The NBA changed in 1988. Before that, the league’s superstars had little power to pick where they played. They were drafted to a team and they were stuck in that city unless they demanded a trade. While a few players—notably Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain—managed to change teams, it was a rare and difficult process. But in 1988, everything changed when Tom Chambers signed with the Suns as the first ever unrestricted free agent. Free agency as we know it was born that summer.
So what’s happening?
Today, the NBA is run by the players and free agency is when they exercise their incredible power. This is especially true for the league’s best players. Superstars seek out short-term contracts that give them the ability to hit the free market at shorter intervals. This flexibility gives players the opportunity to escape lousy environments and to find themselves an ideal situation.
Whereas in other sports leagues the ideal situation can’t be manufactured in one summer, the NBA is different. If an NBA superstar doesn’t think he can win with his supporting cast or if he isn’t happy in the city, then he has the power to quickly change both of those things. And that’s what players have been doing at an alarming rate the past few years.
It started during the summer of 2010 when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh joined the Miami Heat. That’s when it became clear that stars had the leverage to put themselves in any position, with anyone, in any city. In the last three years, player movement has been highlighted by:
- Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State
- Kawhi Leonard sitting out the entire 2017-2018 season with San Antonio and forcing a trade to Toronto
- Kyrie Irving forcing a trade from Cleveland to Boston
- LeBron leaving Cleveland (again) for LA
- Anthony Davis forcing a trade from New Orleans to LA
- Kawhi leaving Toronto for LA
- Paul George forcing a trade from Oklahoma City to LA
- Russell Westbrook getting traded from Oklahoma City to Houston
- Kemba Walker leaving Charlotte for Boston
- Durant and Kyrie going to Brooklyn
The list could go on, but I think you get the point: NBA superstars can pretty much go where they please nowadays.
How is this happening?
Player movement has two mediums: free agency and the trade market.
Some superstars prefer to test the free market often, so they sign short-term contracts with player options. This allows them to have maximum control over their own future. The best example of this is LeBron’s short-term deals. These kinds of deals put pressure on teams to win-now. In order to make their superstars as happy as possible, franchises typically have to mortgage future assets for the sake of the current team.
The other group of superstars are those who are willing to sign long-term deals. But as Paul George and Kyrie Irving have shown us, long-term deals aren’t stopping player movement. More and more frequently, these players are forcing their way out via trade.
Trades are technically different from free market movement, but the connection between free agency and trade requests is simple. Because of the looming threat of free agency, franchises don’t have many options when dealing with their superstars. Prior to 1988, when a superstar demanded a trade, the team could just deny the request and wait until he was ready to play. Today, teams have to be leery of their superstar becoming a free agent in one or two years. They can’t just wait it out because nowadays the threats aren’t empty. The fear of winding up totally empty-handed if the player leaves is causing preemptive trades. This was the case with the Indiana Pacers and Paul George, the San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard, and the New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis.
In today’s NBA, trade movement and free agency movement are not mutually exclusive. If superstars did not have so much control in free agency, then all these trade demands wouldn’t have as much bite.
So where are they going?
Player movement seems to be flowing in one direction: from small markets to large markets. Look again at the above list of player movements in the last three years. How many of those superstars were going to a larger market? The answer is all of them.
It’s as though small cities are becoming farm systems for the larger markets. For the past decade, larger teams have raided the small markets in order to form their super teams:
- The Boston Celtics formed their “Big 3” in 2007 by getting Kevin Garnett from Minnesota and Ray Allen from Seattle
- The Miami Heat created their “Big 3” in 2010 by getting LeBron from Cleveland and Chris Bosh from Toronto
- The Golden State Warriors completed their “Big 4” in 2017 by getting Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City
- Quibbl: Will Chris Paul leave OKC and form a “Big 3” in Los Angeles? Will Bradley Beal leave Washington and form a “Big 3” in Boston?
This summer may have brought us the new trend of the “Dynamic Duo,” but the source from which these superstar tandems are being drawn remains the same.
- LA took LeBron from Cleveland and Davis from New Orleans
- LA took Kawhi from Toronto and George from Oklahoma City
- Houston took Westbrook from Oklahoma City
The migration of talent out of small markets isn’t a new phenomenon and it shouldn’t surprise us. Playing in big cities grants a player a lot more in terms of branding, exposure, media hype, and endorsement deals. And the fact that large markets attract more players means that their teams usually present players with better opportunities of winning.
