NBA Free Agency is the Best Free Agency

Every offseason re-aligns the sport in fascinating ways.

Although I was an avid follower of the game during Michael Jordan’s heyday, I’m only a casual fan of the NBA these days, owing mostly to the vagaries of the broadcast schedule. I’m a much more die-hard follower of the NFL and college football. But there’s just no denying that the NBA’s version of the hot stove league is far-and-away the most fascinating in sports.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst encapsulates the last few hours:

You’ve just witnessed the most intense transactional day in NBA history. Actually, it was more like a quarter of a day.

Amid the flurry of Sunday’s spending and sign-and-trades, it might’ve been easy to miss that something potentially terrific happened: The league just got super competitive.

Kawhi Leonard holds the favorite chip in his hands and wherever he signs may end up being the title favorite. But no matter what he decides, it promises to be a mysterious 2019-20 season with a slew of true contenders, a needed changeup.

This could well be the NBA’s first transitional season since 2014-15, when the Miami Heat broke up and the San Antonio Spurs slowed down, eventually getting eliminated in the first round. From that murk rose the Golden State Warriors, who stunned us with their explosive leap. It was a joyous time of uncertainty.

The brand-new 2019-20 season now has even more promise. The first hours of the new league year saw teams in both conferences fortify themselves by spreading out the balance of power. After waiting out the Warriors’ five-year run and the sunset of LeBron James’ Finals streak, this is what everyone else has been waiting for. The door is open and everyone can sense it.

Just consider the unusual circumstance two of the biggest offseason winners face. The Brooklyn Nets had a historic free agency, landing both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in a white-hot streak across social media. But because of the circumstances with Durant’s injury, the Nets face a holding pattern as Durant recovers from his torn Achilles.

Yes, the Nets added Irving but in the process had to jettison another All-Star guard, D’Angelo Russell. They may be better next season, but until Durant returns they may have to toil in the middle of the pack of Eastern Conference contenders.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been another big winner, landing Anthony Davis, but waiting on Leonard has cost the Lakers a chance at signing the majority of their role-player targets as most have gone elsewhere. If they complete the grand slam by getting Leonard, they face playing next season with a record 10 minimum-contract players, which could present an array of challenges even with their star power. The futures of the Lakers and Nets are shimmering but they may not be at their best for a bit.

The Warriors promise to be relevant with Russell joining Stephen Curry as they wait for Klay Thompson, who is expected to eventually re-sign, to recover from a torn ACL. But the machinations needed to acquire Russell in a sign-and-trade with Durant will zap some depth and they will be vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the Northwest Division has turned into an arms race with the Utah Jazz loading up their team by trading for Mike Conley, then adding Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis on Sunday. They join the Denver Nuggets, who elected to pay Paul Millsap $30 million to keep him and locked down Jamal Murray with a five-year contract extension, as legitimate contenders to win the West.

Then there are the Portland Trail Blazers, who are coming off the conference finals and re-signed Damian Lillard and Rodney Hood. Not to mention the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have two All-NBA players in Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

The Dallas Mavericks, who will be getting freshly re-signed Kristaps Porzingis back, and New Orleans Pelicans, who now have one of the deepest teams in the conference after signing JJ Redick and trading for Derrick Favors, will both be playoff contenders. And there’s an expectation No. 1 pick Zion Williamson will be a must-watch every night, to the point where the Pelicans may sell out of season tickets.

None of this speaks to the power the LA Clippers will become if Leonard picks them. With their depth, they could be a serious title contender. Or the Houston Rockets, who despite their team turmoil status still are loaded with talent and might’ve been the second-best team in the West by the end of last regular season.

And, again, we’re still waiting to see what Kawhi Leonard, arguably the best player active in the sport, will do.

There’s just nothing like this in the other American sports leagues.

Baseball’s hot stove league is by far the most famous but teams get to keep young superstars forever and have tremendous leverage in keeping their own players, since there’s huge incentive to sign a big deal for less money rather than waiting several years. Plus, because the roster is so much bigger, it’s just harder for a single player to make as big an impact. A starting pitcher only goes every fifth day and even a star offensive player only gets four or five at-bats a game.

The same is more true in the NFL, which has massive rosters. To be sure, quarterbacks in football are arguably the most impactful position in all of American team sports. But the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement pretty much ensures top quarterbacks never go on the market because teams can apply the franchise tag for multiple seasons before it becomes too cost-prohibitive. Ditto other star players. So, typically, the team keeps all of its star players unless there has been a regime change and the team wants to move on.

