LAS VEGAS — When it comes to old-school musical acts finding their renaissance in the modern era, there’s no place like Sin City.
Usher is currently performing at the MGM Grand. Garth Brooks is the headliner at Caesars. Even Britney Spears jumped onto the Las Vegas scene recently – albeit in a very different way – in the Victor Wembanyama slap-gate saga.
But if the folks running the NBA’s premiere summer league really want to capture the mood of the moment and give a not-so-subtle nod to the James Harden and Damian Lillard storylines that seem to dominate the offseason, it’s time to give Guns ‘N’ Roses calls and offers a place as the next intermission number. “Patience”, as their 1988 smash hit was dubbed, is desperately needed right now.
In both superstar situations, the early July fireworks that came with their respective trade demands have been followed by a flurry. And as the summer drags on without either player reaching his desired destination — Miami for Lillard and the LA Clippers for Harden — the question now is whether the front office executives leading the charge in each case have the guts to to take this tough negotiating tone all the time. way into training camp in October.
It’s one thing to preach patience now, as both Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin (publicly) and Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey (privately) have done. As long as the aggrieved player doesn’t go public with his frustrations, there’s an out-of-sight-out-of-mind reality that comes with this time of year that allows the respective teams to play the waiting game while they wait for better offers. But as the season approaches, the human dynamic will surely become more uncomfortable and likely play a role in each team’s calculus.
With Harden, we’ve already seen how messy things can get when his trade request isn’t met as quickly as he’d like. During the final weeks of his Houston era, when Morey had already left his Rockets front office post for Philadelphia and Harden had decided in November 2021 it was time to move on, he showed up to training camp late after to have partied in Atlanta and Las Vegas, causing all kinds of consternation inside the locker room when he arrived. The later stages of his Brooklyn experience had similar vibes, with Morey using Harden’s unhappiness to his advantage in negotiations with the Nets before the February 2022 trade to Philadelphia.
But despite all the relevant history, and despite the fact that Morey may know Harden and all his complexities better than anyone in the NBA, rival executives I spoke with during summer league were adamant the Sixers are now trying. to keep Harden. Discontent be damned.
The sluggish trade talks between the Sixers and Clippers for Harden seem to support this position. Morey is known for asking for the kind of return that — as of Tuesday afternoon — left the strong impression that he had no real interest in getting a deal done anytime soon.
Harden’s position has not changed, a source close to him said Athletics. He still wants to leave Philadelphia. He’s still upset with how Morey handled his situation heading into potential free agency last month. And even with the recent revelation that Harden attended the same NBPA party as Sixers teammate Joel Embiid and former Sixers owner Michael Rubin in Vegas, he remains determined to start next season in a Clippers jersey.
In Miami, meanwhile, Heat officials who so badly want to land Lillard can certainly relate to the stagnant state of affairs. But the Heat’s dilemma is different than the Clippers, who could roll the ball out with this roster next season and still feel reasonably good about their path forward. The Heat already said goodbye to Gabe Vincent (Lakers) and Max Strus (Cleveland) in free agency after their Finals run, meaning the idea of losing key contributors like Caleb Martin or young talents like Nikola Jović and Jaime Jaquez Jr. only limits their options for title contenders.
That’s where the slow pace of Heat-Blazers negotiations has made it even more difficult to reach an agreement point. Miami has already missed out on so many affordable free agents that could have come its way if the Lillard addition had already been made — like Taurean Prince, for example, before he went to the Lakers. In light of that, there is even greater internal interest in retaining as many role players as possible. As has been widely reported, a Heat deal would likely include Tyler Herro (who would likely go to a third team) and Duncan Robinson.
But unlike Harden, Lillard has never been in this kind of sensitive situation before. He’s been publicly quiet up to this point, but that could always change as training camp approaches and he gets more restless.
Cronin was known to spend summer league getting a better understanding of the market for Lillard, including among teams that could play for him despite his well-known Miami desires. But the pressure will mount in the coming months as the spotlight on Lillard and Harden shines once more, and their impatience inevitably grows along the way.
Oh, the songs they might sing if this impasse for superstars continues.
Joe Cronin Q&A: The Trail Blazers GM on the future of Damian Lillard
The Warriors and their point guard insurance
Remember when I recently wrote about how Chris Paul always knows what he’s doing? He is among the smartest, most deliberate and occasionally calculating players the game has ever seen, and that reality should always be taken into account when analyzing his words and deeds.
