The NBA season ends in June
By: Paul Flannery
There was a slight breeze blowing through the window of my office as the afternoon sun was finally about to descend for the day. I texted my wife: “This is it. I think we’re done.” My wife, who doesn’t know HORNS from ICE but can tell a Zeller from a Plumlee, texted back: “Looking like summer. How u?”
Tired, actually. The NBA had been churning nonstop since the end of the Finals on June 12. Barely a week after the Warriors celebrated their championship, the Celtics and Sixers swapped top-three picks in the run-up to the June 22 draft. Among other moves that night, the Wolves landed All-Star Jimmy Butler and the Lakers traded former No. 2 pick, D’Angelo Russell, to make room for this year’s No. 2 pick, Lonzo Ball.
That was only a prelude. On June 26, the Rockets and Chris Paul stunned the league when they orchestrated a deal to team CP3 with James Harden. The same James Harden who had once been a running mate of Russell Westbrook’s in Oklahoma City and finished runner-up to Westbrook in the MVP race. They were both trying to catch Kevin Durant, their other former Thundarrian, currently on top of the world with the champion Warriors. (KD’s summer was just beginning, but that’s a whole other thing.)
Fear not, help was on the way for Russ, too. Leave it to stealthy GM Sam Presti to swipe Paul George from the Pacers hours before the clock struck midnight on June 30, signaling the start of free agency. Within a week, Gordon Hayward had signed with the Celtics, Paul Millsap was on his way to Denver, and Zach Randolph went to the Kings for some reason.
How fast do things move in this league? Dwight Howard, who dominated the NBA summer just four years previously when he left the Lakers for the Rockets, was traded for a couple of role players and a second-round pick.
Now it was July 21, a Friday, and everything seemed to be slowing down. Sure, there were a handful of things left unresolved, but this finally felt like the unofficial beginning of NBA vacation. It was in that moment of blissful serenity, with the late-afternoon light pouring through my window offering the first hint of summer freedom, that news broken by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that Kyrie Irving had requested a trade.
It was in that moment that I came to understand that the NBA has become the first sport to transcend the confines of its season to become a year-round enterprise. I waited until my wife got home from work to tell her that summer had to wait a while longer.
The NBA season begins in late September when training camp opens and lasts through June when the Finals conclude. The real action for NBA heads takes place during the transactional windows: The trade deadline, draft, and free agency. They are micro-seasons unto themselves and they are as much a part of the fabric of the league as a Tuesday-night meeting between the Nuggets and Timberwolves.
Unscripted and unpredictable, NBA transaction season is the best show in sports. The trade deadline is a second Christmas in February, an annual event full of rumors and speculation. The draft takes place mere days after the Finals are over and free agency follows right behind. (Good timing as the playoffs were almost completely devoid of competitive matchups.)
Information moves quickly during these periods, far too fast to be contained within the next day’s newspaper or a television show. Even websites move too slowly to keep up with the flow of breaking news. Twitter is the only medium capable of handling the torrent of information, real-time analysis, and jokes. Always jokes.
Those storylines exist throughout the year in a parallel universe from the competitive cycle. Theorizing about the league — be it in the form of trade rumors, draft stock, salary cap situations, or analytical breakdowns — is as much a part of the conversation as the reality taking place on the court. The games are a way to pass the time; a charming diversion between Woj Bombs.
Ultimately, this is about stars. Because stars drive the sport, their movements define the league. This, in turn, casts the transactional stakes in human terms: Russ needs help, CP3 wants a change of scenery, Jimmy and Thibs reunited!
It’s through that lens that Irving’s trade request must be viewed. After all, Star player demands trade is not exactly a novel headline in a sport’s offseason cycle. And while Irving was a four-time All-Star and Finals hero, he has never made an All-NBA team or been a part of the MVP conversation. Before this summer, Kyrie was viewed as a co-star rather than a leading man.
What made his trade request such a singular event were all the relevant circumstances. In asking for a trade, Irving was really asking for a divorce from LeBron James, the greatest player of his generation and part of the small circle of legitimate GOAT contenders. Playing next to LeBron had brought Irving to three straight Finals and provided him with an opportunity to be a part of history on its biggest stage. Only a flat-earth truther would want out of LeBron’s orbit.
Against this backdrop was the idea that LeBron himself would not be long for Cleveland. The team had lost general manager David Griffin and, after a failed attempt at wooing former player Chauncey Billups into the job, had turned to 32-year-old Koby Altman to steward the franchise. Would LeBron stick around to see this out? Perhaps the King was eyeing Los Angeles, or maybe a chance to put together his own superteam of superfriends in an effort to battle the Warriors. Was Irving a part of the equation, or merely a footnote in LeBron’s long game?
