The comparisons have been made ad nauseam, and you can include yours truly among the chorus: There are undeniable shades of Michael Jordan in Kawhi Leonard. Those outsized hands. That fadeaway. And, maybe most importantly, the incorruptible will to win games at the highest level. In his championship-winning 2018-19 season with the Toronto Raptors, a 27-year-old Leonard channeled a 35-year-old MJ: Back in 1997-98, Jordan may have been a shell of his past athletic self, but his singular on-court gifts insulated both him and his team from the looming, ever-present threat of collapse at the end of the season. Jordan etched the final notch in one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history; Kawhi drove a nail through the coffin of another.
Two decades separate the two superstars at that critical juncture in their respective careers, and on both ends, we caught a glimpse of the wreckage that invariably comes in the aftermath. On the surface, dynasties, like the past five seasons of Golden State Warriors basketball, present a form of order: Here lies the undisputed best team in the NBA, here are the focal points of the league, and everything else falls in line. But as they corrode with time, teams and players keying in on newfound opportunity will leverage whatever they have at their disposal to win. When balance is disturbed, significant change is often afoot. This has been the case in past eras, but never quite like it is now.
The first two weeks of the 2019 NBA free-agency period burned out the content farmers and broke (in some cases literally) the laws of the league. The latent maneuvering of so-called “pre-agency” has been a reality for years now, with players, agents, and front offices all entangled in a rat race within the rat race. But its breadth and reach had never been as fully seen as they were in late June and early July, when a flurry of blindsiding transactions essentially flipped the league upside down.
Leonard doesn’t have the obvious, affable charm of Jordan, but he has nonetheless been able to craft a brand out of his stoic nature. In unrestricted free agency, he used his inscrutability as a force field. Under the cover of silence, Leonard, along with his confidants, masterminded a trade between the Clippers and Thunder involving star wing Paul George in what will go down as one of the most consequential deals in NBA history regardless of how it works out. (Leonard, for what it’s worth, told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes he wasn’t the “architect” behind the deal; he said he merely expressed an interest in playing with George after being presented a few options and the team did the rest.)
In the annual NBA Board of Governors meeting held in Las Vegas earlier this month, just days after the Clippers shifted the league’s axis, team owners essentially asked themselves, Well, how did we get here?
The Leonard-George package deal crossed a frontier the league and its fans didn’t even know existed. Anthony Davis’s midseason trade demand resulted in a lost season for both the Lakers and the Pelicans, but the Clippers netted Kawhi’s services while also acquiring a player on another team with multiple years on his contract. He might not have been the architect, but Kawhi still asserted power on a level no player before him had.
In May, I claimed that “Kawhi seems like a logical endpoint to the Michael Jordan mythos,” but, as evolution dictates, Leonard has accomplished a number of things that even Jordan, the single greatest icon of the sport, couldn’t. Jordan had an antagonistic relationship with Bulls general manager Jerry Krause for just about his entire career. And even when he was at the height of his power, Jordan wasn’t able to dramatically shift the traditional paternalistic power dynamics of the franchise: Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf ultimately sided with his general manager over his franchise player.
Fast-forward 20-odd years, and the hierarchical structure has seemingly inverted, with Leonard forcing four different franchises—the Clippers, Lakers, Raptors, and Thunder—to bend to his will. For superstars at the highest levels of free agency, the monetary value of a contract is no longer the most persuasive form of currency. It’s about the lives they want to lead. It’s the power that they crave. And owners will spend the coming years plotting ways to reverse the damage.
Oh, how times have (and haven’t) changed.
In late August 1997, Jordan signed a landmark one-year contract with the Chicago Bulls worth in excess of $33 million, the richest single-season salary in NBA history (which, adjusted for inflation, would still stand as such today at approximately $53 million). The deal came roughly a month after Bulls coach Phil Jackson agreed to one final season with the dynastic team, in the hunt for their sixth championship in eight seasons. Jordan and Reinsdorf shook hands upon the hefty contract agreement and were on their way out, but, as Jordan recounted in The New Yorker back in 1998, “One comment stuck with me as we left, and I lost total respect for him when he said it: ‘At some point in time, I know I’m going to regret what we just did.’”
