Well, this is awkward: Five NBA training camps that will be anything but comfortable

Michael Lee
The Vertical
Yup, Carmelo Anthony is still a Knick. (AP)

From the moment the Golden State Warriors completed their five-game annihilation of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the league has had no shortage of eye-popping drama and intrigue. The wildest and most fascinating offseason in more than two decades has included unprecedented superstar movement, a shocking trade demand that broke up the champions once removed, and even a head-scratching social media blunder just as training camps are about to get underway. After so much staggering controversy and upheaval — with organizations deciding whether to challenge or cower to the Warriors — five teams enter their respective media days having to confront some awkward situations. Some won’t be easily resolved and others might not be settled until after this season.

New York Knicks

Carmelo Anthony recorded the greatest victory of his Knicks tenure by outlasting former team president Phil Jackson, his heckler-in-chief. But he is now caught up in what amounts to a hostage situation because he clearly wants out. His refusal to be open to any trade destination other than Houston has complicated matters because the Rockets don’t have what it takes to consummate a deal – especially after most of their most valuable assets were shipped out to Los Angeles in the Chris Paul trade. The other dilemma for the Knicks, and new general manager Scott Perry, is how to determine Anthony’s value when whoever acquires him is guaranteed to receive the worst years of a career that remains All-Star-caliber but has begun to decline. A buyout isn’t feasible with two years remaining on Anthony’s contract but expecting a massive haul in return is equally nonsensical.

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Unless there are some mystical powers attached to the “Hoodie Melo” persona that became a thing this offseason through a series of pickup games that went viral, Anthony won’t be able to reverse what has made him more expendable than at any point of his time in New York. At 33, Anthony desperately wants a return to the Western Conference, where the competition is steeper but also where the first half of his career was filled with annual postseason appearances and a trip to the conference finals. Since his trade from the Nuggets, Anthony has become one of the league’s most polarizing figures. He has had to rely on the Olympics to achieve a reprieve from losing. Those gold medals have also provided an argument for his most ardent defenders, who point out how Anthony can adjust his game when surrounded by better personnel, especially at point guard (cough, cough, Chris Paul). The Knicks squandered his prime with questionable supporting casts and Anthony developed some bad habits while trying to compensate.

This situation should’ve been handled by now, through whatever creative means possible. If the union between Anthony and the Knicks were a carton of milk, it would’ve exceeded the expiration date so badly that those thick, disgusting curds would have formed and created an odor so strong it can be smelled on the other side of the refrigerator. It needs to be over and its stench will follow the Knicks until Anthony is gone. The Knicks need to cut their losses, accept their mistake in extending him with a no-trade clause in 2014, and finally commit to developing Kristaps Porzingis as the franchise foundation.

LeBron James could leave Cleveland once again. (Reuters)

Cleveland Cavaliers

Is this the end? The Cleveland Cavaliers won’t be short on intrigue with Kyrie Irving’s surprising departure and the uncertainty surrounding Isaiah Thomas’ arrival with a bad hip. That’s enough for most teams to navigate as training camp begins. But the question that will hover over the franchise from now until next July is where LeBron James plans to continue his career.

The countdown to The Decision, Part III, began the moment Kevin Durant pulled up over James in Game 3 of the NBA Finals and all but demolished the Cavaliers’ repeat bid. Speculation has already started that James will move to Los Angeles to continue the Lakers legacy and expand his burgeoning film and television interests. James sprinkled some gossip dust when he showed up to watch Lonzo Ball play a summer-league game in Las Vegas, wearing a purple shirt. James’ wife, Savannah, was also recently spotted exploring the grounds of an elite prep school in Los Angeles.

James and his team are master strategists, savvy enough to avoid potholes while generating plenty of suspense. After keeping fans guessing the previous two times he had the potential to leave, James will easily maneuver through inquiries about his plans and leave it up to leaks and conspiracy theories to avoid boredom. The Cavaliers have already covered themselves in case James decides that keeping his promise to deliver a championship gives him greater leeway to exit again. The Irving trade brought back a coveted draft pick that could potentially serve as a building block for the organization’s future. But if James unexpectedly makes up his mind during the season that there really is no place like home, the pick could be used at the deadline to acquire a player who helps him move closer to catching the Warriors.

Irving’s unexpected trade demand will put James in a unique position because he has always been the sun in which all other planets in the league revolve. Now that Irving is gone, James will have to address what went wrong and why the second super team he assembled fractured because a star decided to bail on him. The Cavaliers have considerably more depth – if and when Thomas is able to play – and a motivating purpose with Irving not only elsewhere but suiting up for James’ longest-standing rival in Boston. Whatever Cleveland does this season, it will be measured by how it affects whether James stays or goes.

Golden State Warriors

This was supposed to be the time to gloat, to sit back and wait for that diamond-encrusted ring that will make all haters turn away blinded, in shame. Kevin Durant earned the right to have a clap-back summer, given the vitriol he had to endure over taking control of his career and joining a potential dynasty in Golden State. But the spoils of victory and finally beating LeBron James – having some proclaim him the best player in the game, a hero’s welcome parade through his hometown and the release of some petty-licious cupcake-inspired signature shoes – weren’t enough. He had to come up with one more response to someone on Twitter and gave an answer that offered more insight into the real reason he decided to leave Oklahoma City and revealed some of the deep-seated insecurities that he has never been ashamed of owning.

Before he was named Finals MVP and hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time, Durant told The Vertical that winning a title “wouldn’t mean my life was complete.” At the time, some pundits interpreted the comment as a way to protect himself in case the Warriors wound up losing their three-match with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But now that he has won and taken a bizarre victory lap, Durant returns for his first season as an NBA champion still in need of fulfillment.

