What happened to the day when a player got drafted and stuck with that team throughout the duration of their career, trekking through all of the peaks and valleys? Is there such a thing as player-to-team loyalty anymore? Where did all of the rivalries built off of hatred between players and franchises go?
Those days are now dead. The cause of death is Free Agency.
We live in a day and age where NBA championships are bought, not built.
Development of a player coming through an NBA organization could be the most rewarding thing for coaches and the players themselves. Allowing a player to flourish and grind for a team on a consistent basis in hopes of becoming an eventual superstar is a something that franchises strive for.
For a team to wave money at a player and lure him into their organization is a slap in the face to the development of younger players on the team. A free agent who leaves their initial franchise to chase a championship could possibly destroy their image towards others. One can see how a franchise player leaving affects an organization, forcing them into a rebuilding process.
In 1988, four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player Tom Chambers had his contract run out with the Phoenix Suns. Chambers then became the league’s first unrestricted free agent. As an unrestricted free agent, Chambers was free to sign with any team.
Therefore, being an unrestricted free agent now gives more power to the player and his agent over the franchise itself, even if the organization has every intention of bringing him back on the roster. A perfect example would be what Shaquille O’Neal did with the Orlando Magic back in 1996. Orlando had the intention of bringing him back, but due to his agent and the deep pockets of the Los Angeles Lakers and Jerry Buss, he hopped on a plane to the West Coast and the rest is history. Little did Orlando know that the same scenario would play out 16 years later with Dwight Howard.
Throughout the past decade, superstars have fled from the team that drafted them, going on to win for another franchise. Current instances include LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and LaMarcus Aldridge, with James obviously being the only one thus far to experience the return of an NBA title. These superstars decided it was best to join forces with other stars and chase a championship.
Players back in the day such as Magic Johnson, David Robinson, and Isiah Thomas didn’t think of taking that option of getting up and leaving. If the team was unwilling to trade them, they simply stayed put within their organization. They were able to play with who they had and made other players around them better. Now, there are instances where an organization treats a star unfairly (Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat), but for the most part, they pay their players for the loyalty shown.
Fast forward to 2008 when the NBA flipped on its head. The Boston Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play along with Paul Pierce. The Celtics created what was titled as the ‘Big 3’, and the trio went on to reach the Finals two times, thus creating the blueprint and layout for the modern-day ‘super-team’.
Following suit was an even bigger shock to the NBA world. Two unrestricted free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh both signed with the Miami Heat back in the summer of 2010. When Bosh and James joined Dwyane Wade, they went on to reach the Finals four straight years. Since then, big named talents such as Durant and Aldridge, once they had become free agents, would sign with already existing contenders and superstars on those teams in hopes of winning a championship. The idea of chasing a ring became a factor for these free agents.
Should we look at a player who went and chased championships differently than a player who stayed with the organization and allowed pieces to be placed along them via the draft or through trade? Should players like Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki be looked at more favorably for staying with their respective franchises?
We do not see the loyalty in the players that we used to. Players are becoming more impatient and lack the trust in the organizational process it takes to build a contender, and even front offices become impatient with player development.
A player drafted and brought up through the organization may take a few years to showcase his abilities, but the NBA is a win-now league. If a player is not contributing after only a few years from being drafted, they are being shopped elsewhere, when the player then tries to show the front office they were too quick to write them off.
Should the NBA consider this a good thing to have these ‘super teams’ formed? To answer that, we go back to 2011 which was the beginning of Miami’s Big 3. Since then a labeled ‘super team’ with at least two big name players acquired through free agency, have reached the NBA Finals every year and have won three of those Finals. Moreover, with free agency looming over every team, it is near impossible to ignore or not engage in.
Simply put, the NBA has created its own monster.
However, some teams try not to tread the waters of free agency as much and rely on player development within the organization. For the teams engaging in free agency, signing a superstar increases their chances at hoisting up the Larry O’Brien trophy, leaving the teams who focus on building their players left watching these super teams command the NBA.