Ahead of the wildest summer since the start of the decade, here are a few thoughts on what the NBA could learn from the last time the free agency period turned the league upside-down.
In a last-ditch cash grab, Marvel’s Avengers: End Game is set to be re-released this weekend. The film, which ends sees the end of the cinematic universe’s Thanos saga, is about $33 million behind James Cameron’s Avatar as the most lucrative film of all time.
It took a long time — 11 years — to build up enough excitement and intrigue to warrant a movie as massive as End Game. Introducing a cache of heroes was no small feat, and loading them all into a three-hour and two minute film crossover was equally if not more taxing. Once upon a time Marvel’s stars would earn salary bonuses when their film eclipsed $500 million at the box office. For Avengers films, the benchmark was $1.5 billion.
Creating the film that has the chance to upend history is worth all of the pain, tears and cash. End Game was the cathartic release after nearly a decade of falling in love with an elite cast of characters and actors who have given birth to an all-time great entertainment endeavor.
The NBA has undergone a similar buildup. Basketball’s transition into a 12-month sport has been accompanied by a laser focus on the players behind the multi-billion-dollar organization. Summer 2019s free agency period has a chance to imitate the Avengers blockbusting success. The Golden State Warriors have fallen; Jimmy Butler is on the market; Kawhi Leonard might be on the move; Kyrie Irving is leaving Boston. Many of the predominant characters in a post-snap (read: post-warriors) world have the chance to reassemble the mantle of the NBA’s greatest team.
But this isn’t the first time that the NBA is shifting into a new epoch. In 2010 the player market was saturated with league shifting talent that formed teams that could challenge the super teams of the day. With Kobe Bryant and the Lakers at the peak of their powers and the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Celtics not far behind, 2010 free agency was the chance for every team to play catch up to the powers that were.
There are lessons to be learned from 2010. Like Marvel’s film franchise, the 2010 free agency period was years in the making. Teams brought out all the stops to earn a chance to sniff at the free agents of the day, let alone sign them. Nine years ago the NBA had a remarkable summer, one that arguably established the power structure that kept the Knicks suffering, allowed LeBron James to win in Cleveland and gifted the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. Three days remain until free agency begins, and there are at least three teachings to carry from 2010:
Lesson №1: Be Realistic
For many teams, the 2010 draft class was the stuff of legend. It was the first unrestricted opportunity that 30 teams had at wooing the Ohio native. James was ripe for the taking. He had come incredibly close to winning a title, first in 2007 (it was a sweep, but at least he made the finals!) and then again in 2009 when he Dwight Howard deprived the world of seeing a James-Bryant NBA Finals.
Five teams met with James that summer: The Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets, and New York Knicks. The Chicago Bulls had the (dis)pleasure of courting LeBron last, and did so fully aware of their salary situation. Chicago was already paying Luol Deng $10 million per year, and had Carlos Boozer on the line for five-year $80 million (after a Utah sign and trade). Picking up James would mean that, unless financial snake charming were involved, the Bulls couldn’t sign James’ buddies, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The New York Times reported that the Bulls entered the meeting with James surprisingly sparse on presentation tools. Maybe Gar Forman, John Paxson and Tom Thibodeau knew they really didn’t have a shot at the King. Though James would come to appreciate Thibodeau’s coaching expertise, going so far as to lobby for him to coach the Lakers in 2019, you could argue that James had his mind made up about where he’d sign in 2010. And if the Bulls hadn’t set their sights on James, you could argue that they could have find the right piece to support their existing nucleus that could stand up to James and the Miami Heat in the 2011 playoffs.
But they didn’t, thus follows Free Agency Lesson №1: Don’t waste your time on fish you know you can’t catch.
Lesson №2: Don’t Settle
Every team thought they had a shot at nabbing a stellar free agent in 2010, but the New York Knicks might have had the most faith. For decades the Knicks have been led by an, “if you build it, they will come,” mentality, “it” being the Mecca of Basketball that is Madison Square Garden and New York City, and “they” being top tier players who will line up on 7th Avenue to suit up in the orange and blue. Everyone wanted to be a Knickerbocker growing up.
That mentality blindsides the Knicks now, and it did then. New York agreed to pay Amar’e Stoudemire $99.7 million over five-years. The deal was supposed to be the start of something great. First Stoudemire. Then LeBron James. Maybe Wade too! None of that happened.
For the first year he was in New York, Stoudemire was great but the team was in flux. The Knicks didn’t acquire Carmelo until the Feb. 22, 2011, so New York became this weird, gelatinous powerhouse that was good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to challenge actually good teams like the Bulls and Heat.
After Stoudemire punched a fire extinguisher and Melo berated Jeremy Lin’s potential $25 million contract, Knicks upper management tried to salvage everything by scrounging up every past-prime player. (Seriously, in 2013 Steve Mills and company thought a core of Anthony, Stoudemire and J.R. Smith could benefit from an aged Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. Side lesson: not all “super teams” are created equal.”) It didn’t work. Stoudemire’s and his contract were immovable (he and NY reached a buyout in 2015), Melo was pissed, and the Knicks stumbled forward into their current irrelevance (RJ Barrett might change that).
The Knicks learned Free Agency Lesson №2 the hard way: When plan №1 (LeBron) fails, don’t force the backup plan. Everyone loses.
Lesson №3: Know Your Star’s Worth
The NBA’s was radically different before 2010. Twitter was just taking off and guys were still finding out they were traded by watching SportsCenter. It was contractually different, too. Many of the best players spent at least three consecutive years, if not more, with their respective teams. Unless they were traded, team jumping by signing fluid, one-plus-one deals just wasn’t a thing.
That sense of continuity is why Dirk Nowitzki’s decision to enter Free Agency in 2010 was game changing. Here was Dirk, the greatest German-born basketballer ever, the most versatile 7-footer the NBA had ever seen, deciding to opt out of the final year of his contract. The Dallas Mavericks tried to draft an extension, but to no avail. Dirk had the Mavs backed into a corner, as he flexed his free agency muscles for the first time in his career. So, what did Dallas do?
They gave Dirk a better contract. Specifically, they gave Dirk everything, the kitchen sink, and some bathroom remodeling, too. Then Mavs president Don Nelson declared Dirk his and the team’s top priority, and it wasn’t just pillow talk. At the time, Kobe was the only player to negotiate a no-trade clause — Dallas gave Dirk one. Since Dirk had just turned 32, Dallas prepared a contract that could deal him the most money before his 36th birthday under the NBA’s since-reversed over-36 rule. The team even gave the jolly German giant a chance to represent the team in player recruiting that summer.
Long story short, Dirk’s deal became one of the most lauded in history if only for its immediate impact. Dallas proceeded to win the 2011 NBA Championship, after falling short so many (too many) times. Even after Dallas won just 36 games in the following season, the team’s commitment to Dirk was clear and demonstrative of Free Agency Lesson №3: If you have as superstar, it never hurts to keep him happy.
All of this is to say that the NBA is an inexact science at best. It’s confusing and messy and overly dramatic. It’s a superhero movie, except sometimes the bad guys win and sometimes the good guys are home sick with a torn Achilles. Once a year, the league’s free agency period sweeps teams up into a high-octane thriller that can make or break the next 365 days.
This year’s free agency is going to be wild — the Lakers’ Anthony Davis gaff has already told as much. But don’t say you didn’t see it coming. This summer has been years in the making.