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The Next Big Questions Facing the NBA

After a tumultuous offseason that saw multiple All-NBA talents change teams, league executives sound off on the big issues the league will face in the future: tampering, rebuilding, pick value vs. cap space, and the looming free agency of Giannis Antetokounmpo

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What a ride this offseason has been. We’ve had draft-night trades; megastars conducting secret meetings in an effort to team up; and surprise, on-the-fly rebuilds. League executives are just as shaken up as fans are. Here’s a look at what people around the league have been discussing about the state of the NBA and how this summer could affect the future.

Which way do the Thunder roll? Retool or rebuild?

After trading Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Jerami Grant, the Thunder are loaded with draft picks. Here’s what they’re working with:

• Two 2020 first-round picks (one is lightly protected)
• Two 2021 first-round picks
• Two 2022 first-round picks
• Two 2023 first-round picks (one might defer to 2024)
• Three 2024 first-round picks
• One 2025 first-round pick
• Three 2026 first-round picks

Tally it all up and that’s 15 first-round picks over seven drafts. Factor in point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was acquired from the Clippers in the George trade, and the possibility of piling up even more assets for possible trade pieces—like center Steven Adams, forward Danilo Gallinari, or point guard Chris Paul—and the Thunder are better positioned to rebuild than perhaps any team in league history. Don’t ask boss Sam Presti about it—the Thunder aren’t happy.

“Sam acted like his dog died after trading Paul George,” a high-ranking team executive recently told me, who added that even though rebuilding is frustrating, so is losing annually in the first round. “Sam won’t admit it, but he’s too smart to not know this team reached its ceiling with Westbrook.” Per conversations with league executives over the phone and at Las Vegas summer league, it’s clear the sentiment is shared: No matter how painful it might be for the franchise and the fans to deal with the loss of a player who has been the bedrock of the franchise since it moved to Oklahoma City, the Thunder are now better off.

Executives across the league have called the Thunder the summer’s biggest winners, the team with the brightest future, and “lucky.” “Kawhi’s recruiting gave OKC an out,” a Western Conference executive said this weekend. “Trading George allowed them to trade Russ without backlash.”

It’s also been mentioned that Westbrook first approached Presti about his future with the franchise after their first-round loss to the Trail Blazers, long before Leonard recruited George. It’s not the first time Westbrook had a wandering eye; after Kevin Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Westbrook considered not signing an extension, and the Thunder received calls about his availability, league sources say. Westbrook ended up signing a five-year, $206.8 million extension, but three years and three first-round losses later, he’s gone.

Leonard wanted George, and James Harden wanted Westbrook, but Presti didn’t have to give either what they wanted. He made a choice, even if it pained him. Some executives share Presti’s apparent frustrations: One executive of a small-market team recently summed up the feeling of those worried about how this summer unfolded: “Sam got a bunch for his guys, but what will the next small-market team get when their star demands to be sent to a big market? Not every team will be so fortunate. It’ll happen again and again until the NBA does something about tampering.”

How do you solve a problem like tampering?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently said the league plans to “revisit and reset” tampering rules. “It’s pointless to have rules that we can’t enforce. It hurts the perception of integrity around the league,” he added. Everyone knows it’s a problem; the question is how to solve it. The NBA can’t go full Big Brother and have a wire on every player, executive, and coach, or track all their text messages. It’s impossible to police everything. Not everyone is going on Jimmy Kimmel Live! The league investigates the matter only if a team files charges, like the Pacers did in 2017. The NBA found that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and Paul George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, spoke about George potentially joining the Lakers while he was under contract with the Pacers. The Lakers were fined $500,000.

Stories of tampering have been rampant since then: It’s been reported that Kawhi secretly met with George to recruit him, while Kevin Durant magically signed with the Nets without even speaking to the franchise. Never before were more contract details made public before free agency even officially opened. What can you really do about it? Back when the Lakers were being investigated for tampering with George, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that the NBA looked into George’s fishing trips with then–Lakers assistant Brian Shaw. There is no way to prove every instance of tampering; that’s why many of the executives I’ve been speaking with are more concerned with keeping stars, not policing who might be talking to them.

The supermax was supposed to be a solution. It failed. Countless stars have left their franchises and passed on larger sums of guaranteed money. When a supermax deal is signed, it is almost immediately considered an albatross contract by fans and executives alike. Some executives have begun to speculate about whether NFL-style franchise tags could work, though the National Basketball Players Association would be unlikely to agree to something so restrictive of a player’s freedom. In the NFL, a team can use a franchise tag to retain a player for three consecutive seasons at escalating costs. Perhaps the NBA version could allow a team to pay its franchise player far beyond the current max contracts, but only have the salary count as a max. For example, when Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2021, the Milwaukee Bucks could “franchise” him, paying him 50 percent of the salary cap in that year, rather than the current maximum of 35 percent, but it would count for only 35 percent against the salary cap. That way teams wouldn’t be totally hamstrung by re-signing their own stars, but could pay more to keep them.

But what happens if there are owners who don’t want to pay? Or if disgruntled players hold out, creating the kind of contract disputes the NFL deals with every year? NBA executives in support of the idea understand the concern but feel it at least gives them another option, and players will be rewarded for it. The NBA could always allow the franchise tag to be used for just one season and still let the player negotiate a salary with the team at a rate higher than the max. But players could go public with their dissatisfaction even earlier in their contractual cycles, knowing that if they wait, a franchise tag could be looming. Imagine how differently the Kawhi Leonard–Spurs situation would have played out if the Spurs knew they could franchise Leonard for the 2019-20 season.

