The start of NBA free agency is now one of the most exciting times on the league’s calendar, a period where every rumor can occasion a massive shift in several teams’ fortunes. For the next few days, every team is capable of remaking itself into a contender, or at least setting itself to be one in the future. The mere hint of a meeting with a top free agent will bring hope or despair. By the end of the first week in July, we’ll have a sense of the shape of the 2017-18 season.
Free agency did not always feel so important. Although the league has attempted to incentivize stars to stay with the same team, players have exercised unprecedented power to put themselves in their preferred situations. Additionally, shorter max contracts have turned every summer into a time of rampant movement. This offseason will likely feature more storylines and surprises than the 2017 postseason. It’s a sport unto itself.
The pivot point was undoubtedly the summer of 2010, when LeBron James held “The Decision” and changed the very structure of NBA free agency. LeBron’s ability to make his own future and the intense speculation surrounding his choice created the free agent world we live in today. The league hasn’t been the same since.
Here’s the free agent world LeBron left in his wake.
There is an argument to be made that Chandler Parsons is the most successful figure in the last five years of free agency. More than anyone, his public image has been constructed during the offseason.
The onetime Houston Rockets wing became one of Daryl Morey’s greatest successes as a second-round pick who exceeded expectations and appeared on the brink of stardom in 2014. Then Morey surprisingly declined the option on Parsons’s fourth season to chase another All-Star to pair with James Harden and Dwight Howard (with Chris Bosh at the top of his list). That move offended Parsons, and he moved to the in-state rival Dallas Mavericks on a three-year, $46-million deal that seemed to hinge on a budding bromance with owner Mark Cuban.
Parsons began to sell himself as a star recruiter when the Rockets wooed Howard in 2013, and that reputation reached a new high when DeAndre Jordan agreed to leave the Clippers in 2015. The dissolution of that deal issued a blow to Parsons, but it did not change the fact that he seemed like the sort of player who understands how these offseason games are played. His self-awareness meant something, even if it didn’t always result in achievements.
A knee injury suffered in 2015-16 convinced Parsons to opt out in search of a major payday last summer, and he signed a four-year, $96-million contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. That salary looks like an albatross around the Grizzlies’ neck after Parsons played just 34 games in his first campaign with the club, but it’s hard to say the player didn’t make a great move. If Parsons had hit the market this year, he’d have seen far fewer options.
Parsons is definitely a good player when healthy, but his level of fame does not quite jibe with a career that peaked as a third option on a middling playoff team. Apart from his piercing eyes, the biggest reason he’s at this level is that he understands how to maximize his value every free agent summer. Parsons understands that this portion of the league calendar requires different strengths.
9. Al Horford to the Boston Celtics in 2016
Horford did not exactly enter free agency on a high note. Despite four All-Star seasons and a strong reputation as a frontcourt mainstay for the Atlanta Hawks, he had just come off a playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers in which he looked physically incapable of grabbing a rebound. No one could have denied that Horford was a solid player many teams would be lucky to have. But was he really a difference maker?
We learned last July that scarcity and desperation can make the best available option look like a grand prize. Suddenly, Horford was the piece who could turn any number of franchises into an top destination. The Celtics saw Horford as the guy to convince Kevin Durant they were for real. The Thunder were going to use him to prove to Durant that they meant business. The Hawks were ready to trade Paul Millsap and build the team around Horford and Dwight Howard in the middle (????). All of this, somehow, was supposed to make these teams more attractive than the Warriors and their 73 wins.
Al Horford is very good, and his presence in Boston certainly helped the Celtics nab the best regular-season record in the East. But he’s not a guy to lure free agents. Outside of just a few players, there is no one who holds that sway. Most everyone is just someone who helps turn the team itself into the selling point.
8. Jeremy Lin to the Houston Rockets in 2012.
It made sense for the Knicks not to match this contract, because Lin is now a journeyman reserve. Plus, they finished with the second-best record in the East the next season. But Linsanity marks the last time Knicks fans were truly happy. Every day since this move, they’ve proceeded under the assumption that the franchise resents them. And it’s hard to say the feeling isn’t warranted.
7. Ray Allen to the Miami Heat in 2012
Allen would hold a place on this list if only for his season-saving three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. It’s the biggest shot in Miami Heat history and a key moment in the considerable legacy of LeBron James. If a signing helps a legend win a title, then it mattered a lot.
