The NBA moved the start of free agency talks up six hours this summer from the usual at the stroke of midnight on July 1. And in a nod to the reality of setting up meetings, teams could begin to plan that on June 29, a day earlier than the June 30, 6 p.m. starting bell for talks.
As it happens, the teams and players may not be waiting that long.
On Thursday morning, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Kemba Walker, eligible for a super max deal with the Charlotte Hornets, the only team he has played for, was expected to leave with the Boston Celtics emerging as the favorite to land the All-NBA point guard. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes then reported that Kawhi Leonard, who was photographed vacationing in Barbados, would meet with the Clippers and Lakers in Los Angeles early next week.
Walker spoke earlier this month of his love for Charlotte and his desire for a fifth year on his contract — something only the Hornets can offer him. But in recent days reports have linked Walker to the Celtics and also the Mavericks.
The Knicks, who once seemed like a sure thing to land one of the top stars on the market, weren’t exactly sitting idle. According to a source, the team was expected to meet with Leonard in Los Angeles next week after the Lakers and Clippers make their pitches. While all of the meetings are fluid right now — and not supposed to even be plotted, the team is hopeful to get an audience with Kevin Durant in New York before heading out to meet with Leonard.
What will come of the meetings remains unknown. With Kyrie Irving believed to be leaning toward signing on with the Nets, the Knicks would no longer have the ability to use Irving as bait for Durant. Leonard is expected to favor either returning to the Raptors — where he just led the team to an NBA title and has found himself the subject of the pleading of what feels like an entire country — or returning to Los Angeles, where he grew up and owns a home.
The Knicks had a short list of potential free agents that they were willing to offer max contracts to this summer, a list that may have ended with Durant, Leonard and Irving. If they fail to bring those aboard, the team is expected to shift its focus to short term offers for lesser players — intent on not saddling the payroll with long-term deals that will prevent the flexibility the team has preached it wants to keep.
That doesn’t match up with the confidence they held earlier this year when Garden chairman James Dolan was openly saying that stars were coming. If they fail in pursuit of the top free agents, fans will be asked to hang on through another year of struggles.
“I think we’re asking them to continue to be patient,” Knicks president Steve Mills said at last week’s news conference to introduce draft picks RJ Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikis. “We laid out a plan when Scott [Perry] came on board and then David [Fizdale] joined us, that we were going to build this team the right way. We’re going to draft well and we’re gonna be diligent about how we make this team and not take any shortcuts and follow a path.”