How 2 NBA stars are fuelling another interesting off-season


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Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

This is the NBA’s week to shine

One of the big trends in modern pro sports is the rise of the transaction. For a variety of reasons, fans these days get as much excitement (if not more) from the signings, trades and other moves made by the front office as from anything the players do on the field, ice or court.

The NBA is a great example. Even as its viewership numbers continue to decline, there seems to be more buzz than ever around which star is going where and how teams are plotting to remake their rosters. Raptors fans can attest to this. The “will Kawhi stay or will he go?” talk started the moment Toronto traded for him and didn’t stop until he agreed to sign with the Clippers a year later — with maybe a 45-second break to celebrate the team, you know, winning a championship, which is supposed to be the point of all this.

And now, we’re caught in the churn again. The lifting of the NBA’s moratorium on trades yesterday unleashed a swarm of wheeling, dealing and speculation about more wheeling and dealing. One future Hall of Famer is already on the move (Chris Paul got traded from Oklahoma City to Phoenix), another looks like he will be soon, and the reigning MVP’s team is trying desperately to convince him not to jump ship.

Here’s the latest on those last two things, which are helping the NBA dominate the sports-news cycle in a week that also includes the draft on Wednesday night and the start of free agency on Friday:

James Harden really wants to go to Brooklyn

The NBA’s scoring leader in each of the last three seasons reportedly turned down a two-year, $103-million US extension from the Houston Rockets that would have made him the first $50-million-a-year player in league history. That pretty much confirms the speculation that Harden wants out of Houston, and he’s reportedly told the team that the only place he wants to go is Brooklyn, to join his friends (and fellow stars) Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

One problem: Harden still has two years left before he can opt out of his contract with the Rockets, which pays him $85 million over the next two seasons. So Houston would have to agree to trade him. But this kind of power play (dubbed “pre agency”) is now standard procedure in the NBA, where superstars hold more sway than they do in other sports. These days, when an elite player says he wants out, his team will generally send him to the destination of his choice for a bundle of players and draft picks rather than lose him for nothing when he hits free agency. A recent example is Anthony Davis, who essentially forced New Orleans to send him to the Lakers, where he immediately won a title this year.

Could Houston be the team that finally puts its foot down? Doubtful. Former GM Daryl Morey may have had the gravitas to pull it off, but he left for Philadelphia. His replacement, Rafael Stone, is a rookie GM who also might relish the chance to build his own team from scratch. And owner Tilman Fertitta might not mind shedding Harden’s contract. He’s heavily involved in the restaurant, hotel and casino businesses — three dicey operations at this particular moment in history. There’s already a sign the Rockets will acquiesce to Harden and start the rebuilding process: they’re reportedly trading solid veteran Robert Covington to Portland for a package including two first-round picks.

If Brooklyn pulls this off, they’ll immediately become the most interesting team in the NBA. Harden is one of the most prolific and innovative scorers in NBA history. Durant (like Harden, a former MVP) is one of the very best players in the game if he’s recovered from the Achilles tear that cost him all of last season. Irving is an extremely talented and exciting offensive player. But each guy also has a reputation for being difficult to work with, which should make things exciting for rookie head coach (and Canadian legend) Steve Nash. For better or worse, no team would be more fun to follow this season than the Harden-KD-Kyrie-Nash Nets.

Milwaukee is doing everything it can to avoid this

Giannis Antetokounmpo can become a free agent after this season, and the chatter about where the back-to-back MVP will sign began picking up even before the top-seeded Bucks got upset in the playoffs for the second year in a row. But Milwaukee sees what’s happened to other teams in its position, so it’s going all out to convince Giannis to stay.

Over the course of a few hours yesterday, the Bucks made two trades to upgrade at guard. They added Bogdan Bogdanovic (15.1 points per game last season) from Sacramento, but the most aggressive gamble came when they acquired Jrue Holiday (19.1 points) from New Orleans for this bounty: two solid players (Eric Bledose and George Hill), three (!) first-round picks and the option for the Pelicans to swap first-rounders with them in two upcoming drafts. That’s wild for a good-but-not-great player like Holiday.

The move will look brilliant if it convinces Giannis to re-sign (or, oh yeah, if it helps the Bucks win a championship). But if the big guy bails anyway, Milwaukee will be left with a very thin roster and no clear path back to relevance for probably a long time.

It’s a big bet, and one of the teams hoping it goes bust is the Raptors, who are a strong contender to land Giannis if he hits free agency. Or maybe even before. That’s how it works now. Speaking of the Raps, read about what they might do with their own pending free agents (including big names Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka) in this piece by CBC Sports’ Myles Dichter.

The Bucks are going all out to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to stay past this season. (Mike Ehrman/Getty Images)

Quickly…

Speed skating great Catriona Le May Doan was named Canada’s chef de mission for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The volunteer job does not involve any cooking (the title translates to “head of mission”). It entails being the main front-facing ambassador for the Canadian team. So lots of public appearances, press conferences, pep talks, etc., but also making sure the athletes have the support they need to perform. Le May Doan seems like a great fit for it. Her two Olympic gold medals (one in 1998, another in 2002) and five world titles give her cred with the athletes, and her post-career gigs as a broadcaster (including some analyst work for CBC Sports) show she’s good behind a mic and in front of a camera. She also has leadership bona fides from her current role as president and CEO of the non-profit Sport Calgary organization, and from serving as a mentor with the 2018 Canadian Olympic team. Canada’s chef position was once filled by bureaucrats, but it’s now given to former athletes. Short track speed skater Isabelle Charest did the job at the last Winter Olympics, and rower Marnie McBean has it for the upcoming Summer Games in Tokyo. Read more about what Le May Doan brings to the table in this piece by CBC Sports’ Scott Russell, and get to know her better by listening to her appearance on this week’s edition of the Player’s Own Voice podcast hosted by former Olympic speed skater Anastasia Bucsis.

McGill’s men’s sports teams have a new name. The Montreal university announced in April 2019 that it would drop the name Redmen, which had been used since the 1920s, after some students, faculty and staff complained it was discriminatory toward Indigenous people. Today, McGill finally unveiled a new name: Redbirds. Read more about the change here.

The NFL named its first all-Black officiating crew. Led by referee Jerome Boger, the seven-man group will make history when it works the Rams-Buccaneers game on Monday night. Five of the guys work together regularly, and the other two are joining for this game as part of the NFL’s efforts to assemble crews based on geography to limit travel during the pandemic. An all-Black officiating crew seems overdue in a league where about 70 per cent of players are Black, but it’s also worth noting that the NFL hired the first Black official in any major North American sports league, Burt Toler, in 1965.

And finally…

Attention: Leafs. Theo Epstein is looking for a job. The man who built the teams that ended the two most epic title droughts in sports — the Red Sox’ (86 years) and the Cubs’ (108 years) — is stepping down after nine seasons as Chicago’s president of baseball ops. No word yet on what Epstein, 46, plans to do next. But maybe he could work his magic with Cleveland, which has gone 72 years since its last World Series title. Or, if he wants to try a different sport, the longest championship droughts in the NBA, NFL and NHL belong to, respectively, the Sacramento Kings (69 years), Detroit Lions (63) and Toronto Maple Leafs (53).

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