The NBA has changed drastically over the past few years. Whether it’s the rosters, teams, jerseys, trends, players or the business side, the NBA is not what it used to be. Free agency remains the defining part of every NBA offseason. But even now it continues to evolve along with the rest of the NBA. Free agents make daily headlines because they’re either on the move, staying put or making a ton of money.
In recent years, various moves have entirely changed the landscape of the league. Chris Paul’s failed move to the Lakers and subsequent move to the Clippers; James Harden’s move to Houston; LeBron’s talents taking a famous trip to Miami are just a few among several. They’ve all changed the NBA.
But last season, it was Kevin Durant that shook the NBA. The most significant moment of last year’s offseason was the Warriors history-defining acquisition of KD. Not only was it a bombshell, but it also just about sealed multiple Finals appearances for the Warriors in the foreseeable future—effectively changing the NBA for years.
This summer has seen an insane amount of similar moves. Maybe not as significant on the court, but actually much more important off it. It’s a change that effects the type of mentality that has and will continue to change the NBA in a way that will remain to be seen.
Using the Kevin Durant example—which was not set by him first—players have been leaving teams for a number of years with hopes of winning a championship. Durant was beloved in Oklahoma City. He helped usher in a new basketball team in a different city and was the face of the entire journey—from when the Thunder first arrived to his departure. He accomplished plenty in OKC. And, was well on his way to having his number hung in the rafters. Perhaps a statue in front of the arena was in his future, too. But then there was a change of plans. Durant’s Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals three times, but lost twice. The one instance he almost made it to the top, the Miami Heat brought him back down to Earth.
Durant saw past the money and one of the best fan bases in the league for a shot at winning a title with the best regular-season team of all-time. One that had actually just beaten him in the previous Conference Final. It was a bold move for Durant—pinning him against his brothers and organization back in OKC, most of the NBA, and most importantly the fans back in OKC. It was a bold move that ultimately proved to be worthwhile, though. Durant not only won the NBA Championship, but also received Finals MVP honors.
With this move to a championship-winning team, Durant joins a list of many superstars who left their original team to join another. And one in a better position to win. Such moves include Clyde Drexler to the Rockets in 1995, Kevin Garnett to the Celtics in 2007, and LeBron James to the Heat in 2010. It’s always gamble to relocate and essentially abandon a team for a better one. But now that the trend seems to be foolproof, it’s becoming a common occurrence.
When a superstar like Durant, James or Harden leave their teams for a seemingly better team on paper, most people forget where this modern trend began.
Back in 2006-07, the Boston Celtics were the Eastern Conference’s worst team. They were last in the conference and division, finishing with a 24-58 record. The following season, two superstars left teams that drafted them to join the lowly Celtics. Seven-time All-Star Ray Allen and 2004 NBA MVP Kevin Garnett joined five-time All-Star and future Celtic great Paul Pierce to create the first modern “Big 3.” That season, the Celtics would go on to win 66 games and finish with the best record in the conference. Then, they would go on to defeat the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The most-used and well-known example of players leaving their teams was LeBron James in 2010. Everyone knows that story. After being defeated year after year in the playoffs, LeBron left his hometown Cavaliers—where he was becoming a legend—for the Miami Heat to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Bosh also falls into this category because he left Toronto, where he spent seven seasons and was drafted as a 19-year-old.
The Heat would fail to win it all in their first go, only to win back-to-back titles in 2012-2013. They lost to the Spurs in 2014, ruining their chances of the NBA’s first three-peat since the Lakers back in the early 2000s. Nonetheless, Both James and Bosh had reached the top of the NBA mountain after leaving their first NBA homes.
This offseason, many more superstars are leaving “home” for a better chance of winning anything. Three current All-Stars are already on the move. And there are others that can actually influence the staleness of today’s NBA.
The first big move came out of Indiana, when Paul George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. George presents a very interesting dynamic to OKC, one that allows them to rely on someone besides Russell Westbrook. George is highly-regarded as the one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Drafted by the Indiana Pacers, George was a four-time All-Star in his six full seasons there. He led the Pacers to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since the days of Reggie Miller.
Next, Chris Paul moved to Houston from the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets were just one of many stumped by the Warriors, but with an elite guard defender like Paul—who has the Hall of Fame in the bag—the Rockets just became a contender to dethrone the Bay Area giants. Paul is truly one of the NBA’s best. He single-handedly changed the Clippers, taking them from laughing stock status to perennial contenders. In 27 seasons without CP3, the Clippers had a win percentage of .349, four playoff appearances and zero 50-win seasons. In six seasons with him, they had a win percentage of .658, six playoff appearances and five 50-win seasons.
Gordon Hayward made headlines by moving out East to join the 60-win Celtics. Hayward may not be a household name, but is a fantastic all-around player. He has consistently improved every season as well. He’s averaged over 19.0 points per game the past three seasons, with at least 3.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and one steal per game in that span as well.
NBA fans can now add Hayward, Paul, and George to the list of players that have abandoned a place of significance where their NBA careers flourished for a chance to win somewhere else. Let’s add them to Durant, James, Harden and Allen—who left Seattle for Boston, then Boston for Miami.
Whether or not it’s good for the league is unclear. It doesn’t seem like there’s argument for either side. But, there is a drama-factor that can add a little more theater to the games. (e.g. Durant versus the Thunder in 2016; Heat LeBron versus the NBA ’10-13). The three players previously-mentioned (George, Paul, Hayward) all joined teams who either made the Conference Finals or at least the second round of the playoffs. It doesn’t necessarily terminate the lack of parity in the NBA, it just expands it to a few more teams.
Those three players, in addition to Durant and James, all took slight-to-moderate pay cuts to join. So not only are these players leaving behind a fan base in heartbreak and anger, but they’re also leaving a few million on the table. All for a better chance to win.
So it seems to me that leaving a place where emotion, passion and memories can be so sacred only to compete for a championship suggests that a ring is the only thing these players care about. And in turn, winning. But as fans, can we really fault these players for wanting to win?
For players, they probably care more for the city they play for than we care about them as players. It’s a decision that’s probably never easy. And sometimes, one they’d rather not have to make. But if we fans feel so strongly about winning—which comes before anything—how can we fault them for wanting the same? While it may seem that these players simply are selfish, they want to win just as much as we want to. Fans should love that these players are actually all about winning. It trumps those who are all about the money.
As time goes on and more superstars become hungrier for a ring, loyalty in the NBA will only be a thing of the past. Players will no longer see the value of loyalty if it means they’ll go down in the NBA history books without a ring. It’s becoming a win-first, money-second, city-last type of league. But isn’t that really how it’s always been? It could be a little disheartening to think of it like that, though. Obviously every fan loves to see a player truly love the city they play for. Dirk Nowitzki just signed another contract extension that will keep him in Dallas for a 20th consecutive season. Nowitzki joins Kobe Bryant as the only two players to play for the same team for at least 20 years.
And in times of these free agency moves, where rings and money are the highest priority, the NBA could use a little more Dirk Nowitzki.