Shaq started it, Lebron opened the door, and Durant swung the door off its hinges and just like that the NBA world will never be the same. NBA purists like me long for the days when star players stayed with one franchise and influenced their teams to build around them. Cousy, Russell, West, Dr. J, Bird, Magic, MJ, Stockton, Malone, Hakeem, Kobe, Duncan, the great ones spent the prime of their respective careers with one franchise. The glory days of the 80’s and 90’s saw most superstar players stay put, win, lose, or draw. Those players wore one jersey and one number, which made it easy to know which jersey and which number would be on the Hall of Fame bust and the retired jersey in the rafters. Those days are gone and they are never coming back.
When Shaq exercised his free agent right to leave a good Orlando Magic team to go to the sunny shores of L.A and team up with rising star Kobe Bryant, he began a dangerous trend. Shaq did what he wanted to do. Still, Shaq wanted to record a rap album, star in terrible movies and be a star in the bright lights of Hollywood, so we didn’t beat him up too badly for his decision. Shaq and Kobe enjoyed a three-peat in L.A. and the Magic have yet to win an NBA title.
Then along came “The Decision” by Lebron James. Lebron was tired of his small market team being unwilling to bring in the necessary supporting cast to enable Lebron to win a title. Lebron had friends around the league and the stars aligned in Miami. Dwyane Wade welcomed Lebron with open arms. Chris Bosh, another friend, was also a free agent and the Heat had the cap space when all three were willing to take less than market to make the numbers work. Four straight Finals appearances and two titles later and Lebron was ready to go home. Lebron had been rewarded from his experience with the Heat and had figured out that he had so much control, now that the Cavs actually believed that Lebron could and would leave, that the Cavs had no choice but to give Lebron everything he wanted. Lebron forced a trade for fellow All-NBA performer and Olympic teammate Kevin Love which drained the Cavs of young assets. Over the next three seasons, Lebron pressured the Cavs into overpaying and extending Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, and Iman Shumpert. The power of free agency and the threat to leave became more powerful when Lebron started signing shorter contracts in order to give him leverage each year with the threat of leaving.
During that time, Carmelo Anthony added a new wrinkle to the league when he made it clear that he wanted out of Denver and would leave in free agency after the season was over. The Nuggets felt pressure to either trade Carmelo or watch him walk for nothing at the end of the season. The Knicks overpaid, but got their star. Similarly, All-Star Deron Williams was traded from the Jazz to the Nets when the Jazz suspected that he would not re-sign with the Jazz. The Nuggets and Jazz had no choice but to trade these star players because the star player held all the leverage with the threat of walking for nothing in free agency.
While Shaq, Lebron, and others made free agent moves to benefit their careers, Lebron astutely observed that he never jumped into a ready-made championship team, but had to build something that just so happened to have a foundation of great talent. Lebron denied being part of any “superteams.” On the other hand, Kevin Durant left the small-market Thunder high and dry when, despite being just one win away from the Finals, he joined forces with the record-setting, 73-win Warriors with three All-NBA performers already on its roster. Durant was called every name in the book, including by me, but ultimately he got his championship and was named Finals MVP in the process. Durant was brilliant in the Finals and was the best player on the floor most of the series. In the process, he Lebroned Lebron, by stacking a team even more than any team Lebron had built.
The Warriors have now put the pressure on the Cavs, and every other team wanting to win a title in the next three seasons, to make significant moves if they want to compete with the Warriors. To add to the perfect storm, star free agents Jimmy Butler and Paul George, now emboldened with leverage of being able to force the moves they want, have made it clear that they are not re-signing. George had gone so far as to say what team he wants to play for once he is a free agent, robbing the Pacers of the ability of getting any meaningful return for their star because teams know they are trading for a one-year-rental of the Pacers’ star. The Celtics are trying to land Gordon Hayward in free agency while also trading for Butler or Anthony Davis. Landing Hayward and trading for Davis or Butler would give the Celtics four All-Stars in their prime to compete for a title. The Knicks are considering trades for budding star Kristaps Porzingis because the 7-3 Forward is unhappy with Knicks management. Chris Paul is considering joining the Spurs. So the rich keep getting richer and most teams are left to pick up the scraps.
Here’s where this is going…
- Super-teams will dominate the league with all of the top players concentrated on four or five elite teams.
- Small-Market teams cannot hold onto their young talent because players are willing to take less to win because they are making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars off the court in endorsements.
- Hoards of fans will lose interest in the NBA and stop watching and buying tickets to games.
- TV money decreases and salary-caps and payrolls decrease.
- NBA basketball decreases in popularity.
- Players make less money.
Collective Bargaining negotiations have tried to address the need for small market teams being able to retain top talent by offering more money and longer contracts. I remember when Kevin Garnett signed the NBA’s first one hundred million dollar deal. My dad observed, “what can you do with one hundred million that you can’t do with ninety million?” Relying purely on financial considerations to deter players from leaving small market teams has backfired because players are willing to take less money and fewer years in the name of winning and leverage. Staying and making 150 million or leaving and making 120 million leaves the player with two options that will leave them set for life with more money they will be able to spend. If money won’t motivate players to stay put, we need to tap into what really motivates these players–ego. To solve the super-team problem, this is what I would propose:
- Do not allow a single team to send more than two All-Stars to the All-Star Game.
- Do not allow a single team to have more than two players named to the All-NBA teams.
- Prohibit teams from retiring the number of a player or honoring a player with a statute at the arena if that player has not played at least 10 seasons with that franchise.
Let’s see how much these players really like winning and how much they are willing to sacrifice to be on a winning team. Would Durant want to join the Warriors if he knows that Steph and Klay/Draymond already have the All-Star spots for the Warriors locked up? If Durant joins them, will Klay and Draymond want to stay and never get an individual honor as long as they play for the Warriors? This effectively makes it much more difficult to keep a super-team together because a player’s legacy is on the line. Klay Thompson has been willing to sacrifice the spotlight to be on a winning team, but he can do that because he will still be an All-Star every year and in good years, still be on the All-NBA team. If Klay couldn’t be an All-Star with Golden State, can’t make All-NBA and is saying goodbye to his chance at a Hall of Fame career, he’s as good as gone. If Klay left, he’d immediately average 28-30 points per game for another team. It’s time to do something to make the NBA competitive again.
I no longer blame Kevin Durant for joining the Warriors. He is a product of the environment. It is naive to think that players will just stay out of loyalty like in the good ‘ol days. It’s a new world and the players hold all of the control. Durant was doing what he thought was necessary to win a ring. He’s not the first to do that and he certainly won’t be the last.
The collective bargaining agreement was negotiated to protect small market teams, but is failing. Consider Gordon Hayward, the All-Star from the Utah Jazz who just led the Jazz to the second-round of the West Playoffs. Why would he stay in Utah if his goal is to win a championship? The Jazz are a good young team and Gobert is a great young Center, but will the Jazz accumulate enough talent to compete with the Warriors anytime soon? What big stars are going to choose Utah in free agency in order to build a super-team? Doesn’t Hayward have a better chance to succeed in Boston with Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, and Jimmy Butler or Anthony Davis and a slew of assets to make moves and draw free-agents? While I would be devastated if Gordon were to leave, how could I blame him? The NBA deck is stacked against small market teams and the players know it. Something has got to change or the small market teams and the overall competitiveness of the NBA is in real trouble.