SALT LAKE CITY — I hate to rain on the celebration, but aficionados of the NBA should temper their enthusiasm for player movement and the so-called new parity that the league has stumbled upon in the wake of the latest free agency free-for-all.
Almost overnight, as many as a dozen teams made themselves contenders next season in the free agent market, which would be a dramatic and welcome change after a decade of dominance by Super Teams and an uneven distribution of talent.
A couple of the major sports networks went so far as to mock anyone who had bemoaned the emergence of Super Teams as ruinous for the league, noting that all was well now. The system worked, they crowed.
Not really. That doesn’t undo the damage of the last decade, nor is it a product of the system. It was an accident of free-agency chaos and the rejection of LeBron James. It also is unlikely to last long.
In 2019 alone, there were 135 free agents, or about one-third of the league. There will be 139 next season. That’s a 61 percent turnover in two years. That isn’t even counting all the players who demand to exit a team while still on (a guaranteed) contract (see Anthony Davis).
The bottom line is that the league has never seen such an era of player movement. Speaking at a press conference this week following his meeting with the league's board of governors, Commissioner Adam Silver said, "My sense in the room today was, especially when it comes to free agency and the rules around it, we’ve got work to do."
The only reason the distribution of talent was more equitable this time was because many of the game’s biggest stars decided they simply did not want to play alongside LeBron James. Specifically, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and grumpy Kyrie Irving all could have joined the Lakers and James, but chose to go elsewhere, even with the Davis trade as a sweetener.
Otherwise, we would have seen the creation of a next-level Super Team — a Super Duper Team — but those players wanted no part of the turmoil that surrounds James, nor did they want to subordinate their games to accommodate him or serve as his sidekick (see Chris Bosh and Kevin Love). They know that any teammate of James’ is going to take the blame when his team loses while getting none of the credit when his team wins.
So the league avoided another James-created Super Team, but it still doesn’t address the real problem — the NBA model for player movement is systemically flawed. For starters, it does not have the hard salary cap that is employed by the wildly competitive NFL to prevent teams from collecting as many stars as they can convince to join them. It favors the rich and big-market teams.
Second, players tend to work the system. They bide their time with a team while plotting and timing their exit to another team to collect a max contract and/or join their pals; hence, the one-year or one-plus-one contracts, etc. In the latest free-agent swap, Leonard and George signed two-plus-one contracts, which means they’re already setting up their next move. You can bet other teams will begin recruiting them long before that, if they haven’t already.
It’s bad enough when players abandon teams via free agency after those teams have invested so much in them. What’s worse is the increasing number of players who force their way out of a certain franchise, even with years left on their contract, simply by saying they want to leave.
Leonard did it to the Spurs, who developed him into the player he is today. Davis did it to the Pelicans. George did it to the Thunder. Irving did it to the Cavaliers. Jimmy Butler grumbled his way out of Chicago and Minnesota.
It’s not even about winning games or championships these days. James and Leonard both fled championship teams (Leonard twice) and Durant fled a team that won two titles in three years and might have won a third if he hadn’t been injured.
"Trade demands are disheartening to the team, they’re disheartening to the community and they don’t serve the player well," said Silver. " … That’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
For some mysterious reason, NBA teams have shown no willingness to play hard ball with players and force them to honor their contracts. The league’s guaranteed contracts complicate matters. Players get paid no matter what happens, even if they refuse to play for their team. In the NFL, which doesn’t have guaranteed contracts, they wouldn’t get paid (Le’Veon Bell gave up $10 million by sitting out last season).14 comments on this story
Meanwhile, this movement of players cripples many teams who lose players in whom they have invested heavily. No team has been hurt more than the Oklahoma Thunder, who in less than seven years have seen Durant leave via free agency, Harden leave via trade after he refused a contract offer, George leave via trade after he demanded it. (Thursday news broke that Russell Westbrook was being dealt to Houston.) The Thunder would’ve been an organically grown Super Team as opposed to one manufactured by colluding players.
In the current chaotic NBA climate, there is little stability, little chance to develop teams and identities, little chance to invest in the future. The league has become a playground pickup game with players forming different teams every season.