A Tale of Two Cities – The NBA Free Agency

By: Yennaedo Balloo

The NBA is coming close to providing entertainment 365 days a year. The Toronto Raptors won this year’s Championship nearly 3 weeks ago, but to those expecting things to quiet on the NBA front, they’re instead hitting the fever pitch of a free agency marked with some of the biggest names in the league available to sign with new teams.

There are 30 teams in the league, and some blockbuster names are up for grabs. To simplify things a little, I want to focus on the two cities I’m closest to: my hometown of New York City, and my adopted city of Los Angeles.

New York

Robby Sabo, ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Over the course of my lifetime both New York and Los Angeles went from having one NBA team each to now having two (albeit L.A. a little before my lifetime: the Clippers moved from San Diego in 1984, but the Nets only came over to Brooklyn from New Jersey in 2012). I bring this up because in both geographies there’s an interesting civil war for free agents at play in the respective marketplaces (both are touted as the wealthiest NBA markets for players to be in).

Starting with New York, it’s an interesting dilemma of the Knicks feeling like the established “star” team, while the Nets are the New Jersey transplant. As far as New York team identities go the Knicks have the history, but not a very long resume of achievements. Elder millennials like myself remember the Patrick Ewing era Knicks that gave us hope of finally winning a championship in the current NBA era that were never realized, so New Yorkers don’t have as much history or accolades justifying one team being preferred over another aside from an individual’s personal history (not so much for Los Angeles, but more on that later).

Thus, it’s pretty easy to hate the Knicks. Back in the early 2000s I picked the Clippers as an alternate team to root for (long before I ever moved to L.A.) because the Knicks were bought in 1999 by absolute doofus, James Dolan who has proven time and again what a jackass he is. The Knicks front office has been a mess for the better part of two decades, and the future continues to look bleak.

To make matters worse, they don’t have sole ownership of the rich New York marketplace anymore, they’re competing against a fresh team that’s been managing and developing its lineups extremely well for years now, The Brooklyn Nets. So when I hear the rumors that both New York teams are placing bets to try to land Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? My money’s on the Nets having the much better pitch if both teams are really willing to pay Durant to recuperate next season as forward investment on him playing in 21-22.

My love for the Knicks is something I’ll have to live with forever, it’s a truly painful year to year burden so trust me when I say that I’ll be completely nonplussed to hear Durant signing a deal with the Nets and Kyrie following suit. Who are the Knicks ending up with? My guess is going to be Harrison Barnes, maybe Khris Middleton if they’re already laying tracks for those talks, and DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins in the expectation that he’ll fill the role of “mentor” for RJ Barrett which will only end poorly for all those involved.

Los Angeles

L.A. is something of a dark mirror to New York: a two team city, yes, but a very different dynamic. You might have heard of the Lakers, which has won 16 championships in its history. You may not have heard of the Los Angeles Clippers, who have not even shown up to a Conference Finals in their history.

Depending on who you ask what the cause for the Lakers’ current run of losing seasons is (ironically, just like the Knicks, it’s been 6 years since the Lakers made the Playoffs), you’ll get short term answers related to lineups for a particular season, but the root cause really goes back to Kobe’s final contract and its continued ripple effects on the Lakers’ salary cap and resulting contract decisions leading all the way up to where we are today with things finally looking like they’re starting to course correct.

I say they’re starting to look that way, LeBron is one of the greatest players of all time and he’s going to be joined by Anthony Davis next season thanks to a blockbuster trade. On top of that, the Lakers have cleared cap space with enough space for a max contract player. Add in the news that Kawhi Leonard is taking a meeting with the Lakers in free agency, and it’s the recipe for Los Angeles Lakers fan becoming immediately insufferable with their confidence that it means Kawhi is as good as a Laker already, but also that the ring Davis’ trade made a strong possibility is thus a guarantee.

First things first: who’s the starting 5 for the Lakers? Who plays sixth man off the bench? What about your 7, 8 and even 9 slots? Teams need depth, especially with LeBron not only playing fewer minutes but also playing less transition to both ends of play, depth is going to be crucial. Smart advice from just about everyone is: skip a third max player, and sign 3 mid tier role players. I saw the Clippers make the same mistake in trying to force the Deandre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul triple star lineup with Austin Rivers as their 7 and guys, I had my heart broken every damn year and wept tears of knowing how it was always going to end into my Blake Griffin jersey.

