Behind NBA free agency with Agent X

Around this time last year, I reached out to an agent I respect, because he doesn’t have much skin in the game and isn’t trying to sell a load of crap about his clients. So he tells it like it is. I asked about the NBA scuttlebutt between last summer’s draft and free agency. His response:

• Kyrie Irving is frustrated in Cleveland.

• Bet against Gordon Hayward staying in Utah.

• Dell Demps will overpay Jrue Holiday.

• Daryl Morey is working harder than the other GMs.

• Kyle Lowry desperately wants to leave Toronto but may not get what he wants elsewhere.

Within the next few months, Irving demanded a trade, Hayward signed in Boston, the Pelicans gave Holiday a max contract, the Rockets built a challenger to the Warriors, and Lowry returned to the Raptors after running out of options elsewhere. So, yeah, this agent drives you straight.

It’s that time of year again. The Celtics aren’t expected to be the players they were last summer, but I figure an email exchange with Agent X on free agency’s inner workings will help us better understand the craziness that’s sure to unfold after midnight on Saturday. Here’s that exchange:

FROM: Ben Rohrbach
DATE: June 14 at 3:55 PM
TO: Agent X
SUBJECT: Free Agency

I guess I’ll start by asking:

• Despite all the restrictions against it, how much is settled before midnight on July 1 in terms of players knowing where they want to go and teams knowing who might be interested?

• How much chatter goes on about player movement among agents?

• How much of what happens relies on the big names deciding where they want to go (i.e., LeBron James, Paul George, etc.) while other players sort of just wait in a holding pattern?

FROM: Agent X
DATE: June 14 at 4:00 PM
TO: Ben Rohrbach
SUBJECT: Free Agency

• A lot is settled before midnight on July 1 in terms of players knowing what team they want to go to and teams knowing what players might be interested.

• Some agents share. I found it very helpful when I did with a competing agent. I am not sure how much that happens, though, as they are bitter competitors. I had [redacted] as a client, a smaller agent like myself had [redacted], and we shared information. It was very helpful.

• There is clearly a domino effect. Like, I don’t know how to approach Houston regarding [redacted], considering they had interest, but I have to wait on LeBron. (And, actually, he would be helpful for [redacted]). There is definitely a holding pattern.

On July 1, a lot of people call, profess interest, but give no commitment. Then, things start happening and you know your options.

FROM: Ben Rohrbach
DATE: June 14 at 4:36 PM
TO: Agent X
SUBJECT: Free Agency

I’m sure opportunity plays a major factor in a free agent’s decision. I wonder if free agents-to-be see it the same way. I’m thinking Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, who might lose minutes to Hayward and Irving next year. I wonder if they see that as a threat or a challenge — like “I want out of this situation and into a better opportunity” or “This is all I know in the NBA, and I’m just going to continue working for that opportunity.” It’s all very interesting. I’m sure every situation is different, and there are a million different reasons why somebody would want to stay or go. Also:

• Would you say more players prioritize fit or salary in free agency?

• Can you steer a client somewhere else when you feel like they’re prioritizing the wrong thing?

• Do you think we will see a lot of guys signing shorter-term deals?

FROM: Agent X
DATE: June 14 at 5:44 PM
TO: Ben Rohrbach
SUBJECT: Free Agency

Boston may have some clouds ahead. Kyrie has always stated he wants to be in New York to people I know. He is a jealous guy, sees the success of the younger guys, so we will see. Plus, Jayson Tatum is better than Hayward, so interesting stuff. Rozier may be good, but here I don’t know. Brown strikes me that he will be unhappy, and then you have Mr. $17 Million Marcus Smart, who — if anybody pays more than $7 million — they should be fired.

• Players always want salary. It is always about the money, unless you already have money or you know you will get it someday.

• You can steer players, but they often steer you. I fight my guys. Most agents don’t. It’s just more money for them, and they know they can get fired any day.

• Market is going to be tough, so guys will have to [sign shorter-term deals]. Leverage will shift to the teams this year.

