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How the 2015 Free-Agent Frenzy Could Shape the NBA's Future

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2015

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The lion's share of 2015's free-agent movement is history, allowing the NBA world to briefly reflect and pivot to its implications for the future. Lessons were learned and trends were set, prompting natural speculation about the present and future of free agency as we know it.

The league is changing, and free agency's evolving dynamics have had something to do with that. From unenviable decisions to the most envious of destinations, 2015 left us with some truly inimitable stories—and some hints of what to expect next time.

Averting the Next DeAndre Jordan Saga

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 21: DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers poses for a portrait at STAPLES Center on July 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photog
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DeAndre Jordan's about-face was a rare spectacle. The painfully public nature of his decision-making (and lack thereof) highlighted the uncertainty of a process that all seems much simpler on Twitter as hyper-paced, real-time speculation augments our understanding of events. To hear the Clippers themselves explain it, Jordan's decision packed all the drama of a sappy rom-com ending.

Here's how Blake Griffin described his involvement in The Players' Tribune:

By Tuesday morning, I knew he was really struggling with it. He really didn't want to disappoint people, but I could tell his heart wasn't in it. We text every day. It's not always about basketball. Mostly it's about life. I'm his friend above all else. I stuffed some clothes into a bag, ran through LAX and got on the first flight to Houston. My intention wasn't to go down and sell DeAndre on the Clippers. We promised each other a long time ago that we'd never do that stuff. I just wanted to be there for my friend and hear him out.

Owner Steve Ballmer and head coach Doc Rivers almost certainly arrived in Houston with a more explicit directive: sealing the deal. To that end, Clippers players and officials apparently remained at Jordan's house late into the evening until the moratorium officially ended.

"At 11:01 p.m., someone came in with the contract papers and DeAndre signed," Griffin added. "Manhugs were exchanged. Then we all headed outside to the bus that was waiting to take us to the airport. As I was leaving, I turned to DeAndre. He seemed happy for the first time in a while." 

It's a compelling story. But the implications are far broader than one team's reunion, particularly with respect to the moratorium itself—the period in which teams may hold discussions with free agents without actually signing a contract. Jordan had initially agreed during that time to join Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks before having second thoughts.

ESPN's J.A. Adande subsequently argued the moratorium should go, calling it, "a logistical nightmare the NBA brought on itself."

His colleagues at ESPN suggested several alternatives and reforms. So far, the NBA isn't budging.

"The moratorium was discussed," league commissioner Adam Silver said in July, per SI.com's Ben Golliver. "Nobody had a great idea, frankly, in terms of how to change it."

But even Silver conceded the Jordan situation was less than ideal.

"It wasn't a great look," he added. "It's not what we want to see happen in the moratorium period. It wasn't created so players could enter into, in essence, oral agreements only to have those agreements superseded by binding agreements.

"…But there was a breakdown in the system to a certain extent [because] teams come to rely on those assurances. … There is no suggestion that the Clippers did not have a right to continue talking to him. But it leaves the Mavericks in a difficult position.​"

And it puts the rest of the league on notice. Plan Bs and Cs are now more essential than ever given the uncertainties of the marketplace and the potential for something to fall through. A more gloves-off approach to deal-making changes things. The Clippers didn't hesitate to pounce on Jordan upon learning he might change his mind. From that point on, Cuban couldn't get in touch with Jordan for one last pitch.

The offseason is no game. It's a high-stakes business and a costly one at that. It's even capable of spawning a full-fledged emoji war.

Rise of the Max Contract 

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 16:  Enes Kanter #34 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at American Airlines Center on March 16, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consentin
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Spending was fast and furious this summer, with over $2 billion in salary commitments made during the first 10 days of free agency. But whereas previous shopping sprees have been known to draw skepticism, there's a very real logic to what went down in 2015. ESPN's Steve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann explain the thinking:

With the salary cap set to skyrocket over the next three seasons, most teams embraced an expansive new mantra: Any contract that looks pricey in today's dollars will probably seem like a bargain in just a few years. By 2017-18, for example, a $10 million salary will be worth only $5.8 million in today's dollars (as a proportional share of the salary cap).

