged to season ticket holders back at the start of the season.
With the Celtics now looking a second-round exit in the eyes, things in Boston seem right back where they were, with Irving posting arguably the worst playoff series of his career. Which re-opens the questions of will he stay or, worse yet, would it be smart for the Celtics to hitch their wagon to what’s become a mercurial player for what would likely be a new deal worth more than $200 million and five more years?
While the Celtics are never a team known to tip its hand, the vibe from around the league is still that Boston is committed to a future with Irving and surrounding him with complementary players. An early exit may change that, but there isn’t a lot coming from the Celtics to suggest they want out of Irving.
On the Irving side, there is more belief in league circles that he’ll look at his options in July rather than just re-up with the Celtics. The money will matter, especially with Irving’s injury history, but there is also a belief that he’ll want the peace of mind of knowing he looked before blindly locking in.
While the New York Knicks are often cited as a desirable situation for Irving, most NBA insiders believe he looks and listens to more than just the Celtics and Knicks and, as weird as it may seem, Irving’s renewed relationship with LeBron James could have him considering the Lakers when he takes meetings.
The idea that Irving and Warriors forward Kevin Durant have already decided on New York has been shot down by both people close to Irving and people close to the Knicks. The Knicks remain hopeful they can pair two elite stars with their promising young core, but they haven’t been given any assurances from anyone, including Irving, according to sources close to the Knicks.
The Celtics had hoped for a run at the Eastern Conference crown when the season opened, so a second round exit would be a big miss for the Celtics. That said, it doesn’t seem like they are ready to panic, but it absolutely is a situation to watch.
Kawhi and The Raptors
If you haven’t been paying attention, Kawhi Leonard has turned in an impressive performance for the Toronto Raptors so far in this post-season. The fact that he can be an unrestricted free agent in a few months continues to linger over his performances, mainly because he could very well walk away in July.
The vibe from the Raptors is one of optimism. They feel like they have done everything the right way to not only gain the trust of the reclusive Leonard, but to make sure he understands how things could play out if he were to commit beyond this season. As crazy as that seemed last summer when the Raptors obtained Leonard, it seems they may have a legit shot at keeping him.
The general vibe around the NBA is that Toronto and the LA Clippers are the front runners for Leonard, although more than a few NBA insiders believe if Leonard takes a meeting, he may listen to more than just those two teams.
Given how different Leonard’s motivations are from the average NBA player, predicting what he’ll really do is challenging, but if the tea leaves of the season are painting the picture accurately, Leonard may be a hair on the side of staying in Toronto versus leaving, and that would be a massive win for the Raptors regardless of how the post-season plays out.
One thing does seem pretty real for the Raptors, if Leonard does opt to leave, sweeping changes could hit the franchise as a result and that includes dealing point guard Kyle Lowry and shedding some of the ugly cap money on the books.
Durant and The Warriors
As much as fans bemoaned the formation of this current Golden State Warriors Super team, there is a reality that every dynasty in the NBA has ended at one point or another, and the clock on this Warriors roster looks to be winding down. The Warriors are still the prohibitive favorites to win the Western Conference, and despite how impressive the Milwaukee Bucks have been, the Warriors are still the more likely NBA Finals winner – but what’s also very real is the gap between the Warriors and everyone is not the chasm it used to be. In fact, the Houston Rockets have shown they could be the dream killer if Steph Curry can’t find his mojo.
The worst kept secret in the NBA is that Warriors forward Kevin Durant wants to look at his options this summer, and if the rumors hold true, he could be taking his talents to the New York Knicks. Sources near the situation have been emphatic that Durant isn’t talking about anything beyond the season. However the same was said back when Durant was in Oklahoma City, and he did exactly as everyone predicted he would do, which leaves a lot hanging in the balance for the Warriors.
Their number one priority is to keep this starting core intact, which means guard Klay Thompson will get a max contract offer the very second the Warriors are allowed to offer it. The Warriors will also offer the same full max deal to Durant, hoping that all of that guaranteed money will at least sway him into staying for another year or two. Warriors ownership is on the eve of a brand-new building in San Francisco, which came with hefty seat license revenue that basically fronted the Warriors the cash to eat even the biggest of luxury tax bills for the next couple of seasons.
The Warriors have a complete understanding of the Durant situation and understand he may walk. They are hoping to sway him but understand he may want precisely what LeBron got last summer – complete control of his own franchise in a major market, something the Warriors have never been able to offer with Steph Curry being the darling of the franchise. As petty as that may seem, the same thing is what ultimately drove James out of Miami — no matter how much James did personally, the fan base still viewed the team in Miami as belonging to Dwyane Wade. The same issues hold true for Durant, and with Championships and MVPs under his belt and his place in NBA history firmly secured, what more can he do in Golden State? That’s something the Warriors will have to convince him of this off-season.
It seems the end of this particular dynasty may be closer than anyone expected when Durant joined the Warriors.
