Free agency dominates basketball’s fervor

At the end of September, Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe signed a five year $70 million contract with the team. Bledsoe is only twenty-five years old and has had a promising career so far. The Suns, who are building off a young career that was successful last season, are clearly confident in Bledsoe’s ability moving forward. Many view this action as the last official end of what has been a tumultuous NBA offseason.

This past summer, the attention of the entire sports world was focused on NBA superstar Lebron James. Ever since he came into the league right out of high school in 2003, James has been a spectacle. His athletic abilities and basketball IQ are unparalleled in comparison to other active basketball players. In July 2010, Lebron James shifted the landscape of the entire NBA when it was announced that he would be teaming up with stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to play for the Miami Heat. During those four years, James and the Heat made it to the finals every year and won in 2012 and 2013. This past season however, James was forced to carry a larger burden than he had in the past due to the Heat’s aging roster and Wade’s knee issues. The Heat were routed in the NBA finals by the San Antonio Spurs, and, as soon as the series had concluded, the questions surrounding James’ future began.

The moment the Heat lost to the Spurs, sports media immediately moved on from the Spurs’ success to debates over what would happen to the Heat’s big three stars, especially James. Since all three stars had player options to resign with the Heat or to test free agency, it took only one poor showing for people to forget all of the success the big three had enjoyed over the last four years and to instead ask questions about whether James had a better shot of winning somewhere else. The question to ask is why people were questioning James’ status with the Heat after they had reached four consecutive finals? Certainly if the Heat had won, it would be impossible to envision James opting for free agency. However, the Heat did not win, the Heat lost, and they lost badly.

Many analysts believed that James was purely concerned with chasing Michael Jordan’s legacy of six NBA titles and that he would like to move to a team that could provide James with more youthful stars to help carry the burden. Ultimately, he decided to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was able to team up with younger stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to create the next super-team. While the excitement going into this season is high, nothing during the regular season will match the intensity of the 24 hour news cycle this past summer. No buzzer-beater, highlight dunk, fifty-point game or overtime win will match the hysteria that accompanied James’ announcing his return to Cleveland and the subsequent drama involving the Cavaliers’ dealing top overall pick in this year’s draft Andrew Wiggins for former Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love.

The NBA has reached a point where its offseason has become more entertaining than the regular season, and there are several reasons for that. One reason is the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the players union and the owners that was put in place during the lockout in 2012. The CBA maxes the number of years a player can be signed for at five. It also enforces a much stricter salary cap on teams. These regulations have created a situation where players can become free agents more frequently, and many teams in the league will enter the offseason with loads of salary cap room to sign big-name free agents. This was the situation over the summer where many teams with cap space tried to lure free agents such as James, Chris Bosh, Wade, Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony and many others.

Along with the numerous free agents, this year’s NBA draft was loaded with talent. Analysts claimed that 2014 was the best draft class since 2003, the year when James, Wade, Bosh and Anthony were all drafted. The discussions over potential trades for draft picks and what moves teams would make began months before the playoffs even started. Just by listening to discussions on the radio, it sounded like media outlets were devoting more attention to the draft than to the NBA playoffs themselves.

That brings up the other reason why the offseason became so popular; the NBA is just too predictable. With few exceptions, most analysts were able to predict which NBA teams would make the playoffs before the season even began. The league drags out the playoffs over weeks by requiring that teams play best-of-seven playoff series and by allowing eight teams from each conference into the playoffs. Unlike college basketball’s March Madness, there are rarely upsets in the NBA playoffs since, over the course of seven games, the team that is truly better will almost always come out on top, barring injuries.

The other issue is that NBA season is too long. By playing 82 games, each individual game becomes less significant. NFL games are always an event because teams play only 16 games every year. By the last two weeks of the season, the good teams will usually rest their best players for the playoffs, and the bad teams will rest theirs in the hopes of finishing with a poor record to improve their odds at the draft lottery. If there were fewer games, each match-up would carry more weight, and the players’ performance would increase since they could be more rested.

The San Antonio Spurs represent a bygone era in the NBA when star players could come together and play for years on the same team. The Spurs contrast sharply with the Miami Heat of the last four years. The only reason the Spurs have been able to stay together is because the stars took significant pay-cuts.  For most players however, that is simply too much to ask. It will be interesting to see how the league changes going forward, as general managers become more familiar with the ins and outs of the CBA. Ultimately, the draft and free agency are the most unpredictable aspects of the NBA season, and that is part of the reason why they have become so entertaining. The best basketball teams are usually the ones with the best players, which is why acquiring these players either through the draft or in free agency has become so critical to teams’ success.

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