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The Cost of Free Agency

In the current iteration of the N.B.A., marquee superstars pervade every aspect of the sport. Whether it be social outreach, lucrative endorsements, free agency, or the trade market, the game’s best players enjoy a sizable presence in the league’s core mechanics. The inception of this presence is rooted in the career of former Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James. The summer of 2010 marked James’ entrance into free agency, providing the market with a generational talent widely regarded as one of the greatest players in league history. The ensuing frenzy concerning James’ free agent status sparked vast change in the function and culture of the N.B.A.

The whereabouts of James’ next destination became one of the most hotly debated topics in sports that summer, and all the anticipation and excitement culminated in a television special titled “The Decision.” During the program, James declared, for all the world to hear, that he would be “taking his talents to South Beach” and signing with the Miami Heat. That television special marked the burgeoning inauguration of increased player independence, resulting in league-wide ramifications still present today. James’ signing was particularly noteworthy given the nature of his future teammates. He was anointed the centerpiece of one of the first modern-day “superteams.” James joined forces with close friend and former Finals M.V.P. Dwyane Wade, as well as perennial All-Star Chris Bosh, to form a team that would go on to achieve two consecutive championships and four NBA Finals berths.

The unchecked liberties afforded to LeBron James in his free agency allowed for him to essentially collude with his fellow stars to form a team that thoroughly dominated the Eastern Conference and the league as a whole. James singlehandedly paved the way for top-tier superstars to erode the parity of the N.B.A. by exercising his heightened independence to conceive teams loaded with elite talent. In the nine years after James’ decision, this change in the superstar mindset is perpetuated by the game’s upper echelon of elite talent, most notably in the cases of 2014 M.V.P. Kevin Durant, and most recently with Pelicans forward Anthony Davis.

In the case of Kevin Durant, at the conclusion of the 2016 season, Durant decided to sign with the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, teaming up with then-reigning M.V.P. Stephen Curry and All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. With Durant on the team, the hopes of everywhere plummeted as the Warriors won game after game, and title after title, making a mockery out of the competition. Durant’s decision to join the Warriors in order to net himself easy titles is a marker of LeBron James’s impact. James’ prior free agency set a precedent of superteam organization, imparting to players the message that one can contend to win titles quickly by joining forces with upper-echelon talent. Durant’s infamous move ultimately drained the N.B.A. season of suspense, as the outcome of the playoffs was all but a foregone conclusion.

This cycle of player independence wreaking havoc on competition repeats itself with the saga of Anthony Davis. These past few weeks, the New Orleans All-Star has been embroiled in controversy and suspense, as his mid-season trade request sparked countless rumors and hypothetical scenarios. To add fuel to the fire, Davis and his agent, Rich Paul (who, coincidentally is also James’ agent) published lists of where he would be willing to re-sign upon his free agency in 2020. This created a storm of speculation in which James was investigated for tampering (after having dinner with Davis following a game). Per N.B.A. insider Adrian Wojnarowski, Davis seems primarily set upon the Lakers as his destination, and his father has publicly dissed other destinations, such as Boston, as wholly unsuitable for his superstar son. As Davis allegedly attempts to maneuver his way to the Lakers and LeBron James to form what is effectively a superteam, his controversy has ballooned into one of the largest sports storylines of 2019, distracting from an NBA season rich with historic scoring streaks (James Harden) and surprise contenders. Beyond the sphere of distraction, reports from sports journalists at “The Athletic” have even indicated that trade talks with the Lakers concerning Davis have demoralized their young players, poisoning the Lakers locker room and pitting the team’s young core against its premier superstar in the process.

Anthony Davis is just the most recent player to weaponize his independence since James’ decision. He and other stars such as Kevin Durant have begun to take over the N.B.A., at the cost of the teams and the fans. Contentious crises such as the Anthony Davis one will, by nature, become the new normal, and rumours traditionally circling in the offseason will increasingly commandeer actual competition during the N.B.A. season. This process is already beginning this season, with hot topics such as Jimmy Butler’s forcing his way out of Minnesota and Kyrie Irving’s pending free agency. As controversy grows, so will the disparity in competition, as superstars aim to form teams to cruise through the rest of the Association on nothing but sheer talent. Just as parity in competition is essential to the function of the N.B.A., so is parity in power, and these larger-than-life superstars possess an obligation to preserve the integrity and interest of the league.