Welcome to Basketball Christmas.
After nearly a year of build-up, arguably the most anticipated day on an NBA fan’s calendar has finally arrived.
The point where months of never-ending NBA gossip finally materializes into real things that really happen.
There’s nothing else like it; a slow-motion earthquake of fun that gives way to a volcano of news.
For Canadian hoops fans, a twist: after decades as a wallflower, hoping to get someone’s attention, the NBA champion Toronto Raptors are in the centre of the ring. They’re trying to fend off contenders on all sides for Kawhi Leonard, the most coveted free agent of them all, a two-time Finals MVP who holds the Raptors’ future in his massive claws and would change the future of whatever team he decides to join if he leaves.
In a sport where one player can alter the direction of a franchise and tilt the axis of a league, the free-agent deadline – which has been moved up this year to 6 pm EST on June 30th to make for better prime-time viewing than the traditional 12:01 July 1 tip-off – is the moment when the league’s present and future collide in an annual Big Bang.
And, like Christmas, sometimes it’s just too tempting to not open a few presents the night before, so on Saturday night came the hints and ‘sources’ and the whisper of moves all but finalized – Kemba Walker to the Boston Celtics; Kyrie Irving to the Brooklyn Nets and Jimmy Butler everywhere.
It’s fun. Essential theatre for even casual fans. It’s a formula other leagues would do well to emulate but never quite will.
Even the NBA got here much by accident. The league went through two work stoppages to rein in player costs and make it easier for teams – of all market sizes – to keep their own stars while also protecting owners from over-paying aging or injured players on deals that used to run eight, nine or 10 years or more.
But those victories came with some unintended consequences.
A cap on individual salaries meant that the league’s best players are paid under the market value – imagine Leonard’s actual worth in a world where the Lakers, Clippers, Raptors and Knicks were able to get in a bidding war – so money being largely equal, NBA stars prioritize things like the market they want to play in, the teammates they want to have and the coach they prefer rather than something as reductive as a paycheque, which is going to be largely the same wherever they go.
Meanwhile, the four- and five-year maximum contract lengths (five years for incumbent players; four years for players on the move) the NBA established in the 2012 lockout means a steady churn of stars closing in on a new deal and a new round of uncertainty.
In turn, teams are so conscious about not losing an itchy-footed superstar for nothing in free agency even players a year or two ye