Mardi Gras can’t arrive quickly enough for New Orleans residents.Just one week removed from the shady no-call that cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl, Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis delivered another Cajun Sparkle-coated kick to the gut.
Rich Paul, Davis’ agent, publicly revealed that the five-time All-Star has no intention of extending his contract with the Pelicans when he becomes a free-agent in 2020. Davis’ team has formally requested a trade. All signs point to “The Brow” eventually making his way to sunny Los Angeles to play alongside Paul’s BFF, LeBron James.
The revelation rehashed two great water cooler debates surrounding the NBA and free agency. First, how can small market teams defend their players from being poached by teams in massive media markets? Secondly, should bona fide superstars join super teams to chase championships or try to shoulder the load themselves?
The first question has kept executives in smaller markets up at night for decades. Despite the league’s best efforts to incentivize players to stay with their original teams, time and time again star players chuck deuces to cities such as New Orleans, Memphis or Cleveland for brighter lights and more lucrative endorsement opportunities.
Or do they? Is the problem really market size?
Above anything, the current NBA is a star-driven league. In today’s NBA, star players want to team up to compete for championships. When LeBron James was in Cleveland (#19), players lined up to follow him. When he went to Miami (#16), quality players were suddenly easier to come by. Golden State didn’t become a destination team until Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green (all drafted by GSW) developed into a terrifying trio.
If market size truly was the driving force behind player movement, New York (#1), Chicago (#3) and Atlanta (#10) wouldn’t be hot garbage.
The biggest key to fielding successful teams in the NBA is a competent front office and a little bit of luck. That explains how the San Antonio (#31) has put forth a perennial contender for the past two decades. It explains how Milwaukee (#35) has the best record in the East after finding Giannis Antetokounmpo in a lower-level Greek league. The team wisely surrounded him with a team of long, three-and-D types and finally landed a talented coach in Mike Budenholzer.
Oklahoma City (#45) earned its way into title contention after drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Even after dealing Harden and losing Durant the Thunder is still one of the top teams in the West and managed to re-sign Paul George, one of the most-coveted players in free agency in 2018. George was expected to sign with the Lakers but shocked everyone by staying with Oklahoma City because he preferred to play alongside Westbrook than under the shadow of James.
Meanwhile, perennially bad teams typically have perennially bad front offices. The Knicks have more money than anybody but typically throw money at terrible players and haven’t reached the playoffs since 2012. The Grizzlies were once a symbol of consistency, but then threw max contracts at Chandler Parsons and the talented-but-oft-injured Mike Conley Jr. have been in a free fall ever since.
Back to Davis, nobody should have a problem with him requesting a trade and trying to work his way to Los Angeles. Davis has done everything asked of him in New Orleans but unfortunately the team has not been able to build a winner. In Davis’ six years with the Pelicans, the team has only qualified for the playoffs twice.
Since drafting Davis, the Pelicans’ front office has not performed very well. Following Davis’ selection in 2012, the Pelicans’ first-round picks have been: Austin Rivers, Nerlens Noel (traded for Jrue Holiday) and Buddy Hield (traded in a package for Cousins). The Pelicans trades haven’t been bad, but they haven’t done enough to create a team worthy of contending in the uber-competitive West.
At 25-years-old, Davis is entering his prime and doesn’t want to wait for the front office to get its act together and build a contender. He’s well within his rights to move on.
People complaining and clamoring for the NBA to make it harder for players to leave are misguided. Sure, in the NBA’s golden years, the 80s and 90s, many star players decided they wanted the challenge of leading their own team to a championship. But let’s face it, those days are over.
It's like complaining that that local radio station doesn't play enough No Limit. Those days are over. If you want to bump No Limit, you're going to have to dust off those CDs or comb through your streaming service.
Similarly, if you want to see Jordan vs Bird or Showtime vs the Bad Boys, you'll have to head to YouTube or dust off the DVDs. We're in the era of stars teaming up.
The league's popularity continues to surge, especially as more international stars are born. As a result, many modern NBA fans put unwavering support behind NBA players instead of teams.
Players today have choice. And I’ll never complain about watching talented black athletes choosing their own paths rather than allowing billionaires to direct it for them.
Eventually the tide will change and stars will go back to wanting to win on their own. It’s already happening with a few. Harden wanted out of OKC to prove he is a superstar that can stand on his own two feet. I have a strong feeling Antetokounmpo will stay in Milwaukee once his contract is up. Kyrie Irving forced his way out of Cleveland because he wanted to be top dog (though he’s now seemingly backtracked and could join AD and King James in L.A.).
The NBA has done what it can to persuade players to stay with their current teams by giving players monetary incentives. Davis is giving up an estimated $80M by declining to sign a contract extension with the Pelicans. What more can the league do?
If AD wants to play with King James, let him. Instead of whining about unfairness of big market teams, the little guys need to invest in scouting, front office and creating a winning atmosphere so that when they do land stars via skillful scouting and a sprinkle of the luck of the draft, they can convince them to stay and recruit their superstar BFFs.
Follow Ishmael and In the Clutch on Twitter @ishcreates. Subscribe to The St. Louis American’s YouTube page to see weekly sports videos starring Ishmael and Melvin Moore at youtube.com/stlamericanvideo.