Big markets typically have more lucrative franchises and they feature owners with deeper pockets. They won’t hesitate to enter the luxury tax if it means a superstar and one or two of his buddies will join the team. If you were to rank every NBA team by the number of seasons they have gone into the luxury tax, you’d find the top 10 is dominated by big markets like New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles again.
So is all this player movement and player empowerment a good thing?
The easy answer to this question is “yes,” because answering “no” might insinuate that I’m siding with the billionaire owners over the players. I believe that NBA players are their own individuals and that they deserve the right to make the best decisions for themselves, just like you and me. Furthermore, I understand that the NBA is a business and franchises won’t hesitate to move on from a player. Loyalty is a two-way street and it’s a trait that most owners in sports lack (see Dan Gilbert’s letter about LeBron and Steve Ballmer’s treatment of Blake Griffin).
All that being said, some franchises, particularly those in small markets, have a right to be angry with this growing trend. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a small market team. Say we’re the Minnesota Timberwolves. We know we’ll likely never have a superstar free agent signing (Joe Smith is our best free agent signing ever!). The draft is our only chance to acquire a superstar. Assuming we can’t pull a Philadelphia 76ers’ move and deliberately tank for half a decade, it may take us a while before one of our top picks turns into a superstar. Then, once we finally get our guy and after years of overseeing his development, he wants to leave for New York or LA.
Is this fair?
Reasonable minds can disagree, but I don’t personally have an issue if he’s a free agent wielding his incredible power. However, if the player demands to leave via trade, then I have a problem. There is no bad enough situation for an NBA superstar that they need to move immediately. Not loving the city, not competing for championships, and not playing with your friends may all be unfortunate, but they aren’t the cases when I’m happy to see players flex their muscle.
Take the real example of the San Antonio Spurs, who have had the best culture in the NBA for the past 20 years. They developed the #15 pick in the draft, Kawhi Leonard, for six years. The homegrown star was just reaching superstardom when he reportedly refused to play out the two remaining years of his contract. He demanded a trade and wound up in the city he always wanted. Likewise, Anthony Davis basically quit on the Pelicans halfway through the season. Both of those men are now in LA.
San Antonio and New Orleans have legitimate cases to be upset. Yet, the general public was more outrage when LeBron left the Cavs (first time) and Durant left the Thunder. While I do take issue with the super teams that both players joined, I can’t be more angry with these guys than I am with Kawhi or Davis. The latter two superstars give player empowerment a bad name.
Everyone has their own take on player empowerment. Although there are times when I don’t love the decisions of free agents, I think increased player control in free agency is a good thing. It gives players freedom and it creates parity in the league. But as far as trade demands go, I think the NBA needs to reign in the player’s power. This is something that probably can’t be done without making some changes to free agency.
So where is this going?
The cat is out of the bag: the key to winning in the NBA today is players’ relationships. Superstars know they need to cultivate relationships with other players, then find a team that can carry out their plans. There is no clearer example of this than Kawhi calling up Paul George, coercing him into partnering-up in LA, and then asking the Clippers to mortgage their future to make the pairing a reality.
Ideally, this kind of tampering wouldn’t exist, but in reality, it will continue to be at the center of NBA movement. Superstars are friends off-the-court and, like us, they imagine how cool it would be to work with their friends. And why wouldn’t they form super teams? More and more the world is defining players by their championship success. The average NBA player may not care about their legacy, but those at the top are acutely aware of it.
As for the migration from small markets to large ones? Franchises in big cities will always have more money to spend, but it seems like something needs to be done. The NBA’s current solutions haven’t had much success. For example, the “supermax” has actually brought a whole new set of issues to small markets. A more extreme option is to revert to the guidelines that used to bind free agent, when players had to be in the league for at least seven years and had to have played through two NBA contracts. Getting the Players’ Union to agree to this in the next collective bargaining agreement would be difficult, but if the current trend continues, then owners in the less-lucrative small markets may begin to lobby for some more severe solutions.
The fluidity of today’s NBA, superstars constantly searching for an ideal fit, teams being short on power. Is the cat out of the bag on these things or is it possible to return to an era when teams kept their home-grown players? The era of player empowerment is here to stay, but I can’t believe that teams will not eventually try to reduce the movement of superstars via free agency and trades.