Stamford Advocate (Sunday)
Not your older brother’s NBA free-agent frenzy
NEW YORK — Free agency isn’t what it used to be.
It’s not just the pageantry and spectacle that has been erased, or those meetings and elaborate pitches that would provide endless content. Most deals now are completed within an hour of the moratorium lifting, somehow without tampering (wink, wink). It’s as if the agents and executives can communicate telepathically. And like with the rest of us, meetings have moved virtual. Forget about sitdowns in the Hamptons.
But again, the difference goes beyond the process.
Just in the last two years, there’s been a noticeable shift in the tendencies of stars and their teams. They’re all locking in extensions or re-signing on longterm deals, turning free agency into something of a bore.
Consider this: in 2020 and 2021, the biggest free agent to change teams was probably the oft-injured Gordon Hayward. Or maybe a 35-year-old Kyle Lowry.
LeBron James set the precedent of short-term deals to maximize leverage, briefly elevating free agency into a seismic annual event. James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler all switched jerseys as free agents in 2018 and 2019. The belief was the 2021 class would carry the same weight, but then the superstars all inked long-term extensions, including James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis.
As it stands, the star free agents next year COULD include Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine. But Harden and Irving are poised to sign extensions with the Nets. LaVine has hinted at a long-term deal with the Bulls, and Beal is a trade candidate before he hits free agency. That leaves Aaron Gordon or Terry Rozier as the unrestricted headliners of 2022. Not exactly franchise-altering.
So why has everything changed? Why are all the best players opting for security these days over flexibility and leverage?
In talking with people around the NBA, there are two reasons. The first is the pandemic and the uncertainty of the league’s revenue outlook. Cap growth has stalled, and it’s understandable to search for safety in tumult.
The other motivation is that the contracts aren’t really contracts. Technically, they’re binding. But in reality, the stars are so powerful they can maneuver into a relocation even with multiple seasons left on their deals. Why not secure the money and figure the rest out later? Commissioner Adam Silver has been helpless to suppress the forced player movement.
There isn’t a set blueprint to become a “disgruntled star on the block,” but the basic formula is something like this: 1) drop hints in the media, 2) exhibit poor body language, 3) milk an injury into an extended absence, 4) request a trade, 5) leak a list of 2-to-5 preferable destinations, 6) stop showing up.
So what does this all mean for teams like the Knicks and their roster-building strategy? Cap space is becoming increasingly useless. Even when Lowry and Hayward signed their lucrative deals, it was via sign-and-trade.
Working around the structure has become simple for team capologists. In other words, draft well and develop well. The superstar can come from within or via trade, but don’t count on free agency anymore to yield that level of player. No more looking ahead to the class of 2010 or 2016 or 2019 or 2022 or 2025 or … you get the picture.