The modern NBA is a parity-driven affair, with commissioner Adam Silver a veritable Rich Uncle Pennybags, and the league’s respective front offices a bunch of gold-hungry kids crowded around the Monopoly board.
The frenetic, historically active trade deadline day we saw yesterday afternoon was as clear of a picture of this as there can be. Seventeen teams made trades as 39 players found new zip codes, which makes a total of 65 of them to find new homes since the season began in October.
The NBA’s pool of talent is a fluid, ever-changing mass in 2015, as geography and human continuity both take a distinct backseat to the vacuum in which salaries and skill sets are mixed and matched constantly, with each general manager striving for the ultimate illusory carrot of a perfect basketball amalgam.
Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers typifies the potential folly of this approach more than anyone. He traded Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels yesterday, two apparent building blocks in their youth culture, for the ultimate theoretical good: future draft picks. Hinkie has now grabbed 14 future draft picks via trade, with his collection stretching all the way until the 2020 draft.
Hinkie treats his roster more like a hedge fund than an assortment of human beings, and that’s not hyperbole — the team’s ownership group, led by Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, is a gang of elite investment bankers who fully back their GM’s asset-based strategy.
And while Hinkie’s singular dogma represents the extreme interpretation of the league’s market rules of today, the rest of the game’s fanbases are simply having a lot more fun with all this. There is, somehow, an excitement surrounding the trade-and-free-agency aspect of the league that transcends the cultural fervor of most of its actual competitive games.
It’s as if we’re all rooting for the best baseball card collectors, instead of the athletes, at times. Front offices are taking an increasingly large share of the rock star attention away from the players, as men like Hinkie and his tutor — Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets — are far better known than most of the young men they shift around.
Recent NBA champions, of course, aren’t taking many newfangled shortcuts. The San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers all made firm, long investments not only in superstars like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and LeBron James, but also in leaders of men like Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley.
Perhaps equally important: They stuck to marginal draft talent as it progressed slowly through the years. For every surefire King and Mamba, there’s a glut of Manu Ginobilis and J.J. Bareas surrounding him — players whose talent and utility could only be unlocked by proper culture, time, and care.
This is not to denigrate the recent, rapid change in NBA culture: just to say that the phase shift is nascent, and has not yet produced a dependable proof of its tenets. A whiz kid of modern machinations has yet to take his team to the Finals, but we could be approaching the day when Hinkie, Morey, or any other number of in-vogue market operators pulls a fast one impactful enough to seize the Larry O’Brien trophy in short order.
The wild action we saw yesterday was a direct result of movement-friendly rules born with the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, forged during the last lockout. That CBA expires in 2021, but both sides have an opt-out clause as soon as 2017, and a new-look players’ union led by a hard-charging Michele Roberts, president Chris Paul and vice president LeBron seems likely to take issue with much of what’s changed in the lifestyle of the contemporary NBA player.
Maybe that’s when we’ll see some change that allows us to take a deep, calm breath about player mobility, and see our ballers as people — not eminently tradable playing cards — again. But until then, you better sit back and enjoy the frenzy.
— John Wilmes