What has NBA 2022 Free Agency taught us?
After its usual torrid start, NBA free agency has slowed down – the ongoing escapades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving notwithstanding – and allowed us to take a collective breath. With a little bit of time to reflect, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen so far.
Rather than breaking down the deals en masse, which teams are winners and losers, or deep diving into the memeability of Brian Windhorst’s conspiracy theories, let’s examine what this year’s free agency period has taught us so far.
Contracts are not worth the paper they’re written on
Remember when players were widely – and rightfully – applauded for taking the power back from their teams? Led by LeBron James, players started to insist on shorter contracts that could be rolled over every year or two. Their potential free agency often (coincidentally, of course) aligned with their closest pals within the game. After the usual hullabaloo from former pros and media commentators who would never have dreamed of doing such a thing to their employers, the players were praised for swinging the influence back in the favor of the workers.
It has to be asked, though: has that pendulum swung too far?
This writer will, almost by default, side with the players on matters related to working conditions. But take a look at some of the players that have successfully forced their way out of their teams despite being contracted with multiple years remaining:
- Carmelo Anthony from Denver
- Kristaps Porzingis from New York
- Anthony Davis from New Orleans
- Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio
- Paul George from OKC and Indiana
- James Harden from Houston and Brooklyn
- Kyrie Irving from Cleveland and potentially Brooklyn
- Jimmy Butler from Minnesota and Philadelphia
- Russell Westbrook (thrice!) from Washington, Houston and OKC
- Kevin Durant from Brooklyn???
It’s clear that a contract means next to nothing in today’s NBA.
Without a doubt, free agency is a hell of a lot of fun. Trade season, too. The two, though, shouldn’t really overlap in the way they currently do. One ends up detracting from the other.
Take a look at some of the biggest deals signed (more on these below) so far this offseason. Despite rumours of his unhappiness with his situation, Zach LaVine re-upped in Chicago for $215 million over five years. Likewise, Bradley Beal, long discussed as potentially leaving Washington, re-signed for $251 million over the same time frame. Players of this caliber inking long-term deals with their teams would have once been headline news. Now it barely evokes anything more than a passing mention. Why? Because there’s no security to those deals. As we’ve clearly seen, if their team situations don’t improve, neither will be left to wallow like a sad Scrooge McDuck in their hundreds of millions of dollars. They’ll simply demand a trade, and their teams’ best laid plans will be worthless.
Whilst those situations present all sorts of fodder for us in the media and for #NBATwitter, it makes following a team tough and developing a relationship with your team’s roster next to impossible. Players become nothing more than exceptionally well-paid mercenaries. Whilst player power is vital to the balance of the league, it’s clearly gone too far.
Look at the collective love that the NBA has towards the Golden State Warriors. As fans we’ve watched them grow and now age as a group before our very eyes. We’ve witnessed their rise, their triumphs, their trials and now their reemergence as a group. Those days may well be numbered.
This writer looks forward to the day when a team stares down the public trade demands of their star player and tells them that nobody forced them to sign a long-term contract.
On a related note…
Kevin Durant doesn’t know what he wants
There is an old Indigenous Australian proverb: not all those who wander are lost. Kevin Durant continues to wander. It looks more and more likely that he is lost.
Kevin Durant brought a Finals appearance and instant respectability to a fledgling Thunder franchise, earning himself an MVP along the way. That wasn’t enough for Durant, though. He sought a form of basketballing utopia and felt that he would find it in the team ethos and egalitarian offensive structure of the Golden State Warriors.
Durant picked up a couple of rings – alongside a pair of Finals MVPs – in northern California. Yet despite being the best player on a borderline unstoppable basketball juggernaut, KD’s basketball nirvana wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. On a team full of home-grown stars, including one that has revolutionized the sport at least as much as Durant has, he found that he was always going to be the interloper, the outsider looking in. That left Durant unfulfilled on a personal level.
