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How to Lose an NBA Free Agent in Eight Ways

It turns out rom-coms can teach us a lot about the NBA offseason. We’re about to hear a lot about pitch meetings and promotional deks. But for every Hamptons Five, there’s a Lakers-LaMarcus face-plant. This is what not to do in free agency.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Unlike Kate Hudson at the end of 2003’s How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, I’m not writing this column because I’m in love. (Though I, like many others, do have a longstanding crush on wingspan.) In the movie, journalist and Knicks fan Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) is assigned a piece on what not to do in the early stages of a relationship, a guide for the oft-dumped and brokenhearted. She meets Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey), an ad executive and fellow Knicks fan, the same day. They begin dating immediately; Ben is, of course, oblivious to the fact that he’s her muse, that she’s intentionally trying to end the courtship, and that the Knicks will go 17-65 in 2018-19.

Over the next 10 days, Andie tries everything—a Celine Dion concert, couples therapy, an album of what their future babies will look like—to scare Ben off, but to no avail. Shockingly, our two very attractive protagonists fall in love. Andie writes her column, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” to confess her feelings. A happy ending, minus the Knicks’ ensuing playoff drought.

Sixteen years and many NBA offseasons later, I’m finally ready to admit the truth: Andie didn’t give it her all. Her creepiest, most obtrusive efforts don’t touch what NBA teams have done and said in free-agency meetings. In 2015, for example, the Clippers held DeAndre Jordan hostage until he re-signed at midnight. Two summers later, they erected a maze that Blake Griffin had to walk through to get to his meeting, which began with a fake jersey retirement ceremony. Weird pitches aren’t new, nor are they exclusive to the Clippers, bless their hearts; in 2001, Kings owner Joe Maloof took out a billboard on I-80 in Sacramento—on Chris Webber’s drive home from work—pledging to “mow your lawn if you stay.”

All three—Jordan, Griffin, and Webber—re-signed. (At least for Jordan and Griffin, staying in Los Angeles also meant receiving more money than any other organization could offer.) But for every successful free-agency pitch, there are three to five failed attempts from other franchises. Some seem fine, some forlorn, some thirsty, and some … disturbing.

The 2019 free-agency class is loaded. In anticipation of the many upcoming, high-stakes meetings, I’m revisiting Andie’s column on what not to do when you’re interested in someone. (Less romance, more ball movement this time around.) Here’s how to lose a free agent in one meeting, based on past pitches. I promise these are true stories—they’re a little scary, but mostly, upbeat:

1. Don’t Talk About Basketball, Like, at All: LaMarcus Aldridge meets with the Lakers, 2015

Byron Scott and Mitch Kupchak’s sell to LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t creepy, but it was clueless. Aldridge went from a very impressive, analytics-heavy meeting with the Rockets, to the Lakers’ presentation ... which had almost nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with location. They tried to use clout and branding as bait, pitching Aldridge on the benefits of being in Los Angeles. (Think of a timeshare presentation, but with Kobe wanting to go halfsies. Or three-fourthsies. Guy wasn’t great at sharing.)

As you can imagine for a basketball player searching for the best basketball opportunity, talking basketball was important. For the basketball player. Who plays basketball.

“I was trying to ask more basketball-related questions,” Aldridge said later that season, his first as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. “I just had things that I wanted to know, to understand, on the basketball side. [...] I did try to bring it back toward basketball a couple times.”

But hey, Scott definitely learned his lesson: “Most of these guys want to know the basketball part of it. [...] I think we found from a great player that he was more interested in the basketball on-the-court stuff than anything else.” (Scott, who was fired the following April, never had the chance to test out this iconoclastic “basketball talk.”)

2. Make the Free Agent Imagine That He’s a Mafioso: LeBron James meets with the Knicks, 2010

New York caught a couple of unlucky breaks with LeBron. In 2010, the Heatles had already, unofficially, privately formed by the time he spoke with the team. Mayor Bloomberg tried to recruit LeBron, only to be outranked by a Bulls fan, President Obama.

