In the summer of 2010, six teams had created the cap space necessary to sign free agent megastar LeBron James. The Knicks had gone so far as to trade a first-round pick to acquire Tracy McGrady just to be in the conversation. Those six teams, the Cavs, Nets, Knicks, Clippers, Bulls, and Heat all built their entire offseasons around the possibility of James selecting them, because the chance at James choosing them meant a dramatic realignment of their entire basketball universe.
Of course, only one team, the Heat, got LeBron. The others had to figure out how to go forward with all the cap space they created. The Knicks signed Amar'e Stoudemire, which eventually set up the addition of Carmelo Anthony. The Chicago Bulls signed Carlos Boozer. The Clippers toiled in awfulness until they landed Chris Paul. The Cavaliers descended into rebuilding hell. The Nets got no one and tried to trade for Carmelo Anthony, and eventually settled for trading for Deron Williams.
Plan Bs, all of them.
You can go down the list with these contingency plans that, in hindsight, will have wound up shaping the majority of the league -- and even, in rare cases, provide the missing piece of an all-time great team. In 2013, the Warriors had created max cap room by miraculously dumping the contracts of Andres Biedrens, Richard Jefferson and Brandon rush on the Utah Jazz, and with it were pursuing Dwight Howard. That was widely reported by multiple outlets, and even confirmed by Warriors owner Joe Lacob. Howard, as we know, went to Houston, and the Warriors turned to ... future Finals MVP Andre Iguodala -- the best Plan B ever created.
It doesn't always go that way. You want the Plan A for a reason. Whenever there's a big-time free agent on the market, teams will open up cap space to get into the conversation with them and put all other plans on hold, even though those other plans are the ones they'll ultimately end up executing on when they almost inevitably swing ans miss on the big name.
Which brings us to this summer and Kevin Durant.
The situation this summer is both better and worse than it was in 2010 when those teams maneuvered to create cap room for LeBron. On one hand, teams have considerably more cap space due to the influx of television money with the salary cap expanding to $90 million (or more), as opposed to 2010 when teams were trying to cram space around their existing contracts. Additionally, contracts are shorter and more manageable since the NBA lockout infused a stranglehold on player deals.
On the other, this also means that teams are going to have to spend more money this summer, and the free agency class after Durant (and presumably, LeBron) tails off significantly after a few names. So these Plan Bs we speak of could get pretty thin pretty quickly for the teams that strike out on Durant. Who are some of those teams? And what might be their Plan Bs? Let's break it down.
OK, well, first, they're doomed if they have to turn to a Plan B. Durant leaving is the kind of thing a franchise just doesn't recover from in any kind of short order. It will take years to recover and will likely kick-start a rebuild, as they will eventually have to likely move or let go of Russell Westbrook. Their Plan B is basically the same as Earth's Plan B after the asteroid hit the dinosaurs. You start the life cycle over completely.
That said, the Thunder would have flexibility to try and recover. If they elect not to re-sign Dion Waiters and waive the non-guaranteed Anthony Morrow, OKC would have about $25 million to play with. Westbrook is still a good draw, though none of the top free agents on the list would be good fits. Would it be worth throwing a max to, say, Nicolas Batum to remain competitive? The Thunder don't have as much space as some teams, because they already have a big cap sheet. (Thanks, Enes Kanter!)
One sneaky move they might want to look at: should the Cavaliers be ready to move on from Kevin Love, the Thunder could guarantee Morrow, offer Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and a future first-round pick (not until 2020; they already owe their 2016 and 2018 first-rounders in trades) and see if the Cavaliers bite on Ibaka's production and defense. It wouldn't be the best package the Cavaliers can get for Love, but might provide them the best replacement option.
But that doesn't seem likely. If the Thunder fail to re-sign Durant, once they pick themselves up from the fetal position, their best move might well be for perhaps the most unsung contributor on the team that just beat OKC in the Western Conference finals.
Best free agent Plan B: Harrison Barnes
Barnes has the most upside as a No.1. Batum is a better player now, but needs great players around him. Barnes may need that as well, but if you can see a future where Barnes makes the leap, he could at least fill in as a Robin to Westbrook's Batman, if you're determined not to take a step backwards and rebuild. Again, Durant leaves and they're doomed.
