How can you tell when an NBA superstar is pining for a change of scenery?
You'll know for sure once his bags are packed and he's out the door like last week's recycling. But the precursors to such exits abound in the days, weeks and even months leading up to the eventual tipping point.
Cues and clues about how moves go down have been well-documented over the last few years in interviews and "source"-based reports, what with franchise cornerstones seeking out new addresses like they're in the witness protection program. Hindsight has only brought the true context of comments from the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul (among others) into sharper, more predictive focus.
Of course, four anecdotal cases do not a representative sample make, though the way each of these superstars pulled off his escape is indicative of a sea change of sorts in the NBA. It would appear that star players, having had some of their freedoms (and earning power) sapped by the league's bigwigs over the years, have sought to exercise their own measure of control through previously unconventional means.
Now, saying one thing and meaning or doing another is practically part of the human condition, especially if you're a big name in the NBA who's constantly pelted with questions from reporters trying to fill a column. Rote responses are to be expected when the queries are both constant and repetitive in nature.
Neither is it surprising (nowadays, anyway) when a player responds to rumors of his impending departure by lavishing his current situation with praise. Nobody wants to be hated, least of all by those around whom that person lives and by whom that person is supported on a nightly basis. Deflecting the question of departure in such a way is a reasonable (if not political) way of sidestepping controversy without necessarily tipping one's hand.
For example, when New York sportswriters first broached the topic of Dwight Howard joining the now-Brooklyn Nets back in March 2011—right around the time of reports that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and GM Billy King told Deron Williams they'd pursue Howard in free agency—the superstar center, then with the Orlando Magic, told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:
Orlando's the most attractive place for me right now. They have a sexy new arena, a beautiful franchise, nice banners around here and been in the top four in the Eastern Conference for the past four years. Yes, Orlando's the most attractive place right now.
Sure, Orlando's the "most attractive place"...if you're Elder Price from The Book of Mormon. When has anyone ever described anything in Orlando as "sexy"? Or, for that matter, when has anyone ascribed such a quality to a sports venue?
Here, it appears as though Dwight went over the top in his praise in an attempt to assuage the concerns of Magic fans and affiliates. There had been some rumblings of unhappiness from Howard's camp after Magic GM Otis Smith responded to the team's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals by bidding adieu to Hedo Turkoglu and swinging a trade for Vince Carter.
With these particular comments, though, Dwight attempted to steer attention away from a truth he thought everyone else might be on to, as if he were a paranoid Nicholas Brody.
(Although, Homeland fans, is there any other kind of Brody?)
Howard's comments here came on the heels of Carmelo Anthony's long-awaited switch to the New York Knicks. The arms race in the Big Apple dates back to the summer of 2010, when 'Melo's mistiming of his previous extension left him fretting for a new deal (and a new home) in anticipation of the lockout that was to come.
Anthony's eventual agitation didn't hit the sports news cycle until his wedding to MTV personality La La Vasquez, when, according to ESPN's Ric Bucher, Chris Paul initiated a string of increasingly serious toasts to Carmelo's eventual escape from Denver to New York.
With Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke in attendance. And Anthony allegedly did nothing to cut them off, much less apologize to Kroenke for the suggestions.
Carmelo's move shifted from speculative to nearly certain in nature later that summer, when he was offered a three-year, $65-million extension to stay in the Mile High City but refused to commit. At the end of September, when asked—amidst swirling rumors about a blockbuster trade with the New Jersey Nets—whether he wanted to stay in Denver, Anthony told The Denver Post quite simply:
"I would love to."
Though his subsequent comments about talks with Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri suggested otherwise:
On Wednesday, Melo said: "I met with Masai right before media day (Monday). He said what he had to say; I had what I had to say. We discussed a lot of things out there on the table."
Then Anthony was asked, "Were the things he had to say different from the things you had to say?" Melo: "Yes. Yes."
Funny that it was Chris Paul who first set the 'Melo train in motion publicly. The very next offseason, it was CP3 who became the center of attention when he turned down an extension with the New Orleans Hornets immediately after the lockout was lifted. As ESPN's Chris Broussard and Marc Stein reported at the time, the Hornets were determined to avoid a protracted split like the one that built up so acrimoniously between Carmelo and the Nuggets.
