Who Will Make Up the NBA's Next Wave of Ultra-Loyal Stars?
It’s a refrain you hear all too often in today’s money-driven sports world: Why don’t more stars stay with the team that drafted them?
Some leave town looking for bigger paydays, Others, a better shot at a championship. Still others, look for a chance to bolster one’s brand. From Kareem Abdul-Jabar to LeBron James, history is rife with superstars who traded NBA roots for the promise of greener pastures.
Three notable exceptions: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, each of whom has, in the past few years, inked contract extensions with their longtime employers. Although the latter two's deals gave their respective franchises much more financial flexibility than Bryant's two-year, $48.5 million extension will likely allow.
Duncan and Nowitzki’s gestures in particular invite the question: Which players within the new wave of NBA stars stands the best chance—either by dint of team talent, contract favorability or sheer love and loyalty—to stick with their franchise family for the long haul?
When all was said and done, we came up with eight players we feel are most likely to follow in the aforementioned legends’ footsteps—all of them under 30, all of them still bearing the same team name across their chests.
Let’s see who they are, shall we?
Heading into the 2009 draft, questions abounded over whether Stephen Curry had the size or durability to make it as a NBA point guard.
In the grand scheme of things, Curry didn’t fall too far on draft night—to No. 7 and the Golden State Warriors to be specific. But you’d better believe he remembers the doubters.
It didn’t take long for Curry to establish himself as one of the league’s rising young stars—an explosive scorer with a surprising playmaker’s vision very few, if any, saw coming. Since then, Golden State’s superstar Splash Brother has vaulted ever further into the stratosphere.
The Warriors are Curry’s team, no two ways about it. With the team’s long-term prospects looking promising, it would be to Curry’s benefit to continue touting Golden State as a legitimate free-agent destination.
The most immediate threat to his current team's hegemony? A return to Curry's native North Carolina, a possibility the All-Star guard kept open in an interview with CBS Sports Radio's Doug Gottlieb (via Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung).
Even if the deadeye floor general winds up entertaining competing offers down the road, the Warriors fanbase—as impassioned and informed as they come—will undoubtedly pull out all the stops necessary to prove to its franchise cornerstone that he belongs in the Bay Area for good.
It wasn’t so long ago that Kyrie Irving leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers—this after arriving as the franchise’s supposed savior in the wake of LeBron James' departure—was, if not a forgone conclusion, then at least a distinct possibility.
What a difference a King makes.
With James now joining Irving in Cleveland, the point guard’s fate has undergone a complete 180: from being the guy to playing the second or third fiddle on a team with dynasty potential written all over it.
Sooner or later, though, LeBron will be looking to take his talents to the shuffleboard court. When that happens, it’ll be Irving’s—and possibly Kevin Love’s—team to lead.
Of all the players on our list, Irving is, by my estimation, the least likely to stick around for the long haul. If and when James and Love depart, sticking around for a painful rebuild might not be high on Irving's to-do list.
But we’re holding onto hope that James’ presence might be enough to convince Irving to carry the torch after the King rescinds his throne. Besides, what’s a great fairy tale without a smashing sequel?
When Blake Griffin first landed with the Los Angeles Clippers back in 2009 as the draft’s first overall pick, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a team more steeped in seemingly endless misery.
Five years later, the Clippers—for all their off-court issues—are in the midst of a golden age. And with Doc Rivers on the bench and Chris Paul at the offensive controls, happy days are likely here to stay.
Buoyed by another stellar statistical display a season ago, L.A.'s high-flying dunk machine continues to state his case for being the face of the Clippers franchise. It might be Chris Paul’s production, but it’s Griffin’s name astride the marquee.
With four full years between them, it’s difficult to say whether Griffin and Paul’s paths are destined to remain intertwined. Should Paul move on, however, Griffin has proven himself the kind of keystone about which any franchise would be wise to build.
To experience firsthand your team’s complete cultural transformation is exactly the kind of pull that keeps one donned in the colors of his draft-day hat. That nostalgia, combined with the undeniable free-agent appeal Southern California has always exerted, makes Griffin just the kind of player to make his a one-stop career.
Like Griffin, John Wall was snagged with the first overall pick by a traditionally moribund franchise—the Washington Wizards—desperate for a savior. And, like, Griffin, Wall is steadily building the kind of superstar clout that has “franchise cornerstone” written all over it.
