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NBA

Where will they play next season? LeBron, Kyrie, Harden, Zion...

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James is among a group of big-name players whose futures at their current NBA team are unclear.

Update:
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James is among a group of big-name players whose futures at their current NBA team are unclear.
JONATHAN BACHMANGetty Images

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Beal will turn 29 later in June. He has been in the NBA since 2012 and has shown that he can pretty much score at will when he’s on fire: he has averaged 22.1 points in 645 career games, and in two straight seasons (2019-21) he got above 30 a night. This season, he only played 40 games as he struggled with a wrist injury. He averaged 23.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists. In 2019, Beal signed an extension that was positive for him and for the Wizards, the team that drafted him at number three in 2012: two years, $72m extra, to place him at that point at a total of 4x130 with a player option for the final season, the one that’s coming up: 2022-23. He can choose to see out his contract in Washington for $36.4m.

Beal had rejected a new extension that would have taken him out of the market rumour mill for the medium-term future: the Wizards were offering him $181.5m for four more years, but the shooting guard preferred not to commit for the time being. Now, all the indications are that he will pass up his player option and sign a new deal. The Wizards can give him a maximum of five years and $245m. If he moves to another team as a free agent, his salary limit would be $180m over four years. Beal finds himself debating between showing loyalty to the only NBA franchise he’s ever played for and a desire to test the waters of free agency and, above all, be a part of a team with true aspirations of winning the championship.

The Wizards, meanwhile, are juggling their efforts to rebuild with the need to compete in the here and now. In such a situation, it’s always dangerous to commit to a player of Beal’s age, who would earn an average of $49m a year - a pay packet only bettered by Stephen Curry ($53.8m). There are no certainties that Beal, a first-class scorer, can be the chief leader of a team aiming for the title (there are huge doubts, indeed). So the situation could end up being a difficult one both for the player, at least in sporting terms, and for a team that certainly want to make sure they don’t lose Beal without getting anything in return. At the very least, they would need to agree a sign and trade deal: give Beal a new contract with a move already agreed with a franchise that would take on the player and his new (and gigantic) salary.

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

LaVine’s situation has certain parallels with Beal’s, and with those of many others at this point of their career. The 27-year-old, who ended up with knee problems this season, has been an All-Star in the past two years and has become one of the most spectacular shooting guards in the NBA. He has been with the Bulls since 2017, and has rejected a four-year, $157.4m extension. He’s going to be the summer’s stand-out free agent and is going to sign his first mega contract (his previous deal was worth $78m over four years). At the Bulls, he can get a maximum of $212.3m over five years. If he goes to another team as a free agent or via sign and trade, he can net up to $157.4m over four years. So it’s logical to expect him to stay in Chicago, but there are reports that the franchise is divided. It’s the eternal conundrum: LaVine is a top player, but is he good enough to warrant a commitment of over $200m?

David Kaplan of NBC Chicago has explained the doubts that exist in the Bulls’ front office: “Solid player. Good ball handler. Good facilitator. Solid player. Great guy. Is he gonna truly kill you when the game is on the line? Like Michael [Jordan] would kill his family to win. Kobe [Bryant]… same deal. There are some that believe Kevin Durant is a killer. Steph Curry. There are other guys that are really good players. Not the dog mentality.”

Zach LaVine in action for the Chicago Bulls this year.
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Zach LaVine in action for the Chicago Bulls this year.Chicago TribuneGetty

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Again, the same doubts. Towns is really, really good; a huge talent. An All-Star, he is at the ideal age (26), and has averaged more than 24 points per game for four straight seasons. He’s one of the best shooters among centers in the history of the NBA; indeed, he’s the reigning three-point contest champion. The Timberwolves have just returned to the Playoffs after a hugely positive season (46-36) and are a team that have demonstrated their newly-discovered ambition by hiring executive Tim Connelly, the Wolves’ financial offer luring him from the clutches of the Denver Nuggets.

Towns still has two years left on his contract, which are worth $68.9m. But in Minnesota the reports are that this summer an extension will be on the table that would net him $211 over four years, as he qualifies for the supermax contract that equates to 35% of the team’s salary cap. Despite Towns’ talent, however, some doubt his competitive edge and his ability to be the leader of a team in which Anthony Edwards is emerging fast. Speaking to Hoopshype, one anonymous NBA scout was categorical: “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t give him the supermax. I don’t think he deserves it. He hasn’t done anything to become a supermax guy. He’s super talented, but he’s kind of flaky.”

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

One of the major issues to be resolved this summer, certainly. The waters seem to be a bit calmer at the Pelicans now: they’re a team on the rise, having returned to the Playoffs and found their sporting identity. And, on the way, they’ve partially repaired their relationship with Williamson, their 2019 number-one Draft pick, for whom the time to negotiate an extension has arrived. The New Orleans can pay him a maximum of $181m over five years. That would have gone up to $210m if he had got into an All-NBA team once in his three seasons in the league - three years that have yielded just 85 games (with last season a complete write-off, after a 2020/21 campaign in which he was an All-Star).

It’s a tricky one: injuries, his playing style, his physical profile and his attitude when he has been out have left many questioning the wisdom of giving such a big contract to a player who, on the other hand, is a media dream and has unquestionable potential… if he can just get regular court time. In his All-Star year, he averaged 27 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 61% on field goals. He’s still only 21, and has been linked to big markets such as New York… What to do? All the indications are that the Pelicans will offer him a big contract, but not a five-year max deal without conditions and ways of protecting the franchise. There is talk of more than $100m guaranteed. If Williamson accepts it, there won’t be a summer saga. If he wants the full contract over five years… we may get one.