The other factor is the history of winning championships: the Lakers have won 16, and people assume that helps the argument. However, Kawhi got to bring Toronto their first title, and all interpretations of the race for Kawhi have the Raptors as the top possibility. I think there’s honestly a valid argument to be made for Kawhi getting to run it back with the Raptors and validate the chip, or bring the first championship to yet another team and be the first player to win 3 rings in 3 different starting lineups. 

People in L.A. rag on the Clippers plenty but they’ve consistently made the playoffs for a number of years, and this year managed to take 2 wins of the fully healthy Warriors lineup in the first round. Kawhi can be the difference maker and establish an all new kind of legacy never yet seen in the NBA through the Clippers. On the Lakers? He’s expected to add another trophy to a pile or get chased out of town for anything less.

Okay, good advice aside: I think the only reason Kawhi accepted the meeting is because he has manners, his mom raised him right. Plus, he’s from L.A. and I think he knows he couldn’t possibly play in this city for either team while snubbing the Lakers. In case the implication is too subtle, I’ll put it stark black-and-white: I think him taking the meeting with the Lakers is actually because there’s a strong possibility of him signing with the Clippers and he knows how etched in this city’s fandom of the Lakers is. He’d get booed every night if he didn’t just give the Lakers a couple hours of his time to at least hear what they have to say.

All the arguments from people touting Kawhi coming to Lakers essentially boils down to: who doesn’t want to play with LeBron? Who doesn’t want to win more championships? Who doesn’t want to be a part of the best starting three ever?

Answers: plenty of people have chosen not to play with LeBron. See Kyrie Irving above. I think Kawhi’s personality actually swings in the other direction of Kyrie’s, in that he wants to be part of a balanced team, not a squad heavily behind a banner star (see: his time with Spurs). I don’t think anyone can guarantee anything as far as championships are concerned, if anything the best bet for that is for Kawhi to stay with the Raptors. The one thing making L.A. attractive to him is home and family, and his work ethic these past few years clearly indicating that being able to earn his way back to L.A. is something he’s been working for. However the course of that history shows some ill omens for the Lakers: he likes stability, and he likes focus, and shies away from spotlight antics- he’s a working man and a true team player.

LeBron doesn’t have the best reputation as far as that goes, and we haven’t heard anything about LeBron having a role in Space Jam 2 for Kawhi either. Not to mention all the drama of the Lakers’ front office this season? (Magic Johnson’s shit show run as President leaves a lot of stink still lingering around the office) and that just seems like exactly the kind of circus Kawhi would prefer to avoid if I’m looking at, say, anything he’s done in the past two years.

While for hilarity sake I think the Lakers should consider signing J.R. Smith, in reality they have a better fit for the team they’re building in Jimmy Butler and the only vocal contender for Butler’s contract is Houston, which has been doing a terrible job by negotiating with itself to the deafening silence out of Philadelphia. Honestly, you put Butler to round out a starting trio and I think that’s the best chemistry and play style match up you could hope for. Short of that, while they’d be taking at least ⅔ of the season as a sunk cost investment, signing Klay Thompson, if at all a possibility, is an option the Lakers should definitely pursue. All of the above is if the Lakers really want a third superstar, but I repeat: the better use of that $32M the Lakers have cleared is going to be invested in depth rather than another individual peak.

To close out: the Clippers frankly have me worried. I think we’re in good running to sign Kawhi. Right now I’d place the odds more in favor of the Raptors. This has been a recent era of “firsts” in the NBA the past few years, but I can’t wrap my mind around a starting player (Finals MVP no less) leaving a team he just won a title with. I hope he does, and I hope he signs with the Clippers, but if that’s the headline I’ll need to reread it a few dozen times from a few different sources before it’ll really sink in. I don’t know what the Clippers’ backup plan is if Kawhi doesn’t come over. Maybe the organization being so tight lipped is part of the pitch: Kawhi is infamously quiet, we can match that discretion and give you the drama free homecoming you want.

Mr. Balloo is the hardest working man in show business. Follow Yannaedo on Twitter to keep up to date with his busy schedule, and bookmark Optional Irony for great content including a very special artist interview series!

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