The league’s off-season has been more exciting than the playoffs, and it’s not even July 1. This is how your basketball gossip sausage gets made.
The NBA silly season is upon us, and it’s sillier than ever. After years of being held hostage by Phil Jackson, the Knicks liberated themselves from their team president/nap enthusiast roughly 72 hours before free agency was set to start — and that wasn’t even the craziest story this week. (Neither was the wild news about a “dark horse candidate” and a familiar face as potential replacements for Jackson, which will almost certainly spiral The Ringer’s most aggrieved Knicks fan into madness.)
Not long after the Jackson news dropped, we learned that Chris Paul wasn’t opting out of his Clippers contract, he was opting in — and then getting dealt to Houston, where he, James Harden, and the Rockets will presumably become the first team in league history to play games with multiple basketballs at the same time. Locking the doors and sending emoji tweetsfeels quaint by comparison.
It was barely two weeks ago that longtime mill man Chris Ryan — of the esteemed Philadelphia rumor mill Ryan clan — gathered all the pushpins and string he could find to piece together almost this exact theory on his conspiracy corkboard. At the time it felt implausible. Now it’s real life. He spoke the CP3 trade into existence the way LaVar spoke Lonzo to the Lakers.
Things are moving quicker than ever. The Clippers had barely pressed send on their official trade statement when a report claimed that “Chris despises Doc” because Rivers didn’t unload his son, Austin, in a deal for Carmelo Anthony last year. This offseason is already bananas, and we don’t even havea boat this time.
Rumors are becoming reality almost faster than we can process them. That’s where we are as free agency barrels toward us at midnight on July 1 and threatens to flatten everything in its path. Keep your arms and legs tucked in. Anything is possible. No one is safe.
The sheer amount of gossip being bandied about is staggering. Executives talk to agents and agents talk to reporters and reporters talk to executives. There’s so much chocolate in everyone’s peanut butter right now that it all blends into one dizzying sugar high. Consider the case of Paul George. His camp made it known that he wants off the Pacers, and his love for Los Angeles is no secret. That’s ostensibly part of the reason why the Lakers banished D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn — along with dead weight Timofey Mozgov and his concrete-boots contract — to clear cap space for George when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. Next summer! That’s, like … [does the math] … 10 summers from now!
Since announcing his desire to depart Indiana, George has been linked to the Celtics as part of a potential plan to level-up with Gordon Hayward. (According to a report, if Danny Ainge lands Gordo, it will evidently be over Tanner Ainge’s cold, congressional campaign corpse.) After CP3 went to the Rockets, Brian Windhorst reported on SportsCenter that Houston was in hot pursuit of George. And Stephen A. Smith reported/vocalized a rumor that a mega five-team trade was discussed that would have sent George and Carmelo Anthony to Cleveland — except no one wanted Kevin Love. (Sad face.) That last one was especially instructive in terms of what silly season has become because, just a few hours later, Stephen A. had Melo on his way to the Rockets. (In the very near future, everyone in the league will play for the Rockets, and their games will be played on the moon.)
If you gobble up gossip and conspiracy theories, the NBA is perfect. The league is populated by people who love that stuff just as much as you do — more, probably. I talked to a league source this week who thought it was within the realm of possibility that Phil Jackson might have faked his nap, planted the story himself, and then purposefully ramped up his on-camera crazy because he wanted out of New York (with his money) as much as New York wanted him gone.
Meanwhile, a longtime league executive told me the real puppet master in the Paul George saga isn’t George — and it’s not the Pacers or Lakers or Rockets or Celtics or Cavs, either. He said it’s George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, who he believed leaked the initial rumors about George wanting to leave Indiana, and then set about helping shuffle pieces around the board. The exec noted that Mintz also represents D’Angelo Russell, who was shipped across the continent, and Julius Randle, who might as well be at a UPS facility waiting for someone to stamp a destination on him.
At first, the Mintz stuff felt a bit off. I wondered why an agent might use one or more of his clients as bait to benefit another. Couldn’t that easily backfire? And doesn’t it fall into a pretty gray ethical area? But then again, operating in hazy territory is hardly unusual. Agents aren’t technically supposed to represent active players and also coaches or general managers, but they do. (Jeff Schwartz, for example, represents Milwaukee head coach Jason Kidd — along with Bucks players Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, and Rashad Vaughn. He’s not alone. But, you know, go get those checks, Jeff.)