The NBA, by contrast, has true free agency and the players have increasingly taken control of the league, for both good and bad. Even though the CBA allows teams to give larger contracts to qualifying players on their own team than they can get elsewhere, superstars get so much money that they’re frequently willing to leave to have a better chance at winning a ring, play with their friends, live closer to home, or other considerations. The landscape of the game can therefore change radically on a year-by-year basis.

Now, there’s a downside here. If you’re a fan of a small-market team, it’s harder for your team to keep star players they’ve drafted or acquired through trade. It’s just easier to attract superstars to Los Angeles, Miami, or New York than it is Oklahoma City, Detroit, or Indianapolis. But for fans of the game as a whole—and, certainly, the players—the dynamism overcomes that objection.

FILED UNDER: Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. This may be true, but for several years now isn’t it true that we’ve seen a lack of competitive balance at least when it comes to the playoffs?

    The Golden State Warriors have won the West for each of the past five years and for four of those years they faced off against the Cavaliers. Granted, one could argue that the fact that both of those teams were in the playoffs at all given the fact that they both pretty much sucked for extended periods of time until Steph Curry and LeBron James came along. This isn’t dissimilar from the 80s when the dominant teams were the Lakers and the Celtics, or the 90s when the Chicago Bulls won 6 Championships.

    By contrast, the NFL and MLB have both seen a wide variety of teams making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl and World Series (although the Patriots have made it almost impossible for anyone else in the AFC to get to the big game). Heck, over the last 9 years we’ve seen 6 different teams win the World Series. The same is true in the NHL, where a team in its first year of exstence nearly won the Stanley Cup in 2018

    Of course, I suppose one could argue that I am not using a good measure for competitive balance. But winning the championship is what all these teams in every sport are aiming for. By that measure, the NBA’s free agency doesn’t really impact competitive balance as much as it may seem.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Of course, I suppose one could argue that I am not using a good measure for competitive balance. But winning the championship is what all these teams in every sport are aiming for.

    In both football and baseball, I’d argue that championships are a poor metric because they’re just so random. It’s why Billy Bean’s “Moneyball” teams never won; the playoffs are just a different animal than the regular season. The NFL is particularly absurd in this regard, since single-elimination games put too much emphasis on an ill-timed injury, fluke play, or bad call by the officials.

    The NBA is the opposite of the NCAA basketball tournament in this regard. The latter is the most exciting but stupidest championship in all of American sports. It’s fun to watch precisely because anything can happen. The NBA, by contrast, has the most boring and gruelling road to the championship. But, with the rare exception of a catastrophic injury—or, two, as happened to the Warriors this year—the best team almost always wins.

    Golden State put together a damned-near unbeatable team through the draft and sheer good luck. Kevin Durant then jumped on the bandwagon, adding arguably the best or second-best player in the sport to the mix, and made the outcome damned near inevitable.

    Still, LeBron’s Miami superteam only won the two championships. The Celtics superteam that preceded them won only one.

    The Lakers have put together a mini superteam and, if Kawhi joins them, it’ll be the prohibitive favorite. But the Nets will be right there with them the next year if Durant heals to something close to his pre-injury level. It’s all pretty exciting.

  3. Teve says:

    Heck, over the last 9 years we’ve seen 6 different teams win the World Series.

    Ditto for the NBA championship: Warriors, Cavs, Heat, Spurs, Raptors, Mavs.

  4. Size of team is huge. You can radically change a team by one player’s addition. And you can utterly remake a team with 2 or 3 players.

    (As the OP notes, BTW).

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yup. The combo of true free agency and small teams accounts for most of the disparity. I find NBA hot stove action more interesting than the actual NBA season at this point, mostly because I just can’t stay up to 1 Eastern on a regular basis to watch many games. Even in the playoffs, it’s just asking too much. It’s bad enough in college and the NFL but I only have to do it a few times a year, when Dallas or Bama have a night game.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Oh: Not noted in the OP but of significance: Kawhi deciding to take his sweet ass time in deciding in the ultimate power play. He turns whoever he signs with—including if he stays with Toronto—into an instant championship contender. But anyone else who put all their chips in hoping to get him is absolutely hosed. Not only are all the other superstars gone but so are most of the solid role players. It’s an ultimate all-or-nothing gamble.

    The Knicks are already big losers.

  7. @James Joyner: Kawhi is extremely talented, but a bit of a cipher. I still don’t understand what happened with him in San Antonio.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yup. I gather it was because Popovich intimated that he lacked courage/commitment in refusing to play through an injury during the playoffs. In light of the Kevin Durant debacle this year, Kawhi might have the better end of that one.