The Warriors have the most interesting set of decisions this summer, and will be in the best position of anyone if Durant doesn't choose to join them. Given how contentious their conference finals were, and the fact that Durant has constantly objected to being No. 2 in various rankings throughout his life, going to Oakland and becoming a very tall, very great second option to Steph Curry probably won't appeal to Durant. Maybe he'll go just to make sure he wins a title, but sometimes how you win matters as much as if you win. A title with the Warriors means something very different for Durant than winning "on his own."
So if he doesn't go to the Bay, where do the Warriors go from there? Harrison Barnes is their big key free agent, and he'll be chasing a massive deal that could get as high as the max given his age and upside. As Sporting News noted, the Warriors can only retain one of Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Barnes, and Shaun Livingston if they want to offer Durant the max.
If he declines their advances, they can keep Bogut (and possibly offer the extension he has reportedly shown interest in), Iguodala (same), and Livingston. Then it just comes down to whether they want to retain Barnes at the max and add a third max player to Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, with Curry up for another such deal next summer. That's an insane luxury tax... but then, this the best team of all time and Joe Lacob kind of likes proving what he's willing to do.
If they don't want to give Barnes that money, the Warriors can focus on adding a player with that remaining approximate $18.9 million in cap space. They don't have to worry about limiting their future cap sheet because A) the cap jumps again in 2017, and B) all of their pieces are tradeable assets.
They could look at Chandler Parsons, who seems unlikely to head to the Warriors, but would effectively be Barnes, but better. Parsons is likely to chase the max, so the Warriors might have to clear cap room for an injury-plagued player. But skill-wise, he's perfect for the small-ball wizardry the Dubs employ.
The Dubs could get creative and sign Joe Johnson for the mid-level exception to play at small-ball power forward (or small forward in a pinch), add Courtney Lee on an average-market deal, or nab Jared Dudley to boost the bench.
The thing with the Warriors is that they make nearly any player they add a better defender and shooter. Leandro Barbosa should be a corpse in basketball terms and yet he's better than Manu Ginobili from two years ago for the Warriors. Anderson Varejao was a big part of the Game 7 win over the Thunder and he's basketball Walking Dead.
So they can add guys that aren't great on other teams and suddenly they look incredible, they just need to have experience and understand how to play. Aside from the ones we mentioned, there are a lot of those guys on the market. Deron Williams. Mirza Teletovic. Matt Barnes. Brandon Bass. But for my money, the best fit is a guy they saw a lot of in his days with the Blazers.
Best free-agent Plan B: Nicolas Batum
Batum's one of the best players available in free agency and does everything you want if you're the Warriors. He doesn't come with attitude questions or stars in his eyes, and would only help their seamless, flawless passing. He's expected to re-sign with Charlotte, but a chance to potentially start on arguably the best team of all time at $18.9 million, that could be tempting.
Batum fits much better with the Warriors than nearly any other team. He provides a third ball-handler to run offense in pick and rolls so that Curry or Thompson can spend more time off-ball, he's a great 3-point shooter, and it provides them with another great perimeter defender. Moving from Barnes to Batum means the end of the "death lineup" with Barnes at power forward, but you can easily slide Iguodala into that slot while moving Batum to Iguodala's small forward position and replicate the effect.
The Spurs slid from being one of the presumed major competitors for KD's services to a longshot in the eyes of many. It's pretty simple: The Spurs don't have the market attraction of teams like the Warriors, Lakers or Knicks. Their big pull is "win titles, better basketball," but KD's Thunder just put a six-game whooping on the silver and black. Durant has a long-standing tension with Kawhi Leonard, and he's lost to the Spurs in the conference finals before. That's hard to get over.
They'll still have a shot because they are the freaking Spurs, and in order to land him, they would have to do some gymnastics. First they would need Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to retire. They they would have to let Boban Marjanovic leave in free agency, have David West execute his player option and depart, and waive Boris Diaw, cutting his 2016 guaranteed salary from $7 million to just $3 million... and all of that only gets them $18 million in space.
They'd then have to trade Danny Green to clear an extra $10 million unless Durant is taking some sort of absurd pay cut in the most lucrative time of his career, potentially costing him upwards of $20 million between this year and next. That's not happening.
