Save for a Russell Westbrook trade here or a surprise move there, the bulk of this summer’s big NBA business has likely concluded. All that really means, though, is that we now turn our attention to new business. Like, for example, Kawhi Leonard’s free agency.
No, not that one. The next one.
Sure, it’s been only five days since Leonard agreed to a new deal, saying goodbye to Toronto mere weeks after delivering the first NBA championship in Raptors history and heading west to build a new title contender with the Clippers. But Wednesday’s revelation of just what that new deal looks like—three years, $103 million, with a player option for Year 3; not the four-year, $142 million contract originally reported—quickly drew the basketball-watching world’s focus to the summer of 2021, when Leonard and his new teammate Paul George will be eligible to enter an already All-Star–studded class of free agents that could include reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Bradley Beal, and Victor Oladipo, among others.
A team’s work is never done, and that’s never been more true than it is now. There’s no real end to the transactional cycle in what has become a 12-month-a-year league, no hard-and-fast separation between recruitment and rebuilding. The draft becomes pre-agency becomes free agency, and it never ends. The 82-game regular season and the 16-win postseason now seem, at times, like simply a way to kill time between trade deadlines and barely veiled late-June tampering sessions, between this roster reshuffle and the next.
The second you draft or sign the superstar, you’re a second closer to potentially losing the superstar, and as trade requests come earlier and earlier in players’ contracts, it’s increasingly difficult to know where you stand or how long your footing will remain firm. It took four months for Kyrie Irving to go from planning on re-signing in Boston to not owing anybody shit, and five more for him to relocate to Brooklyn. Life comes at general managers really friggin’ fast.
Lucky franchises that land transformative talents in the draft can’t afford to squander their early years; it’s how Dell Demps wound up out of a job in New Orleans, why the Mavericks bet big to put Kristaps Porzingis next to Luka Doncic (and why they’ve got to be sweating their swing-and-miss in what was a pivotal summer for that project), and why David Griffin wasted no time in trying to build a serious infrastructure around Zion Williamson. Smart organizations that make every move count can transition from one postseason-caliber core to the next, even without true difference-making stars—the Jazz weathering Gordon Hayward’s exit by leaning on Rudy Gobert and hitting on Donovan Mitchell, the Pacers rebounding from George with the emergence of Victor Oladipo, etc.—but few last into June. (There’s a reason the Raptors went and got Kawhi, after all.)
Building a top-tier title contender with a shelf life longer than two or three seasons, though? That seems borderline impossible now. As one player agent recently told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, all a savvy general manager can really do right now is “have a plan B.”
Leonard secured his own plan B by using his massive leverage as a newly minted two-time champion and Finals MVP to ink a two-plus-one deal. Like James and Kevin Durant before him, Leonard prioritized flexibility over long-term security while also pressuring the Clippers to keep the pedal to the metal in pursuit of championships for the duration of his stay in Southern California. While Leonard has left a lot of money on the table by taking this deal over the more lucrative longer-term ones he could have secured in Toronto or San Antonio, he also put himself in position to re-enter the market after reaching 10 years of NBA service time, making him eligible for the richest possible maximum contract a player can ink—in his preferred location, for his chosen team, and on his own terms. If things go according to plan at Staples Center, he can stick around and re-up for the full boat; if they don’t, he’s left himself the option of pulling up stakes in just 24 months to seek greener pastures.
Kawhi controlled every aspect of his decision, and the Clippers signed up for it, starting the timer on a two-year clock. That’s the price of competing at the highest level: If there’s a chance to win the championship now, you have to take it, even if it means sacrificing later; if you want to win it all, now’s the only time you can worry about. And it sure seems like the clock’s ticking faster than ever these days.
When you sign the players who matter most—the All-NBA first teamers, the MVPs and Finals MVPs, the real rainmakers—you never have as much time as you think. Four-year deals are really three-year deals, and three-year deals are really two-year deals, and asset war chests need to be spent before it’s too late. You have to seize the day, because there’s nothing sadder than wasting the fleeting years of a superstar’s peak. And if going all in, early and often, means leaving yourself exposed to some brutal downside risk in the years after their contracts are up? Well, so be it.
What happens, though, if the NBA locks into a cycle of teams selling out to reach the summit, then tumbling back down the mountain—if the death of the superteam era results in a more broadly distributed pool of power players, with a select few Big Threes giving way to a whole bunch of dynamic duos? Maybe, after years of tweaks to the collective bargaining agreement aimed at dispersing those collections—shorter player contracts, a more punitive luxury tax structure for teams that stockpile high-priced players, the “supermax” extension (well, you can’t win ’em all), etc.—the league gets closer to something like parity, NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s white whale, with more teams theoretically having a chance to win it all, or at least get close. Maybe after decades of dominance by clusters of stars, from Jordan’s Bulls through Steph’s Warriors, it means we won’t be seeing any dynasties for a while.
