2019 Free Agency
2019 Free Agency

How a span of 25 days altered the NBA landscape

Kevin Durant's injury, wild free agency send shockwaves through the NBA

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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Jul 11, 2019 8:26 AM ET

 

From start-to-finish, Kawhi Leonard was the dominant story of free agency.

Editor's Note: The evening after NBA.com published this story, the NBA's wild offseason ride continued with the reported Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul trade.

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LAS VEGAS – So maybe it didn’t boast the same drama and shock value as “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” As far as historical significance and political turmoil, socialist-journalist John Reed’s account a century ago of the October Revolution in Russia, “Ten Days That Shook the World,” generated far more controversy.

But within the context of sports and certainly relative to its own offseason history, what the NBA just put itself, its principals and its fans through qualifies as nothing less than “25 Days That Reshaped the League.”

It wasn’t just what happened, though, that was profound. Star players relocating, general managers scrambling, media reports flying, owners exhausting their checkbooks, a dynasty punting, and old rivals recruiting new teammates.

It wasn’t merely the breakneck pace, though that was breathtaking. Kevin Durant shockingly went to the floor with a torn Achilles tendon on June 10, the date of Game 5 of The Finals at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. On July 5, just three-and-a-half weeks later, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard announced he would be taking his trophies to southern California, specifically to the Los Angeles Clippers.

And, oh yeah, All-Star wing Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder would be joining him.

 
The Western Conference is wide-open after free agency re-shuffled the top teams.

Twenty-five days from start to finish. That last maneuver even upstaged an earthquake that rattled the first night of the Las Vegas Summer League.

“What happened in that period of time was staggering in how it changed the league,” said David Griffin, new vice president of the New Orleans Pelicans and far from an uninvolved bystander. “You look at what the Clippers were able to achieve and how quickly it all came together. They were put on the clock, what, 48 hours before they landed the plane? That’s tough.”

Dallas owner Mark Cuban, ever the Maverick, questioned the premise. “Nothing’s changed,” Cuban said. “[The flurry of activity] was just the nature of how much capital there was.”

But Vlade Divac, the Sacramento Kings’ chief basketball exec, exhaled when he considered “a few of those moves…” “It definitely was interesting. Especially Kawhi, where and when he decided,” Divac said. “Everything was kind of stuck. Not just the NBA but the entire world was waiting to see where he was going to end up.”

This was bigger than just the bookends, though. Consider the headlines crammed in between Durant’s injury and Leonard’s decision, and the cumulative ramifications of them.

25 Days between Kevin Duran't injury (June 10) to Kawhi Leonard's move to LA (July 5):

• Klay Thompson tears his ACL and, like Durant, will miss much or all of 2019-20.

• Led by Leonard, the Raptors finally bring an NBA championship to Canada.

• Pelicans big man Anthony Davis gets the trade he’d lobbied for, going to the Los Angeles Lakers to play alongside LeBron James.

• Zion Williamson, the mostly highly touted prospect since Davis or maybe James, gets drafted No. 1 by New Orleans.

• Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo stakes a claim on the “NBA’s best player” title as the league’s 2019 Most Valuable Player.

• Durant and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving leave the Warriors and the Celtics, respectively, to team up in Brooklyn.

• The Utah Jazz add both Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, rock-solid acquisitions for a team amped by the NBA’s newfound parity.

• Jimmy Butler moves via sign-and-trade to the Miami Heat, parting ways with a Philadelphia team he led through two playoff rounds.

•​​​​​​​ But the Sixers fire back, re-signing Tobias Harris, luring Al Horford out of Boston and getting Josh Richardson in the Butler deal.

•​​​​​​​ Golden State – remember them? – snatches D’Angelo Russell from Minnesota’s grasp and adds Willie Cauley-Stein.

•​​​​​​​ The earthquake hits the Vegas summer league, shutting down the games and sending spectators into the night.

•​​​​​​​ Then came the Kawhi Bomb, with George as a startling co-star.


​​​​​​​Seriously, that’s enough news and change to carry most sports leagues through an entire calendar year. Yet the NBA burned through those storylines in less than a month.

It’s the latest, greatest (in magnitude at least) example of this pro basketball enterprise’s ambitions for global domination, while bigfooting every other sport’s air-time and Web clicks.

To some, the frenzy to sign free agents, backfill with replacements and build or rebuild on the fly looked panicked, even unstable. A fan who followed a favorite player’s exploits for a few years unexpectedly faces a choice: switch your allegiance to the player's new team or re-imagine him from friend to foe by October. It’s the NBA as a full-sized, flesh-and-blood fantasy league.

To others, all of this is a natural result of the system negotiated by the teams and the players in their collective bargaining agreement, along with a further shift in power from owners to players as the demand for talent outstrips supply.

And then there are the “potential” junkies, the sort of sports fans who get more excited by signings and trades than they do by the games themselves.

Social media has only dialed up the sense of NBA summer as short-attention-span theater.