FROM: Ben Rohrbach
DATE: June 18 at 10:27 AM
TO: Agent X
SUBJECT: Free Agency

I’m fascinated by this Kawhi Leonard business. I think we may have discussed this before with Kyrie, but I’m curious how something like this might work from an agent’s standpoint. On one hand, it seems like the Spurs have a trump card, because they can offer more years and more money than anybody else. On the other, it seems more and more that star players are dictating terms with less regard for longterm security and more interest in getting where they want to be.

I’m not sure why a team would give the Spurs a sizable return without knowing exactly what Kawhi wants in 2019. So, do you think Kawhi’s people would communicate that to potential trade partners? For example, if he only wants to go to L.A. but the Spurs are getting their best offer from Boston, would Kawhi’s camp communicate to the Celtics that he doesn’t want to be there beyond the 2018-19 season, therefore removing them from the mix? Or maybe Kawhi’s camp is just interested in getting him out of San Antonio for now, and then they will cross the 2019 bridge when it comes. It’s all really interesting, especially since the Spurs are involved.

FROM: Agent X
DATE: June 18 at 10:45 AM
TO: Ben Rohrbach
SUBJECT: Free Agency

Longterm security? $140 million vs. $180 million or whatever the numbers are — seriously!

Agents should serve as information providers, yes. Brian Elfus, Kawhi’s former agent, was substantially better than Mitch Frankel, so that is problematic for the Spurs and potential teams.

I would think teams should operate very carefully vis-a-vis Kawhi considering his injury situation compounded by his unwillingness to communicate with the Spurs. The problem is you’re dealing with men who all think, He will love us and we can convince him to stay here — good luck!

As for the Spurs, what is more interesting to me is how their executives are the first ones scooped up, their coaches are the first ones scooped up, but their recent message has not worked very well. Nor have these executives done very well, and no one has written that. They missed on LaMarcus Aldridge, did not do their homework properly. They missed on Kawhi in that they have lost him. They have a great culture, but they are aging, dying in front of our eyes.

FROM: Ben Rohrbach
DATE: June 18 at 11:12 AM
TO: Agent X
SUBJECT: Free Agency

Ha! Yes, I do forget the absurdity of those dollar figures sometimes. You become numb to hearing about $100 million deals after a while, I guess. They’re all a lot more secure than I am. You’re right: The Spurs have been crumbling since Tim Duncan left. Word was Sacramento was interested in Kawhi, so I guess if they can convince themselves he’ll like it there, anyone can.

FROM: Ben Rohrbach
DATE: June 25 at 1:38 PM
TO: Agent X
SUBJECT: Free Agency

I’m wondering if the fact no active players changed teams in draft-night trades signals any sort of sea change for teams moving forward — maybe that teams are more cap-aware and less willing to take on money entering free agency? Or maybe that teams increasingly value being able to lock in draft choices at lower salaries under their control for years to come? Or maybe it’s an anomaly. Is there anything you read into that moving forward from draft night?

FROM: Agent X
DATE: June 25 at 2:01 PM
TO: Ben Rohrbach
SUBJECT: Free Agency

I think teams are more cap aware and are going to try to build incrementally in free agency. I think you’re right that the draft and low salaries really matter. I just think the draft wasn’t very good after No. 8 and they realize they are stuck a little. You even heard the Lakers say it may be next summer. How do they know that? By not working the phones already? I think a bunch are waiting until 2019 and 2020, in a holding pattern.

Predictions:

• LeBron stays
• Paul George leaves and goes either to L.A. or maybe Philly

The Chris Paul thing bears watching. Got a wink-wink but now a new owner. Morey backpedals. Very interesting. Forget the illegality of the wink-wink, but how about the head of the NBPA getting a wink-wink and now it doesn’t happen. Fascinating.

In essence, there are no rules.

Barring a major shakeup to the Celtics roster, I’ll be on vacation next week, returning the second week of July with the One Big Question series and more original content, including a really fun story that will be coming out later this summer. Thanks for reading and enjoy the Fourth of July!

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