So when he pushed back against the idea that he would come off the bench for the Warriors this season during his introductory press conference in Vegas on Sunday, it’s safe to assume he knew exactly what he was doing. Whatever comes next, it’s pretty clear that Paul has some hope that there’s a way he can start (and no, folks, not as a replacement for Steph Curry and/or Klay Thompson, but with those in a small lineup) .
As our Anthony Slater detailed, there are ways Paul could potentially start while also spending most of his court time leading Golden State’s second unit. But the bigger takeaway here is that Paul, at 38 and on the cusp of his 19th season, isn’t about to fall in line with the Warriors’ wishes at every turn without making his voice heard. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise anyone, but that moment was a public confirmation of the fact if ever there was one.
The same logic surely applies to the Warriors’ discussions about managing his minutes. As a historical point of reference, I refer you to the story told about Paul’s first meeting with Oklahoma City Thunder officials after he was traded there in the summer of 2019.
As they all sat inside the Creative Artists Agency offices in Los Angeles, where Thunder general manager Sam Presti and his staff shared data on how to best manage his aging body, Paul pushed back the same way he would in his first Warriors press conference four years later.
“They showed me a PowerPoint presentation of what other players had been like at the age of 34 and 35,” Paul told me then, laughing on the phone. “I just sat and watched. They show me what Steve Nash was like, J-Kidd, Chauncey Billups and what all these people looked like and their numbers and all that. And I sat there. They said to me, ‘ We’re only looking at you playing maybe 60 games, this and that, you know?’
He would play 70 games that season, all while leading the young Thunder to the playoffs. Three productive seasons with the Suns followed, including one in which he played a pivotal role in Phoenix’s Finals run (2020-21) and another in which he led the league in assists (2021-22). Injuries have certainly been an issue along the way, but that doesn’t mean his mentality has changed.
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson give their first thoughts on Chris Paul trade
On a lighter note, the Warriors’ famous media man, Raymond Ridder, had the punchline at the press conference. As Paul discussed his latest team change with reporters in a small room inside the Thomas & Mack Center, a woman sitting not far away apparently fell out of her chair. Paul heard the commotion, then stopped to ask if she was okay.
Knight, with perfect timing, yelled, “State Farm!” referring to Paul’s long-standing business partnership. Laughter ensued.
If Paul can stay healthy enough to provide the kind of point guard leadership that was missing behind Curry during the Jordan Poole era, this will be the insurance the Warriors were hoping for when they traded to acquire him.
Adam Silver and the Las Vegas expansion
When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gave his latest update on the possibility of expansion on Monday while speaking at the Associated Press Sports Editors event inside the Flamingo Hotel, there were every reason for locals to feel optimistic about the idea about Vegas finally getting a team. (Seattle, unsurprisingly, was also prominently mentioned.)
Silver made no promises, but he clearly outlined a likely timeline for the league’s expansion (after a new media rights deal is in place in the summer of 2025) and raved about the Vegas market along the way.
He considered the summer league the NBA’s “31st franchise,” but it’s hardly the only professional hoops event held in these parts. There’s the G-League exhibition in the winter, the upcoming NBA season tournament (semifinals and finals) held here in early December, and the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces team, which moved here in 2018 and has been well received on their way to becoming a dominant franchise (they won the title last season and are currently a league-best 19-2). I joined our Marcus Thompson in the crowd for my first Aces game on this trip (an 89-82 win over Dallas on July 5th) and it was an impressive experience in terms of crowd support (sold out Michelob Ultra arena) and general atmosphere.
As a brief and related aside, the $2.3 billion MSG Sphere on the Vegas strip, which was Knicks owner James Dolan’s pet project, is nothing short of spectacular. The league wasted little time in using said sphere to its marketing advantage as it had NBA business to promote.
But to hear Silver speak so glowingly about the league’s relationship with Vegas was to realize how far this market has come. Back in 2007, when then-Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman hosted the NBA’s All-Star event, which he would later call “a disastrous weekend,” it seemed inconceivable that those wounds would ever heal. That strip club shooting involving then-NFL player “PacMan” Jones had nearly popped the NBA’s tryout balloon all by itself, with that situation causing so much chaos in the wake of the All-Star game.
Fast forward 16 years, with the NHL’s Golden Knights founded in 2017, the Aces arriving in 2018, the NFL’s Raiders coming to town in 2020 and the MLB’s Athletics likely on the way, and the pro team landscape is vastly different. Make no mistake, the Vegas possibility seems more real than ever for the NBA.
(Photo of Damian Lillard and James Harden: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)