Let’s go back to Super Bowl Sunday. Before the Seahawks and Patriots broke America’s brain, the Lakers and Knicks played what had to be the most depressing basketball game of the season. It was the day’s only NBA game, and that only made it sadder. It was supposed to be nationally televised, but a few weeks before the game, ESPN bumped it to show Chris Paul’s celebrity bowling event. The Knicks won, 92-80, but everyone involved was losing that day. What was supposed to be a showcase for the two most prestigious teams in the league turned into a symbol of how irrelevant they’d become.
Fast-forward five months, and after the first 36 hours of free agency, the Knicks and Lakers are punch lines all over again.
The Knicks came into free agency with tons of cap space and couldn’t even land DeMarre Carroll, let alone a real star. Meanwhile, the Lakers just finished striking out with LaMarcus Aldridge in the most public way possible. He was interested, right up until they started talking basketball.
Now the Lakers are deleting Adam Levine tweets, and David West is saying what everyone is thinking when they look at the Knicks:
This is when everyone around the league goes, “LOL, SO MUCH FOR THE KNICKS AND LAKERS MYSTIQUE.” But that isn’t quite right.
The Knicks’ appeal is real — every summer, almost any big-name free agent will take a meeting with them. Aldridge is getting set to meet with them as I type this. And the Lakers’ track record over the past 40 years speaks for itself. Everyone from Kareem to Shaq to Dwight has sought them out.
The reality of the Knicks and Lakers is closer to this: The mystique is real and powerful, but it only matters when there’s actual basketball to sell, too. And that second part has always been true.
Kareem and Shaq and Dwight sought out a winning organization (and in Shaq’s case, a shitload of money) as much as they did the city of Los Angeles. For most of the last few decades, the Lakers have been successful because they’ve been run better than any team in the league. They drafted Magic and Worthy. They agreed to trade for Kobe on draft night. They stole Pau Gasol out of nowhere. This is why I thought — and still kinda think — they could end up with DeMarcus Cousins. If there’s an evil move on the board, the Lakers find a way to make it happen. Let’s not forget, this team should be playing with Chris Paul right now.
The Knicks have been a disaster for more than a decade because they are pretty much the polar opposite of everything in the above paragraph. If there’s an impulsive, laughably shortsighted move on the board, the Knicks find a way to make it happen. It’s been five years, and I still can’t believe they traded Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Timofey Mozgov for Carmelo in the middle of the season, rather than signing him outright the following summer. But that’s what makes them the Knicks.
So, why did each of these teams fall on its face over the past 36 hours? Because these are still basically the same teams we laughed at on Super Bowl Sunday.
It’s not some institutional failure if the Lakers couldn’t sell Aldridge on joining a crusade to the eighth seed with Kobe and spare parts. If Kobe were 10 years younger, it would have been an entirely different conversation. It’s also not an indictment of New York’s appeal if Phil Jackson can’t steal any bigger names than Arron Afflalo over the next week. Who gives a shit what David West thinks?
Losing out on big names this week might be the best thing that could happen to these teams. They won’t be able to fool themselves about where they really stand and what their priorities should be. DeAndre Jordan could be great for the Lakers over the next few years, and they probably should have been chasing his rim protection all along, but either way, drafting D’Angelo Russell is a much smarter step forward than handing the future to 30-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge for the next four years. Drafting superstars is how the Lakers have always been successful.
Likewise, the Knicks just finished betting on Kristaps Porzingis’s chance to be a superstar of the future rather than going with a safer pick to satisfy the superstar of the present. Taking smart risks and investing in the future is how, uh … actually, the Knicks have never tried that before.
I can see why some people might look at this summer as a failure. Thanks to apocalyptic trades from the past (Steve Nash, Andrea Bargnani), neither team is assured a first-round pick next year,1 so the feeling is that they might as well start winning now. I just think everyone’s downplaying how far away both teams really are. The lessons of the Lakers and Knicks should apply to everyone in free agency: Nobody signs their way from the lottery to the Finals. Even Cleveland needed Kyrie Irving.
The Knicks don’t have a first-round pick. The Lakers have a top-three-protected pick that otherwise goes to the 76ers.
