Looking back, this may be the greatest off-season in NBA history. No single trade and free agency period has ever shaken the league to its core, where the effects have reverberated across the league and will continue to do so for years to come. It has taught us many lessons, here are just a few of them.
Big Markets Mean Absolutely Nothing:
A lot gets made of big markets in sports, particularly in America. It’s almost considered a forgone conclusion that the LA Lakers and the New York Knicks should get every free agent and always be competing for titles, if not for their ability then for their prestige.
People had already believed that the Knicks were going to get Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as free agents. After all, the Knicks have the history and glamour, and the allure of playing at the Madison Square Garden is just too good to pass up. Many had believed that when Kawhi Leonard wanted to go to LA, he meant the Lakers. The Lakers are the NBA’s premier franchise, with a storied and treasured history to boot.
Yet, neither of those teams got their men. Yes, the Lakers did trade for Anthony Davis, a massive coup for them, but they weren’t able to grab Kawhi Leonard or even Paul George, who both went to the Clippers. Meanwhile, over in New York, Irving and Durant both chose the Brooklyn Nets over the Knicks in a major twist of fate.
The reason people assumed the Lakers and Knicks were getting all of the free agents is because they are the two most lucrative and illustrious franchises, teams that are based in America’s biggest markets. Yet, we now know this has no bearing on a player’s decision at all. Players get the same amount of money no matter who they sign for, and the NBA is a global brand now, players get the same exposure no matter which Los Angeles or New York franchise they play for. Simply put, just because teams like the Lakers and New York are so glamourous, doesn’t automatically mean they are entitled to the best free agents and players, they still need to demonstrate that they are a well-run organisation that can win, and win well.
A Contract is Just a Piece of Paper:
If you thought big markets meant nothing, then wait till you see how irrelevant contracts have become. Typically, a contract legally binds a player to a team, and upon signing one signals theirs and the team’s commitment to each other for the foreseeable future. But again, this offseason has shown that to no longer be the case as several contracted stars were traded across the league.
Paul George only last season signed a max deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder, announcing his intention to stay in a party hosted by his former teammate Russell Westbrook. He then went on to have a career year, finishing 3rd in the MVP voting. Unfortunately, they were routed in the 1st Round of the Playoffs, putting in doubt OKC’s ability to win their current roster.
Kawhi Leonard played recruiter, as he urged George to request a trade to the Clippers, following which the Thunder obliged him, sending a player they had only recently maxed out to the Clippers, for a package including players and picks. Paul George went from committing himself to the Thunder, to being traded not only a year later, rendering the whole announcement irrelevant.
The buck doesn’t stop there, as OKC had another reaction to the realisation that they could not contend for a title, as they willingly traded Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for a package that included Chris Paul. Westbrook was another contracted star on big dollars, who was sent away, but the inclusion of Chris Paul was a headscratcher. Paul was rather foolishly offered a max contract worth around $40m a year by the Rockets only last year, but only one year into this contract extension and they let him go, proving further just how moot contracts have become. All a contract now seems to do is dictate a player’s salary, no longer does it bind a team to a player and vice versa. If either party wants a trade to be done, then barring a no-trade clause, the trade gets done.
This is the Era of Player Power:
Perhaps the most era-defining moment in free agency is still LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat in 2010. From that moment, we realised that players were truly now deciding their own fates, and LeBron was always the champion of this movement.
Since LeBron made the step up, we’ve seen various decisions shock and change the league for better and for worse. Kevin Durant blew the NBA out of the water when he elected to join the Warriors in 2016, creating a dynasty not seen since Kobe Bryant’s and Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers in the early 2000s, in another move that symbolised the growing movement of player power.
This offseason showed this in more ways than one. Kawhi Leonard willingly left the defending champions to follow his heart and join the Clippers, surprising everyone by not joining the Lakers and even bringing Paul George with him. Russell Westbrook got his wish to be on a contender, and moved on over to the Rockets. LeBron James did what LeBron James does best and recruit, by winning Anthony Davis over to the Lakers in a blockbuster trade for both the Lakers and the Pelicans. Even Jimmy Butler, as much of a nutter as he is, decided to join the Heat, a team where he could be the sole leader and alpha male, rather than stay with the 76ers and seriously push for a title.
Moves like this were not as common in eras gone by. Major free agency coups were rare, with a majority of the big moves coming by via trades and drafts. Now, players are requesting trades and signing with new teams what feels like every year, as they have flipped the script on owners and GMs to show that they can take control of their future. Even if the current CBA stipulates that players can make more money by extending their contracts with their current teams, players simply do not care anymore. They can make enough money from endorsements, that they’d rather forgo the extra money to take charge of their own destinies. It’s a new era and it’s the player’s world now, we’re just living in it.