Chris Ryan: We are about to kick off the 2019 NBA Finals, but I find myself pretty consumed with what will happen during 2019 NBA free agency. The two are related. There’s a good chance that no matter which team wins the Larry O’Brien paperweight, both participants could see their best player leave this summer. Kevin Durant could bounce from Golden State, and Kawhi Leonard might not renew his lease in Canada.
What does it mean if the NBA Finals are not enough? Maybe this is a matter of the only two players capable of making whatever team they join NBA finalists. Leonard has just proved how quickly he can turn around a franchise’s fortunes, and a healthy Durant would probably have the same if not greater impact on whatever team he inks with.
I’m not particularly scandalized by the notion of walking away from a winning situation for parts unknown, but it seems different than when Durant left Oklahoma City to get closer to a championship, or when LeBron James left Cleveland for the second time. The reasoning behind a possible Leonard departure would presumably be that he doesn’t like the cold? He never chose Toronto; Toronto chose him? For Durant, it’s even harder to parse. Maybe it’s time to prove he can do it on his own. Maybe he is tired of hearing that he ruined basketball and the Warriors will always be Steph’s team. Either way, neither player will leave for money, and neither will leave to have a better shot at winning. It seems like we’re entering a new era. The Age of Inscrutability?
Justin Verrier: Or maybe we’re resetting to a time before Michael Jordan became the archetype. Titles always mattered—it is, y’know, the point of the game. But Jordan’s single-mindedness, and all of the stories trumpeting Jordan’s single-mindedness, bred a sort of rings masochism, best represented by Kobe Bryant. Even as LeBron James established a new paradigm by teaming up with two other max players in Miami, his decision was being made in service of the same goal: to win as many championships as possible. Not one, not two, not three …
But think of how that mind-set is received today. Jordan is a crying disembodied head. Slap an extra s or two on “rings” and the word warps into a term of derision. “LeBron is post-titles” is a real thing that real people say. Maybe it’s the product of something as far-reaching as a shift in culture, but at the very least, the public pressure to stack championships no longer seems all-consuming. As a result, players are beginning to weigh other priorities more heavily. You still play to win the game, but it’d be nice to also play in a cosmopolitan city with all your friends.
If Durant were to join a blank slate in New York to be near his businesses, or whatever motivations he would have for choosing to work for Jim Dolan, it would seem closer to when Shaq left the Magic, fresh off a second straight Eastern Conference finals appearance, for the Lakers, fresh off a loss in the first round, in no small part because of his interests in Hollywood and interest in extending his endorsement reach. Isn’t that closer to how things work in soccer, too?
Ryan: Yeah, so, the soccer thing. This is in the air a bit, with Marc Stein’s interview with Adam Silver about possibly introducing a League Cup to the NBA. Your comparison to Shaq is on the money, but I wonder whether someone like Neymar would be more accurate. Neymar is from Brazil, is one of the four or five best players in the world, and, during his time at Barcelona, was part of maybe the greatest attacking trio in the history of the game, playing alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. In 2015, Barcelona won the treble (league, league cup, Champions League). In 2016, they won a domestic double. In 2017, Neymar helped or