In an earlier essay, The League, I described the two major movements of the last 30 years of pro basketball: The TV Age (Jordan, Bird, Magic, etc.) and The Internet Age (LeBron, Durant, etc.). In the TV Age, teams were families and players rarely left their families for another. With the exception of some players’ final year or two coming off the bench in another location (the equivalent of career “garbage time”), players weren’t just synonymous with their franchises—they were synonymous with their entire cities. Jordan and Scottie played in Chicago, Bird played in Boston, Magic played in LA, Malone and Stockton played in Utah, Reggie played in Indiana, Ewing and Starks played in NYC, the Admiral played in San Antonio, Isaiah and Joe played in Detroit, Hakeem and Clyde played in Houston, GP and Kemp played in Seattle.
Man, those were the days.
But this isn’t the NBA we grew up with. Back then, it was almost unheard of for a star to change teams during his peak years. Barkley went from Philly to Phoenix, and Shaq went from Orlando to LA, but that was about it. (Timmy Duncan’s tenure in San Antonio and Kobe’s 20 years in LA are proof that they don’t really fit The Internet Age.)
Now NBA free agency is as big in the summer as the actual season is the rest of the year. Granted, it’s well-timed: major league baseball is still approximately four months away from mattering, and what else do we have—World Cup soccer? There was literally a semi-final game happening earlier today, and a private meeting between LeBron and Riley was still the most important thing that happened in sports today. Every hour, there’s a new lead from an unnamed source who says so-and-so is beginning to lean toward so-and-so although it’s unclear when he’ll make his decision.
It’s a new age, and I can tell you, there’s not much fidelity left in pro sports.
But while I lament some of the vast changes in the NBA landscape in the last 30 years, The League is still tied with the NFL as God’s greatest common grace gift to mankind. And while a lot has changed, I’ll admit it: this free agency circus is a heckuva lot of fun. It really has turned us fans into mini-owners, arguing around the coffee pot about who we’d trade, how we’d use the mid-level exception and how draft prospects are looking for 2019—not to mention how Moneyball and Fantasy Football have each made monsters out of all of us.
So, let’s get right to it. Tomorrow (Thursday) is the big day. Tomorrow, all NBA deals can officially happen: everything up to this point is just a “proposed trade” or handshake agreement; the big stars will first sign actual contracts before letting their deals go public. Tomorrow and Friday, the face of The League for the next decade will be established. It won’t be the Good Old Days, but it will be pure entertainment.
Even though I like him about as much as a dry kale salad, LeBron is the most dynamic basketball player since His Airness. He doesn’t have Duncan’s work ethic. He doesn’t have Kobe’s killer instinct. He’s never made everyone around him play on another level. He whines and flops and cramps up. But he is unbelievably big, fast, strong and skilled. And just like four years ago, LeBron has the best possible situation in front of him right now. Basically all 30 teams would cut half their roster to have him; he would be more heavily criticized for taking anything less than a max deal ($20.7M annually in his case); and the rest of The League is waiting on his Decision 2.0 before making any other moves (see Bosh: Chris).
His best options seem to be Miami and Cleveland. In Miami, he’d be back with Bosh and Wade, who are both willing to take less money and return to the team—otherwise they would have signed somewhere else already. They have a fresh new point guard in Shabazz Napier and the ability to resign a number of veteran players at a greatly reduced rate. And most importantly, they play in the worst conference the NBA has seen in its long history, so they are almost guaranteed to lose the next five or six Finals if LeBron returns.
In Cleveland, he’ll be a hero for returning home and everyone will repurchase the jerseys they burned 48 months ago. He’ll have another “yes man” rookie coach to convince to do whatever he says (see: Spoelstra, Erik; who’ll get fired the day LeBron leaves no matter what), and most importantly here, he’ll be teamed up with the best young (under 24) player in the NBA: Kyrie Irving. They don’t exactly have a championship-caliber team, and they just wasted a #1 pick on a player from kansas, but all this strangely works in the king’s favor: he’ll shake the ring-chasing label and transform the lowly Cavs into a force in the paper-thin East again.
One of my sources, a Miami Heat fan I won’t name, texted me today: “I hate to lose him, but won’t cry over it. That said, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t stay.” He thinks Spoelstra’s poor coaching cost Miami James, and if LBJ is out, he’s probably right. But what’s my prediction?
On Friday morning, Cleveland wakes up with the king.
Bron Bron’s announcement, which is supposedly going to be made on his personal website as opposed to a 90-minute cable special, will set off a chain reaction of other deals.
The New Look Cavaliers
My source/fan in the Cleveland camp even thinks they’ll land Kevin Love by the end of the week. But this won’t happen. Typical Cleveland: get the best player in The League and still want more. This is exactly why Cleveland will be very, very good, but they won’t win a ring. Only Cleveland spend the summer landing LeBron, their third #1 NBA pick in four years, plus a top-10 NFL pick and Johnny Manziel, and still come out just a little disappointed.
As for the Cavs: Ray Allen, the second best shooter of all time, “three and D” specialist Mike Miller, and a number of other past-their-prime vets are going to jump on the Cavalier bandwagon as soon as The Decider does. Heck, Craig Ehlo may even come out of retirement.
The core of Kyrie-Wiggins-LeBron-Bennett-Haywood, with Dion Waiters, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, and Craig Ehlo (just for fun) coming off the bench, Cleveland will be a tough matchup every night. But it will take them some time to come together, especially considering they just hired a coach that no one’s ever heard of. They’ll win 50 games and land in the top three in the conference in 2014-15, and probably make the Finals three or four times. But of course, as long as we’re talking about the next decade, the best E-League doesn’t have a chance at beating any of the top 5-6 teams out West.