“What we're realizing,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday, “was that it's less about pointing fingers. It's that the world has changed, and in part we're the victims of our own success. We never used to have this kind of coverage in the offseason. We never used to have this kind of attention to summer league basketball. And as I say, the 24/7 attention on free agency creates new pressures.”

 
Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the hectic pace of offseason player movement.

It’s the CBA itself that creates the free agents, though. When the current agreement with the players was negotiated, teams pressed for shorter contracts to save them from debilitating injuries and flawed business decisions. Well, shorter deals mean more players hitting the market sooner and more often, freeing up more salary-cap space in the process.

“They created the conditions for more movement,” one former team executive said this week. “Now we’re seeing that. And there were so many big names out there this summer, which hasn’t happened often. In 2016, there was more money [from a flood of TV rights fees] but there weren’t as many blockbuster names.”

Said Silver: “[Shorter contracts] create more of a sense of urgency with players. It creates greater incentives for performance. … We didn't do it to create more interest in the offseason, but obviously it's created extraordinary media interest and fan interest. For the most part, that's been something that's positive.”

The NBA sees the hyperactivity in June and July as a net gain, with an audience excited by the comings and goings greater than however many people might be turned off by the dollar amounts tossed around or the vast game of market musical chairs.

Still, there are downsides. Leonard’s move to L.A. might have given some Toronto fans the bends, taking them from the euphoria of the franchise’s first title in its 24-year existence, then plunging them to traumatic emotional depths with his departure.

“Think about what it means if you’re Toronto,” one NBA GM said. “You built a championship team – and that didn’t matter. He wanted to leave. What do you do? Literally, what’s the answer? It’s not championships. It’s not maintaining their health. They have all the power.”

Then there are the folks in OKC, minding their own business before Leonard’s pitch to George prompted the Thunder player to suddenly ask to be traded.

“There are always those unintended consequences, right?” the former exec said. “The teams wanted shorter contracts but this is the flip side of that – you can’t lock guys in either.

“If a guy’s on a six-year deal and demands to be traded after two, it’s more like, ‘Haha! Sure.’ But when they start having leverage is when they get closer to the expiration.”

Said a GM: “Unfortunately free agency now exists even for players under contract.”

Davis got close enough with the Pelicans to join James – with whom he also shares an agent, Rich Paul – on the Lakers. George was close enough, too, given reality that OKC was carrying an exorbitant payroll, paying massive luxury taxes and not advancing past the playoffs’ first round. One rival GM said it was an open secret that the Thunder’s Sam Presti was going to make one or more significant roster moves this summer.

He still might, based on the speculation about former MVP Russell Westbrook’s future whereabouts. Westbrook’s contract won’t make it easy – he has four seasons left on the five-year, $205 million extension he signed in 2017, plus a 15 percent trade kicker – but most league insiders expect him to be moved either soon or during the season.

So yeah, Westbrook muddies the time frame of “25 days” a bit, as did Boogie Cousins’ and Rajon Rondo’s deals on day 26 to play for the Lakers. There were other lesser lights who signed, and then this week’s wrinkle in which forward Marcus Morris changed his mind on the verbal assurance he gave San Antonio to pursue a deal with New York.

It’s no secret, either, the June 30 starting gun for free agency is only the “official” start. No one is being prosecuted for it via tampering fines, but it’s clear there is lots of communication between players, between teams and agents and in every other direction long before deals even leak on Twitter.

We’ll stick with June 10 as the start of this madness, though, because of the impact of Durant’s injury on Golden State. Losing both him and Thompson seemed to many as if the Warriors – truly on the second tier of NBA dynasties with Chicago and San Antonio – had stepped into an elevator shaft. Eventually their run of five Finals and three titles was going to end. But like that?

Now the entire league is feeling an openness that the Eastern Conference felt a year ago, after LeBron James moved west and took his stranglehold of Finals appearances with him. There either is no favorite in the West or there are a half dozen of them. In the East, the top teams have definitely changed, without any guarantees they’ve gotten better.

“Absolutely. It’s always open,” said Divac, whose Kings want in on some of the lofty aspirations too. “Definitely it was unfortunate for Golden State – you never want to have those kind of injuries that shake not just the players, [but] the entire organization and send it a different way. But that’s part of the game.”

Said the former team executive: “I do see more parity. It is a lot more wide-open. It reminds me of the 2015 season, the first year Golden State won, where there were five or six in Western Conference that felt they were neck-and-neck.”

Asked to name the biggest surprise of the summer so far, several of those interviewed said George’s move to the Clippers, more so than Leonard’s. One insider cited Butler going to Miami, assuming the aggressive All-Star wing wants to be alpha dog on his own team more than a supporting player to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Another GM said it was Durant and Irving teaming up to sign with the Nets. “I don’t think they’re meant to be together in personality or emotionally,” he opined.

Almost everybody was surprised by the earthquake that grabbed center stage Friday night, a 7.1 on the Richter scale that started the scoreboard swaying at the Thomas & Mack Center and had courtside fans nervously eyeing the loudspeakers overhead.

In the long run, though, in magnitude registered, tremors delivered and aftershocks felt, that shaker might have nothing on the NBA’s tumultuous 25 days.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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