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.
Wade has the title box already checked, having led the Miami Heat to a championship in 2006, so Heat fans will rightly be nervous about the prospect of his departure. His likely destination wouldn’t be the open market, though, but rather to his native city of Chicago, where the Bulls are only beginning to shake the shadow of the ‘90s title teams. With Derrick Rose, another superstar in the making, the Bulls would be an attractive destination for Wade.
Bryant is a god in Los Angeles, and the Lakers are well positioned to contend for an NBA title for the next three or four years. I can’t imagine him leaving that situation. Nowitzki loves playing in Dallas, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has shown he will spare no expense to keep his stars. It’s unlikely that Phoenix Suns all-star point guard Steve Nash would have signed an extension if he wasn’t assured that Stoudemire, the Suns front-court star, would get a new contract.
Now look at the teams that are selling this bizarre hope. Try the following sentence: The Los Angeles Clippers/New York Knicks/New Jersey Nets (or Brooklyn Nets, if you prefer) are title contenders. It’s hard to say without a chuckle and hard to write without an eyebrow rising in skepticism. These aren’t teams that are a superstar away from a title; these are teams that need a lot of work, and a superstar is just one of their several needs. The Atlanta Hawks, which won 47 games last season, are a different case, but until they can resolve the disputes among the owners, it’s unlikely that they will spend the necessary cash to build an elite team.
The thing is that the executives running these teams know the odds of them landing a superstar talent via free agency are only a little better than their chances of buying a winning lottery ticket. Why mount this charade? It facilitates cost cutting, and fiscal prudence in and of itself is probably the least sexy activity in the world. The free agent class of 2010 has allowed several teams to cut costs while selling a dream of glory. The possibility of that glory is very small, but the first step to rebuilding a team is to get the salary cap issues in order. That’s what the Portland Trail Blazers were doing three years ago, and now they have the youngest team in the league coming off a 54-win season.
Teams are selling dreams of superstars while engaging in good, old-fashioned solid accounting. Done right, it will produce a winner—just not the winner that fans are expecting.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.