Weeks later, a 21-year-old Kevin Garnett was in Minneapolis with Jimmy Jam, a personal mentor and Grammy-winning producer, listening to Janet Jackson’s new album, The Velvet Rope, a week before its release. They were interrupted by Garnett’s agent, who had astonishing news: The young star, just two years removed from high school, had been offered a six-year, $126 million contract—then the largest in NBA history, more than a month after refusing Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor’s original offer of $102 million. Jackson’s music was a fitting backdrop; a year earlier, she’d renegotiated with Virgin Records for the largest recording contract in history. In 1999, months after the 1998-99 lockout that would essentially create the infrastructure for the modern NBA, then-Pacers team president Donnie Walsh told Sports Illustrated just what Garnett’s historic contract had wrought. “I think most owners looked at the contract and said, ‘This is where it’s going.’ There was no leverage on the side of the team. None.”
The NBA is cyclical in nature, but not necessarily in terms of how the game is played—at least not the game happening on the hardwood. Back-to-the-basket bigs might not inherit the court like they did two decades ago, but the ways in which we discuss the iniquities and imbalances of the league invariably come full circle. Because what is a professional sports league but a tense game of brinkmanship that resets once a generation?
As Jack McCallum wrote in a 1997 Sports Illustrated story about whether or not the Bulls dynasty was bad for the NBA, “Now that a player can become a free agent after only three years in the league, player movement is at an all-time high. … Too many franchises are paying too much money to young players who have neither the maturity nor the supporting cast to succeed. But coaches can’t take the time to sit and school the youngsters because ownership is impatient. Other franchises are going after quick-fix free agents and breaking up whatever chance a coach has of building cohesion.”
The league read the tea leaves in the mid-’90s, and saw a Bulls-dominated era on its last legs. It saw unprecedented contract offers extended to the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Juwan Howard, and Kevin Garnett—the kinds of contracts that forced the NBA into a work stoppage and introduced limits and terms that have shaped our understanding of how the league works over the past two decades: max contracts, the rookie scale, midlevel exceptions. Those are the tools of control that have, up until now, kept stars under team dominion for as long as possible.
One season after the lockout, the Timberwolves attempted to sign Joe Smith to a below-market contract with an under-the-table promise that he’d be in line for a much more lucrative multiyear deal down the line; when the salary cap evasion tactics were sniffed out, the franchise was given the strictest team punishment we’ve seen: a temporary leave of absence for both Taylor and GM Kevin McHale, and the forfeiture of four first-round draft picks. But teams and players adapt. Maybe you can’t cheat the game, but you can certainly cheat the game within the game—and the ways of deceit have only grown more and more nuanced with each passing decade.
But this summer’s shenanigans appear to have broken the camel’s back. Investigations are underway, according to ESPN and New York Times reports earlier this week, looking into whether improper benefits that would circumvent current salary cap restrictions were bargained for in free-agency negotiations. Michael Jordan, who is, ironically, the head of the labor committee among the board, “discussed the possible need to revisit free-agency rules in the next collective bargaining agreement,” according to ESPN sources. Jordan made more than $63 million in salary over his final two seasons with the Bulls by way of two consecutive unrestricted one-year contracts, a way of recouping all the money he wasn’t making in his first 11 seasons with the team while both the franchise and the league at large boomed as a result of his star power. The victories Jordan sought to capture in his playing days are no longer pressing to stars today. The league continues to grow more and more valuable. The money’s there. Teams on the hunt are now pressed with figuring out what it is their targets actually want, both professionally and personally. But the farther it strays from simply offering a bigger bag, the harder it will be to enforce whatever rules are in place.
“The one strong conviction I have is that we should not have rules that are not strictly enforced,” commissioner Adam Silver told reporters in Vegas. “We know that’s the case right now. Whether that’s by virtue of practice, whether it’s because just the world around us has changed, whether it’s because players have power that they didn’t used to have, I’m not so sure.”
It appears as though we’ve reached the final frontier of player agency as conceived by the past two decades of collective bargaining. It’s likely we’re just biding time until 2022, when both owners and the players association can opt out of the current CBA and negotiate new terms. By then, we’ll have a fuller grasp of just how the league has changed, and just how adamantly ownership groups will try to wipe the slate clean and redefine the league once more. Visions of a lockout have turned up on the horizon. But should the NBA be destined for a work stoppage this time around, the biggest decisions made won’t be regarding money, but something far more nebulous. It’ll be about regulating influence, and the high-stakes metacompetition that has changed the NBA as we’ve known it.