Davis and The Pelicans
You have to hand it to Gayle Benson, the controlling owner of the New Orleans Pelicans — if there was a home run hire to make, she did it in landing David Griffin to run the team. Unlikely previous leadership groups, Griffin was given the proverbial keys to the franchise and empowered to do whatever he deemed necessary to place the Pelicans among the elite in the NBA. Before you giggle at that goal, did you see the Milwaukee Bucks winning the most games in the NBA this year? Things can change fast with a few great decisions.
The first big move Griffin made was to try and bridge the divide with Anthony Davis and his agent Rich Paul, who is still collecting commissions off of huge contracts Griffin wrote to his clients in Cleveland.
Sources close to that situation said Griffin pulled no punches with Paul, pledging to do whatever it took to be elite in the NBA, and wanted him and Davis to buy in. It seemed at least on the surface Griffin may have moved the needle with both, but he’ll have to back that up around the draft.
That doesn’t mean the door is closed on Davis being traded, that very well could still happen. But unlike previous leadership that had lost the faith of Davis and his inner circle, Griffin at least has credibility, which buys him a little time to work the market and see what makes the most sense.
One thing Griffin did make clear both publicly and privately — he is not open to a half-measured commitment. He is willing to pay Davis the Supermax contract he is eligible for but wants a full-throated commitment to the long-term in New Orleans.
The situation is still far from ideal given what’s been said and done, but it at least seems the Pelicans may have bought themselves a window that almost no one thought could exist at the trade deadline this past February.
LeBron and The Lakers
Are you not entertained?
The LA Lakers may be many things, but boring is not one of them. Just when you think something sillier couldn’t happen in Lakerland it does. Whether it’s Magic Johnson abruptly stepping down, the firing, then not firing, then firing of Luke Walton, to the botched interview process that led to the hiring of Ty Lue as the next Lakers head coach, to reports that Kurt Rambis will join the staff with Lue after Tom Thibodeau reportedly turned down a spot on Lue’s staff. And let’s not even get into the failure to hire the obvious choice in Monty Williams or not even reaching out to David Griffin to fill their President of Basketball Operation post.
The Lakers are a hot mess, but even that level of dysfunction hasn’t seemed to change LeBron James’ commitment to the team. Although in a recent episode of his TV show on HBO filmed just days after Johnson stepped down, LeBron admitted he felt slighted by Johnson for not even reaching out, but that hasn’t changed his commitment to being a Laker or his relentless recruiting of a second star to join him this summer.
The truth in everything about the Lakers’ issues is it’s never nearly as bad on the inside as it seems on the outside. And while it’s easy to take shots at the Lakers (they continue to provide plenty of ammunition), the storylines for them never line up with the truth.
Johnson was a part-time leader at best that was way more prone to rash reactions than measured, deliberate processes. His personnel decisions were suspect at best, and while time will tell if Rob Pelinka will do any better on his own, he at least has James in the boat.
The hiring of Lue may not have been ideal, there are a few things worth saying; Lue does have the support of James and it does seem Lue is at least trying to secure a top-flight assistant staff that will likely include former Pacer and Magic coach Frank Vogel. The Lakers do have a mountain of options come July, and they will have a reasonably decent draft pick.
All things considered, the Lakers are still in good shape and if history has taught us anything about James, he thrives in chaos.
Brooklyn, The Clippers and The Pacers
For as much fanfare as teams like the Lakers and Knicks are going to garner this July in free agency, there is a growing belief in agent circles that the LA Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and Indiana Pacers could all be far higher on would-be free agents list than most would imagine.
The Clippers for one have done an incredible job building a team infrastructure that has caught the attention of a lot of players. The Clippers are poised to walk into July with an impressive roster of supporting players, a mountain of free agent dollars, Doc Rivers as head coach and Steve Ballmer as a passionate, committed, deep-pocketed owner with eyes on a brand-new arena. The Clippers have laid the groundwork around the league to not only get meetings with the top tier free agents, but they may even be the front runner on Kawhi Leonard and the dark horse on Kevin Durant.
Much like the Clippers, the Nets have an impressive story to sell come July. Not only do the Nets have an enviable front office, and their roster is loaded with supporting young guys that could be stars of their own. The Nets have an incredible practice facility, the lure of the New York media market and a player-first message that has caught the attention of agents and players alike. There are some that believe Kyrie Irving would look at the Nets before the Knicks, and some believe if Durant looks at the Knicks, he may listen to the Nets too.
The dark horse in free agency may be the Indiana Pacers, and they have some wiggle room to make noise and a team that made the postseason without injured guard Victor Oladipo, who is preparing to get back after it later this month in Miami once he is cleared for court work. The Pacers don’t look to be a max contract player in all of this, but Pacers president Kevin Pritchard has made it clear he is not resting on his laurels. The Pacers are a team to watch in the Mike Conley/Memphis situation.
These are just a few situations to watch as the NBA playoffs roll on. You can expect a lot more trade and free agent chatter next week as the NBA converges on Chicago for the annual Pre-Draft Combine. Basketball Insiders will be there, so stay tuned for player interviews and workout notes as the 2019 NBA Draft class starts to showcase their wares.