The 2010 NBA Free Agency Fallacy

Teams are promising to spend big money on big talent next summer, but is it mostly an excuse to be cheap now?

In major markets throughout the NBA, teams and the media that follow them are talking about next summer like it’s the second coming, and not entirely without reason. Next summer the following superstars can be unrestricted free agents: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Amare Stoudemire. In addition, several all-stars including Ray Allen, Carlos Boozer and Joe Johnson will also be free agents that summer.

Teams and fan bases are all lathered up, especially in New York where New York magazine has taken to calling 2010 the Summer of LeBron, and both the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets (a team that hopes to move to Brooklyn in the near future) have based most of their personnel moves on their ability to lure free agents a year from now. The Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks have made this summer’s free agent signings dependent on having sufficient cap room to attract James or another big-name player.

This is all a bunch of hot air, however; cornerstone players rarely change teams and even fewer move through free agency. The league salary rules encourage this kind of stability. A player’s original team can offer a player a larger total package—one more year at a maximum salary—than a new team. While standout role players such as Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu occasionally change teams, superstars rarely do, especially not in their prime. Of the league’s 50 Greatest Players, a list compiled in 1996 to celebrate the league’s 50th anniversary, 33, or fully two-thirds of the players, played their entire career with only one team or moved late in their career when they were past their prime (Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards phase or Hakeem Olujawon’s Toronto Raptors season, for instance). Of the 17 players who did move, only Shaquille O’Neal’s move from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers and Scottie Pippen’s move from the Chicago Bulls to the Houston Rockets were facilitated by free agency.

Purely in the abstract, the kind of player movement that some big-market teams are promoting doesn’t happen often, but let’s look at the players and their likely motivations. LeBron James is the big prize, but as a native Ohioan, he’s committed to bringing a title to a city that hasn’t had a pro champion since the days of Jim Brown, who led the 1964 Cleveland Browns to an NFL title. Even if James leads his Cavaliers to an NBA title next spring, the players he’s most often compared to, Jordan and Bryant, have won multiple titles with their teams, so his agenda in Cleveland will be far from complete.