On Chasing Waterfalls

Image result for red rover game vintage

“Rover, Red Rover” – Arthur Leipzig

Free agency in professional sports, in its ideal form, is the best and most prominent example of the free market at work that exists in this country. A worker earns their keep; their employer either decides that they are or are not worth the trouble, and then there are suitors everywhere lining up to give that person their just deserts. It’s deceptively simple.

Yet – and that word does a percentage of the salary cap’s worth of lifting here – it is much more deceptive than simple. The salary cap itself is one measure of inequality-via-equality; were LeBron James ever paid as much as he deserved in his career, he would likely be rivaling Gaius Appuleius Diocles at this point. Alas, at least in salary-capped leagues[1], the reality is thus: make what you can of what you have, and be judicious with your forecasts. A tornado doesn’t have to spring up to be destructive; if it gets you to move, it’s done enough of its job.

With the Los Angeles Lakers’ apparent before-the-after-the-fact trade of Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones to the Washington Wizards as a part of their technically-impending trade for Anthony Davis, as well as Davis’ waiving of a $4 million trade kicker, the team managed to open a third max salary slot. This seems important because of how it sounds, and it does give general manager and ex-Kobe agent Rob Pelinka some muscle going into free agency, which was to begin July 1st but will now open the night of June 30th.

In reality, the Lakers have, erhm, a roster of exactly three players as of right this second: LeBron James, last seen as the greatest living basketball player, playing golf in the middle of a basketball game; Anthony Davis, a perpetual Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate who was once presumed to be the next-greatest living basketball player, and at times, still does; and Josh Hart, who has maybe never played golf nor been regarded as the greatest basketball player of any time[2].

The Lakers have a max contract slot[3], and plenty of people now presume they have a shot at any of the top-tier free agents, such as Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler or, gasp, LeBron’s ex-teammate Kyrie Irving. Any or all of those could be in play; neither you, nor me, nor the source you saw on some offbeat Lakers blog that only posts between the hours of 3 and 6 am Pacific time knows, and the sooner we accept that, the better.

Unless that Los Angeles franchise intends upon rolling out a 3-on-3 lineup ahead of next year’s Olympics, however, the Lakers ought to be judicious in how they spend that money. We all saw what happened to the Warriors, and even though many factors were at play, not the least of which being the overall wear-and-tear of playing another full season and change over the past five years, we know that depth is of the utmost importance. Just ask Anthony Davis, whose last good Pelicans team swept the Portland Trail Blazers, who this year were in the conference finals and, yup, were at the hands of a Golden State sweep.

Beyond the Lakers, though, there are so many other dominoes to fall: what does the team with whom they share an arena, the Clippers, do? They’re reasonably favored to get Kawhi Leonard, should Toronto not retain him. The Brooklyn Nets are now maybe, possibly favored to get Irving – what does that mean for their inter-borough mates, the New York Knicks, in their seasons-long quest to secure the services of Kevin Durant, who will miss at least most, if not all, of next season? In the biggest free agent offseason since the seminal 2016 cap spike, all eyes are open, all of the time.

Al Horford is definitely out of Boston, and now the Celtics face an identity crisis involving, of all people, Terry Rozier. The Phoenix Suns made a number of seemingly insane moves just before the draft, and now everyone wonders if they’ve gone Principal Skinner in order to protect their “core” of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton.

This has thus far left behind players like DeMarcus Cousins, who joined a winner to become one, only to smell defeat getting ripped out of the jaws of certain victory, or Kemba Walker, who might leave the perfectly, hospitably-racist city of Charlotte for an imperfectly, hospitably-racist city in Boston, or Tobias Harris, a case study in “maybe he is, maybe he isn’t” among max contract candidates, or Klay Thompson, who is more likely to return to Golden State than not, but in the sense that Kevin Durant was once as likely to return to Oklahoma City than not.

We haven’t even gotten to Khris Middleton, whose possible departure from Milwaukee could severely disrupt a burgeoning East power. None of it even touches upon the tiers below A- or so, players like Bojan Bogdanovic, the Morris twins or Rodney Hood.

As alluded to above, the NBA made the decision to move the free agency starting period from 12:01 a.m. on July 1st to 6 p.m. on June 30th. That will make some things easier, but then, those things have been brewing all along. Once one domino falls, it’s only a matter of time until the rest follow.

We can all harbor our guesses, but nobody knows what is going to happen Sunday night. As with everything in the 24/7, 365 NBA, all we can do is watch, and hope that everybody involved – the teams, with their salary cap decisions; the players, with their life decisions – make the best moves for themselves.

*     *     *

[1] Other people can (and have!) far better explain the situation in Major League Baseball than I, but woof – for a league without a salary cap, there is a LOT of underpaid labor happening at every level.

[2] No disrespect to Josh Hart, the last remaining Laker tyke-turned-tween.

[3] The size of which depends on the salary cap itself, which: I know, that’s unnecessarily exhausting, and you’d rather get back to researching space-saving yet aesthetically-pleasing couches. Me too. Anyway, here’s this.

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