NBA free agency more dissected than ever, with good reason

  • David Simon

There’s a growing criticism that the NBA has become focused mostly on player movement and that actual basketball is now a mere afterthought. That has a modicum of truth to it, since current players are moving around with more planning and in consultation with one another more than ever before. Analysis during last week’s trade deadline wasn’t just focused on how the deals being made would impact the rest of this season, but how they would ultimately set up the free agent market for this summer and trying to read the tea leaves on who will end up where.

Despite the validity of the annoyance on its surface, I would venture to guess that many of the people griping that it’s negatively affecting the league are still quickly clicking on any headlines that pop up with rumors and hearsay. Being a distraction from the regular season doesn’t make the rumor mill any less interesting.

Basketball is the sport that can be most affected by a single player coming or going, as well as being the sport with the most visible and recognizable stars. So it stands to reason that a conversation about where Kevin Durant will be playing next year should be an important one. A single player can swing the pendulum of not just a franchise, but an entire conference. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. Last year, they went to the NBA Finals. This year, they’re 11-44.

Free agency in the NFL gets a lot of coverage, but nowhere near the level of the NBA. That’s because rebuilding a football team is a process that usually involves a plan, a system, a coach and many moving pieces. There aren’t superstars shuffling around that much. It’s also because there are 53 men on a roster and they all wear helmets. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s a major factor for why football players (at least non-quarterbacks) usually don’t have the same star power as basketball players.

Baseball stars are also becoming less and less commonplace in popular culture. People have a hard time even naming the game’s top players, let alone recognizing their faces.

So the NBA has become the clickbait, but not necessarily in a negative way. It’s going to matter where Durant ends up signing this summer. It’s going to matter who can offer New Orleans the most enticing package for Anthony Davis. The intrigue surrounding the futures of Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard is substantive.

Players may find it tiresome to be asked about it, but to act as if it’s an out-of-line discussion is naive. Durant was clearly frustrated by the implications that he has spoken to the Knicks or was a factor in New York trading Kristaps Porzingis to clear cap space to hopefully acquire him this summer. Not wanting to talk about it is one thing. Not thinking it’s a valid conversation is another.

When we have enough great players that a number of them can shift the balance of power for the entire league, discussions about where they will be playing next are important.

Luckily, the NBA product is still so good that the distracting side dishes aren’t ruining the main course. The Eastern Conference has an incredible story to play out with its top four teams all being viable NBA Finals contenders. The West has the Warriors as the clear-cut top dog, but Denver, Oklahoma City and Houston will all be tough matchups for the defending champs.

Ultimately, the on-court product should be the focus. But player movement is more impactful than ever and denying its importance is nonsense, so embracing the madness is really the only reasonable way to proceed.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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