Put another way, the widening of future caps also entails more expensive contracts, increasing the incentive for franchises to make serious investments now. That analysis will persist again next summer with another cap escalation scheduled for 2017. It's a good time to be a buyer in the NBA, particularly in context of acquiring future production at current rates.

In turn, however, there's an increasing element of risk embedded in these contracts. They may feel like bargains when compared to future deals, but they're still sizable expenditures. Strong front-office personnel have never been so valuable. With these kind of dollars exchanging hands, there's an all-time premium on smart spending. 

Free Agents' Top-Dollar Deals in 2015
Free AgentTeamYearsTotal $ (Approx.)
LeBron JamesCavaliers2$47 million
Marc GasolGrizzlies5$110 million
LaMarcus AldridgeSpurs4$84 million
Kawhi LeonardSpurs5$90 million
Kevin LoveCavaliers5$109 million
Jimmy ButlerBulls5$95 million
Dwyane WadeHeat1$20 million
DeAndre JordanClippers4$88 million
Goran DragicHeat5$90 million
Draymond GreenWarriors5$85 million
Brook LopezNets3$60 million
Paul MillsapHawks3$59 million
Greg MonroeBucks3$50 million
Brandon KnightSuns5$70 million
Reggie JacksonPistons5$80 million
Khris MiddletonBucks5$70 million
Tobias HarrisMagic4$64 million
DeMarre CarrollRaptors4$60 million
Enes KanterThunder4$70 million
Robin LopezKnicks4$54 million
Wes MatthewsMavericks4$70 million
HoopsHype.com

While it's no surprise superstars are making ridiculous sums, other deals leave room for doubt. The Oklahoma City Thunder opted to match the Portland Trail Blazers' four-year, $70 million offer to center Enes Kanter. The New Orleans Pelicans handed Omer Asik another five years and $58 million. These deals epitomize how NBA front offices think in 2015. Sure, it seems pricey now, but it won't in 2017 when the salary cap tops $100 million.

That's not to say every deal is a good one. It just means organizations currently have a greater margin for error. One big contract won't hamstring a team financially like it might have just a year or two ago. Indeed, the majority of the league's teams are positioned to add at least one max-level player in 2016. A generation of free agents will cash in during the coming summers, but things could grow more complicated for those handing out contracts.

There are still luxury taxes with which to contend (along with highly punitive penalties), and the salary cap itself hasn't gone away entirely. So while max contracts may seem like the norm for a time, that trend probably won't last forever. Fiscal prudence has always been a virtue in this league, and that won't change with an upped ante.

Long-Term Security Still Matters

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 25:  A close up shot of Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans against the Golden State Warriors after Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the NBA Playoffs at Smoothie King Center on April 25, 2015 in Ne
Noah Graham/Getty Images

LeBron James' newfound preference for short-term contracts hasn't caught on as a league-wide trend—excepting, perhaps, Wade's one-year pact and a handful of three-year agreements.

Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green all took five-year deals. Several second-tier free agents signed five-year pacts of their own, and numerous others accepted four-year agreements. Though there may have been some temptation to test the market in 2016 or 2017, players clearly placed greater priority on their long-term financial security.

Anthony Davis obtained that security before even hitting the free-agent market, agreeing to a five-year extension worth nearly $145 million. It wasn't all about the money, but the historically rich contract didn't hurt. 

"I love living here in New Orleans," Davis told reporters during a July conference call. "I love playing for the city. I love the city and I just felt comfortable here. I like the team. I like the direction we're heading in. I like the guys playing by my side, so I felt very comfortable here.

"I have a lot of trust in our organization and in what they're doing. I know they're trying to do their best to put us in a situation to win. I thought that was the biggest thing for me. I decided I wanted to stay here and was able to get a contract extension which is amazing and a blessing."

It's not just the financial security in Davis' case. It's the opportunity to remain with an up-and-coming franchise willing to invest in a future built around him. Davis preferred that kind of certainty over testing the free-agent waters a summer from now. That means sacrificing some flexibility in the short term, but it also assures Davis a boatload of money and—importantly—a relationship with an organization equipped and committed to win.

A number of premier free agents were ultimately persuaded to remain with their incumbent teams this summer. Those who pursued new frontiers didn't do so for exclusively financial reasons.

