Will the new-look NBA be as captivating as its whirlwind offseason of free agency moves?
Around 100 days sit between now and the NBA’s 2019-20 opening tip, but as thrilling as we hope the upcoming campaign will be, it’s hard to imagine any regular-season game being wilder or more entertaining than the first week of free agency.
It’s not just the dizzying amount of moves — nearly one-third of the league’s starters have already aligned with new teams — or that generational talents Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have new homes. Another, Anthony Davis, went to the Lakers in a trade initially launched by his own mid-season leap towards the exit door.
Nope, the frenzied focus around the gun-for-hire marketplace that was worth $3 billion by the end of its first day was not just about who moved and where they landed, but HOW they did it.
The top stars took control themselves, orchestrating the most thrilling, frenetic, action-packed drama show you’ll see between now and the playoffs. For all the power plays we’ve seen this summer, they’ve been the ones to write the script, direct the narrative and occupy the lead role.
It’s been full of plot twists, pacts and broken hearts. And we love it so much, we can’t stop talking about it.
“The coaches and front offices, they don’t have as much power as the players,” Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said last weekend. “The players are so friendly now. (Michael) Jordan probably didn’t go out searching and trying to get guys to come join him.”
Free agency is now such a seismic whirlwind that LeBron James‘ poorly received “Decision” in 2010 almost seems quaint. You no longer need to manufacture dramatics when basketball’s biggest superstars seek to change location. The fireworks happen automatically.
If LeBron to Miami did one thing, it sparked an era where the players control the blockbuster moves. Become one of the best in the business, and you’ll get a huge say in where you play, and with whom.
From young stars, established stars and even wannabe stars, that sound you can hear is players around the league smacking their lips. “I’m super excited,” Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, said of the league-wide moves. “Some of the trades and where people are landing at is just kind of different. It’s kind of a surprise a little bit, but it’s good cause now the league is even more wide open.”
It doesn’t happen this way in any other sports league. The NFL’s franchise tag stifles fully free movement. Baseball’s salary cap, luxury tax and the length of team control over early career contracts has frosted over the hot stove. MLB’s top free agent, Bryce Harper, got a $330-million deal, but not before it dragged on to the point of embarrassment — and with a 13-year contract, he won’t be on the move again other than by trade.
Not so in the NBA. Contracts are limited to five years maximum, ensuring potential movement of even its marquee players. Team owners may feel differently about such overwhelming player power, although having an engaging soap opera that transfixes the sports world during your off-season should satisfy any qualms. The topic is expected to be discussed at closed-door league meetings today in Las Vegas, but the NBA would be hard-pressed to convince itself player-led movement is harming the game.
TV ratings for the NBA are robust, and league revenues have more than doubled since 2013. Every NBA team is valued above $1 billion, per Forbes.
LeBron’s Miami move ushered in the super team era — along with two NBA titles and four Finals appearances — but more precisely, he brought us into the Era of Player Power. Compare the NBA’s stars in the age before and after the Decision. Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki played a total 6,636 career regular season games. They each played at least 697 with the team that drafted them and spent a combined 89% of their careers with their original squads. Take Iverson out of the equation, and the rest played a minimum of 927 games with those first teams.
Kawhi, KD, Kyrie, AD, and Paul George? None played even 600 games with their original squad before moving on. And at this rate, if their careers last even 80% as long as the first group, they’ll spend a combined less than 50% of their time in the NBA with their first team.
And LeBron was undoubtedly the trigger. As our own Skip Bayless put it today, “There was no joining forces. It didn’t start until LeBron said, ‘I’m taking my talents to South Beach.’” Three years after the King had returned to Cleveland, Golden State upped the ante, adding Durant to an already stacked deck and securing a run of five consecutive Finals trips and three championships.
This offseason has taken it to an entirely new level, yet one hinged more on super-pairings rather than Big 3 (or even 4) arms races.
Davis’ L.A. trade demand was first ignored by New Orleans management and became arguably the biggest storyline of a season that featured James Harden’s record-breaking scoring, Russell Westbrook’s historic glut of triple-doubles, Magic Johnson’s bizarre resignation and much more. When summer arrived, Davis was finally dispatched to the Lakers, but things were just heating up.
Moments after free agency opened on June 30, Irving and Durant joined forces in Brooklyn. Durant had been widely assumed to be Knicks-bound all season, but a new narrative emerged that he and Irving concocted this plan in February. Bobby Portis, upon signing a free-agent Knicks deal, said players knew long ago that the KD-Kyrie show was heading to Brooklyn. But if so, what was Steph Curry doing on a plane from China?
Was he really the last to know? Scene from a movie, right there.
A week later, all that was upstaged by Leonard. Fresh from ending the Warriors’ magical modern run and leading Toronto to title nirvana, Leonard’s next act was to change the entire balance of the NBA. By heading for the Clippers on the condition he be joined by Paul George (acquired through a monster trade package), he broke the hearts (and the plans) of the Lakers and Raptors and produced a knock-on effect that could usher Westbrook out of Oklahoma City.
There were Hollywood-style scripts everywhere, but the best played out…right there in Tinseltown itself. In the sweetest twist of all, it came together courtesy of the NBA’s least-Hollywood superstar — Leonard.
And thus we are still talking about the NBA into July. Player leverage makes the league trend on social media more powerfully than a Zion Williamson dunk (another reason, if we needed one, to be fired up about the campaign ahead).
The player-led reshaping of the NBA has created an entertainment bonanza of transactions, tweets and trades. It had the sports world alive with chatter without a single game played. It is basketball’s game within a game, and in some ways, the sport’s most enthralling game of all.