The importance of free agency

Kevin Durant’s move to the Warriors exemplifies the purpose of free agency

The importance of free agency

In July 2016, NBA superstar Kevin Durant became an unrestricted free agent. After eight seasons with Oklahoma City Thunder without winning a title, Durant wanted to play elsewhere.

In the history of the NBA, it’s rare for a player of Durant’s calibre to become an unrestricted free agent in the middle of his prime.

The entire free agency process — from his four-hour meeting with the Boston Celtics to a two-hour meeting with almost the entire Golden State Warriors team, and so on — was covered minute-by-minute by the media.

With Durant’s ultimate decision and without games on the horizon, his free agency gave fans something to talk about.

Durant joined the Warriors on July 4, 2016, and we all know how that went: the team won two straight NBA championships. So, how did this whole ‘free agency’ fiasco even start? And how has player mobility empowered stars like Durant?

Free agency, along with the NBA’s salary cap increase from $70 million to $94 million in 2016, has allowed stronger NBA franchises to pay multiple superstars at one time, creating a top-heavy league. As an additional caveat, many superstars like Durant have signed on below market value to increase their mobility and play where they want.

For example, DeMarcus Cousins signed a relatively cheap short-term deal with the Warriors in July after an Achilles injury. ‘Cheap’ is the operative word, as he will make only $5.3 million this season, a substantial decrease from $18.1 million in 2017–2018.

While four all-stars playing on one team is infuriating for fans outside of Oakland, maintaining player rights and freedoms is more important than allowing teams to own players.

Sports leagues have not always allowed players to become free agents.

In 1975, pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith refused to sign their contract with the MLB’s Oakland Athletics and demanded freedom in the open market. Baseball contracts used to include a reserve clause, which meant that players were bound to their team in perpetuity and the team had the right to extend a contract without a word from the player.

The arbitrator’s decision that November ruled in favour of free agency, allowing players to sign on the open market once a contract expires.

Up until 1988, NBA players could only be drafted or traded as their teams essentially owned them.

In 1987, the Seattle SuperSonics drafted two frontcourt rookies, making six-foot-ten forward Tom Chambers a hindrance to their lineup. Chambers, a proven NBA star, needed a franchise that would make the most out of his talent. Head of the NBA player’s union Larry Fleisher told Chambers that he may be able to “get this unrestricted free agency thing done.”

A few days later, it was official. Players whose contracts had ended could freely join any team as long as they had been in the league for over seven years and had finished two contracts. Chambers immediately joined the Phoenix Suns and led them to the Western Conference Finals in consecutive seasons.

Durant’s move to the Warriors wouldn’t have been possible without Chambers and Fleisher.

Free agency has allowed players to choose where they want to work, a freedom that all citizens are rightfully allowed.

Players are no longer treated as a small piece of a larger business. Their talent, coupled with the freedom of free agency, allows them to make the demands necessary to nearly run an organization. After all, shouldn’t those who produce the entertainment reap the most benefits from their skill?

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

After the Golden State Warriors won their second consecutive NBA title against the Cleveland Cavaliers — their third title in four years — many NBA fans are growing restless with the lack of parity in the league.

In the past two seasons, the Warriors have lost once in the NBA Finals, which is especially concerning given that the Finals are usually set up to be the most competitive matchup in the playoffs.

One of the main critiques of these ‘superteams’ is that they have offset the competitive balance the league once had, but I’m not quite sold on the idea that superteams offsetting the competition is a recent development. If you take a look at the history of the NBA, there has never been much parity.

The NBA was built on dynasties. In the ‘60s, you had the Boston Celtics winning nine times; in the ‘80s, the Los Angeles Lakers won five times and the Celtics three; in the ‘90s, the Chicago Bulls won six times; and from 2000–2015, you had the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Miami Heat winning 12 of 15 championships.

There has never been any distinguishable movement in terms of who gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. This is not a new problem for the league, and trying to eliminate superteams won’t solve it.

In an effort to deter player movement like the league is experiencing now, the NBA created a designated veteran contract — in other words, an incentive for players to re-sign with their team, and which allows them to sign a much larger contract.

So far, the top two teams in the NBA, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, have each managed to sign a superstar — Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, respectively. They have decided to forego the designated veteran contract, along with the extra millions that would go along with it, and instead compete for the championship.

The largest competitive problem the league has right now is not superteams: it’s that the majority of NBA talent is stacked in the Western Conference. With LeBron James now moving out west to the Lakers, arguably, the top 10 players in the league are located in the same conference. The disparity in competition between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference is a serious problem.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has announced that he will look into a reformed playoff structure to ensure the two best teams meet in the NBA Finals. The proposed new structure would lead to having the top 16 teams overall make the playoffs, regardless of which conference they came from.

In other words, the exciting seven-game series that the Rockets and the Warriors had this year could have been for the NBA championship, instead of the lackluster four-game series with the Cavaliers.

It’s very clear that the top teams in the NBA are on a different level than the rest of the league. So where does that leave teams who are on the outside looking in, like the Toronto Raptors?

As it turns out, the Raptors are in a tough spot. To compete in this league, they’re going to have to make bold moves, and that can come from big free agent signings or blockbuster trades. With LeBron moving to the west, the door seems to have opened for the Raptors once more. Under the tutelage of their new head coach, Nick Nurse, the Raptors are looking to retool, which may put them among the top few teams in the east ready to compete for a spot in the finals.

The signing of DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors sent the league into a frenzy, with many coming to the conclusion that the NBA season is already over, and while that may be true, his signing itself isn’t simply the problem.

As fans, we tend to judge star players’ free agency decisions based off of what seem to be their reasons for signing. It’s either that they’ve signed for the money, in which case we criticize them for choosing money over championship rings, or that they’ve signed with a major contender, and we accuse them of taking the easy way out.

Fans can’t have it both ways. If players are judged solely on NBA championships, we can’t blame them for joining the top contenders.

The NBA is still about competition, and the Warriors are simply competing at a higher level than everyone else. After they lost the NBA Finals in 2015, the team replaced Harrison Barnes with Durant. They faced elimination twice this past postseason against the Rockets and have added Cousins, a perennial All-Star. The Warriors have refused to stay complacent, and other teams should follow suit.

Despite all the criticism the league is facing, ratings are the highest they’ve ever been, with fans tuning in hoping to see Goliath fall. The NBA has always been about dynasties, and true parity has never existed. As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game.