Making the Culture Sell

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JULY 10:  LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs attends a press conference on July 10, 2015 at the San Antonio Spurs Practice Facility in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
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This summer's most celebrated change of locales was LaMarcus Aldridge's decision to leave the Portland Trail Blazers and join forces with the oft-contending San Antonio Spurs. On its face, the move was all about pursuing a championship, but it was also about the culture required to get there. After all, the Trail Blazers had talent, including one of the game's best young point guards, but they didn't have the long-standing pedigree that typifies the Spurs as a franchise.

But why San Antonio instead of iconic destinations like New York or Los Angeles? According to Aldridge, the former wanted him to exclusively play the center position while the latter couldn't quite make the sale after two meetings. Part of the Spurs' appeal was fit—and the communication concerning that fit.

"It was open dialogue," Aldridge said of his interaction with the organization, per Basketball Insiders' Lang Greene. "[Gregg Popovich] kind of told me what he was thinking, and I kind of said how I felt about it. But I'm going to play as I've played in most of my other games.

"It's not going to be any different than Portland as far as minutes because I just turned 30. So for them, I'm really young. Compared to Tim and Manu [Ginobili], I'm really young. So he's going to try and manage my minutes, but I'm still going to play a lot."

The guarantee of a prominent role in a consistently successful operation was clearly enticing enough. It probably didn't hurt that San Antonio reached early agreements with its own free agents, including Leonard, Tim Duncan and starting shooting guard Danny Green. 

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 14:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers attempts to drive around Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on May 14, 20
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

But more than any piece of the on-court puzzle, it may have been the Spurs' well-documented culture that made the difference. San Antonio's championship experience has translated into a seemingly perpetual expectation for winning. Since Popovich and Duncan joined forces, that expectation has been met repeatedly. 

Even before Aldridge finalized his decision, Adande saw the writing on the wall: "If there's one thing the Los Angeles Lakers can learn from LaMarcus Aldridge's almost inevitable decision to join the San Antonio Spurs, it's that this is not about the presentations, it's about the roster and the culture."

The proximity of friends and family also played a role in Aldridge's thinking. The Texas native was making a life decision, not just a basketball one. And that life choice ultimately eschewed the allure of brighter lights, bigger markets and—perhaps—greater stardom.

Aldridge wasn't alone in that regard.

The Knicks were in hot pursuit of Greg Monroe, an ostensible sidekick who could finally get the Carmelo Anthony era back on track. In fact, as early as April, the New York Daily News' Frank Isola quoted one league executive who believed Monroe's arrival in NYC was "about as close to a done deal as you can get."

Not close enough, apparently. Monroe spurned team president Phil Jackson and Co., preferring to take his talents to the Milwaukee Bucks—an up-and-coming team that made a somewhat unlikely run to the playoffs last season. The Bucks also beat out the Lakers, another premier market that could have elevated Monroe's brand in fairly short order.

As CBSSports' Matt Moore put it in July, "He just chose little old Milwaukee over the Knicks and Lakers for the same money. If anything should signal a shift away from the idea that big markets rule all, it's got to be that. Simply being in a big city is not enough anymore."

Nor is a culture or system alone sufficient to secure a player's interest. But there's increasing evidence that at least some stars are more concerned with fit than fame (or even fortune). And that means some franchises may have to rethink their pitches. Once-premier destinations aren't what they used to be in the eyes of those who matter. Some of those destinations are just trying to get by.

A Rebuilding Renaissance

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 28: Phil Jackson the  President of the New York Knicks watches the Kentucky Wildcats game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Rupp Arena on February 28, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Lakers and Knicks aren't ones to engage in protracted rebuilding processes. Rather than take the Philadelphia 76ers' approach (namely, hoarding young assets at any cost), the iconic franchises are simultaneously treading water and planning for 2016 and 2017. The hope is that another star-caliber free agent will finally be convinced by the bright lights of a big market.

To that end, both organizations brought in second-tier free agents in a bid to remain relevant and build cores that just might intrigue future pursuits. The key is demonstrating a prospect of short-term success.

