By Jeff Caplan, NBA.cm
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The San Antonio Spurs won their fifth championship since 1999, but it took 15 years for the most stable franchise in pro sports to play in back-to-back NBA Finals. What’s left to accomplish?
That’s right, back-to-back titles.
That’s only one reason to expect Spurs captain Tim Duncan to continue his brilliant career for at least a 18th season. The talk has always been about Kobe Bryant chasing Michael Jordan‘s six rings, but it’s now Duncan in his twilight years who has the greatest chance to get it done.
So why in the world would Duncan, his body holding up as strongly as his production, hang ’em up now?
Versatile forward Boris Diaw, high-octane point guard Patty Mills and reliable-when-needed forward Matt Bonner are the only players not under contract for next season. While Diaw and Mills have raised their stock and will be attractive free agents, it’s certainly not out of the question that they’ll be back in the silver-and-black.
Even if the Spurs lose one, or both, their Big Three — plus Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and a couple new reinforcements for the bench — will have the Spurs as a favorite to make it three consecutive Finals appearances.
Duncan, 38, just completed a phenomenal postseason, averaging 16.3 ppg on 52.3 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds while logging 32.7 mpg. That followed up a regular season in which he played in 74 games while coach Gregg Popovich again masterfully managed his playing time.
So, again, what would be the motivation to retire now? A man of similar body type, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won a championship with the Lakers at age 40 and played in The Finals at age 41.
While Duncan, for whatever reason, hasn’t come out and stated that he’ll be back despite still having one year and $10.3 million left on his contract, he has smiled through interviews while making statements lightly-sprinkled with hints that he has no plan of joining San Antonio resident David Robinson on the golf course quite yet.
Fortunately, the anticipation for a definitive answer won’t take long. Duncan has a June 24 deadline, that’s one week from today, to notify the Spurs of his plans.
The Miami Heat’s future won’t be resolved quite so soon. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all opt out of their contracts and become free agents. What they decide to do will be the biggest story of the summer and whatever they decide will produce ripple effects across the league.
And that brings us to the biggest story lines of the summer:
Heat is on in Miami
After batting .500 in four consecutive Finals appearances, what will the Heat’s Big Three decide to do? Each is owed more than $20 million next season, so if they’re simply ready to line their bank accounts (more than they already are), each will opt in and collect paychecks. If they do, they can forget about contending for more championships. They need help, really, across the board.
All three players have until June 29 to exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts.
While it’s the American way to make as much money for as long as you can, the problem for NBA players talented enough to demand the largest sums is they’re also locked into a salary-cap system that makes it virtually impossible to build a championship-level team around too many high-salaried players.
So if James, Wade and Bosh want to continue to play together in Miami, there’s really only one solution. All three must opt out of their contracts. Wade, who we know now just isn’t going to be the same physically because of his failing knees, must accept taking a substantial pay cut, something in the way of a four-year deal between $10 million and $12 million. Bosh, who put up pedestrian numbers throughout the playoffs, must do the same.
James, now the one true superstar among the three, can then sign at a price that will be below what he’s worth. But doing so will allow Miami to pursue free agents — such as a point guard and post player — that can quickly get Miami where it needs to be to compete with the best in the West.
So here’s the real question: Do the Big Three want to stay together? If they do, we’ll know it when Wade and Bosh opt out. If Wade is first to opt in, it means he’s taking the cash and likely ending an era.
Carmelo and the non-Heat free agents
New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony plans to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. He’ll be keeping a close eye on what happens in Miami. It’s possible, however unlikely, that the Big Three will take such deep discounts as to allow room for ‘Melo to join the party on South Beach.
Chicago and Houston are reportedly also on Anthony’s short list. The Bulls, offensively challenged but with cemented defensive philosophy, veteran leadership, a great coach and the expected return of Derrick Rose, seem to be the perfect fit for a natural scorer like ‘Melo. The Bulls have to do some money maneuvering to make it happen starting with amnestying power forward Carlos Boozer, which would set him free to move on to another team at a bargain price.
Who else should we keep a close watch on?
Among guards, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry is coming off a career year and the Raptors would like him back. They also have Greivis Vasquez, a quality point guard who has yet to find a permanent home. Los Angeles native Nick Young wants to return to the Lakers. Most interesting will be Indiana’s mercurial Lance Stephenson and also Evan Turner, traded from Philadelphia to Indiana, where things just didn’t work out.
