It took some time, but we are officially in the age of basketball, where the players can choose their own future, basically voiding the old standard of the NBA, which involves the draft, contracts, trades etc. Thus making the star players -or the ones with star potential- the main focus of teams, fans, analysts and owners.
So how did we get here? Is this a good thing? Does this make the NBA a more interesting spectacle?
Anyone who’s been following the NBA closely before the internet era, knows that most players were held hostages (sort of) and it took some courage and nerves (i.e. Charles Barkley vs the Sixers) to have a chance to alter their own future.
All this changed when a young superstar by the name of LeBron James came of age, got tired of losing, took matters into his own hands, teamed up with his draft class, took a pay cut (let’s not forget that) and the rest is history. The 2010 Miami Heat was the first true super-team, that free agents in their prime created themselves (not the ’08 Celtics, those were declining 90s players that came together via trades) creating a whole new reality. James went on to make two more splashes (so far), one by going back home in Cleveland and one by going to LA.
Since then we have several similar examples of players making their own future.
- I wanna be the MAN.
Kyrie won a title with (or for) Lebron, but wanted to lead his own team. He asked for a trade, ended up in Boston, but the jury is still pending since, not only that’s not "his" team, but he is not winning titles.
- If you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em!
KD, obviously, got a call, joined a 73 win team, won 2 titles and 2 finals MVPs, is seriously considered the most hated NBA player, has a bunch of burner accounts, but looks like he doesnt even care. Imagine Shaq joining the 96 Bulls after they kicked him out of the play offs.
- I don't like a winning culture.
Kwahi won with Pop. A lot. Games, a title, finals MVP, DPOY and was considered the best 2way player in the league. Then he wanted out. He obviously wasn’t who we thought he was, so now he has a chance to win up North. Remains to be seen if he stays there or goes to LA, as he said he wanted to.
- I don't wanna play with Lebron.
While Kyrie looked to be the featured star in this category, we have a Paul George here, who, when was given a chance to leave the dead end market of OKC and join LeBron in LA, decided to sign a new deal in Oklahoma and is now an MVP candidate.
- I will force my team's hand to trade me, make a mess of my new team and ask to be traded again while bottomming out my trade value in the process.
Yes, Jimmy Butler, I'm lookin' at you. He managed to be traded by two teams in less than a couple of years while destroying team chemistry in both places. Just to land in a star-studded third one where his antics are not working there either. In a few months time he is already one foot out the door and is heading into Free Agency as one of the league's most dysfunctional stars.
- I will draft a team, team won't draft me.
Lonzo (via his dad) ran a pre-draft campaign that ended successfully with Magic Johnson taking him at #2 of the 2017 Draft while passing on Jason Tatum in the process. We’ve seen this before with Kobe, often in the NFL, but very rarely in the NBA. Although his present and future are deeply questionable, Lonzo’s move is considered a powermove, before entering the league.
- I wanna join my agent’s team.
This brings us to Anthony Davis and this year’s trade deadline drama. While we don’t know if he eventually ends up in LA, we’ve watched a - never seen before - relentless effort of a player agency to pair their two stars.
Of course for every one of the aforementioned examples, there is a Damian Lillard, there is a Steph Curry, there is a Giannis. Players who were and are devoted to the team that gave them a chance by drafting them. Until of course we wake up one day and see that they sport a different jersey. Like we woke up one day and heard rumours that an injured Unicorn wanted out of the biggest professional basketball market in the world. And before the day was over, his wish was granted and was heading to Dallas.
Most of us are pro player empowerment. It keeps ‘em happy, they play better and we have a more exciting league. On the other hand, we are in front of a boring regular season, where half the teams are loaded (and still get even more loaded, yes im talking about the Sixers) and the rest are gracefully tanking, trying to stock up draft picks and cap space, hoping they’ll sign a big name with a bunch of big time friends.
This is not my kinda league. Of course I hate to see a big star prisoned in a bad situation where his team does nothing to help him (Vince Carter or Bosh in Toronto), but the way things are, we are bound to see a new generation of fans who dont have a favourite team, but a bunch of favourite stars. They follow them to their new “new team”, creating a generation of bandwagoners. Maybe that’s good for merch sales, local markets, TV ratings. All I see is a league losing the very “heart” of American sports, equality and no headstart, and turning into the predictable and boring European soccer leagues, with 2-3 teams monopolising titles, star contracts, TV deals.
What could undo this trend?
A. LeBron fails to recruit a second star to play along with him. He has already lost the promising young core the Lakers have. He was –and still is– ready to ship them ALL off for one big AD. And they obviously don’t like that. If he is left all alone in LA, without a George, an AD, a Kwahi... that strategy takes a big hit.
B. A team with a minimum of offseason signings (Bucks, Denver etc) wins the title. In other words, the All Star Warriors fail to win it. That will shine a light to the true meaning of a “team”, just like the Warriors did in 2014, when a mostly draft built team shocked the world.
For now, lets enjoy a season that is still undecided (yes, i dont think the Warriors are a lock) and wait until the Knicks once again fail to recruit stars, regardless of their cap room. Maybe in the midst of that story, we see some change.