Kawhi Leonard will soon be a Los Angeles Clipper, because the Los Angeles Clippers did everything right. They assembled a roster of tenacious, talented young players. They built methodically, impressively—winning in the present while pocketing salary-cap room and extra draft picks for the future. They sold their vision with a championship coach (Doc Rivers), the NBA’s wealthiest owner (Steve Ballmer), a legendary executive (Jerry West) and one of the shrewdest front-office staffs in the league.
And when it came time to close the deal last week, the Clippers leveraged it all—their acumen, their flexibility and a whole bunch of those picks—to acquire Paul George, which clinched Leonard’s commitment and transformed the franchise. The Clippers thoroughly earned this victory. You could say the same for the Brooklyn Nets, who channeled three years of meticulous planning into a blockbuster twin transaction—the signings of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
You might reasonably conclude this is the moral of this dizzying, earthshaking, landscape-altering NBA offseason: The teams that do it right get rewarded. It wouldn’t be wrong to think so. That moral gives hope to franchises and fanbases everywhere. But the broader lesson here is a bit bleaker, drenched in existential angst: Sometimes, nothing you do actually matters. Nothing. The Toronto Raptors did everything right—even winning a championship—and still lost Leonard.
The Golden State Warriors made three straight Finals with Durant, winning two titles…and lost him anyway. The Boston Celtics surrounded Irving with veteran stars and bouncy young talent…and he coldly cut ties. And the Oklahoma City Thunder—who were celebrating a new four-year contract with George last summer—just traded him at his request. Those are four of the best organizations in the NBA, led by four of the league’s best executives: Masai Ujiri in Toronto, Bob Myers in Oakland, Danny Ainge in Boston and Sam Presti in OKC. They all just lost their best players in the span of six days.
Welcome to the new NBA, where it isn’t enough to be bold or smart. Where even championships and max contracts sometimes aren’t enough to sate the modern player. Leonard just became the first NBA superstar to leave his team immediately after winning a title. Durant departed just a year after being crowned Finals MVP. Jimmy Butler just left a contender in Philadelphia to join a non-contender in Miami—and for less money. “I think at the end of the day, no matter what teams do, it doesn’t matter,” said a prominent player agent who doesn’t represent any of the aforementioned players. “It just doesn’t.”
In today’s NBA, no single force binds a team and a player. Once upon a time, it was a sense of loyalty—a quaint concept that mostly benefited the teams. In more recent times, players stayed for money, taking advantage of Bird rights and other measures that induced stars to stay put. Or they stayed because their team was winning. When LeBron James kicked off this era of player empowerment in 2010, leaving Cleveland to form a superteam in Miami, his goal was simple: win championships. He got two. The goal was the same when he returned to Cleveland four years later with a new, younger superteam. He won another title.
But when James jumped to the Los Angeles Lakers last year, he did so without a co-star. The Lakers were far from a contender. Indeed, they missed the playoffs. (James finally got a co-star, Anthony Davis, this past week.) What drove James to L.A. was some combination of peripheral factors: lifestyle, family preferences, business interests, proximity to his media empire. Agents and team executives see the same motives behind much of this summer’s movement.
Leonard and George want to win, sure. But they chose to team up in L.A. because both are from Southern California. Irving, who grew up as a Nets fan in New Jersey, also framed his move as a homecoming. Durant wanted to play with Irving, a close friend. He also wanted to be in New York to be close to his own burgeoning business empire, Thirty Five Ventures. “To me, it’s beyond basketball,” the agent said. “It’s where can they impact things beyond the court.”
Another point: Leonard, Durant and Irving have the luxury of leaving elite teams because all three have won championships. “These guys are now saying, ‘Well, I’ve already achieved what I need to achieve,'” the agent said. “‘Now, what are the outside factors that can influence my life? I want to be home, I want to do movies, I want to be in music, I want to be in venture capital,’ whatever the case may be. And I think at this point, those are factors that you can’t determine.”
They also are factors some teams can’t satisfy.