Durant should be beyond having to defend his decision to leave the Thunder for the Warriors. He fessed up to his Twitter mistake rather than blame someone else – which should be commended – but will continue to field questions about his inability to let go. He can win a ring (or rings) but can’t win over all of the fans who turned on him. He can’t convince them he’s a good guy when love and hate in the irrational world of professional sports fandom mostly comes down to “Are you on my side?” He didn’t have to apologize to anyone – until he offended his former teammates and Billy Donovan with a “childish” third-person explanation for his departure. The Warriors had his back through a challenging season and still do. But by picking at a scab that appeared to be healing in Oklahoma City, Durant has extended the drama for another season and invited more scrutiny to himself and the overwhelming favorite to win it all this season.

Though Durant clearly remains scarred by the negative reaction to his move, revelations about a possible burner social-media account (or accounts) to take on critics elicited plenty of jokes and showcased an unusual predicament for one of the greatest scorers to ever lace them up: a player of Durant’s stature still hasn’t accumulated an army of ardent, ride-or-die supporters who are willing to meet someone in Temecula on his behalf. That could change with more championships, which seem to be headed his way in the form of a deluge. But perhaps this embarrassing incident will help Durant understand that expending too much effort to persuade people to like you could do more harm to yourself.

Does Russell Westbrook want to stay in Oklahoma City? (AP)

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder might not have fully healed but are in a much better place than right after Durant spurned them. Westbrook is the reigning league MVP and easily one of the their most popular and beloved stars. GM Sam Presti worked his magic and snagged Paul George in a small-market swap with Indiana. And Durant’s inability to move on – as evidenced by his Twitter shots at Billy Donovan, the organization and the roster – has again given Oklahoma City a rallying motivator for the upcoming season. But there remains a litttle uneasiness surrounding the organization because Westbrook still hasn’t signed the richest contract extension in NBA history – worth $207 million over five years – more than two months after it was offered.

Westbrook has until Oct. 16 to commit the rest of his prime and more to the Thunder. He could very well sign the extension the moment he shows up for training camp. (Presti announced Friday that Westbrook will miss the first few days of camp after recently having a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left knee). Two summers ago, Westbrook waited a month to sign an extension that delayed his free agency for another year and made him eligible to earn 35 percent of the salary cap under the league’s 10-year veteran max. Had Westbrook refused to sign at that point, the Thunder might’ve been forced to move him rather than risk getting no return for losing the two best players to ever wear Oklahoma City uniforms in back-to-back summers. A bit under the gun back then, Westbrook endeared himself to heartbroken fans with his loyalty. That sentiment provided much of the steam for his image makeover as he became almost an anti-Durant. Westbrook even stated, “There’s no need to wait if you know where you want to be.”

So why the delay now? The three previous players to get offers over $200 million didn’t waste much time leaping at the money. Stephen Curry committed the first day. James Harden needed a week. John Wall was locked up in three weeks. Westbrook could wait until next summer, when he could add a no-trade clause to his mega-millions payout. The eccentric and electrifying point guard does what he wants and has more incentive to be patient with his decision after signing a 10-year deal with Jordan Brand that ranks as the most lucrative the company has ever handed out. Durant’s nearly $300 million Nike contract has kept him from signing long term with Golden State and even gave him the flexibility to take less than market value last summer to help the Warriors stockpile more talent. Westbrook’s thinking has yet to be expressed publicly or in the form of leaks.

Westbrook has offered no hints that he wouldn’t sign the extension and the Thunder remain cautiously optimistic that he will stay. His decision could go a long way toward retaining George, for whom the Los Angeles Lakers have already been levied a $500,000 tampering fine. George’s future will be a season-long topic and Westbrook will also be in that mix unless he ends the suspense before the season begins.

How much longer will Dwyane Wade be a Bull? (AP)

Chicago Bulls

Like his fellow Banana Boat brother, Dwyane Wade is done with his current employer and the Chicago Bulls are done with him. Wade will get bought out. It’s just a matter of when and for how much. Wade certainly wasn’t sweating his situation during a summer in which he hopped around Europe – fashion week in Paris, Rome with his wife and 10-year-old son, and hanging with Usain Bolt and the rest of his crew in Greece – let his 15-year-old son roll around in a Ferrari and worked out with LeBron James.

Wade made a power move home in 2016 after negotiations with the Miami Heat hit a snag for the second consecutive summer. He made a business decision and only needed a few months to realize that what he had in Miami – a structured culture, congruence between coaching and front office, palm trees, etc. – cannot be duplicated in many other places.

After surrendering so much money to help the Heat build a championship team, Wade sacrificed being a “Heat Lifer” to earn an extra $8 million from the Bulls. Wade was still rather productive for his age but the homecoming has mostly been a disappointment. During the season, Wade questioned whether the Bulls’ young core understood the commitment required to be a special team. Rajon Rondo called out him and Jimmy Butler for their leadership styles. An elbow injury sidelined him for three weeks and he came back to help the Bulls reach the playoffs. But the Bulls decided that the “Three Alphas” plan with Butler, Wade and Rondo wasn’t going to work.

Bulls team president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman pushed the reset button on the franchise with a draft-night deal that reunited Butler with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. Rondo bolted for New Orleans. Wade picked up his $23.8 million option because he wasn’t going to find that kind of money anywhere else as cap space got tighter around the league. Better to take the money and work out the details later than to walk away and pray that the ideal situation comes together. But Wade won’t be able to leave until he can work out a deal and give back some of the money that lured him away from the Heat. Paxson wants an agreement that favors the Bulls. Wade is tired of giving organizations discounts but doesn’t have the same influence in Chicago that he had in Miami. In other words, no one is really happy.

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