What this summer means for the NBA

Written by Sport

When the final buzzer sounded in Game Six of the NBA Finals at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, little did Kawhi Leonard know that it was also the birth of a new NBA.

Since Toronto (and by extension, the country of Canada) won their first ever NBA championship, a whole flurry of high profile off-season moves have reinvented the NBA – a league that has seen the last decade dominated by the superteams in Miami and Golden State into one which is now a free-for-all anarchy.

Anthony Davis being traded to the Lakers was the start of a high-profile free agency that saw Kawhi Leonard and Paul George being paired up on the LA Clippers, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant now plying their trade for the Brooklyn Nets, and Russell Westbrook moving from Oklahoma City to Houston with Chris Paul coming the other way. And all this was only the cream of the crop. Utah became significantly better, adding Mike Conley to a stacked roster while Denver and Portland loaded up for possible title runs.

Just in the Western Conference alone, seven teams can legitimately claim to be in the running for the title and they wouldn’t be wrong
Anyone remotely following the NBA knows that there is no certainty as to which teams are going to be the favourites heading into the season. On paper it would be the two teams from Los Angeles – the Lakers and the Clippers. But just in the Western Conference alone, seven teams can legitimately claim to be in the running for the title and they wouldn’t be wrong. And in the East, Milwaukee and Philadelphia will not go down easy and both have the teams to win the whole thing.

This summer means that there a lot of questions that have suddenly popped up which make for interesting debates in NBA circles. For example, is LeBron James still the best player in the NBA? He certainly has a case but in his first season with the Lakers (and in the Western Conference – a traditionally tougher conference), he managed to miss the playoffs by a mile, destroyed team chemistry and was the on-court face of an overall dysfunctional franchise. He also suffered his first major injury that kept him out for 16 games and there are certainly questions as to how much more his body can take with him being in his thirties. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant both made cases for themselves over the season to be considered the best player in the NBA and certainly LeBron cannot say that his argument is definitively more persuasive than theirs.

The summer has also shown NBA owners that franchises cannot rely solely on history and tradition to attract players.

The New York Knicks, one of the more storied franchises in terms of reputation (even if not in terms of history), were one of four teams with the salary cap space to sign two high profile players (players among the top ten current players even), and yet were the only ones out of the four who didn’t manage to get even one. What was worse for them was that the Brooklyn Nets, an upstart team twenty minutes down the road, got Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (two of the most coveted free agents this offseason). The way a team plays on the court even in the absence of superstars, the organisational structure of the team, the coaching staff and the front office all play a bigger role in attracting free agents than anything else. The Nets and the LA Clippers are the biggest examples for that.

The glamour, the glitz and the stardom of cities like New York or Los Angeles are going to be hard to resist for a lot of players
Another important lesson that’s to be learnt is that unless a small market team has a great draft (and by that, I mean a generational player like Kevin Durant) and then have exceptional management of personnel within the franchise, they are going to struggle to keep their players together whereas the big teams need not worry about those things. The Anthony Davis trade is the prime example. The Pelicans were a dysfunctional organisation for many, many years and finally looked to have a turned a corner when former Cavaliers GM David Griffin was appointed to head the front office. However, Davis was intent on moving to the Lakers to join LeBron James despite the fact that the Lakers were the most dysfunctional franchise in the NBA last season, with everything from allegations of backstabbing to alienation of the young core all coming out as stories in the media. The glamour, the glitz and the stardom of cities like New York or Los Angeles are going to be hard to resist for a lot of players and teams like Oklahoma City and Indiana are going to struggle to be great.

Player power is also at an all-time high in the league, and while player power is good for the league in general, it is now trending dangerously towards an imbalance and that, again, affects the small market teams. If every time New York or Los Angeles expressed an interest in a player and he demanded a trade from a small market team (read as Paul George for example), it is going to raise questions about the sustainability and the winnability of small market teams in the league. This is a point that is almost surely going to come up in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement and throwing money at the problem (like the last CBA did) is not the answer. At some point, money becomes a non-factor for players, and while the media makes big news out of players leaving $30 million on the table to join another team, it does not actually matter to players that much when compared to winning. And the league has to consider what the solution might be if the thing they had been hanging their hopes on – money – no longer carries the weight it once did in negotiations.

The 2019 off-season has been an interesting one to say the least for the NBA – the biggest and probably the most important outcome being that the league, for the first time in a while, feels like it is well and truly up for grabs. But beyond the entertainment and sporting factor of it all, there are questions the league has to deal with in order to make a more equally rewarding product.

Last modified: 19th August 2019

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