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Rolling Free-Agency and Trade Watch: LeBron’s Decision Cave, and All the Other NBA Rumors

We are on the verge of NBA free agency. LeBron has reportedly opted out of his Cleveland contract, and Paul George is drinking wine with Dwyane Wade. Everything is happening.

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Paul George Getty Images/Ringer illustration

TGIF, because the NBA is probably going to go through a seismic shift this weekend. Free agency officially begins at 12:01 a.m. ET Sunday, but that hasn’t stopped all the storm clouds from gathering or the sources from saying. We will be with you all day Friday to track the opt-ins, the Instagrams from Ibiza, and everything else.

8:09 p.m. ET: From the department of untimely and [insert eye emoji] interesting injuries comes news Friday afternoon that Lonzo Ball has a torn meniscus in his left knee, according to Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania. Ball was diagnosed with a left knee injury at the end of the season, for which he received a platelet-rich plasma injection, according to reports in mid-June. Though this new report specifies the type of injury he’s dealing with, and states that he is expected to be ready for training camp in September, Ball has already returned to the court, according to head coach Luke Walton.

This bit of (old) news would be only mildly surprising if it weren’t for the fact that the Lakers have reportedly been engaged with the Spurs on trade talks surrounding Kawhi Leonard. Ball hasn’t been included as part of the reported package that would go the Spurs’ way in exchange for Kawhi, but the timing of this new injury report suggests there was a motive to get the details of Lonzo’s injury out there. Speaking on ESPN Radio on Friday afternoon, Ramona Shelburne noted that the news had to have come from “Lonzo and his camp” out of worry that he could be traded.

Trade talks between L.A. and San Antonio have evolved from the Spurs shutting the door on the Lakers to increasingly serious as free agency (and LeBron James’s decision) draws closer. Making his injury sound more serious could diminish his trade value, thus increasing his chances of staying in his hometown and possibly playing alongside a star-studded roster next season. This is some three-dimensional chess, and it just might work. —Uggetti

7:10 p.m. ET: Ready the living-room furniture — DeAndre Jordan is back on the market. Three years after the Clippers Parent-Trapped their star center in his house in Houston and force-fed him Raising Cane’s until he reneged on his verbal agreement with the Mavericks, Jordan has opted out of the final year of his contract and will hit the free-agent market yet again, according to ESPN. Twenty-four million dollars can buy a lot of chicken fingers. But after days of reported trade discussions between the Clippers and Mavs didn’t come to fruition, Jordan, who will turn 30 in three weeks, must feel confident that he can make enough long-term money to make it worth his while.

The big questions are now: Is Dallas his destination? (Probably, since it’s 2018 and not many teams need/are looking to invest heavily in a center.) How will he get there? (The Mavs can either sign him outright with cap space, or maybe swing a sign-and-trade with the Clippers — though that seems unlikely since L.A.’s lack of interest in Wes Matthews reportedly stalled trade talks in the first place.) Which emoji will Jordan use to announce his decision? (The bet here is the horsey.) And what does his arrival on the open market do to the rest of the centers already there? (With no clear suitors other than Dallas, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors seem more likely to return to their current teams.) — Justin Verrier

6:49 p.m ET: We’ve got some breaking coaching news, too, because why not? Fresh off his third title in four seasons as a head coach of the Warriors, Steve Kerr is finalizing a contract extension that will keep him with Golden State and make him one of the highest-paid coaches in the NBA, according to ESPN. The details of the contract haven’t yet been revealed. Kerr signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Warriors in May 2014.

Kerr is indeed worthy of a raise — Doc Rivers, whose Clippers missed the playoffs this year, makes $10 million a year — but the length of his new deal will be even more important. Kerr missed 43 regular-season games and a handful of playoff games in the 2015–16 season because of back pain and recurring headaches stemming from a back surgery in 2015 that led to a spinal fluid leak. Kerr has gutted through his health issues, but his future with the team will remain an open question as long as he continues grimacing on the sidelines. — Uggetti

6:23 p.m. ET: Ben Simmons posted a photo of him and LeBron to his Instagram story. What does it mean?!

— Uggetti

4:30 p.m. ET: The Spurs believe their relationship with Kawhi Leonard “cannot be repaired,” according to The New York Times’ Marc Stein:

That does not sound ideal, and may point toward a trade happening sooner rather than later. On that front, Stein also told The Dan Patrick Show that the Sixers want Kawhi “badly.” Don’t tell Ben Simmons’s Instagram that.

4:27 p.m. ET: An important update: ESPN’s Brian Windhorst would like everyone to know that LeBron’s “Decision Cave” is not actually a cave. That’s too bad. It seems like a cavernous setting would mean no cell service, and thus a lack of leaks.

— Uggetti

2:15 p.m. ET: With LeBron and Paul George opting out of their contracts, the last big domino we’re watching is DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers center can opt into his last year with Los Angeles, earning himself $24.1 million, or he can hit the open market. The Clippers seem pretty chill about it, either way. They dealt Austin Rivers to the Wizards for Marcin Gortat, acquiring a bit of big-man cover, and Montrezl Harrell really came on down the stretch, last season. If Jordan opts in, ESPN’s Zach Lowe has reported that sources tell him the Clippers would be “fine keeping even a disgruntled Jordan and using Gortat as a backup.” But the more likely scenario is that the Clippers sign-and-trade him, and his likeliest trade destination would be Dallas.

