The stars are all concentrated in big markets and fans are left with a jersey whose namesake isn't even on the team anymore
And so, the Days Without a NBA-Altering Shakeup calendar was set back to zero.
Just when everyone thought it was safe to assume that the wildest offseason in memory had finally entered into a lull, the Oklahoma City Thunder shook the Western Conference snow globe again, moving Russell Westbrook, the raging heart of the team for as long as it has been in Oklahoma, to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and a pile of draft picks.
Two of the league’s most recognizable stars, traded for each other. It would have been a defining moment of any other offseason. In this one, it was Thursday night.
The list of players who have moved teams since the NBA season ended last month now includes: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Westbrook and Paul. Add in LeBron James leaving Cleveland for Los Angeles last summer, and it’s 10 of the very best players in the league being relocated, in most cases at the behest of the player. The Westbrook-Paul trade isn’t quite the same as, say, Davis forcing his way out of New Orleans, but Paul did push his way out of the L.A. Clippers two years ago, and the Thunder only moved on from Westbrook because George decided he wanted to join Leonard on the Clippers. Thursday’s trade was a direct result of the George move, which ultimately meant that the Thunder went from a team with two All-NBA players to one with none of them. (Paul is almost certain to be traded again soon.)
For a league that is often lauded for doing everything right, it’s fair to wonder what the NBA has gotten itself into here. As much as there was a sense of hilarity to the flurry of thunderclaps that happened as free agency opened two weeks ago, which culminated in the shock coup of Leonard and George to the Clippers, the denouement of all that excitement is a league where, again, the stars have clustered themselves in a few markets. It is more evident than ever that teams operate at the mercy of their best players, and it has created a strange dichotomy for the NBA: You need a superstar to challenge for a title, but as soon as you get anyone who fits that category, the odds of keeping them around begin to decrease. The All-NBA guys can either leave in free agency or, as has become a trend, get themselves traded before they reach that point. Consider that, among that group of 10 megastars that have switched teams recently, seven of them — Durant, Leonard, George, Irving, Butler, Paul and James — have engineered relocations multiple times now.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is no doubt pleased that he now has two star-laden teams in Los Angeles and another one in New York, but there are 26 teams that do not play in one of the league’s two biggest markets, and those franchises cannot be thrilled with the way things have unfolded. It was, after all, a desire to make it less appealing for star players to switch teams that led to the major changes in recent collective bargaining agreements, which included salary-cap provisions for extra years, and more money per year, for players that stayed with their current teams. For the truly elite players who cleared certain high benchmarks, there was the possibility of a “supermax” contract should they stay put. None of that stuff has worked. Davis eschewed a supermax offer from New Orleans, Leonard wanted out of San Antonio even though he was eligible for one there, and all of the stars on the move are routinely sacrificing years of contract security — and tens of millions of dollars — so that they can join a different franchise. There’s an argument that James, Durant and Leonard are the three best players in the NBA in some order, and each has now repeatedly opted for much less guaranteed money in exchange for control over their future.
Is this good for the league? The offseason carnival is fun, but teams are ultimately in the business of trying to build supportive fan bases that will buy tickets and watch games year after year. The loose deal is that management will field a competitive team and the fans will respond with their money. Most fans understand if a player eventually decides to leave a losing franchise, but players are leaving good teams as a matter of routine. It’s a now a weird bargain between a team and its fans: please spend $150 on this custom jersey, and with any luck the name on it will still be on the team two years from now.
Just look at the Thunder. It was only a year ago that they had, to the surprise of most of the league, re-signed George to a max contract, pairing him with Westbrook for what was supposed to be several seasons of championship contention. Now they are both gone, and general manager Sam Presti is winning accolades for the huge bounty of draft picks he has acquired in dealing them. Fans of asset allocation can admire what the Thunder have done. Fans of the actual basketball team? I am not so sure.
I guess they can always put “Draft Picks” on the back of an Oklahoma City jersey.
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