Life may be unreliable, but you seemingly can depend on NBA volatility. This weird November free agency may be slightly different — it probably will be overloaded with trades to compensate for the limited available star power — but there will be stunning moves just the same. The trade activity already has been significant, with Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday and Al Horford among the high-paid players moving elsewhere. And the buzz about disgruntled superstars and potential deals seems much greater than the muted enthusiasm about the recently completed playoffs. That should be as concerning as it is exciting, but for now, the sport will bask in this soap-opera interest.
Two former MVP teammates on supermax contracts, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, want out of Houston. Milwaukee has more roster work left to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo happy. Oddly, Gordon Hayward seems to prefer an escape from a winning, title-hunting situation in Boston. Anthony Davis has opted out of his contract with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and while it seems inevitable that he will re-sign with them, he is keeping pressure on the organization to resist complacency and exhaust all of its resources — on his new contract and to put better pieces around him and LeBron James.
The situation with Harden and the Rockets represents a stability test for this offseason. If there is no reconciliation, this free agency and trade period could be wilder than expected. A Harden deal, if consummated early enough, could trigger a largesse of drama. It wouldn’t be an event quite on the level of Kevin Durant joining Golden State in 2016 or James taking his talents elsewhere every four years since 2010, but the ground would shake nonetheless.
If Harden got his reported wish and landed in Brooklyn with Durant and Kyrie Irving, the NBA again would have a formidable Big Three one year after a round of superstar turnover seemed to shift the league from super teams (at least three perennial all-stars on one squad) to dynamic duos with more balanced rosters.
The Nets would have an exceptional collection of individual talent, but it would be an awkward fit with three ball-dominant offensive savants. Only Durant, who missed last season recovering from Achilles’ surgery, has shown he can be comfortable and content playing off the ball for large stretches. Such a superstar coalition would be a blessing and a taxing challenge for Steve Nash, the Hall of Famer in his first season as a head coach. And despite the questions of whether the experiment would work, the talent alone would send other contenders scrambling to find a third all-star or adjusting their supporting casts and depth to counter the Nets’ firepower.
But this offseason is so much bigger than a Harden trade innuendo. On a macro level, several factors indicate this could be an active and fickle period.
It starts with the mediocre draft class — one that talent evaluators couldn’t thoroughly evaluate because of the coronavirus. There are a lot of incomplete and concerned teams entering free agency, and in this truncated offseason, training camp opens in two weeks. Although the 2021 draft class looks better, it will be hard again to parse the talent, especially during a college basketball season that’s going to be full of scrambling and cancellations. As a result, the uncertainty makes some teams more open to tossing first-round picks into deals.
Compared with recent free agent super classes, this one is meh, and at least a half-dozen teams can convince themselves that they are one or two smart moves from a championship. That further heats up the trade market. In addition, the NBA is in financial disarray because of the coronavirus, and that means something different to each team. If you’re not a contender, it’s a great time to scale back, collect assets and wait out the storm. On the other hand, the revenue shortfalls and murky outlook could compel more franchises to eschew long-term planning, pursue win-now glory and deal with what’s on the other side only when necessary.
Teams are going to be all over the place, and so is the market. There will be insanely inconsistent deals for similar players. There will be a few big contracts and a lot of huge bargains, depending on when players sign. There will be motivated trade partners everywhere and for every reason: to dump salaries, to collect assets, to mortgage the future unapologetically.
The past two NBA champions, the Lakers and Toronto Raptors, are proof of what can be accomplished by channeling urgency properly. The Lakers were an especially inorganic creation, but there’s no room on the Larry O’Brien trophy to detail how a title is won. It matters only that they finished the job.
In the 10 years since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami and began what has been dubbed the NBA’s player empowerment era, the star traffic has been heavy. Instability is the NBA’s new reality. Managing it has become an art of team-building.
This year’s edition takes place amid wider societal and financial uncertainty. The business of the NBA is going to have to adjust. Yet the sport, like everything else, is too much in salvage mode to know for sure what that looks like.
There is a season to prepare for, one that arrives in about a month. This isn’t a comfortable time for gradual player development and meticulous planning. So the NBA figures to commence with what seems to captivate fans the most: offseason lunacy.
To tame the chaos, the NBA adds its own.