There goes the NBA, the hottest and craziest of all sports leagues, changing again. Another superstar has flexed and shaken up professional basketball. LeBron James begat Kevin Durant, who begat Kawhi Leonard. As has been the case over the past decade, the latest power move made the NBA wilder, noisier, more intriguing, more intoxicating.
Oh, and let’s add with great emphasis: more complicated.
Celebrate the new competitive balance of a sport recently dominated by Golden State and (pick a LeBron team). Leonard, the destructor of dynasties, spoiled the formation of another superteam when he left the Los Angeles Lakers duo of James and Anthony Davis hanging and chose to join the Clippers, who should no longer be relegated to “other L.A. team” status. And he did it with the kind of panache we don’t often see from him on the court. While turning all followers of his free agency into paparazzi creepers, Leonard still managed to orchestrate the stealthiest star partnership of this Woj-bomb era, convincing Paul George to force Oklahoma City to trade him seemingly out of nowhere.
It will go down as the friendship that reset the NBA, which is crazy because, before this past weekend, we didn’t really know that Leonard had friends on other teams. We didn’t know whether he slept upside down or someone flicked a switch behind his ear at night to turn him off. Kawhi is human, silly, just not one vulnerable to the frailties of stardom. Unfettered, Leonard made the most calculated play in this NBA era of player empowerment.
With Leonard leading the way, this remarkable 2019 free agent class fixed the league in stunning, if unintentional, fashion. From the unprecedented six-hour rush of agreements that started free agency to Leonard’s influential decision, the NBA shined. Even though I’m tired of the constant star movement and speculation, I admit finding joy in the insanity. The result will be a 2019-20 season in which about one-fourth of the league will have legitimate Finals aspirations.
Still, despite all of the good, it’s complicated.
As the players get bolder, as the NBA resonates with a younger audience, as its global popularity soars, there is a cost. The new problem bubbling to the surface, courtesy of the Leonard/George alliance, one that will make team-building harder than ever: the ridiculously early trade demand. It’s about to become popular. Just watch.
Over the past three years, there already had been a rise in star players forcing trades a year or two before their contracts were set to expire. Here’s a shortlist of big-name players who have gone that route recently: Leonard, Davis, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler. That doesn’t include the peculiar case of Kristaps Porzingis, who fled the New York Knicks for Dallas, while injured and still on his rookie contract. And now there’s George, an entirely different beast. Two years ago, George had requested to be dealt from Indiana. He wound up in Oklahoma City in the final year of his contract, loved it and re-signed last summer for four years and $137 million. Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt declared July 7, 2018, to be Paul George Day. A year later, he is gone.
Since Durant bolted for Golden State three years ago, the Thunder has feared irrelevance. The franchise had a rising young squad when it arrived from Seattle in 2008, and it became a contender quickly. After losing Durant, it acquired George and Carmelo Anthony to assist point guard Russell Westbrook. Now, for the first time, General Manager Sam Presti seems to be in rebuilding mode, working with Westbrook on a trade and tearing down the rest of the roster.
Considering that Oklahoma City received young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a boatload of first-round draft picks to deal George, the Thunder has begun this process quite well. Ultimately it will realize this is much better than fielding an expensive, luxury tax-paying team that can’t get out of the first round with Westbrook as the primo star. But most teams aren’t going to get five first-round picks and a point guard with star potential as incentive to start over.
So the player-empowerment era now includes a rise in star trade demands.
One phone call from a buddy, and even a long-term commitment can become a short one. This is going to be the new free agency, the new obsession that players will desire as they wield their “power.” It will be a much bigger headache for franchises than employing stars who prefer short-term contracts and maximum flexibility. At least then a team knows to make a contingency plan.
This generation of athletes plays copycat as much as the teams do. More will follow this blueprint. If this is the next addiction, expect there to be at least one epic battle between a franchise and its franchise player. It’s almost an impossible fight for an organization. If teams don’t acquiesce and make a deal, the situation can turn into a bizarre media circus, which happened with Davis and New Orleans. Or it can turn contentious, which happened with Butler and Minnesota. There is too much potential for toxicity. Most teams would rather move on.
The difference between the player-driven NBA and franchise-driven NFL has been striking for a long time, but this might be the ultimate representation of that dichotomy. In the NFL, a contract isn’t a contract because the guaranteed money is limited, and teams use the flexibility to their advantage. In the NBA, a contract may be turning into only a theoretical commitment because elite players know they can use their celebrity and fully guaranteed money to their advantage. So great is their power and nerve that Brooklyn General Manager Sean Marks admitted Durant announced his intention to sign with the Nets on Instagram before speaking with his new team.
No matter the league, leverage matters most in the business of professional sports. The person who has the systemic edge tends to use it and do so unapologetically until the collectively bargained rules change. Don’t hate the players for breaking the code. Hate the danger their whims present to the game.
Because of the players’ random and shifting interests, the NBA happened upon an intriguing level of competitive balance this summer. Enjoy it for now. There is no telling what’s next.