The Effect Of The NBA Free Agent Circus On The League

Mark R. Bacon—Main Event Sports DC

More than any other major sports league, the NBA has been susceptible to the idiosyncrasies of its stars. The league sells star power and personality. Great when it has the proper stewards. On occasion, the league has suffered because of it. Right now, the players are representing the league responsibly, and the quality of play is excellent. This is one of its best periods in history, a time of compelling growth and evolution. But if there is a concern about the current players — and about the franchises’ inability to connect with them — it would have to be their fickle tendencies and the public fascination with all the drama and instability.

While the player movement creates potential for more frequent shifts in power among the teams, the opportunity for greater fluctuation in competitive balance comes at a cost: an addiction to change. For certain, change can be good. But it’s dangerous when change starts to feel like a perk of stardom, like something to check off the list. Get drafted, buy Momma a house, make the all-star team, start a charitable foundation, sign a max contract, bolt to another team in free agency or by forcing a trade just before free agency. It’s just what NBA stars do, right?

The pursuit of a championship used to be the primary motivator. Certainly, when this trend started in 2010, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh used their power and understanding of the NBA’s ecosystem to create a Miami Heat superteam that they thought could win title after title. Four years later, when James returned to Cleveland, he wanted to win for northeast Ohio and uplift the entire region on and off the court. Four years later, when James left Cleveland again, he headed to Los Angeles last summer to live a fantasy life and pursue all of his dreams. He still wants to win, and restoring the Lakers’ tradition is an enormous final challenge for his career. But as a multigenre entertainment mogul, James desires for so much more.

Do you see how this can get distorted as players try to follow in the footsteps of the league’s current standard-bearer? And that’s where it starts to feel as if players are craving change because it is cool or it keeps them relevant or they are just conditioned to believe that this is the style they must wear. It’s change for the love of change.

That’s why the anticipation of another great free agent class seems like a guilty pleasure. Love the drama and plot twists. But the buildup has lasted an entire year, and this time, the story lines overwhelmed even the postseason. With each class, the circus becomes more of a focus than the actual game.

There are reasons to believe a shift in superstar mentality could occur soon. There’s also a chance things get crazier. This summer is the ultimate test of what’s most appealing to some of the game’s most important figures.

It starts with Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP. He enjoyed a fairy-tale season in Toronto. After trading for Leonard, the Raptors embraced him, took care of his body despite no assurances he would sign long-term and won it all. If Leonard returns, they should be the favorite to win it all again. Leonard would prefer to return to Southern California or perhaps take on the New York market, but in Toronto, everything is set up for him to continue winning his way and breaking new ground as the star who took the franchise and an entire country to the top of the NBA mountain. He turned 28 on Saturday, so even if he is unsure about spending his entire prime in Toronto, he can sign a two-year deal, finish what he started and leave later while still at the top of his game.

There isn’t necessarily a wrong decision for Leonard. But for the league, it’s best that the stars already in championship situations choose to remain in their championship situations. The same goes for Kevin Durant, whose free agency is complicated by his Achilles’ injury. Yes, a true elite player can turn just about any team into a title contender, but the Warriors have won multiple titles with Durant, and the Raptors have a chance to win multiple crowns if Leonard stays. Leaving those places can be sold as power moves, but it seems more like drifting. And greatness shouldn’t drift.

Structurally, the NBA created this monster because owners preferred to shorten the length of contracts. It’s only natural that players shift from craving security to flexibility. The league has tried to entice its best players to stay put by creating the lucrative supermax contract, but that has caused some unexpected complications. Small-market teams don’t want to pay their good-but-not-great franchise players ridiculous salaries. And the great players are so rich and capable of earning endorsement income that they’re not as moved by the supermax deal as the NBA had hoped.

Ultimately, the movement won’t slow until franchises build around and communicate with their stars better and stars become enamored with a new way to express themselves. The decisions of Leonard and Durant are changing that standard.

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