Luol Deng‘s landing spot is the most intriguing among the forwards. Lakers, anyone? Some other interesting forwards potentially headed toward new addresses include Atlanta’s Mike Scott, the Clippers’ Danny Granger and Washington’s Trevor Ariza. It will also be interesting to see if Miami or any other team gives former No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley another shot.
Then there’s the center position where Pau Gasol will hit the market, along with Washington’s Marcin Gortat and, ahem, Andrew Bynum. Greg Oden will also be available if Miami doesn’t re-sign him.
Love triangle and other trades
The Kevin Love saga will heat up, perhaps as soon as Draft night. Will the Minnesota Timberwolves find a palatable deal this summer for their discontented power forward? Maybe a three-way deal can make it happen? The double-double machine is tired of sitting on the sidelines for the playoffs, and while the Wolves will still try to convince Love to believe in them, they don’t want to be left empty-handed if they don’t deal him and he leaves as a free agent next year.
President of basketball operations Flip Saunders hired himself to coach the team next season. He’ll have to weigh trading Love now or going into the season with him, hoping for a fast start that might convince Love to hang on, or simply give teams more time to get more desperate and put together better deals.
While a few teams are reportedly willing to trade for Love without assurances that he’ll re-sign next summer, that fact could be limit the offers Minnesota receives. Most front offices want him to give his word that he’ll stick around.
Houston is another hot spot for activity and general manager Daryl Morey will be working for the phones to see if a deal can be made this summer that he couldn’t make last year for center Omer Asik, and also possibly Jeremy Lin.
More intrigue for a long-awaited Draft
Seems like we’ve been talking about the 2014 Draft for two years now (to the chagrin of the Class of ’13) and now we’re finally just days away (June 26). There’s even added intrigue with the foot injury to Kentucky’s Julius Randle that either does or doesn’t have NBA front office’s a tad concerned. Of course, prior to the NCAA Tournament, Kansas center Joel Embiid suffered a back injury, but seemed to allay fears during pre-draft workouts.
Will either one go No. 1 or will that distinction go to Kansas wing Andrew Wiggins or Duke forward Jabari Parker? Where will Australia’s Dante Exum land?
Billed as one of the most talented and deep drafts in years, and with a handful of teams holding multiple picks and other teams wanting to move up, this could be a very active Draft night.
Then on to Vegas (Orlando, too)
The Summer League in Las Vegas (July 11-21) gets bigger each year, both in number of NBA teams participating and in attendance, and this one stands to be the biggest considering the hype surrounding this year’s draft prospects.
The Utah Jazz make their debut in Vegas, making a 24-team field including 23 NBA teams and a team comprised of D-League talent. Nine teams will participate in the Summer League in Orlando on July 5-11.
Spain welcomes the world
Team USA will gather in Las Vegas once again following Summer League to being preparations for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain. The Americans will play a blue-white scrimmage in Vegas on Aug. 1, and then play exhibition games at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 20 and 22 before leaving for Spain to defend their 2010 championship.
The World Cup runs from Aug. 30 through Sept. 14.
In January, USA Basketball announced a 28-man roster that will report to Las Vegas and will provide the pool of players to build the World Cup roster with also an eye toward the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. The roster includes the biggest names in the NBA such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant — the 2010 tournament MVP — Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Antony Davis, James Harden, Paul George, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard, plus younger hopefuls such as DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal and Klay Thompson.
Sterling and the sale of the Clippers
Lastly, and unfortunately not least, we have the swirling Donald Sterling saga.
Just when it seemed the shamed Clippers owner would quietly walk away, he has instead decided to play hardball with the league. Sterling has not signed off on the sale of the Clippers and he is suing the league for $1 billion. Last week it was reported that his lawyers have hired private investigators to dig up dirt on the league’s 29 other owners, plus commissioner Adam Silver, who in April banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million, and former commissioner David Stern.
Next in the process is a hearing in probate court on July 7-10. A judge will determine Sterling’s mental competence. This stems from Shelly Sterling‘s alleged documents from two doctors who examined Donald Sterling and determined him to be mentally incapacitated, thus allowing Shelly Sterling to act as the sole trustee of the Sterling family trust, which grants her power to sell the team without her husband’s involvement. She agreed to sell the team to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.
If the judge determines Donald Sterling to indeed by mentally incompetent, then the sale of the team can go through pending a vote by the NBA’s Board of Governors, who will meet on July 15 in Las Vegas. If the judge determines Sterling to be competent, it would put the sale of the team into disarray and the league would again look to seek termination of Sterling’s ownership.