Super Teaming: Kyrie and KD in Boston?
The last few days have been a whirlwind for the NBA. The last few months have been a tornado. The last few years have been a hurricane. A combinations of forces, both intended and unintended, have conspired to create a new era where teams, players, and agents are all vying for the power to shape an ever-shifting slate of super teams.
Danny Ainge and the Celtics were in the vanguard of this movement with the double swoop for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007. The few months preceding those transactions gave a peek at how the league would operate over the next decade plus.
All of the Timberwolves, Celtics, Lakers, Suns, and Garnett himself were using the media in a high stakes game of trade brinksmanship.
In the intervening years we've seen similar stories dominate the league. The Heatles in Miami. LeReturn to Cleveland. The KD Warriors. All were player-directed team builds meant to one-up the last monster squad that formed.
In the last two years we've seen shorter, richer, and more flexible contracts allow LeBron (again), Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler (twice) to maneuver their way into a situation of somewhere between their choosing and their acceptance.
Until recently, the Celtics were perceived to be back at the forefront of this movement towards team/player partnership super teams. The expectation was that Boston had been gaming out an Irving-Anthony Davis team-up for a while and were well positioned to make that happen this summer.
Over the last week two major shifts have altered that perception. First, Davis made his move earlier and with more purpose than had been expected. It has been assumed that Boston's hope was that Davis would force the Pelicans' hand this summer by declining an extension, not mid-season by demanding a trade. Furthermore his agency, Klutch Sports (who are owned by LeBron's best friend and business partner but we're all supposed to believe LeBron has no stake in), have been leveraging their media connections to try to scare off other trade suitors or, at least, to convince the Pelicans that they've scare everyone else off.
Simultaneously, the Knicks cleared their salary decks as part of moving Kristaps Porzingis and suddenly the rumors that Durant and Irving had plans to team up in New York seemed a lot more realistic.
A way to look at this would be that Boston's seemingly big plan of pairing Irving and Davis no longer seemed ambitious enough. LeBron and Davis in Los Angeles with a big chunk of cap space is a higher wattage spotlight. Durant, Irving, and Zion Williamson (or maybe even Davis) in New York is every columnist's dream.
Maybe that's right, but not in the way the current conventional wisdom says.
If we're in the era of true super teams, why do we assume that Boston would stop at "only" Irving and Davis? If Durant and Irving have a long-standing desire to play together, why would they settle for doing it with a skeleton crew of teammates in New York?
League sources have told me that KD has expressed interest in joining the Celtics.
(I think I sufficiently buried the lede.)
If you take a step back, that shouldn't be a shock. It's generally believed that the Celtics were Durant's second choice in 2016 and more than a few observers feel that had the Warriors won the '16 title Durant would be a Celtic now. The Celtics would obviously be amenable to this too; Durant has long been the apple of Ainge's eye.
If KD and Kyrie really do want to team up, why would they shackle themselves to James Dolan when an alternative exists? While Boston can't create the cap space to sign Durant, and can't reasonably acquire him via sign-and-trade (receiving a player via S&T invokes a hard salary cap that they would be hard-pressed to get under), there is another way.
Chris Paul moved to Houston via trade by opting in to the last year of his contract, but only once he had brokered an agreement between the Rockets and Clippers. If Durant and Irving wanted to pair up in the best available situation, Durant could follow the same path via his $31.5M final year option. He would be taking a significant pay cut for next season but he's already shown a willingness to do that over his years with the Warriors.
Golden State would be loathe to participate, but if the other option that KD presented was staying in the West and teaming up with LeBron in Los Angeles they would have little choice.
To make this happen Boston would likely have to trade either Al Horford or Gordon Hayward. Horford would have to opt-in but maybe he would agree if it meant landing in Golden State. He could not move there via sign-and-trade, but were he to opt out and choose to go to a different team that were themselves under the S&T hard cap, Boston could try to turn that into a multi-team S&T where they acquire KD.
A simpler construction would be to trade Hayward who, even if he doesn't get "back" this year would be a risk that the Warriors would have to take, knowing they would not have the financial flexibility to add a better Durant replacement. You can't squander seasons when you have Steph Curry.
There's no reason that the fun would have to stop there, particularly if Davis is still a Pelican beyond the trade deadline. LeBron, Bosh, and Paul all switched teams via orchestrated trades where their old team received relatively little. The Cavs received two late 1sts and two 2nds for the LeBron S&T. For Chris Paul, the Clippers received seven players headlined by Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams plus a 1st round pick. The point being that Boston would not have to give up much beyond Horford or Hayward (in particular if Hayward starts showing signs of recovering from his injury).
The team would still have almost all of the parts believed to headline an Anthony Davis offer. They could still pair Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown with Marcus Smart and a bevy of quality draft picks to get Davis. KD-Kyrie-AD would be a super team anywhere, but having them on a squad that starts with something like Jaylen or Jayson, a now re-signed Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes would take it to another level. You may even still have one of Horford, Hayward, or Smart, depending on other choices from both players and team.
Some will look at this as a pipe dream. The ravings of desperate fan. Is it really any more outlandish than Durant and Kyrie jumping to the Knicks or New Orleans giving in and trading Anthony Davis for Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma?
The most predictive theory of Danny AInge is that he's always thinking bigger than you expect. When everyone was reporting that KG was going to LA, he was finessing a super team being the scenes. When he made the trade for Isaiah Thomas it wasn't just to get Thomas, it was a move to start positioning for a double-max pitch to Kevin Durant. When that failed he didn't move on to Kyrie Irving, but Irving and (we think) Davis.
What if we were still underestimating his ambitions? What if the reason that the Lakers and Klutch are acting desperate is that they have a bad hand and so are desperate? What if the reason that the noise out of New York is not of a master plan but of frustration with Porzingis is because they don't have a master plan and were just frustrated with Porzingis?
Maybe the Lakers' bluff works, or they get called but hit an out card before the season ends. Maybe the Knicks do win the lottery and then go get Durant and Irving, or a dark horse emerges to take the super team mantle. The Celtics aren't out of this game though, and often have higher aims than we realize.