2010 And The Great Free Agent Myth

The NBA is a league rich with folklore and legend. While it is an institution with a historic background, its great marketing minds have succeeded in crafting narratives around the game and the league itself that are as rich as any medieval romance.

Though often this serves The Association well, creating larger-than-life characters and timeless story arches, it can also lead to dangerous executive missteps. Teams can easily be swept up into fables that the league maintains, fictions that have been so well spun that they are taken as valid without much thought.

Believing such perceived league realities can be risky for general mangers. Team administrators that fall prey to poor decision making and imprudent preparation generally do so when they forecast and plan around hopes and illusions instead of facts and league history.

It is in keeping with this fairy tale simile that one can view the free agent Class of 2010 as the NBA’s version of Avalon: it is a lost land of promise and eternal hope that remains situated somewhere just beyond the shore’s horizon.

Like to the Isle of the Blessed, the celebrated ‘Summer of 2010’ has its kingly leader: where the British legend had Arthur, the NBA has LeBron James, poised and poetic in his majesty. Should one really wish to push the Arthurian link to its most overstated point, likeness could be drawn from Dwyane Wade to Lancelot or Steve Nash to Merlin.

I do not want to endorse such childish associations, but to remind fans and teams alike that much of the possibility that the ‘Summer of 2010’ represents is a false realm, a fabulous legend. In almost all likelihood, the massive player movement of 2010 we expect could end up being a counterfeit idea altogether.

By now we know the names: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Tyson Chandler, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Redd, and Brad Miller all can become unrestricted free agents in 2010.

That list is daunting. Shorter extensions, expiring long-term deals, and opt-out clauses have all worked together here, aligning in the same signing period to create what is certainly the deepest and most sought after class of free agents in NBA history.

As we know, GM’s have responded by planning, years ahead of time, exactly how they would approach July 1st, 2010. With very few exceptions (though this may change as the recession deepens), every one of them aims to be a buyer. Teams are betting it all that they will land the big fish that significantly shifts the fortunes of their franchise. Urgency to win now, or next season, has been replaced in many markets with the vow to create cap space and the promise to attract a savior.

That is why, with Thursday’s trading deadline looming, teams are only hoping to acquire assets and contracts that come off the books in that magical, mystical summer. Players like Jerome James, Tim Thomas, Brian Cardinal, Mark Blount, Bobby Simmons, Darius Miles, Kenny Thomas, and Etan Thomas now have value based solely on their cap number for that summer. That is to make no mention of Ben Wallace, Larry Hughes, Darko Milicic, or Quentin Richardson.

The question remains though as to exactly how every team believes it will land a new star, or build itself into a contender, in spite of the documented proof that free agent signings have proven ineffective at building a winning franchise.

James will be the most sought after free agent in league history. A dozen or more franchises will be in the hunt for him, Wade, and Bosh. Teams’ hopes of tomorrow are being sold on the blank checks yet to be handed out. But the strategy these teams are using is as flawed as it is simple, because star free agents almost never leave their teams.

The most notable, and truly the only successful, instance of this happening was when Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando for Los Angeles. Since then, superstars have rarely bolted as free-agents, in no small part because of the economic model the NBA has set up that allow teams to pay their own free agents more money, for a longer time period, than anyone else. League rules say that a player who stays with his team can sign a six-year contract with 10.5 percent raises, but only a five-year deal with 8 percent raises elsewhere.

That has contributed to only six franchise players in their prime (at the time of their signing) changing team in last 13 off-seasons: Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Antonio McDyess, Steve Nash, Baron Davis, and Elton Brand.

One need only consult the standings to see how last summer’s signings of Brand and Davis have played out. But what of Hill and McGrady, who joined Orlando in 2000? The Magic spent the year before clearing cap room (setting up a blueprint of 2010 contenders like the Knicks) and succeeded in signing these stars.

The team never succeeded on the court though, as Hill was decimated by injuries. New York need also to consider Chicago’s lack of success in the 2000 free agent market to be made timid: it was a huge market that conserved cap space for Tim Duncan and McGrady, but got nothing in return.

Consider that players the likes of Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki have all been in-their-prime free agents as franchise players and all stayed put. This bares out that free agency boosts are as much of a myth as the sword Excalibur. The very best way to build a team is through a combination of drafting young talent and growing that talent with good coaching, while using other young players’ potential as a bargaining chip to obtain superstars via a trade.

O’Neal may have brought the Lakers titles after signing as a free agent, but he did the same for Miami after landing because they managed to trade young assets and draft picks. Championship franchises are build by turning viable trading assets into proven commodities, and by getting lucky in the draft.

Boston succeeded last year because its front office understood this. It drafted Paul Pierce in a decade ago, grew him into the All-NBA player he is today, and used young players with potential to secure Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Lakers are in their lofty position today because of their trade for Pau Gasol and drafting of Andrew Bynum, not because of a summer signing.

The formula for success in today’s NBA seems clear. Lucky, well-researched draft picks plus great trades for proven, motivated stars combined good coaching equals success. Admirers of those who seek to lure the Class of 2010 should review that recipe before they commit wholeheartedly to the idea that cap space and free agency will be their knight in shining armor.

Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media