(There is also the possibility that Duncan and Ginobili exercise their player options and return for the veteran minimum. This does not seem likely, but it's the Spurs so let's keep it on the table.)
So no, getting KD does not seem likely.
However, if the Spurs don't get Durant, their Plan B may be the tried-and-true Spurs approach of "run back the band." That's the easiest approach. Let's say they keep Green and Diaw, let Marjanovic go, and Duncan and Ginobili retire.
That creates about $14 million in cap room, which gets them a chunk to work with. That gives them options, though they're losing two Hall of Famers and a giant beast creature named Boban. They could add Dudley, and someone like Mirza Teletovic, and then spend the rest on whatever quality ball-handler is willing to take a pay cut to join the Spurs. Which brings us to their best Plan B option.
Best free agent Plan B: Brandon Jennings
This is a longshot, but Brandon Jennings taking a one-year deal would be phenomenal for the Spurs. They could play Jennings and Patty Mills together, and it gives them more diversity and athleticism in the backcourt.
If they wanted to go big instead, which would also help them, they could look at Timofey Mozgov, who has the international flair they are so often drawn to and would be a great fit, or Nene who also meshes well with both their needs and culture.
Or, they do what the Spurs do and sign nobody notable, bring the band back that won 67 games this year because that's a lot of games and they're all still good players, and keep right on rolling.
Such high hopes. Such low results. The Wizards were all about the #KD2DC train this year but instead they faceplanted, missed the playoffs, and aren't expected to be a serious option for Durant. The problem is they are the one team that really cleared space to sign him. This would be a great thing in a year with a strong free agency class. Instead, they have a team that basically has to make moves to try and improve, has to use their cap space, and faces a mediocre free agency class to do it in.
So... things could get a little hairy. Almost all their money is "dead," in that they expire completely no restricted free agents outside of max player Bradley Beal. If they don't bring Drew Gooden back, they'll have about $25 million in cap space. That's enough for a max player, but none of the options for a max make much sense. They should call Al Horford, but that's just not likely to happen. DeMar DeRozan doesn't make sense with Beal. Batum doesn't make much sense, either, and he likely wouldn't be interested. They can kick the tires on Hassan Whiteside, but I'm not honestly sure I'd take the risk involved with Whiteside over the sure-handed Gortat.
After maxing Beal, they're going to have about $25 million in cap space left over. That's after giving Bradley "Can't Play More Than 60 Game A Season" Beal $22 million per year. Oh, and if they want to, they can go over the cap and use Beal's Bird Rights to re-sign him. That would give them roughly $31 million in available spending space.
Yes, you heard that right. Thirty-one million dollars. You can do a lot with that kind of money.
They need to improve. So they either have to really invest in a mid-tier free agent, or go trade shopping, which would be the better option. Unfortunately, they have almost nothing to trade because all of their contracts expire and they sent their pick to Phoenix in the Markieff Morris deal.
This could get a little wild.
The Wizards are adamant that in the event of Durant turning them down, they will not overspend just to overspend, but at some level, they have to, just to fill roster spots. The situation is complicated, though. They can be the team to throw a big money offer at Dwight Howard, or to offer Hassan Whiteside the max, but they have Marcin Gortat. To me, there's a safer play.
Best free agent Plan B:Marvin Williams
Williams gives them a reliable stretch four, which in turn allows them to move Markieff Morris to small forward, and then they can augment the bench with players like Jerryd Bayless, Lance Thomas, etc.
In other words, no big signings. The real play here is to hold the money, and then go bonkers for a much stronger class in 2017. Telling John Wall he's basically wasting a year is bad, but making value signings while looking to sign players to tradeable contracts is a better long-term option. The Wizards had high expectations and cratered last year. Set the team up for low expectations by going under the radar, over-perform, pick up momentum headed into the summer ,and then add some star power next year.
The thing with the Lakers is that they're going to have $64 million to spend with a brutally young squad. There's pretty much no reason for them to spend in big amounts unless they get Durant. If they can't sign multiple max free agents, they should keep the space for 2017 to swing for Russell Westbrook and other stars.
