The protracted deliberative superstar free agency that freezes for days a multitude of teams clinging to cap space after a series of high profile meetings, whether in the Hamptons, Los Angeles or the center -City of Cleveland, seems almost poised to become a relic of the past decade. We notably had this set of circumstances with LeBron James in 2010 and 2014, as well as Dwight Howard in 2013, Kevin Durant in 2016 and then culminating with Kawhi Leonard in 2019.
This is commonly known as the era of player empowerment and is celebrated by some and ridiculed by others. The ability for players to have more agency in where they play and with whom they play has been a by-product of several factors: with owners looking for shorter contract terms in successive contract negotiations. ABC, the 2003 Draft Class cleverly setting the precedent to sign contracts with player options and an extension system that deterred players from signing them as they would have to wait until free agency signs for the maximum amount authorized.
Durant and Kyrie Irving’s free agency decisions in 2019 better illustrate how we can expect the process to unfold without them having formal meetings and news of their engagements leaked. even before the official start of the offseason. Durant’s free agency readiness in 2019 was decidedly more stifled compared to 2016, with a sense of inevitability that he would end up with either the Nets or the New York Knicks. LeBron’s first free agency in 2010 and Durant’s in 2016 took place over several years with constant monitoring by teams and fans in which there was a protracted germination process. These were shows that raised the profile of the NBA; its best players have gone to better teams and won titles. LeBron’s free agency in 2018 was more of a formality and a calming fake optics than real rumination on his part.
Whether players at this station even achieve true free agency and mull a decision (negligently in the cases of Howard in 2013 and Gordon Hayward in 2017) while the league is frozen is probably the most relevant question. The extension system fix from ABC 2017, with a 35% supermax, effectively ended free will for most superstars.
Even though his game fell in the years following his decision to re-sign with the Knicks in 2014, Carmelo Anthony hinted at the plan when he took the extra year and the money and privately recognized that it could be traded if that didn’t work. Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017, then back to the Atlanta Hawks in 2018, and then was bought out.
Durant, who was a free agent every summer between 2016 and 2019, has already signed an extension with the Nets, while Irving and James Harden are also expected to extend. LeBron and Anthony Davis have extended their deals with the Los Angeles Lakers. Leonard and Paul George have also made long-term deals with the Los Angeles Clippers. Joel Embiid has just extended with the Philadelphia 76ers. Luka Doncic and Trae Young are now on long term rookie scale extensions.
Beyond Zion Williamson, it’s difficult to identify a player who has enough juice to shut down free agency and who is also in a situation where he will soon become a free agent. Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, by the nature of the limitations of the expansions currently available to them, will likely become free agents in 2022, but neither player is good enough to become a tentpole free agent. The number of teams with meaningful cap space for 2022 is reduced to three, all of which are being rebuilt. If either player leaves their current squad, it will likely be via a deadline trade or a signing and trade next summer. While Williamson is signaling that he won’t sign his rookie extension with the Pelicans next summer and is ready to go the qualifying bid route, it’s hard to imagine the franchise calling its bluff as the Pels could trade it in for a package similar to the one they got from the Lakers for Anthony Davis.
The money available to players through expansions is too rich to reject, and the commercial superstars packages are too massive for teams to turn down a player who no longer wants to be there. The incentives are firmly in place for all interested parties.
The pre-agreement between the NBA and its superstars undoubtedly increased the occasional interest in the league with the peak coming in the May-July period of 2016, when the record-breaking Golden State Warriors returned from a 3-1 deficit against Oklahoma City. Thunder before losing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the final, followed by Durant leaving the Thunder for the Warriors on July 4 in what was suspenseful free agency. The three most recent MVPs, LeBron, Durant and Stephen Curry, have all been involved at the center of these events. The following season’s MVP, Russell Westbrook, was conspicuously dropped.
The league is probably best served without a daily rumor mill. There was a palpable sense of exasperation in 2019 when Leonard left a franchise that had just won a ring to sign with the Clippers while also orchestrating George’s trade. There are better things we can do with our time than wear out photoshoping every star in every jersey and discussing hypotheses for future finals while another finals are being played.
The downstream material effect of this rapid free agency is on players who are not under a non-minimum contract.
With more players on short-term contracts than ever in this NBA Stars and Scrubs as Owen Phillips recently coined, free agency is undeniably overburdened, but that’s hardly the case with important players changing the league. These are musical chairs with music at 5X speed in which most fungible players feel pressured to take the best immediate offer as teams abruptly replenish the end of their rosters.
Players and agents have come to believe that free agency ends as the sun rises on day 2, and the pressure mounts if a deal isn’t reached by then, either through social media taunts or panic from friends and family. The players and agents have set a schedule for themselves that greatly favors the teams. This is particularly the case for players with Bird rights in teams that do not have the reasonable capacity to replace them.
The latest new free agency trend that has been bubbling over for a few years but has become too blatant to ignore is the NFL-like inflation of contract totals in the Initial Report. Josh Hart’s three-year contract that only has one guaranteed season, which was confirmed by three agents on the record, was the most excessive.
Even Chris Paul, the outgoing president of the NBPA, saw what was initially heralded as a $ 120 million deal later identified as guaranteed only at $ 75 million. Spencer Dinwiddie and Mike Conley also have partial guarantees in the final season of their new contracts. Kyle Lowry had the strongest market of teams interested in him, but his $ 90 million contract turned into an $ 85 million contract within days of his initial announcement.
There is a lack of accountability on the part of agents and reporters, but I suspect the tide is turning against it pretty quickly as this is one area where a noisy NBA Twitter community can be productive. With free agency now accelerated, I hope they will also enjoy the time spent.