About a 6 minute read
By pure serendipity on the night of July 8th, 2010, I found myself in Cleveland, Ohio. I had been on the road for the last month and a half living in a fifteen passenger van with six other band dudes traveling the country. That summer was probably the dirtiest I have ever been, having worked fourteen hour days on the hot and sweaty Vans Warped Tour. My dirty beat up body was the perfect metaphor for what the city of Cleveland was about to go through that fateful July night. About an hour after LeBron announced his decision on live television to take his talents to South Beach, the band and I were driving past the Quicken Loans Arena; straight into the post-decision aftermath. The outraged Cavs fans were burning LeBron jerseys and stoning the famous LeBron “Witness” billboard that hung up on the Sherman Williams building. It was pure chaos. There were cops everywhere trying their best to deal with a scene that looked like it was orchestrated by the Joker in the Dark Knight. It was a scene that I’ll never forget and I’ll always appreciate that I got to be a part of it.
At the time of the decision, LeBron came out looking like Hollywood Hulk Hogan when he joined the NWO; he was the NBA’s biggest heel. Yet now when we look back at that specific moment, we realize that James may have changed the course of NBA history showing future NBA players how to take control of their own destinies. James died on the proverbial cross for the rest of the league and caused a shift in how the public views the way players handle their free agency or pending free agency.
The next big time star to grab his own destiny by the balls was Kevin Durant. Unlike LeBron, Durant was universally loved in the basketball world as a member of the Thunder. We all loved how humble he was, how connected he was to the city of Oklahoma, and how loyal he was to the organization. But in the Twitter era, everything can change in a millisecond. After blowing a 3-1 lead (how do we not mention this more?) to Golden State in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, Durant super-kicked Westbrook and threw the Thunder franchise through the barber shop window when he decided to jump ship to the team he had just lost to. Durant was searching for a way to play a more enjoyable brand of competitive basketball whilst also playing in a market that opens up the opportunity to pursue business ventures outside of basketball. We all understood Durant’s decision to leave OKC (Westbrook doesn’t seem all that fun to play with), we just hated the destination he chose.
Choosing to play on the Warriors led to a backlash on par with or worse than LeBron’s jump to Miami. Durant was willing to take the risk of falling out of favor with the public when he had the opportunity to win championships and cement his legacy as an all-time great player. He had already seen how the movie played out. When LeBron returned to Cleveland a second time, he proved that public disdain can be temporary and that you can get back in the public’s good graces with the right choices. Without the decision and LeBron’s subsequent face turn, does Kevin Durant and his team of confidants feel like he can leave the Thunder? Probably not. As KD enters into the final year of his deal, speculation has been running rampant that he is again ready to move on to a new team. If the rumors have steam and Durant decides to join the Knicks next year, and he turns New York back into the basketball Mecca, all might be forgiven for him. It’d be a great narrative to be New York’s savior, many have tried and many have failed.
Players paving their own way in free agency isn’t the only way that major stars have changed teams. The NBA’s latest trend has been star players requesting a trade a year before their free agency period. However when we look back at the history of the league, it really isn’t a trend at all. Stars forcing their way to new and better situations is nothing new. We have Kareem to the Lakers, Carmelo to the Knicks, Webber to the Bullets, Wilt to the Lakers, Shaq to the Heat, Vince to the Nets, and you can go on and on. It should come as no surprise when we see Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, or Jimmy Butler request that they be moved to a new spot that they deem better for their career. NBA careers aren’t as long as they appear and when you start getting into your prime years, you don’t want to waste them in NBA no-man’s land. Every NBA GOAT argument starts with “…but Jordan has six rings”. Championships are what cement legacies; Lebron and Durant know this and other stars now have the blueprint.
Trade demands have typically looked bad for the players. Sports media and fans tend to call the players selfish when they make their requests, even when we continuously see that there is no loyalty in sports from upper management. Demar Derozan was the NBA’s most loyal franchise player. When everyone looked at Toronto as a cold city that doesn’t get nationally televised games, Derozan stayed loyal. When every internet source claimed that he was headed to his hometown Lakers once he hit free agency, Demar stayed loyal. Demar was proud of being the guy that put Toronto on the map and yet we saw this summer how fast that his team thought all of that loyalty was replaceable. Once Kawhi came on the market Masai pounced like a lion on their prey. Toronto decided to throw away years of star loyalty and good will while pissing off their other star player, on the small chance that they can convince Kawhi to do the same thing Derozan did when he hit free agency; spurn the city of Los Angeles. Ujiri wasn’t wrong to make the move. The Derozan/Lowry combo wasn’t getting it done in the playoffs and a change needed to be made. The Thunder made the same gamble when they traded for Paul George and after a year of selling him on the franchise, he re-signed. Whether trades are justified or not, it doesn’t mean feelings weren’t hurt. The Derozan trade is the reason why players should create their own destiny.