Unlike Griffin, however, Wall’s regional roots—he grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina—give his employer an extra edge in terms of nostalgic pull.
In Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards easily boast the most promising backcourt in the league. And with barely four decades of life between the two, it’s a tandem the Wizards are sure to make a permanent part of their long-term plans.
In slight contrast to some of his more subdued point-guard peers, Wall’s leadership is squarely heart-to-sleeve. As such, you get a palpable sense that the Wizards have been, are and will remain his team.
With that kind of assertiveness, though, comes great responsibility—the kind that behooves you to see the growth of your franchise all the way through watching your number lifted to the rafters.
“He’s starting to feel his oats,” Gregg Popovich said of San Antonio Spurs charge Kawhi Leonard (via Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver). “He’s the future of the Spurs, particularly because everyone else is older than dirt.”
If that’s not high praise coming from everyone’s favorite coaching curmudgeon, we don’t know what is.
Like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili before him, Leonard stands as a stellar referendum on the San Antonio Spurs' peerless player development. Whether he follows the suit laid down by his veteran comrades and makes South Texas his permanent home is, of course, another question altogether.
In terms of quiet leadership, Leonard makes Duncan look like Dennis Rodman. As such, if San Antonio’s big three do decide to hang it up, Leonard will have to take it upon himself to add “a dose of personal nasty”—to steal a famous Popovich euphemism—to a game that’s got it in spades.
If the Spurs can convince Leonard to stick around, it’ll be yet another feather in the cap of a franchise that continues to turn “culture” into more than just a cute basketball buzzword.
Chicago, born and raised; taken No. 1 by the hometown team; lauded as only one player to wear a Chicago Bulls jersey ever has; now poised to make a dramatic comeback after two successive knee surgeries, to the joyous relief of millions.
Yeah, you could say Derrick Rose belongs in Chi-Town.
Forgetting Rose’s much-publicized return, the Bulls are, by all accounts, legitimate favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference come next spring. With a core including Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah and marshaled by a mastermind in Tom Thibodeau, Chicago is sure to look scarier by the lopsided scoreboard.
If Rose is somehow able to lead the Bulls to their seventh championship, it’s hard to imagine him suiting up anywhere else. It would also make for one of the best happy endings in recent sports memory.
On a Portland Trail Blazers team whose history is rife with tragic tales of singular talents cut down in their primes, LaMarcus Aldridge has been a sturdy, steady superstar counterweight—and a positively karmic one at that.
Luckily for Blazers fans, Aldridge himself seems to appreciate the weight of his presence as much as anyone.
"I'm happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two," Aldridge told The Oregonian’s Joe Freeman in a July phone interview. "This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that's the best decision on my part."
With eight seasons of steadily improved production behind him, Aldridge has officially achieved top-tier status in the NBA. Now the Blazers will find out whether the smooth-shooting power forward is good enough to build a team of banner-winners around.
We all know Portland boasts one of the game’s most fervent and loyal fanbases. As such, it deserves a player as good, as professional and as durable as Aldridge. Better still, Aldridge deserves the city of Portland all the same.
Speculation has already begun in earnest, with Durant being linked to both the Wizards and the Toronto Raptors. As KD’s free agency gets closer, you can expect to hear rumors—both legitimate and hair-brained alike—involving each of the NBA’s 28 other teams as well.
If OKC doesn’t snag at least one championship over the next two seasons, you better believe Durant will start to have wandering eyes for a winner. If, on the other hand, Durant and Russell Westbrook can somehow will the Thunder over the hump, the city’s chances of keeping Durant—both stars, really—stand to increase exponentially.
Recently, Bleacher Report's Luke Petkac laid out with perfect succinctness why, when all's said and done, OKC and KD are a match made in hardwood heaven:
OKC has proved over the years that it has a smart front office, a diehard fanbase and a roster that's set to contend for quite some time. There are nits to be picked, but not all that many. If Durant leaves in 2016, it won't be for basketball reasons. The Thunder have that covered.
Durant, like the city he calls home, embodies a personality more unassuming than bombastic. That alone makes the NBA’s reigning MVP the perfect fit to lead the Thunder—an organization imbued with youth and guided by a creative front office—into career sunset.