So off to Brooklyn he went, teaming up with his close friends Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. Even old pal James Harden eventually came along for the ride. An historic offensive trio, Durant appeared to be so happy alongside Harden and Irving that he signed a huge four-year contract, ensuring the remainder of his prime would be spent in Brooklyn. Thanks to a myriad of injuries to both Durant and Irving, as well as Irving’s somewhat less than ideal personal stances, the pair played a grand total of 44 games together in three years.
Now, with Harden sick of Kyrie and Kyrie sick of…well, something – nobody can really be sure – KD has decided that he wants out yet again.
Durant wasn’t happy trying to win it all in a homegrown lineup alongside Russell Westbrook. He wasn’t happy winning it all as a Gun for Hire. It’s turned out he’s not happy in Brooklyn where he practically put the side together himself.
It’s been reported that Durant wants to head to Miami (though not in exchange for any of their veteran stars) or Phoenix who at least do have tradable assets. That would indicate that competing for a championship on a roster already constructed might not be as bad as Durant thought.
There is, of course, the possibility that the Nets hold out for the motherload, and Durant simply has to play. Those pesky contracts, eh?
No matter what occurs it’s a certainty that Durant is yet again unhappy with his lot in life. Given his personal and team successes in a variety of professional situations it has to be asked: will KD ever be happy?
NBA semi stardom – great work if you can get it
Nikola Jokic received a $270 million contract extension. That’s fine. He’s arguably the best player in the world. Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns each picked up $224 million contracts. They have their warts, but both are fine players — genuine superstars. Ja Morant and Darius Garland each signed for $193 million. They’re both ascendant stars. Both deals could look cheap in a few years.
After that, though….there are a few highly questionable deals.
Because of whom he has signed with, much of the focus has been on Jalen Brunson’s $104 million deal with the Knicks. Is he worth that sort of money? In a vacuum, no. He probably tops out as a top 15 point guard in the NBA. That level of player is not worth $26 million a season. Brunson’s deal, though, is designed to help New York return to a long overdue level of respectability. The Knicks were desperate for competent point guard play and had to pay a tax to get their man. It’s an overpay, but an understandable one.
Beal ($251 million) and LaVine ($215 million) are both excellent ballers that have proven themselves unable to lead their teams to even mid-tier playoff berths. Beal’s best seasons – from a team perspective, at least – came as the Robin to John Wall’s Batman. When healthy, the Bulls looked great last season. Unfortunately for LaVine, that team success came with DeMar DeRozan assuming the mantle of #1 option. Both players are now vastly overpaid. Yet their teams really had no choice than to hand them their bag rather than risk losing them for nothing.
A team that is looking like it’s on the way up even without their presumed best player is the New Orleans Pelicans. Despite the fact that Zion Williamson has made a grade total of 85 appearances (none this season; none in the playoffs; many of those 85 under minutes restrictions) the team felt the need to hand their man a $231 million deal. Surely the contract will have a raft of health and performance targets attached to it. Nonetheless it’s a monstrous deal for a man who has not been fully healthy for literally any part of his NBA career to this point.
It’s long been established that the NBA is a superstar’s league. Beyond the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who were the last NBA champs that didn’t have a genuine superstar on their roster? Perhaps the 1979 Sonics? Even they had Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma. The point is that to win an NBA title, you almost overwhelmingly need to employ a superstar. Those players are worth whatever they’re paid.
Do Beal and LaVine qualify as genuine superstars? The types of players that can lead you to the promised land? They’re paid like it. As is Zion, who may become that player, but has a long, long way to go.
First round draft picks are the NBA’s crypto: simultaneously worthless and priceless
There was a time when, next to star level talent, first round picks were the most sought after – and most heavily guarded – assets that an NBA team could amass.
Over the past few years, first round picks have flown around far more readily. The Rockets sent out a bunch in trading for Westbrook, then took in a raft of picks for Westbrook and Harden. Starting when he traded away Westbrook, Sam Presti has picked up first rounders for sport in Oklahoma. The Pelicans made out like bandits in trades with the Bucks and Lakers. None of those trades have come close to the grand haul the Utah Jazz received for Rudy Gobert.
