The current NBA landscape causes the moments leading up to free agency to feel like a soap opera – not just a run of the mill, General Hospital episode either. NBA Free Agency is a full blown novela complete with face slaps and screaming matches. The D-Day of sorts is July 1, but fans and talking sports heads, alike, begin the circus a full season before players scheduled to become free agents are really free agents, if not before then. The speculation, conversation and subsequent adulation – or irritation – is typically a yearlong rollercoaster that we are all taken on after each handshake with current teammates or cutaway of an impending free agent seemingly not vibing with their current coach.
Even within subpopulations, such as the old heads at the barbershop and the fringe sports fans that just join the conversations, there has been a split as to if this amount of player movemnt is how things should be. Keep in mind, we aren’t far removed from the days where changing teams didn’t exist. You were either drafted by a team or traded to one. The destiny of a player was set for them. When the idea of free agency was implemented in 1988, players had to have been in the league for seven years and have played through two contracts. With such stringent stipulations, player movement was still somewhat of a fantasy. However, the vehicle of unrestricted free agency was set into motion.
When Tom Chambers left the now defunct Supersonics in the dust for the sunny skies of Phoenix, there’s no way NBA fans of that time would have predicted we would be here. “Here” is the land of one-year deals, and the best players in the world playing for multiple teams in hopes to win a ring. This recent method of free agency, recruiting stars in their primes and public elaborate pitches to form alleged superteams is one that started back with LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat back in 2010. You can revisit my article on the formation of superteams if you care to debate. That’s not what this is about. Since LeBron made it not only ok but normal for stars to seek or formulate new situations, we have seen the flood gates open. We almost expect stars to switch teams at some point in their career. Hall of Famers, such as James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade, are on their third franchises by choice.
Whether by forced trade or free agency, players seem to be happiest in conditions where they are with other stars that give them a chance to win. One could blame the Warriors all they want. Truth is, the Warriors started this dynasty with a core of drafted players and smart acquisitions. KD made them a nuclear power. KD was in a position in which he thought he couldn’t crack the championship barrier, so he wanted to join up where he could, which is a fight that players in all major leagues have continued to fight for. Is it the easy route? The point is that the NBA is simply a reflection of the AAU culture.
Growing up in the 90s, we typically went to the school where we lived. We played with the best of the local kids during summer ball. Most of our runs during that time came in the form of 5-on-5 at a local gym. Nothing was too structured, and we didn’t always have the option of waiting for our boys to get there to hoop. Sometimes, you just had to lace ‘em up and ask who had next. Only the true elite got to go travel with a team out of the area or switch to a private school or local basketball powerhouse to play scholastic ball.
Contrarily, the majority of the players in this NBA spent their adolescent years in an iteration of AAU/Summer ball that saw them unite with the best players across a few states to form these dominant programs. Not only were their summer teams stocked with talent, but many of them went to high school powerhouses either in their area or even elsewhere to ensure they had the best chance of being exposed to college coaches. Kevin Durant even went to four different high schools. Is it surprising that he would actively seek the best situation in the pros?
Players of the talent level of guys in the NBA are recruited from the time they are 12 years old to play on specific teams. They are used to changing teams when either the coach is allegedly tripping or there is a shiny new object of a team that offers them an assumed better opportunity. This isn’t anything new; it has just become the norm. Take a look at the top players in the country over the past 4-5 years. Two things will stand out: many of them are in the NBA now, and the overwhelming majority of them played on powerhouse teams that competed on one of the three main circuits (Nike EYBL, Adidas Gauntley, Under Armour circuit). You can also bet that most of those kids – and the majority of NBA players – did not play on their local high school teams. That is a true rarity these days.
Outside of the AAU teams, summer hoops also include invite-only camps where these guys get to know each other. They go from fierce competitors fighting for a spot on the rankings to homies discussing where they are going to band together in college. The top players in high school spend almost the entire summer together playing together, getting to know each other, and essentially setting their ideas of who they would like to play with in an ideal scenario. NBA free agency presents such a scenario.
What does all of this mean? It means the current state of free agency should really come as no surprise. Switching teams, recruiting teammates, joining superpowers, and seeking out the most beneficial situation has been a part of these dudes’ entire athletic experience. The days of hating every opponent are in the past. These guys are friends. They have been a part of an elite fraternity since their youth. After collecting millions but struggling to win, many of the players just do what is customary for them: change teams. I’m not sure if this makes them less competitive creatures or creatures of habit. Powerhouses at the high school level are old hat. Just take a look at the Oak Hill roster over the years. Either way, the current NBA landscape was set well before many of these guys even made it to that final destination. I guarantee one thing: if you gave some of the older NBA vets truth serum and asked them would they move teams to play with respected opponents or better teammates, I bet they would answer with a resounding yes.