It’s a player’s world, and the Sixers are somehow standing on the right side of it.
That’s the biggest takeaway from a frenetic first week of free agency that saw a radical redistribution of resources between the NBA’s upper-echelon teams. You’d need a Richter scale to accurately gauge the upheaval that professional basketball has experienced since last Sunday, which makes it fitting that the final major shock wave that swept through the sport this weekend was preceded by a couple of actual earthquakes in the new epicenter of the NBA’s competitive landscape.
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In signing with the Clippers and bringing another star with him, Kawhi Leonard not only engineered the berth of a new betting favorite for the 2019-20 title, he also significantly diminished the title hopes of three other organizations. Suddenly, the Raptors and Thunder have gone from entertaining legitimate championship aspirations to contemplating the prospects of a painful rebuild. The Lakers, meanwhile, saw their dream of a three-headed Super Team evaporate with Leonard’s decision to spurn LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the opportunity to join Paul George and a ready-made supporting cast on the opposite side of the Staples Center.
We’ve long known that the players have the power in the NBA. What we’ve seen over the last week is evidence that, over a long enough period of time, that power can express itself in a direction that benefits the sport as a whole. The Super Team Era probably isn’t over, but the Era of Angst About the Super Team Era might be. Over the last year, we’ve seen Leonard engineer his departure from the Spurs, Kyrie Irving leave the Celtics for the Nets, Kristaps Porzingis force his way from New York to Dallas, and Kevin Durant move on from one of the greatest casts of talent ever assembled on an NBA roster. We’ve seen the Rockets fail to add a third superstar to its tandem of James Harden and Chris Paul. We’ve seen the Knicks fail to add anybody. When taken in totality, it serves to undermine the conventional wisdom that the NBA is a place where parity is dead, and where the super rich will always get richer, and, thus, where every franchise that is not an established member of the sport’s economic or competitive elite is left to attempt to tank its way to a title.
As of Sunday, there were eight teams with Vegas odds that valued them as having at least a 6.7 percent chance at winning next season’s title. In each of the three previous seasons, there were three such teams in that category at the start of the regular season. That might not serve much solace to fan bases in Toronto and Oklahoma City, but from a utilitarian standpoint, the developments are positive ones. In fact, all that we have witnessed serves as a strong argument that there are a lot more blueprints for title contention than the binary Tank-for-Stars or Pay-for-Stars construct that is commonly held up as reality. The Nets and Clippers both spent the previous few years building a roster of complementary parts that left them on the verge of instant contention through good drafting and keen asset management. All they needed was a superstar to recognize the opportunity. In both cases, they ended up with two.
It is a similar tale in Toronto, despite the devastating impact that Leonard’s departure will have on the Raptors’ short- and medium-term title hopes. In order for Leonard to leave, he first had to arrive, and the fact that his one year there resulted in the franchise’s first title was a testament to the roster that the organization had assembled over the years leading up to their landing of a star. In doing so, the Raptors offered an alternative way forward for teams outside of the NBA’s traditional destination markets. Given the events of the last couple of seasons, are the odds of a team drafting a superstar in the top five dramatically better than their odds of being in position to trade for a season or two of service from a disgruntled superstar? Create a stable organization with personnel evaluators and payroll managers and roster manipulators who are good at their jobs and perhaps you, too, can end up like the Raptors or the Nets or the Mavericks or the Jazz, the latter of which has put on a clinic in assembling a title-worthy roster through nontraditional means.
It might sound strange to include the Raptors in that group in the wake of Leonard’s departure, but the reality is that their long-term future does not look all that different from the way that it did before he arrived. With Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, they have a group that is just as capable of losing in the first round of the playoffs as it was and would have continued to be with DeMar DeRozan still in the fold. And if they elect to trade away Lowry and Gasol and rebuild on the fly, well, that’s a choice they were going to have to make at some point even if Leonard had never graced them with his presence.
As for the Sixers, they have arrived at the point that they’d envisioned when they began their rebuild under Sam Hinkie. The music has stopped, and they have a seat at the table, with two burgeoning superstars who are content where they are and a couple of big-dollar additions under contract for at least the next four years. The roster they have constructed is about as talented a group as you could have hoped for back in 2012-13. They are co-favorites in the Eastern Conference, with good reason to assume four or five years of stability within their rotation.
It has always been a player’s world. The Sixers wanted to get to a point where they could be major players in it, and that point has arrived.