Despite ratings evidence in recent years suggesting that superteams and dynasties draw more eyeballs and attention than run-of-the-mill contenders come the Finals, more teams with a shot at competing for the big prize could theoretically keep more fan bases more invested throughout the regular season and the early rounds of the postseason. Maybe, ultimately, a broader base of potential titlists would be a good thing for the NBA. Then again, fans love someone to root against as much as they love someone to root for. In the absence of galáctico squads like the Big Three Heat or the KD-era Warriors, casual fans could find themselves lacking a single focal point on which to train their attention. A more level playing field without clear and overwhelming favorites could have a fascinating impact on overall fan interaction.
The matter of fan investment goes beyond just ratings and social engagement, though; it’s about the emotional attachments we feel, their depth and breadth, and what we’re latching onto. As the league keeps moving faster and faster, with roster churn now an annual rite of passage, will we find it harder to create, build, and maintain real connections to the players and teams that we’re watching?
Maybe that depends on what you connected to in the first place. Growing up in the 1990s, I gravitated toward the Knicks. (Please hold your condolences.) But while I wound up loving Patrick Ewing and John Starks and Charles Oakley, I started liking the Knicks because I lived in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and because they were the team of my father, my older siblings, and most of my peers. This sort of relationship to a team—familial, provincial, parochial—was the most common brand of sports fandom for a lot of people my age and older.
And then came the internet, and national games on cable three or four nights a week, and distribution fire hoses like League Pass and r/nbastreams, and sports blogs espousing ideals like liberated fandom and a mainstream sports media increasingly seeded by people who read (and wrote) them, and the 24/7 news and hype cycle, and the advent of social media swallowing everything, and YouTube, and House of Highlights, and on and on. Nowadays, the idea of committing to just one rooting interest due primarily to the accident of geography seems myopic, and frankly kind of silly. Why limit yourself to the local crew (especially if said crew comes with certain … challenges) when there are so many players, personalities, and styles to choose from?
Zion has three times as many Instagram followers as the team that drafted him; he was an international brand way before he ever shook Adam Silver’s hand, and he would’ve been wherever he’d landed, and if he ever leaves New Orleans (heaven forfend), he’ll be one there, too. The times have changed, and so have we, but our collective passion doesn’t seem to have waned. (If you doubt this, have a take—any take—about an NBA team on Twitter, then wait 10 seconds. I promise: The passion will find you!) Connecting differently, and to different things, doesn’t mean those connections aren’t deep and strong, right?
Even so: The differences seem like they matter, and we might only be starting to reckon with how. We’ve all come to understand that the days of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kobe Bryant spending their entire careers with one organization are likely over; among active players, only Udonis Haslem, Stephen Curry, and Westbrook (for now) have spent more than 10 years with their one and only franchise. But what happens when those tenures get shorter and shorter—if more bona fide stars follow in Kawhi’s hired-gun footsteps, or if more players who pop early start exercising their player power while still on their rookie deals? Fans have grown savvier over the years, and they understand how the new NBA world works; the superstar’s here only until he’s not, and everybody knows the stakes when the contract’s signed. But does that make it harder to get invested in your team, knowing that it might look totally different before you even pony up for that replica jersey? (That we have now reached a point where American Express provides insurance for prematurely throwbacked apparel feels instructive.)
Does the ever-shifting landscape of the league make it harder to stay invested, year after year? Seeing your favorite team win a championship is the most euphoric of fan experiences, but what if Kawhi and the Raptors have set a new precedent? What if we’re all doomed to watch that ultimate celebration through a jaundiced eye, barely able to shake our parade hangovers before we’re back to the drawing board? Or is this just a slightly new spin on an age-old issue—that at the end of the day, we’re just rooting for laundry, and all that’s changed is the pace at which players trade in one shirt for another?
This is where we find ourselves, as 2019’s free agency activity slows to a trickle: with more questions than answers about the state of play, on the court and off it, and about how the power moves to come—only beginning to snap into focus—will shape the league. Amid seemingly ever-growing uncertainty, the only sure bet is that when things change, they’ll change quickly. Contenders will rise and fall, stars will say hello and bid farewell, and this summer’s business will bleed into next summer’s before you even know it.
Leonard and George haven’t even donned their Clippers jerseys on the court together, and we’re already wondering how long they’ll be wearing them. The Clippers haven’t even gotten to take their victory lap after turning one of the most daring double-plays in recent NBA history and they’re already on the clock—to convince their newly imported superstars to stick around and to make good on the gamble of sending out a half-decade of draft capital for a chance at the brass ring. They have two years to do it. That’s business as usual in the NBA now; that, more than anything, is our new normal, even if it often feels anything but.