It was January 28, 2019, when the NBA world was shaken. Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis was requesting a trade out of New Orleans. Davis would be extension-eligible after the 2018-19 season in advance of his 2020 free agency. Still, a season and a half ahead of time, he informed the New Orleans front office of his discontent and his desire to pursue a larger market, preferably Los Angeles.
This was no shock. Rumors had been swirling around AD for quite some time, and once he hired Klutch Sports’s Rich Paul as his agent, the request seemed inevitable. As the story goes, Davis was not dealt at the deadline, but in the offseason, after the Lakers landed the #4 pick in the 2019 draft. In the following months, the league would be totally turned upside down, with eighteen former All-NBA talents joining a new team. Most notably, Davis was sent to LA, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined an LA team as well, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant signed with Brooklyn, Jimmy Butler went to Miami, Kemba Walker chose Boston, and Al Horford chose Philly. Of the players that chose a new destination this summer, these are clearly the top eight. Where did they go? LA, New York, Boston, Miami, Philly. Five of the league’s biggest markets.
Is this New?
Free agents choosing big markets isn’t a new phenomenon. Big market teams and glamour franchises have always landed more free agents than the Utahs and Indianas of the world. Look at some of the biggest player moves in league history. Shaq chose LA. Wilt and Kareem both forced their way to the Lakers, too. Bron, Wade, and Bosh met up in Miami. Kevin Durant and Rick Barry both signed in the Bay Area. Moses Malone and Dr. J both chose Philly. Chicago has made significant splashes like Dennis Rodman, John Paxson, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade, etc. And the Knicks have spent money, at least, on players like Allan Houston, Amar’e Stoudemire, Eddy Curry, and others.
Most of the NBA’s biggest moves feature LA, New York, Chicago, Miami, Philly, or Golden State. That’s the three biggest cities in the country plus South Beach, the Bay Area, and Philadelphia. Interesting.
There are exceptions. The Spurs have landed LaMarcus Aldridge and Robert Horry, but that’s the Spurs, right? And San Antonio isn’t exactly Salt Lake, either. Then we’ve got Phoenix signing Steve Nash… Phoenix is the 5th biggest US city. Houston has acquired guys like CP3 and Dwight… Houston is 4th.
So I think it’s fair to say players have always gravitated towards bigger markets. Then why does it seem like today’s NBA leans towards the big markets more heavily than past eras?
One of the most rapidly growing narratives in modern sports, especially the NBA, is a movement that’s becoming more and more widely recognized by the day. Some say it’s been brewing for a full decade, but this offseason it truly became undeniable. Its most common name is the player empowerment era. This concept manifests itself in a variety of ways, on an off the court, but the phrase “player empowerment” perfectly represents the definition of this movement. Players are gaining more and more power every season in all kinds of ways. Each player is starting to think of himself as a brand, and sell his off-court personality as much as his on-court skills. But the crux of the player empowerment debate tends to center around contracts and player movement.
In all four major sports leagues, we’re seeing more players trying to choose where they play, whether they’re under contract or not, but the NBA by far the most drastic. How many players have demanded trades in just the past few years? Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, then Paul George again… where do those guys play now? Miami, New York, and three in LA. Noticing a trend?
So what have we learned? When given the choice, players always seem to gravitate towards big markets. The reason we see an uptick in imbalance nowadays isn’t players choosing differently, it’s more players choosing. Does that make sense? The big market allure has always been there, but modern players are seizing more power than ever and in effect acting like free agents when they aren’t even free agents.
Those Who Stay
There is one more thing I wanna clarify before we get into the big question. We’ve established that when players leave they tend to choose big markets and always have, but the truth is not everyone leaves. There are tons of NBA legends that stuck around and stayed loyal to their city… but what if I told you they weren’t as selfless as you think? Let’s look at some of the greatest ever and investigate their cases…
Michael Jordan: Drafted by Chicago
LeBron James: Left Cleveland for Miami and then again for LA
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Left Milwaukee for LA
Magic Johnson: Drafted by LA
Bill Russell: Drafted by Boston
Wilt Chamberlain: Drafted by Philly/San Francisco, left for LA
Larry Bird: Drafted by Boston
Kobe Bryant: Traded to LA on draft night
Tim Duncan: Drafted by San Antonio, won title his second season
Shaquille O’Neal: Left Orlando for LA
How many of these legends really sacrificed to be loyal to their city? Looks like zero to me. Duncan is the only one who played in a small market, but we all know the Spurs aren’t your every day small market franchise… and they were already building their dynasty when he arrived.
So which NBA legends really did choose loyalty over market size? Here’s the list I could come up with off the top of my head.
Reggie Miller: Stayed in Indiana, never made Finals
John Stockton: Stayed in Utah, never won title
Dirk Nowitzki: Stayed in Dallas, won one title
That’s pretty much it. And even those three were contenders for much of their careers. This isn’t an Anthony Davis in New Orleans situation here.