Or at least it was until a few minutes ago. That’s when The New York Times’ Marc Stein tweeted that the Clippers are “resistant” to taking Wesley Matthews back in any Jordan deal, so the Mavs might have to come up with a different offer, or sign Jordan outright, which would eat up a lot of their remaining cap (they have about $70 million committed right now).

Putting aside for a second the fiscal impact Jordan’s L.A. departure would have on Malibu eateries and West Hollywood nightspots, can I just offer some unsolicited advice to the Mavs? Don’t do this.

For years, Dallas has been pinning its hopes to free agency, rather than developing its younger, more affordable talent. The Mavs did it with DeAndre three years ago.

They did it with Dwight Howard. They did it with Deron Williams. They missed on all of them, and they’re weirdly better off for it, but the problem is they didn’t have a Plan B through those years. When they couldn’t attract top-level talent, they took fliers on guys like Rajon Rondo, hoping a combination of Rick Carlisle and Dirk magic could get them into the playoffs.

The bottom finally fell out, and then they smartly kicked the last few floorboards away at the draft, moving up to get a possible franchise player in Luka Doncic. But old habits die hard, and Jordan is still the one who quite literally got away. But signing Jordan, while Clint Capela—six years younger, and way, way more of a modern big—could be on the market, is the wrong move here. Jordan is about to round third on his career. He’d be helpful, but not transformational. That’s how Dallas should be thinking. They are not going to win a title in the next three to five years, so they should be building a team that can peak when Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. do.


12:51 p.m. ET: You might think the Decision Cave is the funniest thing to come out of free agency so far. If that’s the case, you haven’t been watching Ken Burns’s new documentary, Paul George: My Journey. This three-part series from ESPN (no, not really Ken Burns) is riding along with George as he tries to make up his mind about where to play next. George has opted out of his Thunder deal, making him an unrestricted free agent, and he is reportedly trying to decide between staying put in Oklahoma City and returning to his hometown of Los Angeles, presumably to play for the Lakers.

You can tell a couple of things from this series. One, George has a lot of affection for playing basketball with Russell Westbrook and a higher opinion of the Thunder’s chances than most fans. Two, Boston is a surprise team in the mix. And, three, he maybe has never had a glass of wine before?

George meets with Dwyane Wade at a Four Seasons, and Wade brings him a bottle from the D Wade Cellars. While discussing free agency, Wade gives George a 101-level class on wine drinking (essentially: Smell this and then have a sip). It’s quite a moment. Shout out to D-Wade’s decanter.


11:38 a.m. ET:

Cute. —Ryan

11:28 a.m. ET: Remember, like, 10 minutes ago when Paolo said that LeBron was looking to keep his free agency low key? Cool, well, according to Brian Windhorst, he’s apparently going to the Decision Cave. I guess low key means different things to different people. It’s going to be like the last Decision, except replace the Boys & Girls Club with, like, 100 percent more spelunking. I know Windhorst doesn’t like people aggregating his multimedia appearances, but I think an exception can be made for “Decision Cave.”

LeBron will be joined in this Cave—not clear whether it’s a literal cavern or a metaphorical hole in the earth where life choices are adjudicated—by a close circle of friends and advisers. Two questions: Is this cave subleased from Danny Granger? And has LeBron seen The Descent? Chris Ryan

11:03 a.m. ET: The LeBron James free-agency sweepstakes just had its soft open.

A little more than 36 hours before the start of the free-agency signing period, multiple reports indicated that James had declined to exercise his $35.6 million player option on his contract with the Cavaliers. The deadline to pick up the option would have been Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET.

This sheds light on LeBron’s preferred landing spots. If we live in the time of pre-agency, this was LeBron’s pre-decision. Had LeBron opted in before the deadline, he would have been able to leave Cleveland only on a sign-and-trade deal, much like he did when he left the Cavs for the Heat in 2010.

This choice makes it more difficult for LeBron to go to a team without cap space. Even Houston general manager Daryl Morey might concede defeat. LeBron can still command a sign-and-trade from the Cavs that could send him to the Rockets, or, say, the Spurs, but the decision to opt out is favorable for teams like the Lakers and Sixers, who have money to burn; the former appear to be LeBron’s favorite, given that they have the flexibility to sign two max players.

This decision gives the Lakers clarity. They had been under pressure to make a trade for Kawhi Leonard to make LeBron’s decision easier, but this means that they’ll at least be able to court LeBron to come to L.A. and not have to maneuver their cap space and assets to make it happen.

If LeBron signs with Cleveland, he could ink somewhere in the ballpark of a a five-year, $207 million deal (though he would leave the franchise very little financial room to upgrade its roster). If he leaves, he could sign something close to a four-year, $150 million contract with another team.

LeBron reportedly doesn’t want elaborate pitch meetings this time around, but he just flipped the storefront sign to “Open,” and it appears he’s allowing only three teams in the door. —Paolo Uggetti