There’s a backward feeling to the NBA, where the actual basketball is treated like a sideshow to the spicy blockbuster news cycle of the offseason. On the one hand, offseason drama ensures the NBA gets year-round exposure that other leagues would kill for. On the other, a sizable portion of NBA media members just spent the Finals tracking down Anthony Davis trade rumors and whether or not Kyrie Irving went to a club with the Brooklyn Nets or merely went to a club where the Nets happened to also be in attendance.
But it’s never felt like an either/or situation to me. The Finals weren’t just a prelude to free agency: The two exist hand-in-hand. The Raptors’ title win over the Warriors has more meaning because the way the series played out affects the decisions of several superstars who played in the six-game series. The Finals marked the close of the 2018-19 season but the opening chapter of the league’s future.
It feels like we just saw the end of one dynasty and perhaps the birth of a new power. Meanwhile, the career of one of the best players of the century has been thrown into the unknown, and how he decides to proceed could shape the league’s power balance for years to come.
What does the future hold for an injured Kevin Durant?
It feels crass to think about Kevin Durant’s devastating Achilles rupture in terms of the free-agent market. But the fact that Durant was about to make a league-altering decision is part of what makes his injury so devastating.
Before he took the floor in Game 5 of the Finals, Durant was widely expected to decline his player option with the Warriors for the 2019-20 season and become an unrestricted free agent. After winning back-to-back Finals MVPs in his first two seasons with the Warriors and watching the team fall into a 3-1 hole in the Finals without him, it seemed like he’d accomplished all he needed in Golden State. He had clearly established himself as the best player on the sport’s best team, but not before suffering ridicule for having joined a team that supposedly didn’t need him to win.
Durant seemed wildly unhappy in Golden State, which is why the Knicks were heavily favored to sign him in July. (If you’re worried people think you picked a team that’s too good, go to the Knicks.) After becoming an integral part of Golden State’s legacy, he was ready to craft his own.
All that is on hold. Achilles ruptures can keep an NBA player out for a year, and there’s no guarantee that players returning from Achilles injuries are the same as they were before. He doesn’t have a year to decide what comes next or even how he wants to spend the rest of his career. He has about three weeks.
First off: Will teams still fight for Durant in free agency knowing he’s damaged goods? The answer, at this juncture, seems like “yes,” according to several reports. A slightly worse Durant is still probably one of the best players in the league. At the very least, it’s worth the gamble. There aren’t enough Kevin Durants out there to pass one up.
Second off: Will fellow superstars want to pair with Durant knowing what’s happened to him? Most Durant free-agency scenarios involved him pairing up with another superstar like Kyrie Irving to create a new power team. Not only will a player like Irving need to trust that Durant will be healthy in the future, he’ll have to be willing to spend a year of his prime paired with Durant.
Third, and most importantly: Will Durant still feel comfortable picking a new team, knowing he won’t even be able to play for them for a significant amount of time? If Durant wants, he could opt into the final year of his Warriors contract, taking $31.5 million to rehab before choosing his new team in next year’s free-agency window. I suspect that the opportunity to lock in long-term money now might be too much to pass up for a 30-year-old player who just suffered a long-term injury. But Durant might not be ready to start the next chapter of his career. What if he spends next season getting healthy in Golden State, returns in time for next year’s postseason, and wins another title with the Warriors? What if the time spent off the court changes his mind-set on what he wants next? Adrian Wojnarowski described the possibility of an opt-in as a “last resort,” but it’s on the table after his injury.
I believe that even a slightly degraded Durant will be one of the most valuable players in the NBA. With his legs out of commission, Durant still has the league in his hands. But we don’t know whether having his career flash before his eyes will cause Durant to reconsider the path that just a week ago he seemed certain to take.
Has Kawhi Leonard found a home?
When the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to Toronto last summer, it seemed like a middle finger from the organization to the team’s disgruntled star. (Or, in Raptors parlance, an eff-you shot.) Leonard’s relationship with his first team was permanently damaged by the yearlong dispute over his quad injury. Leonard wanted to leave and wanted to be sent home to Los Angeles. Instead, the Spurs dealt him to Toronto, about as far away from L.A. as they could send him. (Technically, the Celtics would be farther, geographically, but at least they use the same currency in Boston.) Heading into the season, it seemed like Leonard would probably treat his time north of the border as a contractually obligated stopover before taking his career into his hands in the 2019 offseason.
Like that shot Kawhi took in Game 7 against the Sixers, it seemed like his tenure in Toronto was gonna end with an awkward clang. But like that bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce buzzer-beater, things seem to be falling into place. After the acrimony in San Antonio, Leonard is beloved in Canada. He’s on buildings up there. It was always joked that Leonard would never be able to sell shoes like so many other superstars because he’s just so gosh-darn boring, but Canadians can’t keep their hands off Kawhi Leonard merch.
A championship changes everything. Leonard was already on the list of the most popular Canadians of all time before the Finals, between Alanis Morissette and Alexander Graham Bell. Now that he’s brought Canada its first championship in a major American sports league since the Blue Jays’ 1993 World Series, he’s up in that rarefied air between Shania Twain and Keanu Reeves. (Yes, before you ask, I do think the John Wick series is more important than the invention of the telephone.) Sure, Leonard won a championship in San Antonio, too, and was even named Finals MVP. But that was just one in a long line of successes for San Antonio, many built on the backs of older, more popular Hall of Famers. This Raptors title is unmistakably Leonard’s.
If Toronto had fallen short in these Finals, Leonard’s free agency future would be uncertain. But with the Raptors’ win, he’s been able to get a head start on building the legacy he presumably wanted for himself. With a championship in Canada, Leonard is now king. (Not literally King, since I’m pretty sure Canada is technically part of the British monarchical system, but you get the point.)
What will happen with Klay?
Klay Thompson has long been the least heralded member of the Warriors’ dynastic core. He’s one of the best shooters in the history of the sport, but he’s never been his team’s best player, and he’s being paid well below his maximum. This offseason was supposed to be his moment—either to get paid what he was worth by Golden State, or to seek a new challenge elsewhere.
[Sigh.] One game after Durant ruptured his Achilles, Thompson suffered a devastating leg injury (a torn ACL, according to ESPN) that could keep him out for a full year.
Despite a few rumors linking him to the Los Angeles teams, it seemed like Thompson was a safe bet to re-sign with Golden State next season. The Warriors are the only team that can offer him a fifth year, and it’s possible that long-term security will become even more important for the 29-year-old.
Whatever happens, Thompson was robbed of his moment. If Durant were to leave, he and Curry would have been in line to shoot, and score, more often than perhaps ever before. And if Durant were to stay, Thompson would have gone on to try to set a new bar for team success, with the sort of salary befitting his contributions. Now the future becomes far more muddled.
This piece was updated Thursday night Pacific Time to reflect the news of Klay Thompson’s ACL injury.