What followed was a free-for-all of rival executives blowing up the unfortunate phone of GM Dell Demps, an earth-shattering trade of CP3 to the Los Angeles Lakers, a rejection by commissioner/interim team owner David Stern and an eventual reboot with the Clippers.
Not unlike Anthony's situation, wherein he was nearly traded to the Nets before the Knicks stepped up their offer. It would seem, then, that 'Melo's wedding was the genesis of not one, but two trades that reshaped the landscape of the league.
And that there was probably more truth behind Paul's "playful suggestion" than even Ric Bucher knew at the time.
Sometimes, though, it's actions, not words, that speak loudest about a superstar's inevitable escape to glitzier climes.
That appears to have been the case with LeBron James. Cracks began to show in his previously perfectly manicured public image (and in his devotion to the Cleveland Cavaliers) in the spring of 2009, when he refused to shake hands with the Orlando Magic after they eliminated his Cavs from the Eastern Conference Finals.
As Phil Taylor of SI.com suggested, LeBron's less-than-classy reaction to the defeat was, on the surface, an understandable reaction to a star being "upset" in a playoff series. However, dig a bit deeper, and such an immature, emotional reaction from someone who'd been known for his savvy and public composure indicated a greater discomfort with the roster around him, particularly in light of his approaching free agency. Here's what Taylor wrote at the time:
It's not hard to connect the dots. James wasn't so devastated by the loss -- it had been clear at least since Game 4 that the Cavs were going to be hard-pressed to win the series, so he had time to get used to the idea -- he was sick of six games of having to do nearly everything himself to keep Cleveland from getting run off the floor. James was more angry than he was disappointed, and given his ability to become a free agent at the end of the year, that anger should have been quite frightening to GM Danny Ferry and the rest of the Cleveland front office. James was putting Ferry on notice that he has no intention of trying to drag this group to a championship again. More help had better be on the way next year, King James seemed to be saying, or tell the Knicks to start getting my uniform ready.
Of course, Taylor missed on the destination, but his overall evaluation of the situation proved to be prescient. Once "The Decision" hit the airwaves, the national punditry pointed most readily to James' uneven efforts against the Boston Celtics in the 2010 playoffs, as if to show that he'd already checked out of Cleveland.
Once LeBron had taken his talents to South Beach, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports revealed that the wheels of James' free agency had actually been set in motion as early as 2008, when he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh first had the chance to play together for Team USA.
Clearly, predicting where and when a superstar might move, assuming he does at all, is anything but an exact science. There's more going on behind the scenes than even most reporters with eyes and ears on the inside will ever know, much less in time to make a Miss Cleo-like call.
That being said, who might join LeBron, CP3, Carmelo and Dwight among stars whose eventual switches of allegiance might soon, with assistance of 20/20 vision, seem crystal-clear?
At this point, the obvious choice is Josh Smith. The high-flying forward has already indicated that he won't sign an extension with the Atlanta Hawks before he hits free agency this summer and hasn't been shy about sharing his unhappiness with the franchise in the past.
Then again, J-Smoove's preemptive move might be purely fiscal, seeing as how the Hawks can only offer him a three-year deal now but will be free to bring him back for five years at a heftier salary come July 2013. In addition, Smith seems to have reneged on his previous dissatisfaction with the franchise ever since Danny Ferry, he of LeBron's last days in Cleveland, came sweeping into the ATL and shipped off Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in exchange for a fresh start.
Interestingly enough, Howard and Paul could both be donning new jerseys next year as well. They'll be unrestricted free agents on July 1, and though each has dutifully deflected questions about the future while trying to focus on his own situation in L.A., the possibility of departure (perhaps to Atlanta?) remains.
Which star is most likely to switch teams next summer?
Though they'd be hard-pressed to find better situations for success (and more money/exposure) outside the City of Angels.
And this is all without so much as mentioning James Harden, a soon-to-be restricted free agent who, by all accounts, wants to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder but may not be given the opportunity on account of looming luxury-tax penalties.
Prognosticating how these or any other personnel scenarios will pan out is no picnic, though one thing's for sure.
The end result of each will seem embarrassingly obvious after the fact.