    EDIT: Here’s a tick tock that seems to confirm my impression.

  9. EddieInCA says:

    But, with the rare exception of a catastrophic injury—or, two, as happened to the Warriors this year—the best team almost always wins.

    Four.

    Looney
    Igoudala
    Durant
    Thompson

    And yet they still almost pulled it off.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: Fair. I was thinking of losing superstars in back-to-back games but Durant had already missed, what, two series? And I forgot about Igoudala since he’s not one of their big four. They’re such a loaded roster. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it again.

  11. Teve says:

    James Dolan has made the most boneheaded decisions with the Knicks that any owner has ever made in NBA history.

  12. Tyrell says:

    This is wild, nothing like it. Major League Baseball used to get everyone’s interest during the trade season. That was when the players would hang around with one team for a while. There were some real blockbuster trades back then. Sometimes people would literally be in tears when their favorite player was traded.
    New York really loaded up. The Nets that is. No telling what the Knicks are going to do, if anything. Michael Jordan’s Hornets lost Kemba and now Kaminsky will probably leave.
    This is 100% excitement. Watch Steven A. Smith.

  13. Teve says:

    Twitter rumors say kawhi is going to the Lakers.

  14. EddieInCA says:

    Teve says:
    Monday, July 1, 2019 at 19:56

    Twitter rumors say kawhi is going to the Lakers.

    I’ll believe it when WOJ says so. A Lakers lineup of LJ, AD, and KL would be difficult to beat in the West. Question it how else would they fill out their roster as they’ve gutted themselves to win now.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: Woj is just remarkable. He makes Adam Schefter look like a hack.

  16. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    Amazing the information you can get by being an honest, dedicated, and trust-worthy journalist.

    Additionally, he’s a super nice guy. Very humble.

  17. steve says:

    Leonard really is a cipher. Since he went to Toronto I was thinking he wants to be on a team where he is clearly “the guy” so that would exclude the Lakers with AD and Lebron there, but now I am not sure. Also dont think you should forget Boston. Kemba is a better fit with that team.

    Steve

  18. Teve says:

    @steve: he got traded to Toronto.

  19. @James Joyner:

    I gather it was because Popovich intimated that he lacked courage/commitment in refusing to play through an injury during the playoffs.

    It clearly was linked to that. That just never struck me as an adequate explanation, save, perhaps, that Kawhi really is that sensitive. I know I have a pro-SA bias, but given the way so many players have praised Pop as a coach over the years (including people like LeBron), it struck em as weird (not to mention Leonard won a ring and came close to another with SA).

    To me it was like demanding to be traded away from the Patriots because Belichick was grumpy.

  20. Teve says:

    He was clearly still dealing with a quad injury in the finals a month ago. is this the same injury that he had in San Antonio two years ago? If it is, he still hasn’t completely healed from it, making the complaint that he took too much time off for it an error.

  21. @Teve: It may be that he was too hurt to play in SA–it was just the whole weird way it went down at the time that had me vexed. I paid attention at the time, because as an SA fan, I knew Leonard was the future.

  22. Teve says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Oh i wasn’t criticising you. I’ve followed Popovich stories enough to know the guy’s a super-extrovert, and Kawhi’s an introvert, and as an introvert I’m aware of how innocuous introvert behaviors can be negatively misinterpreted, which I suspect is the root of what happened in San Antonio. I’m concerned about his quad, though, if it’s been an issue for 2 years at ~26-28 years of age, he could be in trouble.

  23. @Teve: No worries–just clarifying.

    And yes, if his quad is still injured, that is a major problem.

  24. Although I never have thought of Pop as a super-extrovert 😉 He seems too grumpy for that label.

    (But I take the point).

  25. Teve says:

    Pop’s idea of a good time is hosting a 30-person dinner party at a Michelin 2-star and dropping a $10,000 tip.

    Kawhi’s idea of a good time is driving his ’97 Tahoe to some cabin nobody knows he owns, I’m guessing.

  26. @Teve: Fair

  27. steve says:

    Teve- Oops.

  28. al Ameda says:

    The last round of Baseball Free Agency was a relative disgrace. The two biggest names in free agency – Bryce Harper and Manny Machado – were not signed until very late, and close to the onset of spring training.

    Baseball has a problem marketing stars, and the appearance of reluctance of virtually all teams to sign these two underlines that problem.

    Thank god for the NBA.

  29. Console says:

    The nba definitely has the best off-season and off the court storylines. The nfl is fun to follow in a morbid, macabre way, but the NBA much less of a guilty pleasure.