If stars continue to forge their own paths while under contract how do teams protect themselves and avoid having to deal with a disgruntled player in the locker room? The Bulls handling of the Jimmy Butler trade may have shown us how teams will deal with stars in the future. When Butler played for the Bulls he didn’t exactly have a great relationship with management. In Butler’s defense, nobody really has a great relationship with Bulls management when Gar Forman has been involved. After Butler was traded his trainer Travelle Gaines said that Gar Forman was less trustworthy than a drug dealer. Not a great indictment. The Chicago Bulls saw the writing on the wall, that Butler was going to leave when he hit free agency, and the best course of action would be to sell him off while he had two years left on his deal when his value was the highest. The Bulls managed to get a number seven pick that tuned into Lauri Legend along with former lottery picks Kris Dunn and Zach Lavine in exchange for Butler and the sixteenth pick. A package that many “experts” quaffed at when it happened. Fast forward a year later and the Timberwolves are in the position that the Bulls rightly forecast. Jimmy G. Buckets requested a trade publicly and the Wolves are either going to trade him for pennies on the dollar or lose him outright in free agency.
As teams continue to hesitate giving out the supermax to guys who may not be worthy of a supermax deal, perhaps the Bulls model of selling the player off a year early will become the norm. The players and management are going to wrestle over their balance of power. This is where we are in the league until at least the 2024 season when the collective bargaining agreement expires.
As NBA fans we don’t just like talking about who is currently requesting a trade, we enjoy forecasting who is going to request a trade. NBA twitter has turned the NBA news cycle into a 24/7-365 engagement. When Anthony Davis left his agency and signed with Klutch we all immediately began discussing how this signaled he was already planning his departure from N’awlins. Davis is unquestionably the best big man in the game, but he’s only been in the playoffs twice in his career. The Pelicans haven’t done a great job of finding him complimentary players (an understatement), instead capping themselves out by giving out bad contracts to role players like Soloman Hill. The Soloman Hills and E’twan Moores of the world are fine players, but when you hand them deals above their market, it makes it hard to find the pieces necessary to turn a franchise into a contender; especially in the loaded West. We’re now in year seven of the AD era Pelicans and he only has three years left on his deal, the last year being a player option. This leaves the Pels in a tough spot. If you’re the Pelicans management, how can you possibly go the route the Bulls went and give up a generational talent who has two guaranteed years left on his deal and expect to get anything near equal value? Davis is the type of player a franchise will never see again. Alvin Gentry already tried smashing the rumors that they’d look to move Davis. With that said if you fail to build a contender around him in the next two years, you are running the risk of losing a superstar for nothing. In hindsight the Thunder probably wish they could have gotten some assets for Kevin Durant. If the Pelicans don’t come out guns blazing to start the season I suspect that we’ll start hearing more and more Davis trade rumors and I’d bet money that the Lakers and Celtics will be the two major players. Two major market teams, both contenders, and both have the assets that maybe kinda sorta could make you look at a future Davis trade and not want to throw up.
In a scenario where Davis does make his way to the Lakers, either through trade or free agency, and he teams up with the king; we will essentially come full circle from the summer of 2010. LeBron’s journey and its subsequent butterfly effect of the league leads the NBA’s second greatest player ever to team up with the NBA’s greatest big man and future torch bearer. We may be ways away from that possibility but with recent star movement, it is now a possibility we can’t rule out. Would you bet your life that it doesn’t happen? I wouldn’t take that risk. Stars aren’t just requesting trades out of a situation anymore, they are requesting to go to a specific two or three teams. NBA player decision making has evolved. We are now in an era when every star player is smart enough to look ahead to see how they can best position themselves to maximize their money and their championship odds. Loyalty has been knocked out by Decision.