“I mean the mayor of New York is—he’s great. I mean he’s—he’s done some great things,” LeBron said that June. “But, you know, you had a president saying … you know, go to Chicago.” (Saying something without really saying anything—I always thought LeBron had a future in politics.)

The actual meeting, however, was under the front office’s control, if not on their territory. Knicks representatives flew to Cleveland for the pitch. And before the Knicks brass talked any basketball—as previously stated, very important, that basketball—they showed LeBron an episode of The Sopranos. Specifically the series finale, but with some key revisions. From ESPN’s report at the time:

Tony hadn’t been killed off by David Chase after all. He was wearing a beard and living with his wife under the cover of the witness protection program, and Tony was telling Carmela he had an important friend coming to town. A friend who needed a place to stay. A friend named LeBron James.

Carmela scanned her computer for the ideal midtown spot, and when she told Tony she’d found the right place for a man of James’ stature, the final shot wasn’t half as suspenseful as The Sopranos’ final scene in the diner.

(It was Madison Square Garden.) Cute. Let’s talk plot holes. It’s irresponsible to suggest that witness protection would’ve sent Tony to midtown New York; it’s too close in proximity his former residence in North Caldwell, New Jersey. What kind of connections do Tony or Carmela have to MSG that would have allowed LeBron to post up there for a couple of weeks? Would you let an “important friend” sleep on hardwood? Is Carmela suddenly sizeist?

3. Be Disrespectful to Current Players on Your Team, Part I: Carmelo Anthony meets with the Rockets, 2014

Part of any modern sports pitch is decapitation. Lob off a free agent’s head on Photoshop and slap it on the jersey you’re hoping he’ll wear next season. Fans do it; marketing departments do it. But when Houston created an image of Carmelo Anthony in a Rockets jersey in 2014, they Photoshopped his face onto no. 7—Jeremy Lin’s number at the time.

To be fair to the Rockets, Melo had worn no. 7 for the past four years as a Knick. It was his number, and the goal was for Melo to be able to see himself in Houston. (To be fair to Lin, Melo also wore no. 15 for the first eight years of his career in Denver. There were no no. 15s on the Rockets in 2013-14.)

Lin, who had been in trade rumors all season, was upset (like, tweets-out-Bible-verses upset). There was history between the two. When the Rockets offered Lin a three-year, $25 million deal in 2012, leaving the Knicks to decide whether to match, Melo called it a “ridiculous contract.” It was still a very public clash, though Houston had been unreserved about everything that summer; GM Daryl Morey even explained to reporters the five main tenets of the Rockets’ free-agency pitch before free agency opened. Ironically, the fourth tenet of Houston’s five-tenet free-agency pitch was “the China connection,” which was meant to appeal to players who wished to grow their international brand. “People throughout Asia love our team,” said CEO Tad Brown. “That started with Yao, and it continued with the great players that we’ve had. Every one of our games is broadcast in China and throughout Asia.”

Melo, too, could’ve been a part of “the China connection,” had he only signed, and had Houston not already traded Lin, a Chinese American of Taiwanese descent, to make space for the contract.

4. Be Disrespectful to Current Players on Your Team, Part II: Kevin Durant does not meet with the Wizards, 2016

Despite years of salary cap preparation; despite the Wizards hiring Kevin Durant’s former high school basketball coach and his former NBA coach; despite fans creating KD2DC websites, shirts, and customized jerseys; despite banners, standing ovations, and an in-game weather report during which the weatherman “pled” with Durant to come home, Washington was never given a meeting with Durant in 2016.

“It was kind of disrespectful, in my opinion,” Durant said of his reception at Verizon Center in 2015, “because you’ve got a great team there already, that deserves your full, 100 percent support. And I wouldn’t like that if I was on that team. And I didn’t like that.”