Seen in this light, perhaps this wasn’t an impetuous gambit from a callow young star. Rather, this was a leverage play pitting apprentice against the master of the genre. What we had, then, was not merely a trade request, but a Shakespearean tale of friendship, betrayal, pride, and envy. What we had was the perfect summer cliffhanger.
For anyone invested in the league, the characters and plot points were already well established. The juicy details would be doled out in the coming weeks, but in the moment, the entire narrative structure was well known and instantly understood by anyone who cares even a little bit about the league.
As news of Irving’s request broke there was an additional twist: The existence of a list revealing Irving’s preferred destinations. Never mind that Irving wasn’t in a position to dictate terms, Irving’s list offered a fascinating window into his mindset. (A mindset, by the way, that was completely opaque since he was in China on a sneaker company tour and had yet to weigh in publicly.)
Each team on Irving’s list neatly fit a different side of his persona.
New York: The Alpha move, for when you want your star to shine brightest.
San Antonio: The I’m very serious about winning team.
Miami: Oooh, a revenge fantasy featuring the very franchise LeBron abandoned; and one that already had Irving’s old Cleveland nemesis in Dion Waiters. A double-revenge fantasy! Diabolical.
Minnesota: Minnesota? Well, yes, you see that Irving and Jimmy Butler got to be pals during USA Basketball camp and the latest Olympic run. Forget Bron. This is the new generation standing up right here.
Making sense of all this required a deep understanding of the league’s narrative dynamics and required fluency in the language of the basketball Internet. In order to follow along, one had to be invested in an ongoing story arc that plays out day after day and went well beyond the contours of the basketball court. This past year, with its rapid mood swings and high-stakes transactions, was the culmination of a decades-long movement.
The NBA Internet began on message boards and in forums where people who cared about the minutiae of the sport gathered to form communities and debate the topics of the day in a media landscape that cared little for such conversations.
Many of these early groups such as the APBR (Association for Professional Basketball Research) were inclined toward analytics. Others, like the Free Darko collective were more interested in narrative arcs of individual players. There were also solo geniuses like the great Doc Funk who mined the collective absurdity of the sport for laughs and in-jokes; creating the template for what we came to know later as memes.
While lacking traditional media credibility, the basketball Internet OGs were invested in the sport to an overwhelming degree, which carried its own form of authenticity. What they had in common with one another was that they were fans of the league, as opposed to carrying a strict devotion for any one particular team. They also shared an appreciation for the players themselves.
This is a critical distinction because the NBA has always struggled with the idea of competitive parity. Only a handful of teams led by a small concentration of stars are able to truly compete for a championship and they tend to stay constant for several years.
If a sport can’t sell an unpredictable result, it needs another hook to draw people to the game. What it needs are stars, each with their own distinct personalities and narrative arcs, and that has allowed the NBA to prosper as a cultural entity as much as a sports league. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the league and its players.
In order to sell its culture on a mass scale, the NBA and its players needed a better medium. If football thrived on the ritual of television’s rigid schedule and baseball lived in the pastoral realm of radio, the NBA found its perfect vehicle within the relentless insular reality of the Internet.
As that generation of writers began to mature, and get mainstream media jobs, they became early adopters of Twitter where they could converse more freely with fellow travelers. Ideas were exchanged more rapidly and norms became codified as part of a shared language. All of this made the NBA season less a slog than a binge-watching delight with friends you know mainly from their avatars.
There was no end to the amount of things you could talk about, from the Memphis Grizzlies style of play (Grit n Grind, y’all) to the pace and space tactics of the San Antonio Spurs. The NBA Internet made celebrities out of cult favorites like Monta Ellis and cast aspersions on sacred cows (sorry, Kobe). It critiqued coaches and GMs relentlessly and mocked traditional norms.
The collective realized quickly that while Twitter could be a source of in-the-moment information, posting the time and score was of little value. The real currency was in the random things taking place in arenas: Celebrities sitting courtside, mascot shenanigans, outrageous outfits and, of course, highlights.
All of those moments became must-watch spectacles. Those moments in turn became the backbone of a new kind of media landscape in which websites like the one you’re reading understood that the culture of basketball was an unending source of content generation.
The effect was that an NBA fan in Spokane could be on a first-name basis with a basketball team in Orlando. Why, one could follow the NBA without even getting League Pass. Just curate a list of NBA Twitter and you could possess a working knowledge of the league and its rhythms.
Suddenly we were awash in content from every corner of the sport. Press conferences became open-ended forums for self expression, staged arena arrivals became fashion shows, practice quotes became fodder for think pieces. The games themselves were secondary to the spectacle.