The next domino: Bosh will take the max deal in Houston, also known as the Carmelo Anthony Consolation Prize. Bosh probably doesn’t deserve $20M annually for four years—in fact, he definitely doesn’t: what position does he even play?—but he’ll give the Rockets ownership something to feel a bit better about. And a “big three in the big oil state” of Dwight Howard, James Hardin and Chris Bosh does sound like a very solid core. But don’t be fooled. None of these three guys are great all-around basketball players, and I doubt they’ll ever make the conference finals in the deep-and-getting-deeper West. My guess is that Bosh’s All-Star appearances are behind him at this point, but with $80M ahead of him, he’ll be not-caring all the way to the bank.
Dwayne Wade, Loul Deng and Josh McRoberts
Welcome to the new “big three” of Miami! Dwayne Wade can be the Ginobili-like sixth man coming off the bench, some Jodie Meeks Consolation Prize will replace him as the starting #2 guard, Shabazz Napier will take over as the starting PG as soon as he’s ready, Josh McRoberts will be a good addition to the frontcourt, and of course, Loul Deng will be the new star in Miami. They’ll still be among the top three most talented teams in the East, possibly even the front-runner to represent the JV in the Finals, depending on who President Riley gets to act as lame-duck coach for him. But it’s still Miami, and no one cares about sports in Miami. (Editor’s Note: Upon first publication, I predicted that Jodie Meeks would land in Miami, not realizing he already had a gentleman’s agreement in Detroit. How did I miss Jodie-Meeks-going-to-Pistons headline!? Oh yeah, it’s Jodie Meeks. And Detroit. This probably wasn’t even a headline by the time it reached the Motor City’s suburbs.)
Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol
This is where it gets interesting: Carmelo can make something like $125M (over five years) by staying in New York—the biggest media market in the country, meaning he’ll also make more in endorsements than anywhere else—or he can go to LA and play second fiddle to Kobe (even if he outscores him, he’ll always be in Black Mamba’s shadow) to make only $80M over four years. The smart bet is to return to New York, where your chance of making the Finals is immensely higher, you’ll get to play in Madison freaking Square Garden every night—and make an additional 45 million dollars! But this isn’t a time to play it smart. Carmelo will go the Lakers, Pau will resign, Kobe will have a great year, scoring 22 points in reduced minutes, and they’ll get knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. But then Kobe will retire (remember, because Kobe’s extension signed six months ago, he is still enjoying The League’s highest salary at $25M, despite the fact that he’s approaching his 20th season and played just six games last year), and the Lakers will continue to struggle. Sorry Julius Randle.
Kevin Love and the Celtics
The big story of this offseason should be Kevin Love demanding a trade from Minnesota. Love is a rare super-talented power forward who definitely deserves a max deal wherever he goes, and Boston will find a way to package Rondo and everyone else except Coach Brad Stevens and rookie Marcus Smart to Minnesota to make it happen. (No, Rondo and Rubio don’t make much sense together, but they’ll definitely lead The League in trick passes.) As for the Celts, expect them to be pretty good with whoever’s left, but below the Cavs-Heat-Pacers as the “top tier” in the East.
The Rest of the Free Agents
Gordon Haywood will resign with Utah (he was offered a max deal by Charlotte but as a restricted FA can re-sign to the same terms with his current team), where he’ll enjoy four plus years playing with the future of professional sports… DANTE EXUM!!! Meanwhile Chandler Parsons and Trevor Ariza will land there in Dallas, which just makes another incredible team out West. The biggest loser in all of this? The Phoenix Suns, who’ll end up with nobody they didn’t have already (re-signing Eric Bledsoe was still a huge deal), and the Atlanta Hawks, who at one point were said to be courting the king and Carmelo. Instead the Hawks will be ensured their usually #8 seed in the East by signing over-the-hill and overrated kansas alum Paul Pierce. As for fellow jayhawker mario chalmers, or whatever’s left of him after scoring about 2.1 points per game as a starting point guard in the playoffs (!)—he’s my least favorite human being on planet earth and all around terrible basketball player—he’ll probably sign with someone like the Pistons or Magic or Nuggets and quickly be sent to their D-League affiliate. Man I hate chalmers; I can’t even bring myself to capitalize his name.
Lastly, Lance Stephenson, the Bron whisperer, will finally calm down and re-sign with the Pacers. For what it’s worth, I think Larry Legend will pull it together in Indy and get his boys back where they belong—getting swept in the Finals by whoever makes it out of the West. Boris Diaw re-signed with the Spurs already, proving they know exactly how to build a team of both veterans and young bucks, and—2015 Definitive Guide spoiler alert—will be primed to return to the Finals again. (Sorry to my OKC Thunder source/fan who thinks this will be their year—again.)
If you’re keeping score, this is the fifth year in a row I’ve predicted a Spurs-Pacers Finals, but it’s really going to happen this time. As long as Roy Hibbert doesn’t screw it up again.
Well, folks, I hope you enjoy tomorrow. It’s the most important day of the pro basketball year—not the Draft, not the Game 5 of a lopsided Finals. It’s the day when a handful of young men will sign their first $80M deals and entire cities’ collective hearts will be broken. It’s a day when coaches will (begin to) get fired, GM’s will become legends or be forgotten, and the Internet will nearly explode with “BREAKING: NBA star ____ signs with _____.” This is the most important day of the NBA year: Free Agent Thursday.
Admist all this hype and change, is there anything we can be sure of?
Tomorrow morning, while all this is happening online, Tim Duncan will be in his gym in San Antonio, practicing baby hook after baby hook, and my boy Kobe will be in his gym, making it rain 28-foot fadeaways in the City of Angels.
Some things never change.