5. Downplay the Importance of Family: Tim Duncan meets with the Magic, 2000

It was 2000. Tim Duncan was 24, and after three years with the Spurs, was considering a move. Orlando flew Duncan to town. Billboards with him and Grant Hill wearing Magic uniforms dotted the city. Epcot’s Spaceship Earth, a.k.a. The Golf Ball, lit up to say “Grant Us Tim,” a normal and not-at-all strange slogan used to recruit Hill and Duncan at the same time. (It worked on Hill. It almost worked on Duncan too, who admitted in 2010 that he “came close to leaving. Real close.”)

Back to the 2000 visit: During dinner, someone in Duncan’s circle asked whether spouses were allowed on the team plane. Head coach Doc Rivers said no. According to Hill, the entire energy at the table changed, and that’s why Duncan never signed with the Magic.

I’m not saying the lesson here is to lie, because Doc didn’t have to lie. He should’ve changed the rule on the spot. Or bought Duncan’s then-wife a private jet.

6. Say Your Team’s Goal Is “Global Domination”: Dwight Howard meets with the Mavericks, 2013

Dwight had Dallas on the brain long before he was a free agent in 2013. According to a 2012 report from Yahoo Sports, if his trade from Orlando to the Lakers or Nets hadn’t worked out, the Mavericks were his first option when he hit free agency. (He was eventually sent from Orlando to L.A. that year; technically, it didn’t work out.)

Dwight signed with the Rockets in 2013. Maybe it was so he could play with James Harden instead of Jose Calderon; maybe he was tired of wearing royal blue; maybe it was because the Mavericks showed him a low-resolution comic book video featuring Mark Cuban smoking a Cuban cigar, and called it a pitch. The video opened with a regrettable font choice, stayed consistently corny, then turned surprisingly dictator-y, ending with the line: “Being a Maverick doesn’t end with the Hall of Fame, being a Maverick ends in [cartoon Dwight rips his jersey open] global domination!”

7. Leak Your Pitch Beforehand: Paul George does not meet with the Lakers, 2017

Paul George never granted Los Angeles a meeting. But before he had the chance to turn them down, the video script that the Lakers were planning on showing George leaked:

When you were just a kid
In your room
Dreaming from Palmdale
We were dreaming too.
While you dreamt, we built—built for your arrival
And while we dreamt, you built too
Becoming one of the world’s greatest.
Life’s most powerful dream are the one we realize ourselves.
The ones that turn us into legends.
That kid from Palmdale always knew it
Now the world will, too

Truly not that bad! And maybe the video would’ve been effective, had it ever been produced. According to the Sports Illustrated report that first released the script, the voice-over was supposed to sound “less Morgan Freeman/Denzel Washington and more Jamie Foxx.” Foxx is one of George’s favorite actors (along with Mark Wahlberg). (It would’ve been more fun to hear Wahlberg say “Palmdale.”)

8. Bring in Athlete From Another Sport; Put Focus Entirely on Other Athlete: Kevin Durant meets with the Celtics, 2016

Boston had a surprise waiting for Durant. They spoke to God and God agreed to speak with Durant. So there he was, publisher of TB Times, deflater of gates, on-mouth kisser of sons, the holiest saint in New England: Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback.

We don’t exactly know what transpired in that meeting, but we do know that Durant didn’t sign with Boston in the end. (Shocking, because again, Tom Brady, in the flesh. TB12!) Listening to Durant talk about the meeting two years later in 2018, it’s almost like Brady … didn’t even … matter to him?

“That stuff was cool, don’t get me wrong,” Durant said. “But I was just all about the basketball. I mean, I love Tom Brady, but I don’t know if he can help me if he was on the court with me right now. I love that people wanted me on their team, but at the same time I just wanted to hear from the coaches and the players about what they needed or why they wanted me on their team and what I needed to do as a player.”

So Durant wanted to talk about basketball. Interesting. A little out there, but interesting. Still, everyone on both sides seems pleased with how it worked out. Durant won two titles, and Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens got to spend time with Tom Brady.

“It was fun to be around Tom. I think it had some impact on KD for sure, but how much, I don’t know,” said Ainge a couple of days after the meeting.

“He really came across as just a normal guy,” said Stevens. “And I was really impressed with him.” (He wasn’t talking about Durant.)