In July 2010, the pro basketball world watched “The Decision,” an ESPN special in which northeast Ohio native and NBA star LeBron James announced he would leave his “hometown” Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat.
It’s one of the most memorable moments in NBA summer free agency history, both for its suspenseful orchestration and the media and public controversy it harbored for at least the next five years. James was labeled with many negative titles after his announcement of which team he would suit up for, and it produced storylines each time he faced his former team, when won his two NBA titles in Miami and when he lost a couple more Finals series. Fans burned his Cavs jerseys in Cleveland, lamented his losses in Miami and cheered his failures in many other cities across the nation. Whether you like James or not, the LeBron story-generator garnered plenty of attention for the NBA.
That 2010 summer was not the only time we’ve sat on the edge of our seats to either anticipate an NBA free agent’s decision, or perhaps even learn of an NBA legend’s decision to return to action after retirement. Shaquille O’Neal’s move from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers in the mid-1990s received plenty of publicity. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and others attempted comebacks after seemingly walking away from the game as a player for the last time. Each time, whether we took a negative or positive view of the news, we paid attention to the NBA for long periods of time.
But for all of the times we’ve followed player movement in the NBA, both in the summer and during trade deadline time in the late winter each year, it seems to me that no time prior to the first few days of this July has provided as much rapid-fire free agency madness with as many storylines.
The Kevin Durant sweepstakes served as this summer’s blockbuster headliner, and we learned on Independence Day that Durant decided to exercise his freedom to choose and move to California to join the already-talent-loaded Warriors. This decision has a spinoff, too, as we’ll continue to watch how the Thunder move forward and whether fellow all-star Russell Westbrook stays in Oklahoma City or finds a new franchise himself.
After years of futility and humility at the hands of, well, everyone, the New York Knicks have completely remade their lineup around Carmelo Anthony, trading for oft-injured former MVP Derrick Rose, signing Rose’s former Bulls teammate Joakim Noah and signing guards Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings. Along with the young Kristaps Porzingis, it appears Phil Jackson has finally made a splash in an attempt to build a winner in New York. Oh, and that group has a new coach in Jeff Hornacek.
Perhaps the biggest head-scratcher so far in July has been the contract of Michael Conley Jr., a point guard who has averaged 13 points and five rebounds during his career with Memphis. Those are solid numbers, but do they or any other stats and information justify the Grizzlies giving Conley $153 million over the course of the next five seasons? That’s the biggest contract in NBA history and, while I understand inflation and higher revenues leading to an increase in teams’ salary cap space, I don’t see how any market leads to deals we’ve seen like Conley’s.
Memphis isn’t the only team throwing cash out the window at all passersby this summer. Supposed one-hit wonders like Timofey Mozgov are “making bank” with massive money deals, too. The Lakers’ history has included legendary centers like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. Mozgov gets more than $50 million, but does he belong anywhere near that list?
And it’s not just entirely questionable players getting paid. My hometown Charlotte Hornets will make Nic Batum the highest paid athlete in the history of Charlotte professional sports. Batum is talented and is a key player in the organization’s improvement over the past year, but he will make more money per season than National Football League MVP Cam Newton, who also plays his home games in Charlotte. Does that make sense?
Beyond money, we’ve seen a flurry of other intriguing moves. Among them:
* Dwight Howard will “go home” to join the Atlanta Hawks, a player-franchise marriage speculated for years.
* Al Horford opened space for Howard in Atlanta when he decided to sign with the Boston Celtics. Prognosticators are asking if the Celtics are now as good as the Cavs with Horford. I don’t think so.
* I believe the Cavs are still the best team in the Eastern Conference, but they may get better if reports of Dwyane Wade joining LeBron in Cleveland are true. Whether credible or not, those guys do appear to genuinely be friends. They hang out together during the season and in the offseason.
* Former all-star point guard and unpredictable from day to day personality Rajon Rondo capitalized on Chicago’s trade of Derrick Rose to sign with the Bulls. He’s an intriguing addition to a Bulls roster completely in transition with the subtraction of Rose and apparently Pau Gasol, too.
* Pau Gasol is expected to move back to the Western Conference and sign with the San Antonio Spurs. If that works out, the Spurs will have a young big man in Lamarcus Aldridge and two late-career post players in Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol. Despite the Spurs’ experience and youth mixture, along with one of the most successful coaches ever in Popovich, can they compete in the always-loaded, now-extra-Warriors-favorite West?
* In the East, where will my Hornets rank with all of these changes? They lost the again-upstart energy spark in Jeremy Lin and the aging elder statesman Al Jefferson. They also lost Courtney Lee in free agency and don’t add any draft picks to grow. They did re-sign Batum and Marvin Williams, who is coming off his most successful season ever. And they traded for sometimes-sharpshooting Marco Bellinelli, signed ancient-looking and sometimes ancient-playing Roy Hibbert and the serviceable Ramon Sessions. The Hornets also get back (hopefully) the services of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has had more than his share of injury issues and may play with more rust and age than his actual age would stipulate.
* Then there’s the draft class, with heavy expectations especially riding on top of early picks Ben Simmons in Philadelphia and Brandon Ingram with the L.A. Lakers. What will their output be?
Maybe I just have what I like to call “Most Recent Syndrome.” You know when you go see the newest film and you leave the theater proclaiming, “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.” After the newness wears off, you’re able to offer more perspective to your coronation of that title.
But this summer seems to be more entertaining for an NBA fan than ever. Maybe that’s aided by the seven-game NBA Finals comeback we watched, when LeBron James finally got Cleveland its title after a 52-year drought, with a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, the first time that’s ever been done. And, oh yeah, two-time defending MVP Stephen Curry failed to deliver a repeat and looked, at times, amazingly off-kilter in the process. And now Curry makes the fourth-most money from basketball of any player on the Warriors roster (once Durant is in the fold).
Regardless of its standing in NBA offseason history, this summer has been undeniably entertaining, and it lends promise that the league will continue to be intriguing and worthwhile heading into the future, despite the ire the league justifiably draws for its style of play and sickening opulence. Plenty of fans long ago stopped spending time and money on the NBA. Can a summer like this one be one piece of rediscovering glory days of professional basketball? Or will it remain solely an interest of die-hard hacks like me? Higher paydays for players and constant lineup changes that prevent team continuity seem to suggest the latter.