Is Loyalty an Illusion?
No. I don’t want to go that far. And to be fair, just because you’re a contender at your peak, it doesn’t mean these players didn’t go through losing seasons early on in their careers. And remember, Duncan almost went to Orlando, Kobe basically tried to get traded to Chicago. Those guys went through challenging times and were tempted to leave, too. I don’t want to act like it was all sunshine and roses.
The real reason I wanted to compile those lists from the past is to project the future. It seem like the key to keeping your superstar is simply to build wisely around him and contend. There’s a really exciting young generation of superstars in the NBA today, and this article is supposed to be about that generation. What will they do? Is there hope?
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Under contract until 2021
Nikola Jokic: Under contract until 2023
Joel Embiid: Under contract until 2023
D’Angelo Russell: Under contract until 2023
Karl-Anthony Towns: Under contract until 2024
Kristaps Porzingis: Under contract until 2024
Devin Booker: Under contract until 2024
Ben Simmons: Under contract until 2025
Luka Doncic: Restricted in 2022*
*will likely sign max extension like everyone else on this list
It feels like this is the list. What an exciting and talented group of young players that are taking over as the next generation. Go through that list and let me know who you think is gonna leave. It feels like Towns and Booker both have the potential to do so, considering their poor situations, and Russell is in a unique set of circumstances having already been sign-and-traded to a team that may not want him for long. Still, if Giannis, Jokic, Embiid, Kristaps, Simmons, and Luka all want to stay in Milwaukee, Denver, Philly, and Dallas… that’s great! That’s anti-big market, and it shows their might be hope! Also, that seems to be in favor of our theory that winning is the antidote to a small-market franchise. Giannis seems content because the Bucks are contenders, same with Jokic, same with Embiid + Simmons, and it seems Dallas isn’t far off.
So if this upcoming generation of superstars seems content… maybe there is hope for small markets??
The Sad Truth about NBA Team-Building
Well, that heading sure is a damper after “maybe there is hope”, isn’t it? Let me let you in on the NBA’s biggest secret. No, it’s not the 1984 draft lottery. The secret is it’s almost impossible to win an NBA championship without a Top 5 player. Think about it. With one or two exceptions, every post-merger NBA champion has featured one of these elite talents. Here’s the list…
2019 Raptors… Kawhi
2018 Warriors… Steph and KD
2017 Warriors… Steph and KD
2016 Cavs… LeBron
2015 Warriors… Steph
2014 Spurs… Duncan
2013 Heat… Bron (and Wade)
2012 Heat… Bron (and Wade)
2011 Mavs… Dirk
2010 Lakers… Kobe
2009 Lakers… Kobe
2008 Celtics… KG
2007 Spurs… Duncan
2006 Heat… Wade (and Shaq)
2005 Spurs… Duncan
2004 Pistons… THE EXCEPTION (Chauncey, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Sheed Wallace, Ben Wallace)
2003 Spurs… Duncan
2002 Lakers… Kobe and Shaq
2001 Lakers… Kobe and Shaq
2000 Lakers… Kobe and Shaq
1999 Spurs… Duncan and Robinson (this one’s kind of arguable, too)
1998 Bulls… MJ (and Pippen)
1997 Bulls… MJ (and Pippen)
1996 Bulls… MJ (and Pippen)
1995 Rockets… Hakeem
1994 Rockets… Hakeem
1993 Bulls… MJ (and Pippen)
1992 Bulls… MJ (and Pippen)
1991 Bulls… MJ (and Pippen)
1990 Pistons… Isiah
1989 Pistons… Isiah
1988 Lakers… Magic and Kareem
1987 Lakers… Magic and Kareem
1986 Celtics… Bird
1985 Lakers… Magic and Kareem
1984 Celtics… Bird
1983 Sixers… Dr. J
1982 Lakers… Kareem and Magic
1981 Celtics… Bird
1980 Lakers… Kareem and Magic
How incredible is that? Yes, we’re skipping like three post-merger seasons before Bird and Magic got going, because most knowledgeable NBA historians will tell you Bird and Magic ushered in the modern era of the NBA. That’s a sample size of forty years. That’s a huge sample. The criteria I mentioned earlier was “a top five player”. If you actually use past All-NBA teams to measure this, the ’04 Pistons are the ONLY TEAM that doesn’t have an All-NBA FIRST TEAM player. (!!!) That’s absolutely insane. And by the way, Ben Wallace made second team twice and third team three times, while Chauncey Billups made second team once and third team twice, so the ’04 Pistons weren’t far off. They had two top ten players.
So if you need a top five player to win a title… is there hope?