If the money’s equal, superstars will always choose the best basketball situation. It’s why LeBron chose Miami in 2010, and it’s why he went back to Cleveland last summer. In either case, there was a superstar there who had been drafted and developed. That’s the part that will take time for these teams.
I love making fun of the Knicks as much as anyone, and I will spend the rest of my life making jokes about Kobe, but let’s be real: Kobe’s not why Aldridge wouldn’t sign in L.A. Without Boogie onboard, the Lakers don’t have a team that can contend. They’re betting on Russell and searching for a trade, hoping to get lucky with both. Calling this free agency a disaster for the Lakers only makes sense if you think that Kevin Durant would see Russell and Aldridge in L.A. and be powerless to turn it down. If you believe that, you believe in the Lakers mystique more than anyone.
And let’s be real: The Knicks are doing just fine. This is what rebuilding looks like — Isiah Thomas would have flipped the no. 4 pick for Eric Bledsoe and cruised straight to the sixth seed. In addition to the Porzingis pick, it’s gotta be encouraging that they refused to max out Greg Monroe while they chased smarter options like Carroll or Afflalo. Jackson might be smarter than you think.
The biggest problem with both of these teams is the coaching, but that’s fixable, and it won’t matter for the next year or two anyway. The Lakers are in a post-title transition phase that’s no different from the Celtics, and the Knicks are transitioning from a stupid team to a team that … might not be stupid anymore.
For now, the only thing free agency has really proved is that, even after Super Bowl Sunday, the appeal of the Knicks and Lakers will always get them an audience with everyone. If they can ever build a basketball foundation to sell alongside it, getting superstars won’t be far behind.
With that said, here are 10 other lessons we’ve learned from the first 36 hours of free agency …
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images
1. The Spurs will never stop going in
I don’t even care whether they actually land Aldridge. They probably will, but that’s not the point. Even putting themselves in position to make this happen is amazing. And they did it while convincing Danny Green to take less money and locking up Kawhi Leonard on a $90 million deal that looked like a bargain the second he signed it. Now they’ll probably go get Aldridge, a player who becomes twice as potent when he’s surrounded by all the talent in San Antonio, and extend their reign indefinitely.
The best thing you can say about the Spurs is that we’ve all run out of ways to describe their brilliance. Or at least I have. Just PhotoShop Pop onto this cover and be done with it. The Spurs are ridiculous.
2. There’s gold waiting in the second round
Every trade deadline, a bunch of Sam Hinkies–in-training will pop up to remind you about the value of second-round picks. “They’re more valuable than you think!” It’s awful. But you know what? Those people are definitely right, and 2015 free agency makes that clearer than ever. There’s just no downside to gambling on guys in the second round. Any team who gives these picks away is either cheap or stupid, especially since the types of players you get in the second round have a chance to become the most useful kind of role player.
Look at the guys who are getting paid this week.
- Draymond Green, 35th pick — five years, $85 million
- Paul Millsap, 47th pick — three years, $59 million
- DeAndre Jordan, 35th pick — four years, $81 million (likely)
- Danny Green, 46th pick — four years, $45 million
- Khris Middleton, 39th pick — five years, $70 million
- Goran Dragic, 45th pick — five years, $90 million
- Wes Matthews, undrafted — four years, $50-60 million (likely)
Dear NBA teams: Use your second-round picks.
3. There is no such thing as an overpay, unless you’re the Kings
What’s great about the cap likely jumping $20 million each of the next two summers is that there’s basically no such thing as a bad contract now. What’s great about the Kings is that they will still find a way to horrify everyone with how they use this cap space.
While we’re here: A few months ago I was in Philly for a Sixers lottery party (scroll down here), and one of the best moments of the night was when the entire place burst into completely inexplicable applause for Vlade Divac when he popped up on the broadcast. Now it finally makes sense. Trust the process.
4. A cabana can change everything
Sure, Kevin Love may have been coming back to the Cavs regardless. But it’s a lot more fun to pretend that everything changed at that pool. A week ago, LeBron was supposedly refusing to recruit Love. Then the cabana meeting happened, and here we are. Five years!
