For anyone who follows me, you know I believe “big markets” do not dictate free agency.
The reasoning is simple. The classic paradigm of stars choose big markets in free agency was as follows. Big cities mean greater exposure, which mean larger shoe deals, endorsement profiles, and the like. And in the 1990’s, that genuinely made sense. However, the proliferation of the internet and social media has eroded those differences. With streaming, tweeting, and a constant lens on athletes online, everyone gets exposure, everywhere, all the time. Remember the concept of a “Friday at 5 news dump”? It is no longer viable — news spreads constantly. With that exposure comes marketing opportunities — a large city is not necessary for that. Russell Westbrook and Paul George are huge product advertisers; Damian Lillard had the league’s largest shoe deal at one point; and LeBron James became a billionaire without playing outside Cleveland or Miami (his last contract put him over the edge, but Cleveland could have and would have offered the same $).
In response to this, when LeBron James left Cleveland on July 8, 2010, he started a new era — gone were the days of market size affecting star moves. Rather, guys decided to go wherever they could team up with other stars, in order to win. In two consecutive free agent moves, LeBron chose Miami and Cleveland. Sure, Miami was bigger than Cleveland. But LeBron ignored LA, NY, and Chicago to go there to be with Wade and Bosh — the decision was transparently a basketball one, to maximize the chance of winning. And certainly, he did not go to Cleveland to be in a big city — but they did have Kyrie Irving and the draft’s top pick to go get Kevin Love.
Other stars followed suit. Sure, Paul George, Kevin Love, and LaMarcus Aldridge forced their ways out of Indiana, Minnesota, and Portland. But they committed their primes to Oklahoma, Cleveland, and San Antonio — the reasons were not market based, but roster based.
Paul Millsap? He chose Denver!
Kevin Durant. Sure, Oakland is bigger than Oklahoma. But Durant would not even MEET with Los Angeles and New York, before committing. His decision was nakedly about joining a better team to win more, not markets.
Gordon Hayward? He limited his free agent meetings to Boston and Miami, two very successful franchises, and chose a loaded Celtics team. If he was deciding based on markets, he would have actually met with bigger cities.
Chris Paul? He wanted out of New Orleans because they were a NBA owned disaster. Sure, he wound up in Los Angeles, but the goal was to win and he chose to be there because they had Blake Griffin – star number two. He eventually left Los Angeles, thinking he could win more in Houston — you do not leave LA if the goal is being in a big market.
Dwight Howard? He left Orlando because he felt he needed star 2. When he was shuttled against his will to Los Angeles, he was miserable, and eventually forced his way out, to be with James Harden. Another naked basketball decision.
Carmelo Anthony, surely, chose New York. But the reasons he left Denver were well chronicled. He signed a five year deal when LeBron Wade and Bosh only went three years. He came to regret it when the big 3 formed, and was resolute in forming his own with Amare.
With all of this evidence, the lack of big market meaning in these decisions has been clear.
In 2018, LeBron did something that just might be a little different — he went to the Lakers. Surely, the “easy” logic — rooted in 1990’s themes — is he went to the big city. But dig even a little below the surface, and you find a different tale.
Every project LeBron is working on either started when he was in Cleveland, or was in the works then. LeBron starred in Trainwreck in 2015, as a Cav. He became a billionaire without Los Angeles. Some note the convenience of shooting movies. But here’s the thing. LeBron had a summer house there and would go out there in the summer to get that stuff done. As Maverick Carter told Rich Eisen last year, he does not have the time to shoot movies during the regular season anyway — he can only do that in the summer because of his basketball commitments. So he gained nothing, market wise, by moving to LA.
There have been plenty of murmurs — through sources to media and from LeBron himself – implying his wife and kids prefer LA.
And there is another thing — the possible birth of a new free agency tenet: being somewhere well you can build (or continue building) your legacy (and legacies, it should be noted, do not require a large market – LeBron was in GOAT conversations as a Cav, Durant likely becomes a top 20 guy ever in OKC, and plenty of all time greats played in small markets).
By joining Los Angeles, LeBron adds a new chapter to his legacy. He has the hometown kid chapter, all wrapped up. Once he brought a title home to a since starving since 1964, against all odds as a heavy underdog, he achieved something he really could never top in Cleveland. Just like, once he won two in Miami to prove the first was no fluke, there was nothing left to prove there. Now, LeBron, by playing for a storied franchise, gets to add another element to his legacy: being apart of a classic franchise (in the same vein that a player like Derek Jeter does earn legacy points for being a Yankee).
We could be seeing signs of this new trend — legacy plays — due to what is happening with Durant in Golden State. Durant went to Golden State for validation — people did not respect what he brought to the table in the same way LeBron and Curry were respected in 2016. He wanted to win, and earn that respect.
He won, all right — two titles, and two finals MVP’s. But much unlike LeBron, Durant did not receive the validation he sought. He is blasted, by fans, media, and former players, for the decision he made to join Golden State. Those stains wore off by this point in LeBron’s Miami tenure — but they did not for Durant.
Yes, part of that is what he joined in Golden State was 73-9 without him. But part of that has to do with the new “microwave” culture of quick takes that we live in today (as Avery Johnson used to say). Everything is dissected. And unlike in the past, when rings were seen as the measure to evaluate players, suddenly titles, today, are weighed. Being the guy, carrying a team and putting up numbers, has transplated winning as what drives positive perceptions of players.
That’s why Russell Westbrook is so popular since Durant left. In the old days, the talk would be he has not won a playoff series — today, the talk is triple doubles. In that same past, the talk would have been that Durant is a champion. Now, he is criticized for how he won his championships.
And with that, we have seen a wandering eye from Durant. His massive blowout with Draymond Green? The smoke around Golden State? The threat of Durant leaving no longer seems driven by folks wanting them to fail — it seems real.
LeBron’s move to LA may have been a legacy play. If Durant leaves Golden State, it most likely will be one. He will be seeking to validate that he can win, without a ready made situation like the one in Oakland in 2016. Surely, nobody can claim it would be a basketball decision to leave the Warriors. And with the Warriors moving into San Francisco — a new arena in the heart of Silicon Valley — even if he goes to LA or New York, it would be hard to claim that the move is driven by the need to be in a big market. He would be leaving a mega market — and near assured titles in said market.
Durant would be leaving to attain something he cannot in Golden State — the validation that he does not need that collection of players to get the job done.
If there is a new free agency push, in response to backlash, to make legacy plays over the precise best winning situation — that COULD help the Nets. Under the paradigm that has existed from 2010-2018, the Nets, if it continues, would be very very hard pressed in 2019, and perhaps even 2020, to get big free agents. With due respect to the roster as constructed, if players are electing to team up with other stars, the Nets do not offer that to free agents — especially if they remain on track for 50 losses.
But if free agents DO start making legacy plays, suddenly the Nets could be back int he saddle. With the wreckage that was left behind by Billy King, the Nets, truly, have had a herculean climb, in their endeavor back to relevance. This is truly the type of situation where, if a star wins big, it could be huge for his legacy. The talk would be “the Nets were a rudderless mess, dead to rights after the Billy King trade … until that guy came along.”
Do I believe this is likely? Unfortunately, I do not. I do believe stars are more likely to continue the 2010-2018 trend of choosing the beast readymade situation to win.
But with that said, we must adjust when we learn new information.
LeBron’s move to LA could be, may be, the start of free agents making legacy plays.
And it would be quite the legacy play to win a championship with these Brooklyn Nets.