NBA AM: The Nature of Predictive Reporting

Kevin Durant didn’t like the reporting regarding his pending free agency, but predictive reporting is almost required… Not easy to set contract values in a ballooning NBA economy.

Steve Kyler profile picture
Updated 1 year ago on

7 min read

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Durant And His Free Agency

A lot was made this week about a Stephen A. Smith report in which he suggested that Thunder star Kevin Durant wouldn’t necessarily be listening to a lot of teams in July regarding his upcoming free agency. In an ESPN First Take segment, Smith intimated that the L.A. Lakers would be Durant’s first choice if he opted to leave the Thunder.

“Regardless of how senseless it may [sound], in one breath I’m hearing that if Kevin Durant doesn’t stay in Oklahoma City, L.A. is his primary objective and landing spot as opposed to South Beach or even his home of Washington, D.C.,” Smith said.

This prompted a response from Durant, who was asked by Anthony Slater and Erik Horne of the Oklahoman, and his response was somewhat scathing.

“I don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith at all. Nobody in my family, my friends, they don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith. So he’s lying,” said Durant.

“If you ask me a question, I’ll talk about them. But like I said before, I have people who I talk to about everything and I know for a fact they didn’t talk to him, so he’s making up stories.”

Smith later clarified that he never said he spoke with Durant or anyone in his camp, and that his commentary was based on sources he spoke with about the situation.

He said, she said is never fun and there is some truth to both arguments.

While Durant may have never spoken with Smith, that does not mean people in this business who feel like they have a sense of Durant’s motivations are not talking to reporters.

Personally, I have had league sources talk candidly with me about what they believe Durant will do this July, many of them are in a position to know what the prevailing thoughts are. That does not mean any of these sources are truly connected to Durant. It simply means that some people believe they have a feel for how this will play.

From Durant’s point of view, he’s been very clear that he is keeping his circle small. The only people he is sharing information with are those few people closest to him and if the story isn’t coming from them, then it’s not a real story.

Neither side of this is truly wrong. This is the nature of “predictive” reporting. It’s our job as reporters and insiders to talk to as many people as we can, to gather as much credible information as possible and to share as much of that with the reader/viewer/consumer as possible.

Time will tell how accurate Smith’s sourced reporting is. In this case, it’s actually pretty hard to call this reporting, because this was Smith simply restating what he’s heard in a candid sort of way.

Durant’s free agency is going to play out like this regardless of how much he is trying to keep the news insulated and to stay focused on the task at hand, and that’s finishing this season healthy and trying to get the Thunder back to the NBA Finals.

Being the top free agent in a particular free agent class is going to prompt questions. In Durant’s case, he alone could swing the balance of power for virtually every team in the NBA. While Smith may have been the first big voice to speculate on where Durant ultimately lands as a free agent, he will not be the last.

Playing The Value Game

Over the last few months in this space, we have covered the precarious position NBA teams find themselves in trying to properly value talent in a ballooning NBA economy.

With the salary cap going up in massive increments over the next two years, teams are faced with either meeting crazy price tags that account for the bump in the cap or passing on, and potentially losing, talent as the numbers get crazy.

The Milwaukee Bucks reached a multi-year extension with big man John Henson valued at four years and $44 million, with an additional $4 million in what’s called “unlikely” bonuses tied to team and individual performance.

Henson’s new deal actually decreases in value over the four years of the deal with a starting salary next season worth $12.26 million. The following year is worth $11.42 million. The third year is worth $10.57 million, while the final year is worth $9.73 million.

The Bucks structured the Henson deal to somewhat overpay in the first year to create breathing room for future extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.

The beauty of the inflating cap is it will allow some teams to be ultra-aggressive in the first year of a new deal to win talent, while structuring the back end of the deal differently to preserve flexibility.

This concept becomes somewhat relevant to the on-going contract dispute between the Cleveland Cavaliers and big man Tristan Thompson.

Thompson’s camp is playing a tough hand of poker trying to get the Cavaliers to come up from their five-year, $80 million offer. While the Cavs offer is often talked about as $16 million per year, the Cavs offer does not start at $16 million; it starts a lot closer to $13.8 million.

If John Henson just got $12.26 million, is Thompson at $13.8 million market value?

What Thompson’s camp is trying to bank on is the notion that next summer, Thompson could find a team willing to go near full max in the first year of a deal to lure him away from the Cavaliers. Full max next year is likely going to clock in around $20.5 million.

While there isn’t much of a case to be made that Thompson is “worth” max, would a team flush with new cap cash be willing to eat a big overpay in year one to lure him away? Thompson’s camp believes there are a couple of teams that would do exactly that. Even if the new team did not go all the way to max, would a new team be willing to do better than the Cavaliers’ $13.8 million starting salary this year?

This is the problem with valuation. How much is enough to get a deal done, without handcuffing yourself to a bad contract? The Cavs feel like their offer fits the bill. Thompson’s camp thinks he could demand more in the open market.

The Bucks played their hand smartly. Henson isn’t a cornerstone, but he is a big piece to the puzzle. Sliding a little extra his way in the first year made a deal make sense without having to worry about restricted free agency and contention in the relationship.

This is the question teams looking at Rookie Scale options and extensions has to weigh.

With so much new money coming into the system everyone has to reset the valuation clock, because talent that used to cost $10 million under the old system is going to be worth $14 or $15 million as the cap rises. That’s the nature of cap inflation and the potential for so many teams to have cap space to spend on a very small pool of difference makers.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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