Things we’ve learned
- To win a title, you need a top 5 player
- When superstars leave, they gravitate towards big markets
- In the player empowerment era, players are more likely to leave
- The ones that stay do so because their team is winning
Well, then the blueprint is… win. Easy enough, right? Of course not. Building a winner in the NBA isn’t easy. The reason players like Giannis and Jokic seem to be content is 100% a credit to the front offices that have made almost zero mistakes in building their supporting cast. So it’s not easy.
The problem is, that’s the blueprint if you already have a superstar. The hard part, the really, really hard part is getting that top 5 player. And that’s the advantage the big market teams have. It’s free agency. Outside of the anomalous ’04 Pistons, NBA champion since 1980 has had Kawhi, Steph, LeBron, Dirk, Duncan, Kobe, Shaq, Jordan, Hakeem, Isiah, Bird, Dr. J, or Magic. So the real challenge in NBA team-building is finding that superstar. That’s thirteen players. Forty titles, thirteen players. Basically, you have to have a generational talent, a “one every three or four years” type of talent, to win a title. Of those thirteen, most actually came thru the draft. Shaq and LeBron are the only guys to arrive via free agency.
Building an NBA champion is a lottery. It’s somewhat depressing to think of it that way, but it’s true. You have to land a Steph or a Duncan or a Kobe or a Michael, a real diamond in the rough generational talent. Let’s look back at that list of young guys… Giannis, Jokic, Embiid, Simmons, D’Angelo, Luka, Porzingis, Booker, Towns. How many of those guys realistically could be a top 5 player and lead their franchise to a championship? Giannis is a fair bet. Luka definitely has a shot, he’s only twenty. Then you could make a case for Jokic or Embiid but I’m not so sure.
So it’s Giannis and… maybe one more guy? Of that super exciting list, can we just rule out all but one or two? It sounds cynical but does fit that 13 players in 40 years precedent.
Let’s apply what we’ve learned to the 2019-20 season and beyond. This season, there are (as always) limited contenders in the NBA. I’m talking true contenders. We have the Clippers, the Lakers, the Bucks, and (in my opinion) the Rockets. When healthy, the Warriors must be considered. All these teams have that #1 MVP-level guy. Then things get difficult with the Sixers and Nuggets. Are Embiid and Jokic on that level? We’ll certainly find out.
Who are the guys in the NBA right now that are good enough to join that list of greats? Well, LeBron, Kawhi, and Steph are already on it… KD is definitely there, considering he won the last two Finals MVPs over Steph. I’d argue Giannis and James Harden are also good enough. Anthony Davis is a question mark. Then we get to the Jokic and Embiid group, which also features Dame Lillard, Paul George, maybe guys like Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving.
Let’s look at the Blazers as another example. They did everything right in building around Lillard. They got their splash brother in CJ McCollum, got their versatile big in Jusuf Nurkic, and filled in some quality depth, but because Lillard is in that second group instead of the first, they fell short. Just because he’s Lillard and not Steph Curry, they aren’t quite good enough to get over the hump. So even if you build your team really well, you have to land that generational guy.
Obviously, for some teams, free agency can be factored into the blueprint. Player empowerment is great for the Nets and Clippers of the world, who happen to be in a destination and run their team wisely enough to attract superstars. Their blueprint can be “be smart and try to build a contender but keep some cap space just in case”. Both had pretty solid young cores last season that made the playoffs, but didn’t have that top 5 guy until free agency rolled around.
But what about the other franchises? The Indianas and Utahs? Those who build around Victor Oladipo but never get over the hump? Look at Utah! Gordon Hayward leaves, they draft like geniuses getting Donovan Mitchell, then pull of the Mike Conley trade and sign Bojan Bogdanovic. Really great work by their front office but they don’t have an elite player so it’s not enough. What do these types of franchises have to do?
Honestly, there’s not much they can do. Keep being smart, keep improving on the margains, keep picking up the Conleys and Bojans of the world, but the only way you’ll be real contenders is if you win the proverbial superstar lottery and land a top 5 player.
So who will be the contenders of the future? Well, the Clippers will be around for a bit, and so will the Warriors and Rockets. The Bucks are certainly a team of the future with Giannis. The Nuggets and Sixers are just on the outside looking in, hoping one of their youngsters makes a jump. Teams like Dallas and New Orleans have some young promising stars, they’re just hoping they reach their absolute ceilings. Then we have the Portlands, the Utahs, the Indianas. They’ll keep on trying their best, but they might never get there.
So is there hope for small market teams? Technically, there’s a sliver of hope, there’s that glimmer, that chance you might have the winning ticket, that you might draft the Stephen Curry or the Tim Duncan of the future. But that’s the only hope. Unless you can pull off a Kawhi trade (even then, he’ll leave after a year), or make a splash in free agency, you better invest in a good scout, cuz drafting a generational talent is your only shot.