The biggest name that continually pops up with them is DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is from California, idolized the Lakers growing up, and is an All-Star caliber player. But he seems pretty set to stay with the Raptors. The only real considerations for the Lakers should be to re-sign Jordan Clarkson and to maybe try and sign the next Amar'e Stoudemire -- that is, the first star to act as a lure to other stars in the future, as Stoudemire tried to do in New York.
All that said, the best, and probably most realistic Plan B, is a familiar face on this list.
Best free agent Plan B:Harrison Barnes
The Lakers could pair Barnes with presumed No.2 overall pick Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle in the frontcourt, with D'Angelo Russell and Clarkson at guard, to form a young team with mountains of upside. It's hyper-small, but plays to their athleticism and keeps them in play for Westbrook in 2017.
The Heat are kind of the opposite of the Wizards and Lakers. They have mountains of cap space and a ton of options. The fact that they're a playoff team with several All-Star caliber players and an array of young talent is helpful. They don't have to wait for 2017. They can make a play now and be title relevant.
Should the Heat miss on Durant with the roughly $40 million in cap space they have, they can run the same team back, re-signing Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside, Luol Deng and Tyler Johnson. They can keep Wade and look to add a player like Al Horford or Pau Gasol, add Dwight Howard on a value deal, or bolster their bench with someone like Courtney Lee. The options are pretty much endless. It should be noted that of that $40 million, Wade's cap hold takes up a huge chunk of it, so the Heat can't stock up on multiple big free agents, and they do not own bird rights to go over the cap to re-sign Whiteside. They have to fit him in if they want to keep him.
Miami has a tough decision with Whiteside. If they can't find an upgrade, they probably have to just commit to keeping him long-term, which would lock them into this roster for the foreseeable future instead of keeping their options open. This is a big summer for them, but they're in a good position to capitalize, even with the big cap holds in place. If they get Durant, they're probably the favorite in the East immediately. If they don't, they can still hit a home run.
Best free agent Plan B: Al Horford
Horford gives Miami an incredibly smart, savvy veteran who makes them better in every area. He doesn't have Whiteside's defensive impact or athleticism, but he also comes without the questions marks. He is not a guy who is going to be the best player on a title-contending team, but as a No. 2 or certainly No. 3 option who can slide himself pretty seamlessly into most any system, he would be a huge difference maker.
If this happens for Miami, this would feel a lot like Iguodala going to Golden State. Hard to even call it a Plan B.
I'll include them here, since Durant and Harden are buddies. It makes zero sense for Durant to go there, though. The roster is a mess, the team's chemistry and culture was a j0ke last year, they hired Mike D'Antoni so their defense is a disaster before they even start, and you can make a very good argument that Harden is not better than Westbrook, though it's clearly close.
So if they don't get Durant, what do they do?
Whatever it is, they have to get better. Quickly. They can start by renouncing the players with cap holds and clear up nearly $45 million in space. In doing so, they could make some smart moves to add a bunch of value players on big-money, short-term deals -- maybe Ryan Anderson, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng or Brandon Jennings. Or ...
Best free agent Plan B: Hassan Whiteside
Sure, the Rockets have culture and leadership questions, but a Mike D'Antoni pick and roll with Harden and Whiteside? Sheer terror.
The Celtics have big plans this summer, and badly need a star. They are considered in some circles the favorite if Durant goes to the Eastern Conference. If they don't get him, they'll just move on to Al Horford and then on down the line, while trying to package their assets in trade.
If they were to clear all non-guaranteed, expiring, and restricted free agents they have, they could create room for two stars. The ideal is to land Durant and Horford, then trade for a third with their cadre of picks and assets.
If that doesn't work, they'll move to Horford, but if they can't land anyone in free agency, the question is whether they will be willing, or able, to create an offer to lure DeMarcus Cousins from Sacramento?
Let's say all those options flame out. They need points in a bad way. So...
Best free agent Plan B: Chandler Parsons
Parsons gives them a free agent recruiter who rebounds, passes, and can shoot. There are injury concerns, but Parsons might actually unlock something with this Celtics roster. You can play Jae Crowder at combo-forward with him. Add on a free agent center, and the Celtics take a big step forward.