Another idea proposed by one executive is for certain contracts to include a no-trade clause that can’t be waived by a team or the player. It would have prevented the Clippers from trading Blake Griffin months after re-signing him and players like George from requesting a trade one year after extending. But an option like this could be meaningless if teams or players aren’t signing those contracts, since neither party would want restrictions.

No idea is perfect, and teams will keep tampering no matter which rules are installed—unless the penalty were so severe that it wouldn’t be worth it to even try. “Would you ever run a red light if the penalty was two years in prison?” an executive asked me at summer league. “Teams won’t tamper as much if there’s a significant penalty beyond a fine.”

The same executive said that Silver should have made an example of the Lakers for tampering with George in the same way NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did in 2007 to punish the New England Patriots for using cameras to videotape sideline signals. “Goodell is hated by fans but at least he’s feared. Just like [former NBA commissioner David] Stern. No one fears punishment from Adam. That’s what needs to change.”

Most executives I chatted with wish teams caught tampering would be punished by the removal of first-round picks. “Basketball operations needs to get hit the hardest, not an owner’s wallets,” said another executive. Someone else went further and suggested that in addition to losing a pick, teams should be barred from trading any picks for some amount of years. Had a penalty been that harsh, the Lakers wouldn’t have had the assets to trade for Anthony Davis—obviously a much heavier penalty than what they did receive.

“You think George is the only player that’s been tampered with? The Pacers were just the only team that thought it was worth the hassle to make a stink about it,” said an Eastern Conference executive this weekend. “Until Silver and the NBA start showing they care, it’ll only get worse.”

Who will be the next star on the move?

It will be a while before the league figures out tampering. In the meantime, you can count on another star player getting dragged into the rumor mill. This summer alone, six of the 15 players named to an All-NBA team for the 2018-19 season changed teams. More movement is inevitable. Who’s next?

Executives agree that it’ll be slimmer pickings next year, with most of the likely options qualifying as second- or even third-tier stars. Here are the players mentioned:

  • John Wall or Bradley Beal, Wizards: League sources say that Beal isn’t currently available, though that could change by the deadline.
  • Kevin Love, Cavaliers: Teams will want to see Love prove that he’s healthy before offering anything that’d make the Cavs bite.
  • DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs: If San Antonio is on the playoff bubble, it might be best for the team to deal its unrestricted free agents instead of losing them for nothing.
  • Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, Raptors: Masai Ujiri has wanted to rebuild ever since he was hired in 2013. Now is his chance.
  • Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and Danilo Gallinari, Thunder: The rebuild has already begun. Finding a home for Gallinari, provided he’s healthy, won’t be an issue. But Paul and Adams could be stuck in Oklahoma.

It’s tough to predict which players may be available in the long term, but as I wrote in January: Teams are monitoring Ben Simmons (Sixers), Devin Booker (Suns), and Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves). All three players are locked into contracts now, but if the Suns or Wolves keep losing or if Simmons takes a back seat in Philadelphia, situations can sour. The true prize, however, will hit the market in two years …

Will Giannis Antetokounmpo stay or go?

Giannis is the next big fish that teams will go after—I mean, tamper with. The Bucks almost made the NBA Finals last season, and, by all accounts, Giannis loves Milwaukee; he’s said that he wants to be a Buck for life. One league source familiar with Giannis since he was a draft prospect told me earlier this year that he wouldn’t bet on him leaving in 2021, saying he is wired like Kevin Garnett, who loyally stayed with Minnesota through countless losing seasons. I also assume Antetokounmpo will stay, but how can you confidently bet on the fate of any player after what’s transpired this summer?

The Bucks could win two straight NBA Finals and Giannis could stay long term, or they could get bounced twice in the second round, causing him to look elsewhere. Who knows? The uncertainty is the point, so teams have to be ready in case he becomes available.

The Bucks are under pressure. Faced with losing Malcolm Brogdon—arguably their second-best player at times during the postseason—in free agency, Milwaukee dealt him to the Pacers. They had to pay a combined $70 million annually to keep Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, and George Hill through the 2020-21 season. They lack the assets to make significant additions on the trade market, and won’t have the cap space to make a big signing in 2021, unless a core player like Middleton is moved. Meanwhile, other teams are building young cores on cheap contracts with the ability to sign Giannis and a second star.

Salary cap sheets can change drastically by 2021, but a number of teams with talented young players still on their rookie contracts project to have double max slots that summer, such as San Antonio, New York, Memphis, and Atlanta. Teams like Chicago, Miami, and Toronto could also create double max slots depending on other moves made between now and then. It’s a pipe dream for any team to land Giannis, but the amount of backup options make it especially worth it. The 2021 class could also feature Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, and CJ McCollum—plus Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The teams that are most flexible will have the ability to make the strongest pitches to those players—including Giannis.

Maybe we’re doing this wrong?

Free agency could look different by 2021. Last year, the Rockets made a formal proposal to the league to move free agency before the draft, according to ESPN. Multiple league executives say that it’s an idea gaining supporters, due to the diminishing value of picks and the increase in tampering and roster volatility. Teams are already starting free agency before the draft anyway, so why not formalize the process instead of restricting the moves teams can make on draft night knowing they must wait until free agency?

In recent years, it has seemed like teams are more frequently using draft picks like tokens to create cap space but shedding salaries—just like the Heat did to acquire Jimmy Butler. Draft picks will always have value, but they pale in comparison to the possibility that cap space can provide. The volume of All-Star talent on the move is forcing team executives to change the way they are approaching team building. A draft pick could turn out to be De’Aaron Fox, or it could turn out to be the sweetener included in a trade to release an aging star or bring a future-defining player into your building.