In a broader sense, though, Allen’s move to a fierce in-conference rival represented a conscious break with the standards held by his generation of players. To be sure, players like Paul Pierce now greatly exaggerate the degree to which loyalty and pride factored into their past decisions. But moves like Allen’s, in which he headed to a team the Celtics had just faced (and led) in the conference finals, flew in the face of those admittedly arbitrary standards. It was enough of as light that the Celtics’ core still can’t shut up about it.
It’s easy to knock Allen for this decision, but history proves that he made the right move in taking his future into his hands. A year later, the Celtics dealt Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets to create a squad that immediately hit its expiration date. Rajon Rondo stuck around and has only suffered since. Allen’s the only one of the Big Four who ended his career in a position of strength.
6. Isaiah Thomas to the Phoenix Suns in 2014
NBA writers grade every free agent move as it happens, often with considerable certainty. We are often right, but sometimes so wrong it’s a wonder why we keep trying.
When Thomas joined the Suns three years ago, I didn’t see how it could fail. Phoenix was coming off an unexpectedly impressive 2013-14 in which they began as a rebuilding outfit but won 48 games and had a chance at a playoff berth until the final day of the season. Thomas had established himself as an excellent scorer with the Sacramento Kings and looked like a steal at $27 million over four years. The Suns already had Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic at point guard, but they had thrived with both in the starting lineup. Adding Thomas was sensible protection against the injuries that had helped keep them from the postseason the prior season.
It seemed like a no-brainer. Even the potential pitfalls seemed fixable:
The worst-case scenario is that things don’t work out, the Suns assess who fits their needs best, and McDonough deals one of three talented, reasonably proven young players for an impressive player at another position and/or more picks. Despite a successful 2013-14, the Suns aren’t in a position where they have to win now. They may feel more pressure to win than they imagined they would a year ago, but it’s not as if a single 48-win season has compelled owner Robert Sarver to issue ultimata. This team has room to experiment and take gambles on what could be a great future.
He didn’t even last a full season in Phoenix. The point guard logjam created chemistry issues that alienated both Thomas and Dragic, who were traded at the deadline for underwhelming returns. The Suns’ promising future never materialized, and the Suns have encountered enough problems that Sarver has felt compelled to blame it all on millennials. The franchise is a mess.
Thomas is doing just fine as a star for the Celtics, and he’ll likely make more than $27 million per season when he hits free agency next summer. Adding his talent was never the problem for the Suns. The issue was the uneasy calculus that involved everything but his individual value.
The lesson, as always, is that it’s foolish to treat any deal as anything like a sure thing (unless it involves Kevin Durant or LeBron James). We know less than we think, and the need to issue an immediate assessment helps no one. It fills a need created only by our own mania.
5. Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets in 2013
Howard’s pre-draft trade to the Charlotte Hornets last week held the character of a postcard from the abyss, an opportunity for the eight-time All-Star to face his severely diminished reputation and consider just where things started going wrong. By contrast, it’s remarkable that his acquisition could justify entire methods of team construction a mere four years ago.
There was once a time when Daryl Morey’s method of flipping every asset for an incrementally better asset resembled not so much a sensible method of team-building as the NBA’s version of “One red paperclip.” In Morey’s view, all that wheeling and dealing would lead to a team with several stars. In practice, the Rockets looked firmly ensconced in the league’s middle, with little more than a glut of low-lottery picks to show for his considerable efforts.
The Rockets’ fortunes began to change a few days prior to the 2012-13 season, when Morey flipped numerous pieces to the Oklahoma City Thunder for James Harden. The presence of a legitimate star immediately legitimized the Rockets, to the point where Morey could go to Howard the next summer and make a convincing case that they were on the verge of contention. His three seasons in Houston didn’t come close to working out as planned — the Rockets suffered two first-round eliminations and made one trip to the conference finals in a year Howard played just 41 games — and the franchise’s trek back to contention has been anything but a steady climb. But the questions about Morey immediately stopped when he signed Howard. The plan had undoubtedly worked.
Howard’s decision had two far-reaching effects around the league. For one, it signaled that the Lakers’ mystique didn’t hold much value if the franchise was in disarray. On a deeper level, though, it bought wiggle room for any general manager selling a long-term, asset-heavy rebuilding process. The patience for Sam Hinkie’s method and Danny Ainge’s can-kicking pick accumulation does not exist to nearly the same extent if not for Morey’s success. Results matter, but progress no longer follows a straight line.
