What’s possibly more fun than the NBA regular season? NBA free agency. The NBA free agent season breathes the same kind of life into the NBA as the year-round obsessiveness with the NFL, from draft to combine and into training camp and pre-season. In 2014 we are all process junkies – it’s not enough to follow our favorite shows or sports, we have to follow the creators and performers on twitter, we have to stay constantly apprised of the behind the scenes machinations that used to be the province of the very few who put in the work to get access, but is now available to everyone with an obsessive urge to refresh for hints on Carmelo Anthony’s destination.
And despite my Bulls’ failure to land the biggest fish once again, this particular NBA free agent period felt pretty light and jubilant, like a league unequivocally embracing the present and a gleeful reconfiguration of its puzzle pieces, the shifts of power more swift and acute than any that could actually be accomplished on the hardwood.
The tone was set by LeBron James, whose homecoming completely flipped the narrative that began with “The Decision” four years ago. Today’s NBA is an interactive drama broadcast not only on TNT and the Disney/ABC/ESPN power axis, but also streaming through millions of smartphone screens every second. All this is to say LeBron is acutely aware of this narrative and his power over it, aware that he controls both the plot and structure of his story as well as the individual “sentences” – the game by game and moment by moment successes and failures on the basketball court – that will ultimately combine as his legacy.
It’s probably saying too much to postulate that LeBron is operating exclusively on this level, but as a man who has won multiple championships and is still at his peak skill level, he has the luxury of factoring narrative arc into the equation – after all, what else is there left to accomplish beyond a transcendent legacy, a good story? [FN1] LeBron’s return to Cleveland is good for him on multiple levels – he erases the heel turn put in place by The Decision; he escapes an increasingly bad basketball situation in Miami with absolutely no negative press for bailing outside South Beach itself, who will probably forget about both LeBron in particular and basketball in general sooner than later; and he positions himself as the unquestioned alpha on a talented and flexible team that was already set to improve markedly even absent the return of the King. If LeBron up to now was a man who found objective success at the expense of a higher purpose or calling, his decision now sets up the possibility of redemption for himself and the city that birthed him.
LeBron’s choice of Cleveland is also good for the NBA. On a marketing level, it’s a no-brainer. If Cleveland basically stands pat other than its big addition of LeBron, the move opens up the East to a number of potential contenders, including Carmelo’s Knicks and my beloved Bulls, all of which means increased hope, and increased interest, from fan bases who might have tuned out a little while the Heat seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut that could be penciled into the NBA Finals without a second thought. And if Cleveland completes a move for Kevin Love, the NBA gets another potential super-team to market, with LeBron, Love, and Kyrie Irving forming the Big Three 2.0 (or the Big 3.2).
The names remain the same but the shuffling of the board produces a fluidity that is exciting in its potential, like a line breaking unexpectedly in a poem that at first glance seems predictable but upon exploration feels wild and fresh, that gives a shot of energy and a springing step that signals anything could happen.
FN1. For Michael Jordan, the answer would be more winning. While Jordan made choices off the court that were designed to maximize his palatability to a mass audience, his sole basketball concern was sheer domination. If doing a thing gave Jordan even a fraction of an edge over his competitors, he did it. The obsessive drive to win became Jordan’s legacy, but any calculated move made even in part for legacy purposes would have paradoxically undermined that legacy.