Who Is Next?
Twelve months ago, the idea that former Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard would be anywhere but San Antonio seemed laughable. But as history has shown in the NBA, it doesn’t take much for a seemingly untouchable star to ask for a trade out of even the greatest of situations.
With that in mind, how are some of the guys to watch in 2018-19 that could end up in a similar, albeit not nearly as awkward, situation.
Jimmy Butler – Minnesota Timberwolves
It is easy to forget that Wolves All-Star Jimmy Butler did not choose Minnesota, it was chosen for him. And while the situation was ideal for Jimmy in being reunited with head coach Tom Thibodeau, he didn’t pick the Wolves, they picked him.
Butler made the most of his first season in Minnesota, but for most of the year and all of the off-season there have been stories about Butler being frustrated with how the young players on the roster compete and look at the game, and that maybe he’s not all the way on board with the direction of the franchise.
Butler has a long history of being a tough guy to play with, mainly because of his competitive nature. Butler has not qualms about laying into a teammate both publicly and privately, and that can wear thin on young guys who may not be as thick-skinned as Butler wants them to be. Tough love doesn’t work with everyone.
The Wolves have been trying to get Butler to agree to a multi-year extension, but the problem is extensions are based on the final year of a player’s contract. That’s not in Butler’s best financial interest, meaning he’ll likely hit unrestricted free agency in July, if only to re-set his deal and ensure he gets as much money as possible.
The uncertainty of pending free agency combined with roster frustrations makes Butler a name to watch as the season gets underway.
The narrative from Minnesota is they won’t trade him. We’ll see how steadfast they remain if frictions between Butler and the young guys pick up where they left off, or worse yet, if the Wolves struggle to get out front in a loaded Western Conference.
Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
Anyone that has spent time with Blazers guard Damian Lillard will tell you he is loyal to a fault. For the Trail Blazers, that’s a good thing because he’ll likely give them a runway longer than maybe they deserve based on how the roster and the salary cap has been managed. The additional upside for Portland is Lillard is under guaranteed contract for three more seasons, including the upcoming one.
That said, does anyone believe the Blazers are serious contenders?
This will be the problem the Blazers have to battle. Not the fact they won 49 games last season and nabbed the third seed in the West; it’s the perception they are second tier.
Some would say that’s on the Blazers players to evolve in their contracts and star status in the NBA, and that might be a fair criticism, but how often in the modern NBA has the potentially disgruntled or unhappy player taken ownership of the situation?
Given how differently Lillard is wired, he might be the first to shoulder the blame for his team’s limitations in a genuine way, but there is a reality: the Golden State Warriors are not going anywhere in the short term. At what point does management in Portland simply sell high on the roster they have and try to reload or rebuild?
That’s the real question to watch in this situation, because Lillard may never be the guy that askes out. The real question is, how long do the Blazers stick with what they have and end their season in May?
Does anyone believe Blazer’s owner Paul Allen will be happy being the third seed every year of Lillard’s contract?
Kyle Lowry – Toronto Raptors
Tick-tock. Kyle Lowry is on the clock.
When the Toronto Raptors opted to trade DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, they made a big bet that not only would Leonard put them over the top in the East, but that his two-way style of play would yield more to the team than DeRozan.
The problem for the Raptors is Lowry and DeRozan were incredibly close, and the manner in which things were communicated has undoubtedly created a real and tangible awkwardness to the team dynamic.
Let’s be real for a minute. Lowry is a pro; he’ll come in and do his job and do it well. That’s how Lowry is wired, so to think he’d be petty because his best friend was traded is misplaced, so let’s make sure to table that idea.
There is, however, a reality that if Leonard and Lowry don’t mesh on the court, Lowry could be moved. Equally, if things don’t come together by the deadline, the Raptors could be in fire sale mode, not only with Lowry but with Leonard.
The Raptors made a big bet on Leonard; if that bet doesn’t look like it will pay off, all bets are off in Toronto, and the roster could get flipped on its head at the deadline, and that makes Lowry a name to watch.
Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans
Amusingly, the guy that sings the praises for his current team is the one most people talk about when they dream about the next big fish to switch teams, and that’s Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis.
It’s important to point out Davis has never hinted at being anything but thrilled with the Pelicans and his trust in his team.
Skeptics will point out virtually every star player that changed teams said basically the same kinds of things at similar points in their contracts. Davis has two fully guaranteed years left on his deal in New Orleans, and a Player Option in 2020-21.
This will be a big year for the Pelicans and Davis. They had an amazing run in the post-season last year and may have finally found the right kinds of players to play with Davis in a way that could yield post-season success. The fear in all of this is that even with the Pelicans’ window being fairly open right now, do they have enough to be elite in the West?
Davis continues to say all the right things, and he will soon be eligible for a Super Max contract extension from the Pelicans worth some $220 plus million. The question becomes, will he sign it or put himself front and center in the rumor mill?
At this point, Davis seems thrilled with his team, and that’s a huge positive for the Pelicans. The question is, will he stay happy if they don’t gain ground?
At this point, none of these guys seem ready to bail on their team, but like Leonard a year ago, no one saw the distrust brewing or the desire to exit as being even a remote reality. One thing that has been true in the current iteration of the NBA is that even the biggest of stars will look for the door if their teams are not moving towards a championship, and that’s the biggest reason to watch some of these names, because they are all crossing into that point in their career where being a star with a lot of money may not be enough to justify being home and not deep into the playoffs in May.
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