Kenyon Martin is a free agent. We knew that KMart was going to be a free agent some time soon, but in a surprise ruling today, FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, said that time is now. Back when the NBA lockout was in full swing, a few players decided to play overseas in the interim to earn a little money. Those who went to Europe, like Deron Williams and Jordan Farmar, mostly negotiated opt outs in their contracts that allowed them to return to the NBA once a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached and the lockout was over. But a few players headed to China, where no such out clause was available. Those players (Martin, Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Aaron Brooks chief among them) would be unable to return to the NBA until the conclusion of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) season and playoffs if applicable.
Martin originally signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers but was bought out by the team on December 15 to "take care of family affairs." It has been assumed all along that Martin would be bound by the original agreement between FIBA and the Chinese league and would not be able to play elsewhere until Xinjiang's season ends, which will be Feb. 15 assuming they don't make the playoffs. But Martin petitioned the CBA for a Letter of Clearance to play right away. When Martin didn't hear anything back, FIBA decided to go ahead and grant the clearance.
What's interesting about all of this is that the NBA is technically not in FIBA's jurisdiction, so clearance from FIBA doesn't officially matter to the NBA. However, the NBA generally tries to respect the contractual agreements of international leagues, so they would not have allowed Martin to be an NBA free agent without FIBA's consent.
Martin immediately becomes the most desirable front court player on the free agent market, with the possible exception of Joel Przybilla. According to an earlier report, Martin's name has been linked to five teams: the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers.
The most recent reports have Martin meeting with the Hawks today, with the Heat and Clippers high on his list. As one would expect, playing time will be a priority. Marc Stein of ESPN tweeted that Martin will lean towards a West team on the belief that his post defense will be more valuable in a conference loaded with star power forwards. That logic seems a little suspect to me: each team is unique, and Martin's opportunity to play is going to predicated more on the signing team's specific situation than on their schedule the rest of the season. Utah is in the west, but with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter they sure don't need another big man.
The Clippers on the other hand do need another big man -- pretty desperately, in fact. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are entrenched as the starters and playing terrific basketball. Reggie Evans is currently the first big off the bench, and is useful as a rebounder, defender and energy guy, but not for anything else. And beyond those three it's pretty brutal. Solomon Jones, Brian Cook and Trey Thompkins are all fringe NBA players at best. Thompkins at least is young and has upside -- if the Clippers were to cut Jones or Cook tomorrow, it's doubtful that either would ever sign another NBA contract. Martin would immediately slot in ahead of Evans as the first big off the bench, and would no doubt find plenty of minutes in LA, provided he delivers when he gets out there.
Is Martin a perfect fit? No. Ideally the Clippers would add a bigger, longer player who can defend centers when Jordan is resting or in foul trouble. Unfortunately, those players are simply not available, other than Przybilla who according to reports is going to choose between Miami and Chicago. The Clippers also need a big who can score some for when Griffin is out of the game since neither Jordan nor Evans have any offensive game to speak, and in this regard, although Martin is not ideal, he's much better than the other available options, including Przybilla.
Martin is said to be planning to make a decision by the weekend, and there are likely three things that will factor into his decision: opportunity to play, opportunity to win a championship, and money.
All of the team's on his short list can offer him decent minutes, though none of them can offer him a starting job. With Al Horford out for the season in Atlanta, Martin might get more minutes in Atlanta than anywhere else. The Hawks have been playing NBDL refugee Ivan Johnson 16 minutes per game in January. Miami offers the best shot at a ring -- the Heat made it to the Finals last year and would have to be considered the favorite in the East this season as well. A championship may be a big priority for KMart -- he went to the Finals with the Nets twice early in his 11 year career and would no doubt like another shot at the big prize. The Clippers on the other hand can offer him solid playing time, a reasonable shot at a championship (probably the second best chance of the teams on the list, given the way they're playing right now), and a little bit more money than the others. You see, LA has their $2.5M mini mid-level salary exception to spend, while the Heat and Hawks can only offer a veteran's minimum contract.
Przybilla's decision looms large in this whole process as well. If Przy chooses the Heat, then Miami will no longer be an option for Martin.
The Clippers have already spoken to KMart and his agent to make their interest known. This is a no-brainer from LA's perspective if they can get him to agree to a contract. There's essentially nothing else to use the mini mid-level on (unless they want to wait for J.R. Smith to return from China). If Martin will agree to a one year deal, there's literally no downside other than money out of Donald Sterling's pocket. It's true that the mantra of Neil Olshey for the last few years has been character, character, character, and that Martin may not fit that description well, but it's a little different when you have a contending team with veteran leaders. The potential for a bad apple spoiling the bunch was a little higher with the U23 team last season -- with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups around to keep Martin in line, it seems like a non-issue. For his part, Billups vouches for Martin's character, and has already been lobbying to get his former teammate to LA.
The Clippers, assuming they waive Jones prior to his contract becoming fully guaranteed, would still lack a legitimate seven footer off the bench to throw at opposing bigs when Jordan is out. But while that was a major consideration in the NBA a few years ago, it seems less and less relevant today. After all, how many NBA teams have a dominant center? Other than the Magic and the Lakers, there just aren't any teams where you really need that big body. For the other 27 teams, Kenyon Martin is plenty big. It might still be worthwhile to get another big body before the trade deadline, but Martin would solve lots of other problems right now.
With the Clippers riding a four game winning streak and currently the darlings of the NBA, the timing could not be much better. If we're right about Martin's three priorities, it's hard to imagine that he's going to find a better landing spot that meets are three of his criteria than LA and the Clippers.