As Adande put it in context of L.A.'s ill-fated pursuit of Aldridge:

Even if the Lakers scaled down the presentation, made it less about Hollywood and more about the hardwood in the second go-round, they couldn't change the basic facts that they can only sell the glorious past and the possibilities of the future. They can't sell the present. They don't have the core components of a team that won a championship a year ago like the Spurs do, they don't have a culture where the star player takes discounted contracts and even a role player primed to cash out like Danny Green sticks around at a discounted rate.

That might be changing ever so slowly. The Lakers signed Lou Williams and Brandon Bass while acquiring center Roy Hibbert via trade and drafting guard D'Angelo Russell this summer. It's not exactly a contending concoction, but it's an assortment of pieces (along with second-year power forward Julius Randle) that could intrigue outside talent in 2016 or 2017. With loads of money to spend, the Lakers are banking on some steady progress to open eyes.

The Knicks' strategy is similar: Build something a future free agent might want to join. A Carmelo or Kobe Bryant just isn't enough to seal the deal anymore. Prospective signees want to see a package.

Accordingly, New York's summer was headlined by the additions of Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and rookie Kristaps Porzingis. It's not a star-studded haul, but it does include some highly regarded two-way talent, the kind of supporting cast that might intrigue a free agent in a year or two's time. Here's how Knicks general manager Steve Mills described the team's approach in July, per the New York Daily News' Mitch Abramson:

We tried to be as clear as we could possibly be that we weren’t chasing the biggest stars. That's not how we're trying to build this team. Obviously, when LaMarcus Aldridge says he wants to meet with you and he’s going to meet with six teams, we agree to go meet with him. DeAndre Jordan was willing to meet with us, so of course we go and meet him.

And when you go in, you want guys to say yes. But our goal starting out with this was to spend our money wisely and to get guys in who we thought would bring this team along together and fill holes and as it turned out, we were better suited going with multiple guys as opposed to just going after one.

One can only marvel that a team like the 76ers is far more interested in collecting all manner of young talent, sidestepping any effort to remain even remotely relevant in the interim. Whereas L.A. and New York are aiming for relatively short turnarounds, Philly is in this for the long haul—even after drafting Jahlil Okafor to supplement a front line that's still missing Joel Embiid. 

The big takeaway is that there's more than one way to rebuild in this league, perhaps more so now than ever. While the savvy accumulation of assets may be a common denominator, there seems to be little agreement in terms of which assets are most desirable. Someone like Bass wouldn't have fit Philadelphia's project, but he makes a lot of sense for the Lakers.

As organizations use various means to extricate themselves from the depths of league standings, we can only conclude that one size most definitely doesn't fit all.

The Future of Free Agency to Come

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 16:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at American Airlines Center on March 16, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenti
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The majority of free agents didn't change teams this summer, and those who did had little trouble finding big money. Factors in their decisions spanned a wide range of interests that included intangibles, on-court dynamics and the opportunity to win. Playing for a storied franchise? Not so much. 

If LeBron can remain LeBron-like in Cleveland, why can't other stars raise their profiles in medium and smaller markets? In the age of the Internet and NBA League Pass, selling one's brand has more to do with winning than geography. And it just so happens that a number of teams have a chance to win these days.

That will make Kevin Durant's decision an intriguing one next summer. A number of clubs will have the financial flexibility to obtain his services, so his decision will likely come down to a variety of other considerations—ranging from OKC's chances at a title to whether other suitors offer a better fit in terms of system or personnel.

Durant's dilemma is a sign of the league's health. It's competitive, deep and heterogeneous in the best possible sense, and it's about to be infused with all kinds of wealth.

The not-too-distant future may well include some minor rule changes, particularly to the moratorium period, but the system itself appears to be quite healthy. Players have freedom to move and incentive to stay, yielding just the right amount of scenery changing. 

If one thing is certain, it's that the free-agency process itself will remain a whirlwind of media-driven excitement. The Jordan sideshow wasn't the first time we've become collectively entranced by such a story, but it was dynamic and fast-moving evidence that there's really no such thing as the offseason anymore.

The NBA has become a year-round phenomenon, and free agency is the centerpiece of its July festivities. For those who savor the off-court moments as much as the game itself, that isn't a bad thing. 

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