As other leagues began to push back and claim the content as their own, the NBA made one of its savviest marketing decisions. Like the Grateful Dead, who allowed tapers to record their concerts without fear of arrest or reprisal, the league took no action against individual posters.
Let the people have their vines and like the Deadheads, the people will become your best natural resource. With no pushback and an almost unlimited access to images, clips, stats, and interviews the NBA became inescapable on social media and that allowed its organic marketing machine to flourish.
It helps to have a transcendent star. In LeBron James, the league is blessed with the most durable and accessible player of his generation. No current athlete is more comfortable in the media spotlight and no one knows how to use the awesome power of his own celebrity in the digital age better than LeBron.
He can spin the league on his finger during a prearranged press conference or throw it into chaos with a well-timed Instagram post. He can call the president a bum on Twitter and hold forth for half an hour with the press on a range of social issues. Regardless of circumstance or distraction, LeBron is always in complete control.
Beyond the records and championships, LeBron’s greatest achievement has been showing star players the means to achieving that level of control. As long as they are able to live with the consequences, a star could be free to make their own choices and take control over their destiny.
In hindsight, The Decision was not so much a moment of hubris as a declaration of intent. Take the power, LeBron was saying to his fellow players, it’s yours if you want it. Rather than be indentured to the whims of management, create your own superteam and better yet, get your friends to come along for the ride.
You don’t even need to explain yourself. Simply post a photo of you and your pals on a summer vacation and let the Internet run wild. When is a float not merely a float? When it’s a banana boat. What does that even mean? Nothing and everything. The power is in the mere idea of an open-ended suggestion.
That power was stretched to its logical conclusion when Kevin Durant chose to align with the star-studded Warriors. It wasn’t that KD’s decision was a surprise like LeBron joining the Heat. Durant to the Warriors had been discussed in depth for months leading up to the announcement. It was the sheer force of Durant’s move that upset the balance of the league in 2017.
Apart from the Warriors and LeBron’s Cavs, stars were spread out among teams so that almost every decent team had one. Their individual quests took on their own dynamic, whether it was Russell Westbrook’s lonely pursuit of triple doubles or James Harden’s accumulation of numbers.
This, it turned out, was good for business. A 45-win team may not be compelling in the grand scheme of things, but a 45-win team with a solitary star hell-bent on staging a one-man crusade against all rules of reason and logic was endlessly fascinating. That it was obviously futile against the mighty power of KD and the Warriors wasn’t beside the point, it was the point.
This past summer offered numerous course corrections. Tired of losing to stacked squads, players formed their own allegiances. Rather than risk losing their trust, teams had no choice but to follow their star’s lead and make the necessary moves. Given the charged climate, it was only a matter of time before someone would turn on LeBron and follow their own path.
That someone was Kyrie Irving. His saga dragged all the way through the end of July and into late August before he was finally traded to the Boston Celtics in a blockbuster deal that sent All-Stars to rivals and included a prized draft asset. In any other context it would have been shocking for conference final opponents to swap so many key pieces. In the warp-speed reality of today’s NBA, it was merely business.
Again, this was cast in the most human of terms: Did the Celtics do Isaiah Thomas dirty after all he had done for him? Was Irving really a franchise player? It even filtered down to the GMs. Had young Koby Altman pulled one over on noted dealer Danny Ainge? These were all questions that couldn’t be answered, but could be debated for months. It was perfect.
As of late December, it turns out Irving was right. It took only a few weeks to establish himself as the leading man for a Celtics team that’s inexplicably become one of the best in the league. Free from LeBron’s enormous shadow, Kyrie’s game and persona has flourished. His showstopping virtuosity commands center stage, and his oddball worldview is now endearingly weird, as opposed to bizarrely opaque.
As Irving noted, channeling Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison’s a thief of joy.”
Sure, but watching Irving take over night after night in Boston has been instructive. He hasn’t really changed the way he plays — his numbers are eerily similar to last season — but the context of his season has been dramatically different. In Cleveland he was the young prince in King James’ court. In Boston he is an MVP candidate and the last man holding court in otherwise empty locker rooms.
No doubt other young stars have been watching his example. Already a new generation is taking shape in far-flung markets like Milwaukee, Denver, and Minnesota along with major media centers like New York and Philadelphia. Location matters little in the modern NBA, it’s the environment that counts. These stars will soon face their day of reckoning, as will their franchises, and the cycle will repeat itself.
Already alliances are forming between players and moves are being put in motion that may one day lead to the next great migration of talent. What happens on the court is for the nerds. It’s the backstories that resonate with all their petty dramas and cheap thrills.
This is the NBA in 2017. Turn off social media and you’ll miss something. Log on tomorrow and new storylines will be revealed. The league never stops generating fresh content and we never stop consuming.