The fluctuating salary cap over the last few years probably hasn’t helped player-agent relationships, either. Great money five years ago is good — or even bad — money today. All the more reason for agents to be quiet and crafty when using one client as leverage for another. As the exec said, the players often don’t even realize they’re being used for Machiavellian maneuvers. Sometimes neither do we.
Rubio was drafted in 2009, but he didn’t make his NBA debut until 2011. That was the year of the lockout. Before the league-wide shutdown, there were all sorts of rumors that Rubio had “reservations” about going to the NBA that year. He said he might stay in Spain another season. Then the league lifted the lockout and Rubio made his debut in late December. So Rubio had a change of heart, right? According to a longtime league executive, that was only part of the story. He told me to go back and look at the deal J.J. Barea got that same December. Per usual with these things, the idea was to follow the money.
A couple of weeks before Rubio played his first NBA game, the Timberwolves signed Barea to a four-year deal worth $18 million. It seemed a bit of an odd fit considering the Wolves also had Luke Ridnour, who would go on to start 53 games for Minnesota that year, compared to the 41 games Barea would play (just 11 of which he started). More importantly, there was all that money. Look at what Marc Stein wrote back then after Barea inked the contract:
“The speedy guard from Puerto Rico drew interest from several teams, most notably the New York Knicks, after emerging as a playoff difference-maker. But none of the other suitors could match the sort of offer that the under-the-salary-cap Timberwolves could present.”
At the time, Barea was represented by Dan Fegan. So was Rubio. If you haven’t yet connected the conspiracy dots, allow our exec to do it for you. The way he put it, it was the NBA equivalent of a shakedown. Want Rubio to come over? Fegan could make that happen — if the Wolves threw more money at another of his clients than anyone else could/would offer. Rubio came over. Barea (and Fegan) got paid. The Wolves spent money they would have spent anyway because of the new CBA cap floor. In silly season, everyone wins — even the losers. (Fegan could not be reached for comment;he has a lot going on these days.)
This story was right in front of our faces, and we didn’t notice. What might we be missing right now? Another league exec said to watch what happens with Kyle Lowry — and one of his teammates. In theory, the market for the point guard probably isn’t as robust as Lowry would like, particularly with the Sixers, a one-time potential suitor, suddenly eloping with Markelle Fultz. But the adage about how it only takes one team is true, and that one team might be the Raptors — whether they like it or not. Lowry is represented by Andy Miller, who also has another Toronto free agent for a client: Serge Ibaka.
The play here, as it was explained to me, is obvious enough: Miller goes to the Raptors and makes the case for fat new deals for Lowry and Ibaka. Both, not just one — and probably an overpay for Ibaka. Doing so would explode the Raptors’ cap sheet, but that’s president Masai Ujiri’s problem, not Miller’s. If Ujiri balks, Miller threatens to remove both Lowry and Ibaka in tandem, which would immediately topple Toronto. A different league executive called that possibility “a gangster move” by Miller, but noted, “That’s what he’s known for.” Indeed.
In a vacuum, the market doesn’t look great for Lowry or Ibaka. It’s possible Ujiri strikes deals that are equitable for all sides. Of course, Ujiri could call Miller’s theoretical negotiation bluff. Ujiri has always been forward-thinking, and he might secretly see that kind of two-for-one ransom tactic as the excuse he needs to undergo a necessary rebuild. Or maybe, if still another report becomes reality, Ujiri will jump ship instead of go down with it, and he might even beat Lowry and Ibaka to the lifeboats.
Incidentally, has anyone asked Bobby Webster if he can swim?
The official start of free agency is still a few hours away. There’s plenty more plot to come. Among the unresolved storylines: Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap are set to meet with the Suns. Gordon Hayward has laid out an ambitious schedule where he’ll be courted by Miami, Boston, and Utah, in that order. Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans have plans to talk at midnight. And, maybe best of all, Swaggy P is on the loose.
There are so many rumors in the wind these days that it’s hard to tell whether the offseason really has become crazier than ever, or if we’re simply hearing more about it than before. There’s more information now and more demand, and each one is amplified as a result of the symbiosis. The truly great part is that, despite the crush of gossip, we can still be surprised by the offseason — caught off guard by Brooklyn pouncing on D’Angelo Russell, or Paul jumping to the Rockets, or the Knicks jettisoning Phil Jackson.
It all makes for excellent entertainment. The neverending intrigue is good for the palace and for those of us desperate to know what’s really happening inside. They toss out delicious morsels. We devour them and ask for more. Everyone gets fat and happy. Loosen your belt. Chew slowly. There are many meals ahead.
by John Gonzalez