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A Rational Conversation on the 2019-20 NBA Season and the Next Wave of Player Movement

We’re mere days into training camp and Giannis is already getting asked about next offseason. Are we ready for another cycle of rumor-mongering? Or will the conversation finally pivot toward the game play?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Justin Verrier: After the NBA’s Seven Seconds or Less free agency, we’ve reached something of a pax romana on player movement, if only by default. Thirteen of the 27 participants in the 2019 All-Star Game either signed a new contract or were traded this past summer, with all but five of them ending up with new teams. That means nearly half of the league’s best players are off the table—literally, according to league bylaws, until December 15 at the earliest. Actual basketball is the only thing to actually talk about—and given how wide-open the title race appears to be, there hasn’t been a better time to talk about it in maybe half a decade.

But don’t tell that to the Rumor Mongers. Because at Bucks media day, the very first opportunity the full throng of Milwaukee reporters has had in four months, Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked about signing a supermax extension next summer. “I’m not gonna talk about it a lot this season, and I’m not going to try to address it,” Giannis said.

Cool, cool. But everyone else in the world will be. After a month or two to catch our breath and pretend that Evan Fournier pick-and-rolls are interesting, it looks like the player-movement machine is revving back up. Is this a good thing?

Chris Ryan: What is basketball fandom in 2019? That’s basically the question we’ve been trying to answer since the beginning of the year, when we first started with these back-and-forths. Does being a basketball fan mean cheering for a certain team? Does it mean you know how to diagram a SLOB action? Does it mean eyeball emoji/“shoot this directly into my femoral artery” reactions to the news that C.J. Miles is out of a walking boot but has no timeline for a return to action for the Wizards? Or does it mean breathless speculation about the future of the league with no real care paid toward the present, and especially no shits given about the game itself?

I don’t know! It’s October 2, so I don’t expect hard news or analysis to come out of training camps. But I think the question you’re asking is, at this point, are we just feeding a faceless beast? The fact is, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard have changed the definition of what’s possible in terms of player movement, so while I’m sure we’d all like to think we’re above bugging Giannis about whether he’s committed long term to Milwaukee, it’s actually a really good question.

In all likelihood, the Bucks will be very good to great this season, Giannis will make another run at MVP, and the talk around his future will die down a bit. It’s the guys right below him who will have to deal with this on an everyday basis. Because a Bradley Beal or a Kevin Love or a Chris Paul … one of those guys, in this league, in this season, could swing a title race. Doesn’t that make the chatter more legitimate?

2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Verrier: It’d be surprising if at least two of those guys don’t end up elsewhere by February. Paul is playing nice in Oklahoma City, working the local media circuit and swinging the “narrative” cudgel at any implication that he already has one foot out the door. Beal, meanwhile, was a bit more forthcoming—the Wizards guard told The Athletic he’s “still not done asking himself” whether he wants to be a part of the multiyear rebuild in D.C. Just give him, say, six games with Thomas Bryant as his second option. That’ll do it. These breakups are inevitable. That’s not millennial culture razing the beautiful game—that’s common sense.

What’s lost in the discussion of this summer’s free-agent bonanza is that while the scale was bigger than ever, and the speed at which we were given intel was faster than ever, player movement, and our obsessions over the machinations of it, isn’t new. The Decision, which is almost a decade old now, is widely regarded as the tipping point of player empowerment, the beginning of the new NBA. And indeed, the frequency and the volume of transactions has ballooned. But stars have been looking to play elsewhere since GMs were making trade calls on Razrs. Kevin Garnett forced his way out of Minnesota more than 12 years ago. Kobe Bryant threatened to cross town and sign with the Clippers 15 years ago. It’s a bit exhausting to reboot the Trade Machine after just deleting the tab, but I think obsessing over the fate of Giannis—or Beal or Paul or Love—is less a sign of the times and more of a default to what we’ve been doing for years.

Ryan: Right, the new reality is this: If LeBron, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard have all changed teams in the past two summers, then nothing is sacred, so it shouldn’t be taboo to ask Giannis if he’s a cheesehead or not. What I’m wondering is what role we, in the media and as people who are constantly scrolling through meaningless speculation on these ridiculously expensive rectangles in our hands, have to play in all this. Not to get too mystical about all of this, but at what point does the simple act of asking the question manifest the answer. Let’s say Giannis gets asked … 40 times about free agency in the next couple of weeks. Isn’t it possible, likely even, that on the 38th time, he’s going to say something out of frustration that will just take this to a new place? And even if he doesn’t, does the specter of his hypothetical departure change the prism through which we view the Bucks? Like if they don’t set the world on fire in the first six weeks of the season, don’t the questions to Giannis, and Coach Bud, get a little more pointed? “Is Milwaukee doing enough for Giannis?” etc.

Verrier: Media day is one of my favorite media holidays. It’s the time of year when the “news” is that a star player is saying things, not what they said.

Pelicans’ Williamson: Turning pro has been ‘crazy and fun’

Draymond Green confident Warriors can make NBA Finals for sixth straight season

Hawks show definite signs of hope, but still rebuilding

These are actual headlines, but they’re not actual things.

So yes, we the media bear some of the burden here. Players have definitely wrestled away control over where they play and with whom, but they can’t dictate the discussion, no matter how many HBO shows they create or confessional blog posts they “write.” But even though I feel like our bar for bullshit is considerably lower these days, to the point where the the ad copy for the Nike Zoom Fuckshit is hailed as the next Faulkner, we’ve also been burned too many times to take stars’ responses at face value. At some point in the past three or four years, every star who changed teams this summer hoped to spend the rest of his career with the team that drafted him.

Ryan: Has he? You think Kawhi ever really seriously considered staying in Toronto? I guess he may have if they had landed Paul George. He probably wanted to play with a second star, matched to his experience level, and one that wasn’t going to be a pain in the ass on or off the court. It makes perfect sense for him to partner with George. I’ve definitely been staring at my computer for too many years, but I think we’re going to look back and view Leonard as the definitive player of his generation—maybe more so than Durant, Irving, Curry, or Davis. He won two rings, with two different teams, and played poker with all of our preconceptions about how team-player relationships are supposed to go, and he fucking won.

He tore the roots out of the San Antonio tree, went to Toronto—the perfect place to hide out for a season—shrugged off and outplayed any criticism he could have drawn, won a Larry O’Brien Trophy essentially by himself, let the NBA tear itself apart for his services, and then orchestrated a league-changing roster makeover of the Clippers in the middle of the night. And he has a really good chance at winning another ring this season.

If I were Giannis, that’s the playbook I would follow. It’s business. You don’t need a first-person essay to explain it.

Verrier: However he chooses to handle it, I’m ready for it. Rumor-mongering is my natural state, and finger muscles started twitching as soon as the Giannis quotes passed by my desk. My automatic alerts are back on. I’m pinging HoopsHype double-digit times a day. And we’re back cooking in the Trade Machine RV. Let the blogs hit the floor.