On the NBA: Navigating the Darwinian Capitalism of Free Agency

Sizing up this summer’s free agency snags and draft maneuverings is, of course, something like a prospector’s fumblings at where the next lot of gold will pop up. Last summer’s Lakers, in other words, are never too far from this summer’s Lakers. No one knows. But the smart consensus says—as it usually does—that things have changed a lot more in the middle of the pack, and at the league’s bottom, than they have at the top.

The Clippers would like to argue otherwise, but it remains to be seen if Chris Paul will ever play in a conference finals, and what Doc Rivers is capable of with a couple of much less game-on, grit-centric types in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as two of his starters. One might even wonder who will have a harder time adjusting to his new personnel’s ego tendencies: Rivers, or Brad Stevens, his Boston replacement fresh out of mid-major college.

The Rockets, too, have a case to make for new contention. There are many mysteries surrounding Dwight Howard, however, and they amount to a strong league-wide suspicion that his pedigree’s a changing one; he was a shell of himself last season, bad system or not, and his team’s been laughed out of the playoffs two seasons in a row now. This can be called circumstantial, of course. But so can the quick three years in which Howard was a legitimate All-NBA superstar, and not a defense-and-rebounding specialist whose numbers are only a few ticks better than Omer Asik’s. The argument that Houston is now a title contender is best made on the grounds that Asik is now an asset, and can be converted into another crucial piece—which has yet to occur, clearly—or that his pairing with Howard will be dynamite (not looking like a good start, there, as Asik is now asking to be traded—which makes sense, as he came to Houston to get out of Joakim Noah’s shadow). Otherwise, the argument for the Rockets as heightened contenders lies with the chances of Dwight’s extraordinary resurgence, or on the strength of…. Howard’s fame?

The Brooklyn Nets continue to tread in the water of heightened mediocrity and debt with their own decisions, as the added pay-load of Garnett, Terry, and Pierce wins them more press-conferences than playoff series; they’ll still be lucky, next season, just to be better than the Knicks. That rivalry, however, should be ridiculously fun to watch, as the venom between the former Celtics and current Knicks has localized, and compounded a budding NYC acrimony. And Jason Kidd has turned into something like Helen of Troy in this war. Here’s hoping the teams meet for a 4-5 seed showdown, in round one of next year’s playoffs.

The best splashy move of the off-season goes to the second most-hyped: Andre Iguodala to the Warriors. Iggy (which is so much easier to type) has long yearned for a culture as dialed-in and built for his talents as Golden State’s. The Warriors won’t need him to be a primary scorer, but only to bolster their defense, wreak havoc on the break, and create extra space for their shooters. It’s a match made in dreams, and I’d call the Warriors real contenders, now, if there wasn’t so much evidence against Steph Curry’s and Andrew Bogut’s consistent health.

The title favorites remain who they’ve been: Miami, Miami, and Miami. San Antonio deserves a place alone in the second tier, for coming within milli-hairs of a coup, and the rest of the usual suspects still remain on the fence between champions and not, too. OKC, Chicago, and Indiana all have cause to trumpet their mission for the O’Brien, but none have an answer for LeBron, who can neutralize each best player on those teams (excepting Roy Hibbert), and who really only needs competence from his supporting cast, to win against essentially any opponent. Yes, the power structure toward the top of things has largely unchanged. King James still watches his throne without real fear, as the middle of the league mostly chases its tail in attempt to do something seismic.

The most dynamic off-season action lies now, as it typically does, in what happens in the ambles down into the standings’ cellars. On the way you’ll find teams of varying, mysterious competitive capabilities—and also teams whose long-term plans and intentions are quite muddy. Who’s playing to win, and who’s waiting for a lottery savior, or just biding their time for the right free agency class? Who just doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing? Who might not even care?

A particularly interesting case, in this territory, is the Sacramento Kings. Sacramento pulled its lucrative multi-year offer to Iggy off the table, almost immediately after making it, and who knows why? Perhaps they figured that with an established home, ownership interested in keeping it there, a new coach, and an under-the-radar gem in new point guard Greivis Vasquez (who led the league in APG last season), they have something good enough to finally cultivate DeMarcus Cousins’ considerable talents, as well as Ben McLemore’s. But, also, that they had something not so good that they couldn’t still add a potential superstar to the mix, from the much-vaunted 2014 draft class. Or maybe they just took a better look at Iggy and what they were offering him, and a better look at themselves, and saw the trappings of free agency confining their project; shooting expensive flares into whatever’s available on the market does not rags-to-riches make. I’m excited to see where the Kings go, now that it’s definitely not Seattle.

The Hawks and Bucks, meanwhile, confuse, confuse, confuse me. Danny Ferry all but gutted his roster, and for what? Most assumed he was starting from the ground up in the hopes of a title contender, especially in bringing in the ostensibly culture-making Mike Budenholzer from the Spurs, as his new head coach. But now he’s filling up his blank slate with a good post-player in Paul Milsap who happens to double over on what Atlanta’s already got in Al Horford, and he’s courting Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, neither of whom have shown themselves to know the first thing about efficiency (all of which is not to discredit the re-signing of Kyle Korver, whose league-best shooting will be an asset, at the very least, for all of his contract). Perhaps they’re drunk on the market, which is short on the kind of wing-players they’d like to have—or perhaps the Hawks are confident in something I can’t see. Perhaps Budenholzer can bring up the games of young men as well his Spurs have over the years, and the difference between Danny Green D-League and Danny Green Finals Hero is one he can transplant onto either Milwaukee transplant.

The Bucks themselves, however, appear inept to all with eyes, at this game. Enslaved to a foolishly simplistic competitive tenet, Milwaukee’s constantly staying good enough to slip into the playoffs, but never allowing themselves the chance to start over; to draft high, and claim a player who could take them further, or eventually be traded for more valuable pieces, like Carmelo was when he pushed out of small market land. Bucks management, instead, seems totally unaware of the fact that they play in Milwaukee. They are not a free agent destination, and can not afford to behave like one, if they’ve any ambition beyond the first round of the playoffs. Their poor fan-base will continue to struggle.

Or maybe not. Maybe, to the eyes of the normal fan, the look of basketball glory is not what us NBA Blogsters make it out to be in our Armchair GM columns. Maybe winning two more games in the first round is awesome, and maybe O.J. Mayo is going to make fans that much happier than Ellis, and Zaza Pachulia’s winning spirit will absolutely delight the state of Wisconsin. Maybe the Bucks are in the business of entertainment, not winning, and maybe the CBA’s revenue-sharing bears this out.

Maybe following the NBA need not be such a hyperfocused exercise of Darwinian surrogate glory, but more like a comic strip, poking us through the drudgery of days with familiar faces. This seems the healthier perspective, as a fan. This seems a release from the extended stress of our day-jobs, reminding us constantly that we’re the over-stretched fodder of late, late capitalism, that ultimate exploiter of the underclasses. The NBA can only remain this version of fan hell so long as we buy into its championship-or-die ethos. So let’s try not to; let’s try to see all players as the unequivocal success stories that they are. Let’s try to enjoy every bit of daily delight that the sport has to offer us, without tripping over ourselves for more.

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