Zion Williamson missed the whole of the 2021/22 season.
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Zion Williamson missed the whole of the 2021/22 season.Sarah StierAFP

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers

Another delicate case which, in this instance, could pretty much sort itself out. In October, Harden turned down an extension at the Nets, who were offering him $161.1m over three additional years. He arrived in Philadelphia in February, and didn’t reach an agreement in time, either, so now he can either become a free agent or take up a gigantic player option: $47.3m. There’s also the option of a four-year, $233m extension. A huge deal that would leave him with a $61m annual salary in 2026/27, at which point he’ll be 36.

The major media outlets in the US have already mapped out the way forward: Harden will take up that player option, and attempt to reach an agreement with the Sixers. The market doesn’t offer up good opportunities for him and his form over the past season doesn’t put him in a position to make enormous demands. And his team isn’t going to offer him that max extension. Now 32, his physical decline is clear to see. He’s no longer the offensive production machine he was at the Rockets and in his 21 regular-season games with the Sixers, he averaged 21 points, his lowest since 2012, when he was a third-year reserve at the Thunder. He also registered his worst percentages: 40% on shooting, with 32% on three-pointers. In the Playoffs, he was far from at his best: 18.7 points and seven assists in the series against the Heat. So the evident drop in his performances may mean there’s not much drama in this case.

Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

A further case that appeared more complicated than it may end up being… or perhaps not. It’s difficult to be sure in situations such as this - and all the more so when the man at the centre of it is the most unstable star in the NBA. Before this season, Irving had a max extension on the table. Like Harden (and unlike his inseparable colleague Kevin Durant), he didn’t sign it. Then came a season in which the Nets were a major disaster, receiving a first-round thumping against the Celtics after needing the Play-In tournament to qualify for the Playoffs. Among other things, Brooklyn’s poor campaign was caused by Irving’s three-month absence from the team because of his refusal to get vaccinated against covid-19. He ended up playing just 29 games, having appeared in 54 the previous year. His reputation as a man you can’t rely on has never been greater, and he has a player option worth $36.5m that in principle he was planning to reject in favour of signing a new contract with the Nets.

Aged 30 and one of the most special talents in the history of basketball, it might seem like a no-brainer to give him a five-year, $246m contract, or a four-year, $190m deal. However, it appears that the Nets don’t want his complex personality to come back to bite them, at the same time as they need to reach an agreement that’s satisfactory for both parties. Not just because of the player Irving is, but because of his close relationship with Durant. The pair chose to come together at the Nets in 2019, and when this season ended they made it clear that they wanted to keep playing alongside one another. If Irving rejects the player option and signs with another team, he could get up to $182m over four years. If he takes the player option, he could sign extensions of three or four years extra but would lose out compared to his best pathway. The Nets will try to reach a deal that leaves certain options open to them if Irving remains an unstable performer.

Kyrie Irving sat out much of the Nets' season over his refusal to get vaccinated.
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Kyrie Irving sat out much of the Nets' season over his refusal to get vaccinated.Maddie MeyerGetty Images

DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

The Suns won 64 games in the best season in their history. After getting to within two games of the championship in the 2021 Finals, they were major title candidates when the season began. But then the Playoffs came… and Phoenix came unstuck in the Conference Semi-Finals against the Mavericks. Having been in commanding positions in the series (2-0 and 3-2), they lost 3-4 after an ignominious Game 7 on their home court, in which they were 46 points down at one point and in which Devin Booker, Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton mustered just 26 points between them. Ayton didn’t get much court time, and it later emerged that his coach, Monty Williams, had grown tired of what he considered unjustifiable lapses in concentration and competitive edge from the center, who was the first overall pick in the 2018 Draft.

At 23, Ayton is a player with a big future, one who has been crucial to the rise of the Suns and has been at his best since the arrival of Paul, an expert in getting the most out of his frontcourt men. Last season, Ayton averaged more than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. Without dominating the shooting, with a support role in offence, and a more and more useful, focused presence in defence. And that’s despite beginning the season without an extension to his rookie contract - something that’s unusual in a number-one Draft pick who’s a starter and a key figure in a team that has reached the Finals. The Suns refused to give him the maximum of $172m over five years, and it then came out that they had even looked at what his market value could be. The player acknowledged that he felt disappointed.

The Suns’ deeply underwhelming elimination, amid rumours of internal criticism, has strengthened the wave of opinion that suggests that, in the NBA of today, it isn’t worth giving huge contracts to out-and-out centers… unless, of course, we’re talking about someone like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic. Ayton will be a restricted free agent for $16.4m. In that case, the Suns could equal any offer and keep the player. But right now every option is on the table (including sign and trade) and, what’s more, there are clear suitors: Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pacers…

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Everything ended so badly for the Lakers, who in two years have gone from winning the title to failing even to make the Play-In, that there could even be a saga involving LeBron. The player has a contract for next season worth $44.4m. In principle, Los Angeles are expected to offer him a $97m extension for another two. A deal he would finish at the age of 39. But his camp has let it be known that he wouldn’t accept that, and among the alternatives he’s considering is taking the route he followed in his final years at the Cleveland Cavaliers: take it year by year, to maximise his sporting options. Although LA is still an ideal market for him, the Lakers are not in a good place and there’s also his desire to play with his son Bronny, who could arrive in the NBA in 2024.

Since the season’s end, LeBron has dialled down his tone and has sent conciliatory messages to the Lakers, who are determined not to trade him even if he doesn’t extend his contract and there is the risk of him leaving as a free agent in 2023. This will be one of the major issues to follow this summer, as it will bring us news, or at least clear indications, on what the end of the 37-year-old’s legendary NBA career will look like. Many believe that he won’t want to pass up the opportunity to beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record haul of points for the Lakers. If in LA they can put together a team that can once more entertain ambitions of winning the title, it’s likelier the situation will reach a drama-free resolution.

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