This Summer Has Changed NBA Free Agency Forever
There have been many new trends during this year’s free agency that may change how NBA teams approach free agency forever
For as long as the NBA has existed, there has always been one consistent issue: teams in larger markets have always had an advantage over teams in smaller markets. This issue has been most pronounced during free agency, because top-NBA players often leave the team that drafted them to go to teams in larger markets. This issue will never be fully solved because popular cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami will always be more desirable than quieter cities like Indiana and Oklahoma City. Also, teams with a prestigious history like the L.A. Lakers or Boston Celtics have always had an advantage over newer, less prestigious franchises. However, as this year’s free agency period has shown, there are new trends in the NBA that will help alleviate this issue.
By the time free agency began, basketball fans everywhere had been speculating where the top free agent stars would land. In particular, fans of the New York Knicks had been patiently waiting for months, intrigued by the possibility of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving teaming up in Manhattan. Also, when news broke that reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard was seriously considering the Los Angeles Lakers, Lakers fans were instantly fascinated by the now very real possibility of a “Big Three” of Leonard, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis on the Lakers.
Instead, the NBA world was put in shock as it was announced that Durant and Irving would be teaming up in Brooklyn and Leonard would be teaming up with Paul George to play for the Clippers, the second basketball team in Los Angeles. The most shocking part of the decisions of Leonard, Durant, and Irving was that they all chose to sign with teams that were considered to be “second fiddles” in their cities. The Nets have always been considered to be inferior as a free agent destination to the Knicks, and the Clippers have always been considered to be inferior as a free agent destination to the Lakers.
As these free agent decisions have shown, a franchise’s prestige and history matters less to the modern NBA superstar than ever before. With all this being said, there is a reason that the Nets and Clippers became more appealing free agent destinations than their infamous same-city counterparts, and this reason is culture.
Both the Clippers and Nets have made it a point of emphasis to improve their team’s culture on and off the court. Both teams had a combination of young players and veterans. In contrast to the Lakers, the Clippers and Nets never had locker room issues or instances of players consistently complaining over their roles. Also, their front offices had steadiness and stability, something that both the Lakers and Knicks’ front offices struggled with.
Going into the future, teams are likely going to emphasize their culture more than ever in order to make themselves as appealing of a free agent destination as possible. Especially in the case of teams that are in major cities, but lack the prestige of more famous teams, creating and maintaining a good culture is incredibly important for their success in free agency.
Back in Oakland, the Warriors had a crisis on their hands. Durant was ready to leave Golden State, especially after the apparent lack of honesty from the team’s medical staff regarding Durant’s injury status. The Warriors were now facing the possibility of Durant leaving for nothing and starting the season without Klay Thompson. As we saw in the NBA Finals, a team featuring only Stephen Curry and Draymond Green as top offensive options was not sustainable. However, they did not have any cap space, so they could not upgrade their roster at all during free agency. Their solution to this predicament was using a sign-and-trade.
With no cap space and no leverage, the Warriors were able to nab All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell from the Nets, who signed a 4 year / $117,325,500 max contract with the Nets, knowing he would be traded to the Warriors. While the fit of Russell and the Warriors is questionable at best, it is undeniable that the Warriors were wise to acquire an All-Star player to somewhat replace Durant. The Russell deal was unprecedented in modern NBA history, because when most stars leave their former teams, they leave them “high and dry”, meaning the former team almost never receives anything in exchange for their departing star player. Durant made the same decision as Russell, signing a 4 year / $164,255,700 contract with the Warriors before being traded to the Nets. It is incredible that a team like Golden State, which was completely capped-out, can acquire high-end talent in free agency by using sign-and-trades.
There were other situations like this in the NBA, such as the trade between Philadelphia and Miami. In the trade, Philadelphia received Josh Richardson, a promising young player, in exchange for Jimmy Butler, who went to Miami. The Sixers got compensation for Butler, which is incredible because he was a free agent that could sign wherever he wanted. For Miami, it was equally incredible that they were able to acquire an All-Star level player in free agency, despite being at or near the luxury tax line for the past few seasons, including this summer.
The sign-and-trade will likely continue to be used more and more in the league. It serves as a solution to the insane spending of teams during free agency, because teams that are capped-out can still be players in free agency. It also helps teams in the worst-case scenario of a star leaving, because they can receive some assets in exchange for their departing star.
Free agency has historically been dominated by large markets like New York and Los Angeles. The NBA, and by extension, free agency, is always evolving however, so large markets may eventually lose their advantage. Improving culture and embracing the sign-and-trade will probably become very common in upcoming seasons. In fact, just 10 years ago, it was unheard of for stars to team up or leave the team that drafted them. Even if large markets always have an advantage over their competitors, the new trends from this summer, including the importance of culture and the emergence of the sign-and-trade, will help “level the playing field” of free agency now and in the future.
The summer of 2010 is infamous for “The Decision” of LeBron James, and it marks the beginning of the era of player empowerment in the NBA. Perhaps the summer of 2019 will one day be known for marking the beginning of teams prioritizing their culture and utilizing sign-and-trades.
Players’ contract information via spotrac.com