The futures of DeAndre Jordan and Paul George were among the big questions making the rounds in Los Angeles
Between the events, the parties, and the actual game, NBA All-Star Weekend can feel like a circus. But there’s also business to attend to. Teams aren’t talking trades during this period anymore with this year’s deadline moved up to before the break. But meetings and scouting sessions happened across Los Angeles.
I spoke to a handful of NBA executives over the weekend to get a sense of what’s to come in the near future for the league. But executives are the ones asking questions these days. Here are their biggest ones less than four months away from what could be an interesting offseason.
1. What Will DeAndre Jordan Do?
Jordan came close to being dealt to the Cavaliers, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but the deal fell through because the Clippers were unwilling to absorb Iman Shumpert’s salary. This makes the summer ahead that much more interesting for Jordan. With the salary cap flattening, only seven teams are expected to have over $10 million in cap space. There were 10 such teams last summer and 25 in 2016, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks and Brian Windhorst recently wrote. A dearth of free-agent funds will lead to a hard choice for Jordan, who has a player option worth $24.1 million for the 2018-19 season. But multiple league executives think it’s unlikely that he’d receive that type of money annually on the open market. Most of the teams that are expected to have money, like the Hawks, 76ers, and Nets, don’t need an expensive 30-year-old rim-running center, and the teams that do need one won’t have to pay him max money.
So teams are now wondering whether Jordan will opt into the final year of his current deal and play it back in 2019. There’s no easy answer, but if he opts out, the money he gets will set a precedent for the rest of the market this summer and for the years to come. All it takes is for one team to pay Jordan more than $20 million, but it’s not unreasonable that he’d end up seeing offers closer to the high teens.
Multiple executives and agents think Jordan’s decision might depend more on where he wants to play than the money he can make. Jordan said on February 9 that he wants to be somewhere he’s wanted, and he doesn’t know whether that can be said about the Clippers. Still, you need to be careful about the emotional roller coaster players experience ahead of free agency. Jordan might not have been happy to have been shopped in January and February, but things can change by June.
Jordan isn’t the only player facing a big decision with a player option. Enes Kanter ($18.6 million) and Thaddeus Young ($13.8 million) will almost certainly opt in, but Danny Green ($10 million) and Rudy Gay ($8.8 million) have equally tough choices. There’s a market correction coming, and teams are itching to bargain shop.
2. Will Paul George Really Leave OKC?
Lakers fans chanted “We want Paul!” as George took his seat at the podium at Saturday’s All-Star media day. “It’s a long ways until the end of the season,” George said when asked about the crowd’s reaction. “I love it. It’s not to say that I don’t. I felt the energy. I know where the love is.”
George’s candidness is unique. I can’t recall a player so openly flirting with the idea of leaving his current team. But what does it all mean, anyway? The latest noise from NBA executives is more of the same. Most buy into the fact George is drawn by Los Angeles and will leave unless the Thunder reach the NBA Finals. Others have become increasingly skeptical that he’d leave Oklahoma City. One executive said via text on Sunday that he could see George signing a one-year extension with the Thunder then reviewing his options for 2019 when a larger chunk of star free agents to potentially team up with will be available. The same is true for LeBron James, who led the rejuvenated Cavaliers to four straight wins entering the break.
Though the Lakers have moved closer to creating room for two max-level free agents, the players can remain patient. A dozen stars have changed teams since the beginning of last summer, but it’s possible it will be much quieter until 2019.
3. Has the Two-Way Deal Been a Success?
The NBA introduced two-way contracts under the new collective bargaining agreement, enabling teams to sign up to two players who can bounce between the G League and an NBA team. After the player has spent 45 days in the NBA, a team must decide whether to convert his contract into a full NBA deal, waive him, or keep him in the G League for the rest of the season. Adam Silver said in Saturday’s annual state-of-the-league address that the new deals are “working very well,” a sentiment shared by most league folks. An assistant coach told me that without the two-way players, his team wouldn’t have been able to plug holes when it had injuries, while an executive said there are “no cons.”
Mike James was the first player on a two-way contract converted to a full NBA contract. Though he was released weeks later, multiple executives view what the Suns did as a template for the future. James spent 45 days with the Suns to open the season—essentially an extended tryout. If a team promises an agent that it’ll use all 45 days, it could be a useful path for future fringe players deciding between going to Europe or staying in the U.S.
But the contracts are not without their hassles: 45 days means 45 days. Traveling with the team or practicing counts as one day. As a result, teams have been picky about when two-way players are technically with the team. A player on a two-way contract could theoretically be in a car following the team bus, board a commercial flight separate from the team, or practice at their gym before the team arrives and it wouldn’t technically count against their 45 days. Various executives find that part silly and frustrating.
It’s difficult to find a middle ground since the NBA doesn’t want to create 16th and 17th roster spots and wants to ensure that these players are making money. But there has to be a better way. One executive suggested that the league amend the rule to be 45 games, instead of days, but that seems like a lot. I’d like to see the league simply remove the travel days, so only game days and practices count. The G League is supposed to be about development, so the focus should be on finding the best practices to accomplish that goal.
4. Should the NBA Be Done With the One-and-Done?
Silver said Saturday that the league is “conflicted” about the potential removal of the one-and-done rule. Silver has said that the NBA draft is better when players have an opportunity to play at an elite level before they enter the league (whether that’s college or international), but he also noted that teams might want to obtain oversight of a player when he’s younger. Silver also pointed out that more young players means fewer spots for veterans.
“We’re not by any means rushing through this,” Silver said. “We can spend more time on it with the players association, talking to the individual players, talking to their executive board and really trying to understand the pros and cons of potentially moving the age limit.” With all that in mind, I’ve asked various league executives about the rule. The responses are equally mixed.
There’s obviously more certainty with older, seasoned prospects. The more years a player spends competing before entering the league, the better idea you’ll have about who they’ll become. It can be a lot harder to figure out whether a high schooler is even good before they mature into their body or develop their skills. But some executives would prefer a greater variance in the draft. If a team feels like it has an edge, whether that’s in its scouting philosophy or its independent evaluation of a player, it could add a player before other teams have eyes for him.
I think the NBA first needs to get the G League sorted out before it moves the age limit from 19 to 18. There are currently only 26 teams with affiliates, but there needs to be 30. And the NBA needs to invest more money in the league itself, so it can pay the players more and attract a deeper talent pool.
If more of the top players not in the NBA go to the G League, rather than overseas, the competition will be better, thus leading to a better environment for development, and hopefully the removal of the stigma of playing at that level. (As Silver said, around 40 percent of the league’s players have spent time in the minors.) If high schoolers are able to enter the draft, get paid, and receive better training than they currently do in college, it should be a big win for the NBA. But we’re not there yet.