Side note: Every business meeting becomes twice as cool in a cabana. Were LeBron and Love surrounded by those giant bottles of Fiji water? I bet they were. I bet they had Fiji water for DAYS. Probably had some complimentary M&Ms on ice, too. Peanut and plain, whatever you want. And a couple of copies of the New York Times just lying around for decoration. Cabanas are the shit. The Cavs’ future was officially secured when LeBron was like, Pull up a chair, Kevin. Do you want some of this fresh cantaloupe? Are you thirsty? If you don’t like Fiji, we also have Voss. Let’s talk business. Let’s build something together.
5. Stars are bulletproof
Speaking of cabana life, we just watched Love have one of the worst years imaginable for a prospective free agent. He was exposed on defense. His scoring and rebounding and shooting all cratered. He struggled with a bad back for most of the season and then went down with a separated shoulder, missing most of the postseason.
I like Love a lot, and I think the Cavs will be great with him next year. But it’s been crazy to hear everyone talk about him like last year never happened. Let’s not sugarcoat how bad things were. Love came into the year with questions about whether he was really as good as his Timberwolves numbers made him look, and for most of the season, the answer was a resounding “NOPE.” Every red flag that Wolves fans warned people about eventually became real.
And yet, even after everything that went wrong, there would have been 10 teams ready to pay him the max if he’d shopped around this week. It’s enough to make you wonder whether there’s anything a star can do to cost himself max money in the current NBA. Teams are so desperate for talent that they will overlook pretty much anything and talk themselves into building around anyone who’s ever made an All-Star Game. (Except Dwyane Wade.)
6. Paul Pierce in D.C. was a candle in the wind
Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.
7. Restricted free agents are never leaving
Ever. Until Michele Roberts leads the charge to fight these rules, we should stop discussing restricted free agents. Talent is too scarce for teams to ever let them go, and young players are looking at too much money to risk playing on a qualifying offer. Extensions are a formality at this point. Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler — they were always coming back. We should remember this for next year’s restricted class. I don’t even know why we call them free agents.
8. Miami is all in
Pat Riley is playing a high-stakes game right now, and it’s great. He just gave $90 million to Goran Dragic, and he’s about to give a massive deal to Wade. Next year, he’ll try to balance commitments to Wade with the pursuit of Durant and the quest to lock up Hassan Whiteside. It’s a high-wire act that should be impossible to pull off, which makes it even more impressive that people are taking it seriously. The genuine leaguewide fear of this insane Miami scheme is the best testament yet to Riley’s legend.
9. The Mavs are probably on the way out
What if they DO sign Jordan? Is that team making the playoffs in a crowded West? Who’s playing point guard? Is Chandler Parsons healthy? Does everyone realize the Mavs currently have five players under contract? And is the 2016 Dallas pick that belongs to the Celtics starting to look more valuable than next year’s Nets pick? Lotta tough questions right now. The 2015 Heat are an example of a team that’s going all in for the next 18 months. The 2015 Mavs are the team that went all in and lost.
10. Adam Silver’s plan worked
There were a lot of reasons to hate the 2011 lockout. The owners chased profits in the name of promoting parity, and as blatantly disingenuous as it was, they won on every front. It’s still upsetting to anyone who bothered to pay attention to the logic of the entire negotiation. But in the midst of all that, there was also then-deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who was pushing for shorter contracts and aggressive luxury-tax penalties that would force teams to make tough decisions. It would promote player movement and distribute talent more evenly across the league. And it worked. Look around you.
Free agency is every bit as fascinating as most playoff series, and it’s probably more interesting than most of the regular season. The NBA is a year-round sport now. There are lots of reasons for this. The Internet has been huge. Online basketball writing is some of the most entertaining, deranged journalism in America, and that helps get people engaged. Twitter is the perfect medium to transmit all the news and then give fans a place to waste hundreds of hours joking about it. The players are more famous and more fun than the stars in other sports. And now the TV money flowing into the league has given every team the license to go absolutely nuts, without fear of repercussions. It’s the perfect storm, and everybody’s winning.
It started with the last CBA, though. As much as I hated everything about that lockout, you have to give credit to the league office for rigging the system to behave exactly like it has this week. This is chaos by design, and it will only get crazier over the next two summers. But first, let’s see what happens over the next two weeks.
This article has been updated to clarify the status of the Lakers’ 2016 first-round pick and remove an erroneous explanation of how the Lakers acquired Lamar Odom.