Paul Pierce made a stirring return to the TD Garden on Jan. 26, complete with a chill-inducing video tribute that made everyone remember silly things like professional sports are sometimes profoundly meaningful.
The 15 years Pierce spent in Boston meant something to him and he, in turn, meant something to Boston.
The chants, cheers, and applause were loud enough to blow the roof off the Garden. The standing ovation lasted minutes that seemed to stretch into eternity. Pierce watched and smiled and mouthed to the fans, “Thank you, I love you” over and over. He took a bow, twice.
But the only reason the entire moving scene happened was because Pierce had done some moving of his own—traded from the Boston Celtics to the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2013. It was an odd farewell disguised as a welcome, and it highlighted the increasingly nomadic nature of life as an NBA player.
It also raised a sobering question: If someone as beloved as Pierce couldn't stick in a place as devoted to tradition as Boston, could anyone?
As the NBA moves ahead, it might leave the days of franchise lifers behind.
Changing Times, Changing Teams
If you gather up some of the NBA's biggest current stars, it quickly becomes apparent that relocation is the norm.
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard have all had their NBA passports stamped at least twice. Howard is currently on his third franchise, while Anthony and James will both exercise early-termination options this summer to at least explore adding a third jersey to their closets.
And while you might assume that young stars like Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Paul George and Blake Griffin are going to stay put, remember that the current CBA makes it a no-brainer to give free agency a look.
Contracts are shorter these days, and teams only get the benefit of matching offers for restricted free agents after their rookie deals finish up. For guys like Durant, George and Griffin, the next foray onto the open market will be one in which their current teams won't have nearly as big of an edge in retaining them.
Maybe it's impossible to imagine someone like KD in another uniform. But wasn't it equally hard to envision James leaving Cleveland? Suppose the Thunder fall flat in their title pursuits over the next few years. Isn't it possible—even probable—that Durant might want to spend the second phase of his career in a new locale?
At this point, fans in Oklahoma City should be preparing for anything.
For traditionalists, the good news is that there are a few one-team lifers left.
Kobe Bryant is on the hook for another two years in Los Angeles after this one, which should take him right to the end of his career. Similarly, Dwyane Wade has spent all of his NBA days with the Miami Heat. Even though he can exercise his ETO this summer, it's difficult to see Pat Riley allowing the franchise's most iconic player to walk away.
Speaking of franchise icons, Tim Duncan will never suit up for a team other than the San Antonio Spurs. You get the feeling that he, Gregg Popovich and Manu Ginobili will all call it quits together, leaving poor Tony Parker on his own.
Don't worry, Tony; the Spurs don't appear ready to disassemble anytime soon.
Dirk Nowitzki is likely to finish his career as a lifelong Dallas Maverick as well.
Per Marc Stein of ESPN, owner Marc Cuban said last year:
I told Dirk we're not going to trade him. He was happy. I think. I wanted to make it clear to him. I said, 'We're in this through thick and thin,' and so there's no way I would trade him, no matter what.
Stein went on to note in that piece that Nowitzki has said several times he intends to retire with the Mavericks. You wouldn't know it from how well he's playing this season, but at 35 that moment is rapidly approaching for the Diggler.
Standing Still and Moving Forward
As touching as the outpouring of emotion for Pierce was, we probably shouldn't lament the end of an age where players stayed put for life—mostly because that age never really existed in the first place.
The modern era of NBA basketball (which we'll loosely designate as the last 30 years or so) hasn't really been marked by as much player-team monogamy as you might think. After all, Michael Jordan finished his career with the Washington Wizards, Patrick Ewing logged time with the Sonics and Hakeem Olajuwon was once a Toronto Raptor.
Did Magic and Bird play exclusively with their one franchise? Sure. But they were the exception.
And really, did moonlighting with other teams notably tarnish the connection Jordan has to the Bulls? Is Olajuwon any less beloved in Houston because he spent a year elsewhere? Hardly.
The difference today is that more players seem to shift locations in the middle of their careers, as opposed to winding down their tenures elsewhere after their current teams have run out of use for them.
Aside from the overblown "legacy" argument, it's also probably not a great idea to root for players to spend their entire career with one team, if only from a fairness perspective.
We can talk loftily about loyalty and tradition, but playing in the NBA is an occupation just like any other. Employees change jobs in the real world all the time, and we shouldn't be so quick to wish for NBA players to be different in that regard.
I guess that's the practical spin on things.
If you're extra sentimental, though, enjoy the stasis of Duncan, Dirk and Kobe. They'll likely be among the rare group that never spends a second with another franchise.