By Nathan C. Vance
In the summer of 2010, LeBron James changed the way we consume the NBA. By April of that year, his silence about the future had spoken volumes. Suddenly, the playoffs and finals were an afterthought to the future home of the King. He shut the league down. He took meetings. He visited with various teams in various locations. He allowed speculation to leak. Credible sources had inside information that he was going to be a Net, then a Knick, then a Maverick, then a Laker, a Clipper, a Chicago Bull, a Cleveland Cav, and finally, on national TV, he announced that they were all wrong. He joined the Miami Heat. Baseball was no longer the Hot Stove League. LeBron had pushed the NBA off-season to the forefront of sports journalism.
In the years that have followed, others have continued this legacy of power. Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony nearly ruined entire seasons with their respective dramas. And then last year, in the aftermath of Cleveland’s historic comeback defeat of the 73-win Warriors, Kevin Durant reminded us of the power of the NBA off-season. His joining the Warriors felt eerily reminiscent of LeBron James talents being taken to South Beach. In Durant’s move to the Bay, the following season’s champion was all but decided. It’s a weird way to think of it, but this trend has made July the most exciting month on the NBA calendar; a month where zero important games are played.
But there has been another change. With what some have called the era of the super-team, players feel empowered to take control of their own legacy and have in some ways become their own general managers. Today marked the beginning of the pre-free agency era. This transition puts June back in the driver’s seat as the dominant NBA month. Of course the NBA Finals and the NBA Draft are a big part of the power of June but, make no mistake, pre-free agency is alive and well and equally significant to June’s dominance.
The truth of the matter is that players have become savvy. Paul knew that if he waited until the beginning of free agency to allow his move to play out, things would have already changed and the deal that worked on June 28th might not be available on July 3rd. The same will be true whenever Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets, pulls the trigger to land Paul George, or Paul Milsap, or the Apostle Paul…I mean Carmelo Anthony. This makes sense. Why not do today what someone could easily ruin tomorrow? And all of this is done in the name of beating LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Another pre-free agency move pulled off this June was the blockbuster trade that sent star forward Jimmy Butler to the up-and-coming Minnesota Timberwolves. In making their move prior to the beginning of free agency, the Timberwolves have transitioned from a young team to a contender. Free agents love contenders. They are now a very attractive landing spot for a player the caliber of Kyle Lowry. If they can land him, Minnesota would have four legitimate stars. Kind of like a team that won the 2017 NBA championship, the Golden State Warriors. Could they beat the Warriors with a core of Lowry, Wiggins, Butler, and KAT? Maybe not, but landing Butler early in the offseason puts them in the driver seat to try. It pushes them closer to a championship than they were in May. It eliminated the most important resource teams would have had in outbidding them with more attractive offers— time.
After losing to the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavs have spent their entire two-week off-season trying their best to do something. They started by getting rid of a highly respected GM, David Griffin. They have continued to be active despite their current standstill with Griffin’s hopeful replacement Chauncey Billups. They have tried to wrangle every opportunity to make improvements and they have been desperate to do so before July’s free agency period. The Cavs know that free agency can destroy the best-laid plans. Their best chance at improvement, given their roster and financial restraints, is now… Like right now.
Maybe I’m overreacting and pre-free agency isn’t going to be a continued trend into the future, but it has been exciting. And whether this is just how business is being done in 2017 or whether this is a sign of things to come, it has certainly been different than it’s been in years past. In some ways, I’m sure NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is loving the buzz around his league weeks after the season has ended. Publicity is never a bad thing. And I’m hopeful that the recent flurry of activity will re-balance the top of the league so that the 2017-2018 season and playoffs feel less like a tedious prologue to the Cavs versus Warriors Finals Series Volume Four. It’s always more fun if there is building suspense and, of course, if you have to wait for the end to know the ending. Unfortunately, the 2016 free agency period sending the league’s second best player to its best team felt like a spoiler for what was to inevitably come on June 12, 2017.
Today, it looks like there are more significant contenders to the throne than there were in the past, so I’m pleased. If this is what pre-free agency brings, then sign me up.