4. Andre Iguodala to the Golden State Warriors in 2013
In retrospect, this move helped turn the Warriors from a decent playoff team into a genuine contender. Without Iguodala, Golden State’s incredible defensive versatility and ability to play small without sacrificing anything do not exist. He’s the 2015 NBA Finals MVP and a vaunted member of both the Death and Hamptons Five lineups. There is no juggernaut without him.
At the time, it was just a signing that made the Warriors better. They needed a wing defender and someone to serve as a secondary facilitator, and Iguodala filled both those requirements well. General manager Bob Myers made the money work with a bold sign-and-trade deal not because the Warriors were on the brink of a title, but because he needed to improve the lineup and ensure that a franchise not used to making the postseason could solidify its spot in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture.
The best-case scenario for the Iguodala contract seemed to be four seasons of playoff participation and a full-on culture change surrounding the franchise. The fact that it ended with three-straight finals appearance and a burgeoning dynasty feels like a happy accident. Not every move needs to turn a team into a champion. It just has to improve the odds of getting there, at some point, even if it’s 10 years later.
3. DeAndre Jordan to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015
OK, so Jordan technically didn’t move to a new team. But his free agent saga was simultaneously the most hilarious and dramatic of the modern era. Just a few days after committing to join the Dallas Mavericks, Jordan reneged on his pledge and holed up in a Houston mansion with the core of the Clippers to ensure he didn’t change his mind again before putting pen to paper. Every Twitter update added a new, fantastic layer. Some of us never wanted it to end.
It had everything. There was an emoji war. Blake Griffin tweeted out a photo of a poorly barricaded door. DeAndre wouldn’t answer his door. Chris Broussard reported that Mark Cuban was driving around the city aimlessly trying to find Jordan’s house. It would have been believable if someone had said the Mavericks had smuggled Jordan out of the building under a dining cart.
I was working that day, but it would have been impossible to keep my eyes off Twitter regardless. More than any single event, Jordan’s change of heart encapsulated what makes contemporary NBA free agency so fun. It’s absurdist theater at its best.
2. Kevin Durant to the Warriors in 2016
KD’s move to the league’s best team was in many ways a replay of “The Decision,” albeit with far more complications and the benefit of hindsight. Like in 2010, Durant’s choice upset the power structure surrounding the league. Unlike the prior event, media reaction was split relatively cleanly between those who resented Durant’s decision and those who felt no ill will over a grown man exercising a preference. There was still an uproar, but it felt comparatively sane.
It was progress, of a sort, if only because LeBron’s lambasting remains one of the most hateful and racially tinged outcries of this era, to the point where it will likely serve as the basis for several documentaries and studies once we gain more perspective. If anything, though, some of the pro-Durant arguments seemed like over-corrections. Is a world-class athlete’s choice of basketball team really like picking any job? Doesn’t the spirit of competition matter for something, even if it doesn’t have to serve as the foundation of so much animosity? Shouldn’t we want to feel some doubt over the results when a season starts?
The Durant-Warriors marriage served as a reminder that the morality of an individual choice and that decision’s impact on a game are separate issues. It’s OK to accept one and reject the other.
1. LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014
The King stays the king. If “The Decision” offended with its supposed arrogance and lack of loyalty, then “The Essay” was the event everyone could love. The narrative was clean — LeBron returned to Cleveland as a prodigal son ready to right his wrongs. He avoided the self-serving welcome events, pledged himself to the community (which he’d never really left), and committed himself to giving an entire region its much-desired title. The Cavs’ comeback from a 3-1 deficit last June served as the perfect climax.
In reality, the story is not so simple. Look back over the past seven years and LeBron appears to be the same person throughout. He grew up and learned during his years in Miami, but the same is true of anyone who goes from 25 years old to 29. He’s still someone who doesn’t treat a loss like a personal failure. Did he change, or did we decide to view him differently?
Last Friday, Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote that free agency most clearly shows us who players are (i.e. what they value most from their profession). I tend to agree with this point. But if LeBron has shown us nothing else, it’s that what everyone wants can change with both time and the observer’s frame of reference. We don’t know what free agency means until the moves happen, and even then we’re often wrong as soon as a few months later.
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