No, the Hawks won’t sign Kevin Durant. However, this year’s free agency will still have major implications for the future in Atlanta.
At the end of January, the New York Knicks traded away their future in the form of 7’3″ forward Kristaps Porzingis, one of Phil Jackson’s few successful draft picks during his infamous tenure with the franchise. They dealt the Latvian unicorn in exchange for what essentially amounts to cap space.
By trading their young franchise cornerstone, the Knicks gambled on a trend that has existed for years in the NBA but may be waning. New York bet that the storied (yet surprisingly unsuccessful) culture of Big Apple basketball alone will draw in marquee free agents this offseason with the cap space they created in the Porzingis deal, despite the fact that the Knicks themselves currently own the NBA’s worst record. However, evidence suggests that now more than ever, fans, media pundits and even players themselves evaluate individual careers based on team success. Whether or not this gamble pays off will hold significant meaning for young teams like the Atlanta Hawks, who will look to be on the come-up within the next few seasons.
Over the past decade, many stars have taken their talents to marquee destinations despite knowing that those franchises probably wouldn’t give them the best chance to win. Carmelo Anthony forced his way out of Denver not so long ago, drawn into New York by the same lure that the Knicks hope will attract stars like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant this offseason.
Dwyane Wade left South Beach to join the larger-market Chicago Bulls three years ago, despite offers from other franchises more poised to win. Most recently, LeBron James bolted for the blue skies and glamor of Los Angeles to join the Lakers-a team constructed around an uninspiring young core-as opposed to signing with a championship-caliber team like the Rockets or 76ers.
However, excluding James’ free agency decision, Kevin Durant’s arrival with the Golden State Warriors in 2016 marked the beginning of a meteoric shift throughout the NBA. Star players realized the massive challenge of dethroning the Warriors, who had just signed the second best player on the planet following a 73-win season, and began to value teams that gave them the best chance to compete as opposed to the biggest market size. Chris Paul essentially traded himself from a larger market in Los Angeles to a less glamorous but more competitive Rockets team. Kyrie Irving demanded a trade from his spot next to the game’s most famous player in Cleveland in pursuit of a much more favorable situation in Boston. Paul George said No to Los Angeles and opted to stay in Oklahoma City, hoping that the Thunder would give him the better chance to knock off Golden State in the playoffs.
More than ever, players are prioritizing winning over market size, which brings us back to the Knicks’ gamble with Porzingis, and how this year’s free agency will even affect teams not going after big names, such as the Hawks.
If the Knicks are able to sign a Kyrie Irving, a Kevin Durant, a Jimmy Butler, etc., or some combination of big name talent, that will prove that some stars still prioritize size and market attractiveness over competing for championships; unless Irving and Durant are added and combined with Zion Williamson this offseason, New York will still not contend.
However, if these free agents instead eye teams such as the 76ers, Nets (who are filled with young talent and have room for two max contracts), Bucks, or even the Mavericks (home now to both Porzingis and Luka Doncic), there will be further proof that today’s players prioritize winning and the direction of the team over everything. For instance, let’s say that the Raptors make a deep postseason run this spring and Kawhi Leonard opts to resign there instead of heading to the Lakers. That would mark yet another example of a star player focusing more on which team will give him the best chance to contend as opposed to who will help improve his brand. This would be significant down the line for the Hawks as they continue to accumulate young talent and clear cap space to eventually sign max free agents. Whereas middle- and small-market teams like Atlanta used to be shut out of meetings with premiere free agents, now they may take general manager Travis Schlenk’s phone calls, assuming the Hawks continue to develop their young core.
A lot will decided about the future of the NBA come July.
Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network