Boston Celtic legend Larry Bird sat down with ESPN’s Bill Simmons to talk about basketball, of old and new. When talking on the idea of ever leaving the Celtics for bigger and brighter lights, Bird said:
“If you have an elite player come through, especially a small market, you’ve got to hold on to them players. They’re not born every day.”
The hostage situation small market teams have been under in the last couple years has left a nasty taste in the mouths of many NBA fans. Supporters in Cleveland saw LeBron James turn his back on a city that gave him everything. Denver Nuggets fans sat with a knife partially stabbed in their backs for the entire first half of the 2010-2011 seasons, waiting for the Carmelo Anthony domino to finally fall. Most recently, there’s Dwight Howard, who already has his bags packed for when the inevitable move comes from Orlando. The tendency with these star players was to force an exodus from the “lack of attention” in their situation, in hopes for great recognition and allure in larger markets.
The reality of the NBA is that there are really only 5 major markets. New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. That’s it. To assume all the stars will be able to play in these cities is fickle thinking, though the stars themselves seemed to believe this was the reality. Until recently.
For the nastiness of ‘The Decision’, the ‘Carmelo drama’ and ‘Dwight Might Move’, there has been a positive trend being noticed in the league. The next wave of NBA superstars have proven loyalty trumps royalty and taken steps to stay with the teams that have drafted them.
It began with the reigning MVP, with Derrick Rose signing a 5 year, $94 million deal, almost as quietly as one could for a deal of this stature. The always humble Rose expressed a strong desire to remain with Chicago through highs and lows, something the likes of James, Anthony and Howard would never have had the gaul of saying. While the city is a major one, the hype around the move was minor, mainly a result of Rose’s quiet personality. Never one to overshadow the team, he simply went about his business, perhaps setting precedent for the moves that followed.
With the criticism of Russell Westbrook at the end of Oklahoma City’s 2011 playoffs, came the expectation he would refuse to re-sign with the Thunder, opting out for another opportunity with rumours of a Lakers signing coming this summer. Westbrook put those speculations to rest signing a 5 year, $80 million extension to continue playing sidekick to Kevin Durant. Durant himself intact, just days after LeBron’s Miami signing, inked a max-deal of his own, breaking the news via twitter.
The Timberwolves have been awful since the departure of Kevin Garnett, but it’s another Kevin that gave them a ray of hope. Kevin Love, over his 4 year career, has steadily emerged as the games best power forward. No reason for him to stay with a tumultuous Minnesota franchise that never seems to make the right moves right? Well, a 4 year $60 million contract signed near the end of January says otherwise. It may not have been a 5 year max-deal like Westbrook or Rose, but an extension nonetheless to stay with the small market Wolves in the hopes of contending with the nucleus being built around him.
The secret is clear; build around your star. You can argue Cleveland, Denver and Orlando attempted too, even successfully with the franchises making deep runs in the playoffs during their star-player tenures. The egos with the players were the factors in those cities, maybe leaving a resounding effect on the breed of stars that followed. The negative press received for making trade demands, hostile team moves and comments through the media simply isn’t how a lot of new players were raised. The new breed clearly have a desire to show the old-school stars that winning can occur on any team, simply with talent that makes up your team, not with the city name associated with it.
Take off-season free agents Arron Afflalo and David West. Both were expected to receive huge coin from big market teams. David West was nearly a Celtic, but opted for a move to much small Indiana. Oh by the way, the Pacers are sitting 4th in the East right now, ahead of Orlando, Boston and New York. Afflalo, and more recently Danilo Gallinari felt the core in Denver was worth holding on to. Both are Nuggets for 4-more years, with many expecting the current 4th place Nuggets to do some damage come playoff time.
Look, no ones saying the Lakers, Celtics and Heat of the world are no longer viable options for NBA players. Many players grow up dreaming of playing with the historic franchises of the league. If the opportunity came up, many would surely jump on it. The key word however, was “if”. Up until 2 years ago, you could very well have forced your way onto those teams, but not anymore. It just a short matter of time the ego-centric, headline-driven, me-first league has taken a right turn, literally and figuratively.
In this schedule heavy year, simply have 2-3 superstars fill your team isn’t quite enough. While in the end, talent in the playoffs might trump hear and desire, there certainly will be an element of drama given the emergence of teams like the Pacers, Nuggets, Thunder, Blazers and 76ers. Teams not expected to contend right now (with the exception of OKC), suddenly look like forces to be reckoned with. All because loyalties of different sorts are beginning to form.
Maybe smaller is better.