“Masai can’t change the fact that Toronto is not Southern California,” the agent said. “I mean, Kawhi had an entire country that was behind him, and he chose to go close to home. … You can’t compete with that.”Of course, it helped that the Nets and Clippers did a lot right—giving them a distinct advantage over their more storied (but often dysfunctional) intracity rivals, the Knicks and the Lakers.
And it must be noted that the teams that snagged the biggest stars were either in major markets (New York, L.A.) or glamour markets (Miami). That includes the big-market Celtics, who replaced Irving by luring Kemba Walker from Charlotte. So maybe the moral of this summer is: Do everything right and do it in a top-10 Nielsen market or a desirable city. Oh, and if you do have a superstar, get him a co-star before his eyes start to wander.
“What it really does is it scares you if you have one of these guys and you don’t have a path for another one,” a longtime team executive said. “If you’re the rest of the NBA, how do you build, given this reality?”
Just a year ago, the league was praising the Raptors for making the bold move to acquire Leonard despite the risk of him leaving. Two years ago, everyone praised the Thunder for doing the same with George. These franchises bet on themselves and, at least initially, appeared better for it. George signed a four-year deal. The Raptors won a title. Now, both are gone. The teams did benefit—the Thunder flipped George for a massive cache of players and picks, and the Raptors got that banner—but the on-court payoff was fleeting, to say the least.
That’s the new reality teams are confronting. In an era of shorter contracts and ultimate player freedom, the window to build and sustain a contender is frightfully brief. “The theme is the players are going to change teams,” the executive said. “What you need to do is focus on building an elastic, opportunistic franchise that is able to function successfully in the landscape. You have to be able to pivot quickly. You have to be able to draft well. You have to develop players. Can you put together a run? Can you get beyond an aging core? Can you see into the future and make the big decision necessary?”
“I don’t know,” the executive said. “I don’t think you can count on the fact that you’re going be able to sustain a long run.” As the agent noted, teams today need to be “as prepared for [a star] staying as much as you are prepared for them leaving. Because nothing is guaranteed at all. At all.” Even a contract guarantees nothing. George forced a trade with two years left on his deal, following the precedent set by Irving (two years), Butler (one year), Chris Paul (one year) and Davis (one year).
A handful of small-market teams—Milwaukee, Indiana, Denver and Utah—are defying the odds and building potential contenders with solo superstars. But what if they can’t win it all? What if they never obtain that second star? “Those teams probably aren’t good enough to really win,” the executive said. “And their best players are going to leave and go to other destinations. … How do you function in this environment if you’re not at a place that realistically thinks they can [acquire] two of the absolute best [players] in their prime, together?”
The events of the last week are sure to stoke old tensions among NBA owners over the power of big markets, the drawback of shorter contracts, the failure of the so-called supermax, the fear of a star-controlled league. It could all manifest in the next round of labor negotiations, perhaps as soon as 2022. There is a silver lining for the league in this whirl of All-Star migration: the end, for now, of the superteam era—and the sense of inevitability that came with it. For the first time in years, there’s no clear favorite in either conference.
No team has four All-Stars (as the Warriors did) or three (as the Cavaliers, Heat and Celtics previously had). Instead, the league has become a galaxy of two-star constellations: James and Davis, Leonard and George, Durant and Irving, Chris Paul and James Harden, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. (The Warriors still have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but Thompson will miss most or all of this coming season while recovering from ACL surgery, and Green is in the final year of his contract.) Suddenly, there’s a sense of equilibrium across the league. No dynasty to fear. No basketball Voltron threatening to crush all challengers.
A half-dozen teams could contend for the Western Conference title next season. Four teams have a plausible chance to win the East—and that isn’t including the Nets, who probably won’t have Durant at all this season as he recovers from a torn Achilles.
A new sensation will sweep the NBA next fall: suspense.
We will almost certainly see two new teams in the Finals next June, and a new champion dancing under the confetti. And, soon after, another class of stars agitating to play together in some new city. No NBA team, not even the best of the best, can feel secure now. No champion is assured of a sustained run. What’s the modern GM to do?
“Have a Plan B,” the agent said.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.