In addition to players in order to make the cap math work, the Jazz received four first rounders (three unprotected, the 4th only lightly protected) as well as Minnesota’s two most recent first round picks in Walker Kessler and Leandro Bolmaro.
Gobert is a generational defender and was a major cog in Utah’s whirring offensive machine. He’s also a 30-year-old who is highly reliant on his athleticism at both ends of the floor. This is an astronomical price to pay for the Timberwolves.
For teams that have given up multiple first rounders in recent years, the motive has been clear: present over future. Sometimes that works – the Bucks and Lakers have championships. Sometimes it doesn’t – the Clippers remain on the fringes of contention and Brooklyn is a tire fire.
The change in tack from teams looking to find a fine balance between their present and their future to just tossing all of their chips onto the table has been fascinating.
It’s not always about the chip
In recent seasons the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and Nets all went in hard in both free agency and the trade market with the naked ambition of winning a championship.
That focus on competing for the title tends to color how each and every transaction is viewed by the media and public. It’s worth remembering that not every team is competing for a championship or in the midst of a rebuild.
There are plenty of examples of teams that are simply looking to compete, year on year. The Bulls, Wizards and Indiana Pacers have avoided truly bottoming out whilst never really being anything more than an occasional second-round team. The Sacramento Kings are perennially – in vain – trying to land themselves an 8-seed. Until recently the Pelicans and Orlando Magic were in the same boat.
It’s worth looking at the splashy moves that the Knicks and Timberwolves have made through that same lens.
The Knicks standing within the game is hugely disproportionate to their success. Two titles, both won 50 years ago. A single playoff series win in the past 22 seasons. This is a team that desperately needs to reach mid-table mediocrity so that they can eventually take advantage of their inbuilt advantages: their location, stadium and mystique.
Brunson’s deal, as well as the $60 million over four years that center Mitchell Robinson has re-signed for, are not value contracts. But this is a franchise that isn’t looking to maximize its cap space. It’s a team that is looking to acquire and retain above average players. Once they do that, they can look to build a proper contender. Baby steps.
The Knicks’ offseason moves don’t push them into the upper echelons of the east, but they do make the team respectable. When you combine that with the extra draft capital they’ve picked up, it’s a solid return for the Knicks.
Minnesota is an historically inept franchise. In 33 seasons they’ve won precisely two playoff series, both all the way back in 2004.
Their playoff berth this season was based around an excellent young core of Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, a solid supporting cast and an excellent young coach. At the same time, though, it’s reasonable to think that the 2022 Wolves maxed themselves out. They were unusually healthy and had some very pronounced issues – namely rebounding and rim protection – that were easily exploited in a playoff setting. Rudy Gobert undoubtedly fixes those problems.
There has been so much analysis around the Gobert trade that says that the Wolves were foolish for making this deal: a huge haul sacrificed for what will probably be a 5- or 6-seed next season. Those assessments are probably correct, but they also miss the point.
In the longer term, Minnesota needs a genuine star to set a standard both on and off the court. In the short term they also need to get the pups some more playoff reps. There was no guarantee that the pre-trade Wolves would return to the playoffs in an improving west. Gobert just about assures that the Wolves make a second consecutive playoffs appearance.
Gobert’s not going to catapult the Wolves into championship contention. As he ages, his contract could prove costly. Those sacrificed draft picks could end up producing a few genuine contributors (though, given the expected improvements of their young stars, the Wolves are surely hoping that those picks fall somewhere closer to pick 30 than to the lottery).
That doesn’t matter. Minnesota is desperately searching for consistent playoff appearances. For respectability. The trade should be looked at with that goal in mind.
A championship is and should be the aim. Not every move, however, is about that long term aim. It’s important to remember that.
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