NBA superstars' new free-agent strategy

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LeBron 'would love' for Lakers to be in postseason (0:35)

LeBron James would love for the Lakers to be in the postseason but recognizes their odds are slim. (0:35)

IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT that LeBron James didn't sign a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers last summer and instead did what he did when he came back to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014 and signed a one-year deal with a player option.

Let's assume if that were the case, the already shaky situation with the Lakers might be more dramatic at the moment. However, it is not. In fact, it has been made clear to ownership that James remains fully committed to the Lakers, despite a very disappointing first season and an uncertain path toward improvement.

It must be said that James has often been a trendsetter among his superstar peers over the years. After seeing how rocky his first season in L.A. has gone, it has become tougher to project how it might affect the stars following James into free agency this summer.

Kevin Durant hasn't signed a long-term deal since 2010. Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard both demanded trades when they grew unhappy during their current long-term deals.

All three have also been willing to leave significant guaranteed money on the table in the past, which is part of the deal when opting to go short-term.

Durant has passed on max contracts each of the past two years and did so last summer to make sure he'd be a free agent again this year. Irving voided his chance at a supermax extension with the Cleveland Cavs when he asked out.

Leonard turned down a supermax extension with the San Antonio Spurs last summer, though it was offered after his trade request, when he'd already made up his mind. Once traded, both Irving and Leonard lost the ability to get supermaxes and the roughly $80 million extra it would've meant.

Having control is clearly important to all three. Teams act differently when star players are free-agents-to-be. Often, there's an undercurrent to all major moves with the star's happiness being protected.

How much that's worth to them might be a factor in how free agency in 2019 -- and, for that matter, 2020 -- plays out. It's also important to note that all three have dealt with serious injuries that have knocked them out for long periods, making short-term deals somewhat of a risk.

When James started this concept in 2014, it wasn't totally about a power play. With large forecasted jumps in the salary cap in 2015 and 2016, he didn't want to be locked into a deal and pass on maximizing his earnings.

It worked. Had James taken a four-year deal in 2014, as he was able to, he'd have made roughly $18 million less than he did by refreshing his contract three times in the four-year run back in Cleveland.

It had the ancillary benefit, though, of keeping the Cavs on their toes. And there's no question that there was a value to that, as the team repeatedly pushed deeper and deeper into the luxury tax to surround James with as much talent as it could find.

The league is projecting about a 9 percent bump in the cap for 2020 -- nothing like the so-called 35 percent "cap spike" of 2016. A short-term deal this summer would likely be more about maintaining control and leaving options open than it would be about maximizing paychecks.

But there's something else to consider: Pending free-agency questions and speculation have been thorns in the sides of Durant and Irving all season, unnerving them. Both have staged their own version of a media boycott -- Durant didn't talk to the press for more than a week, and Irving went through a period in which he'd give only terse answers -- after getting irritated by questions and stories about their futures. Leonard has avoided some of the unpleasantness, though part of his strategy has been to avoid certain media requests.

Going with a short deal with a current or new team this summer would open the door for a repeat of that scenario throughout next season. But would it be more unpleasant than getting stuck in an unhappy situation?

This cuts both ways, and again, James is a model. By 2017, the Cavs had grown tired of James' lack of long-term commitment, and it contributed to the way they handled Irving's trade demand that summer. With James unwilling to extend beyond 2018, owner Dan Gilbert opted to protect his future when he preferred a deal centered around a draft pick. Star players protecting their options can strain relationships with teams.

These are legitimate questions the stars will be pondering in this modern and complicated NBA.


BRANDON INGRAM'S DIAGNOSIS of a blood clot in his arm was both scary and hurtful to the Lakers long-term. As someone who once had a blood clot, I am keenly aware of the dangers they present and the complexity of treating them. The Lakers' medical team's steps to find the issue were vital. Ingram's primary focus for the next few months will be on getting healthy, and the medication to do so will significantly disrupt his life.

There is unfortunate fallout here. Ingram now must watch for blood clots the rest of his life. Although not all of the details of his diagnosis have been made public, typically blood clots that form without explanation suggest there is a greater chance they could return.

If Ingram gets another one, there is a chance his NBA career would be at risk because he'd have to be placed on blood thinning medication indefinitely. This is what happened to Chris Bosh and Mirza Teletovic, two players who were recently forced to retire because of recurring blood clots. Their blood clots were unexplained when they formed and later returned. In Bosh's case, it was a year later. For Teletovic, it happened three years later.

It was unlike the situation of former NBA player Anderson Varejao, who developed a blood clot after surgery in 2013 and went on to play without further issues. Blood clots after surgery are more common and explained.

Based on a sampling of NBA executives around the league the past few days, many believe Ingram's value has taken a real hit with this development. It feels dirty to discuss this as Ingram begins his treatment, but this is not happening in a vacuum.

The Lakers tried to center a trade for Anthony Davis around Ingram last month and might attempt to restart that process after the season, especially as Ingram was putting together one of the finest runs of play in his career. Even if doctors were able to determine that there is a low chance Ingram will develop blood clots in the future, several executives said teams might use this as a reason to lower his value.

Making this more difficult is the fact that Ingram is eligible for a contract extension this summer, whether it's with the Lakers or somewhere else. It is unlikely that a team could get insurance for blood clots for Ingram, which adds to the possible risk.

There is a history of elite athletes who had issues with blood clots, were treated and went on to long careers. Hakeem Olajuwon and Serena Williams are two examples. Let's all hope Ingram is part of this group. The percentages are on his side.

Even so, losing Ingram to this condition was a real blow for the Lakers, and it leaves the future uncertain.


THERE'S AN UNUSUAL DRAMA developing between the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks. According to the terms of the Luka Doncic trade on draft night last year, the Mavs will send the Hawks their 2019 pick if it falls outside the top five.

As little as a month ago, that looked like a relative certainty, as the Mavericks hovered around .500 and were on the fringe of the West playoff race. But as part of a roster makeover that led to the acquisition of Kristaps Porzingis and the trading of four starters, Dallas has plunged into a 1-11 tailspin. That has dropped it into position, at the moment, to have the No. 6 pick in this year's draft.

The Mavs have made it known that they'd prefer to send the pick to Atlanta this year -- in other words, they've denied that they're tanking. But whatever you want to call it, they aren't putting a great product on the floor.

With the change in the lottery odds this season and the new rule that calls for the top four picks to be determined by a drawing, the Mavs have found themselves with a 37 percent chance of leaping into the top four and keeping their pick. Had they stayed in 11th position, as they were before this slide, that number would've been 9 percent.

Both teams have huge stakes here. The Hawks' best hope would be for the Mavs to stick at the No. 6 pick and not get lottery luck. Atlanta currently has the fifth-worst record and 10.5 percent odds of getting the No. 1 pick and 42 percent odds of moving up. There's a good chance that they'd have two picks in the top six in what scouts believe is a top-heavy draft.

But if Dallas pulls off this little miracle, not only would the Mavericks have Doncic and Porzingis, but they'd also be able to add another top, young player to the mix. That would be a dream scenario. The lottery is May 14.