Loyalty vs. Legacy: the modern NBA star

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Last Thursday, a report surfaced that New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis had met with the front office regarding his future with the team. The meeting — which apparently lasted less than five minutes according to Knicks beat writer Ian Begley — ended up confirming the direction of both sides, and within the hour, Porzingis was traded to Dallas.

While I could write an article about the trade itself (and another 10 about what a mess the Knicks organization is), this trade, along with the whirlwind of Anthony Davis rumours, epitomizes what the modern NBA star looks like. Up until LeBron James left for Miami in 2010, the ‘unwritten rule’ of the NBA star of old was simple: you stick with the team that drafts you until you decide to call it a career.

Now, in fairness to LeBron, Porzingis and Davis, all three had legitimate reasons for wanting out  — the Cavs front office wasted seven years of James’ career by surrounding him with average role players and awkward fits, as did New Orleans with Davis. The Porzingis situation shows just how dysfunctional the Knicks organization is, as it took just three-and-a-half seasons for him to request a trade.

The league is changing, as are the players’ mindsets. Players are getting smarter, agents are becoming more business-savvy, as shown by the empire James is building in Los Angeles. Would Davis get more sponsorship money in L.A. or New Orleans? The NBA tried to combat this by introducing a ‘super-max’ contract; where the team that drafted star player X can offer them a five-year deal worth north of $200 million as opposed to the other 29 teams which can ‘only’ offer a four-year/$170ish million contract.

The hope was that this new contract would give the ‘small-market’ teams a higher chance to re-sign their home-grown star. While in theory this was a good idea, it hasn’t worked to the degree the league predicted. Star players have shown time and time again that money isn’t the primary factor that drives them.

Dirk Nowitzki is currently in his 21st season in the league — all with the Dallas Mavericks. As this is most likely his last season, it is a very real possibility that Nowitzki will be the last superstar to spend his whole career with one team. Stephen Curry is probably a lock to do the same, but he is the only active star who is likely to do this.

Nowitzki is also the last star to win a championship without having a second star player next to him. When will the next championship be won with just one star? Probably never. To win a title in today’s NBA, it seems that the magic number of star players is three. ‘Superteams’ have always been prevalent in NBA history; the 80s Lakers and Celtics, 90s Bulls, 00s Lakers, etc.

The difference, however, is that all those dynastic teams were mostly home-grown. The 80s Lakers traded for Kareem, the 00s Lakers signed Shaq, but a majority of the main contributors were homegrown stars. It’s what made the 2015 Warriors so likeable; the fact that the core of the team was built through the draft, and likewise, what made the 2017-and-after Warriors so despised. The fact that they signed Kevin Durant, and eventually DeMarcus Cousins, and by doing so, lost that ‘natural’ aura.

Players care about their legacies now more than ever; it’s why Davis requested the trade. It’s why James went back to Cleveland, and it’s probably why the next star player will request a trade. While I always tend to like the Tim Duncan’s and the Nowitzki’s who’ve stuck with one team for their whole career.

The loyalty versus legacy choice is an extremely tough one that only the upper echelon of stars have to make, but with more and more stars choosing the latter, the ‘answer’ is becoming clearer by the trade.

 

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