The Works: Fear and Loathing in 2011 Free Agency
But first, what it means to be a 2011 free agent.
Jumping the Gun: The Worlds wouldn't make it stop, but at least, we thought, they might bring some relief. We could use just such a lull, for basketball to not be crowded thick with CBA concerns and stars telegraphing their need for instant gratification. Well, we got about a weekend off, and then the offseason from hell made its next great leap forward.
I'm referring, of course, to reports that Carmelo Anthony isn't just hesitant to sign an extension, or seek a trade before the deadline: according to Woj, Melo told the Nuggets that he wants out, sooner rather than later. On a related note, Hawks guard Jamal Crawford, coming off the best season of his career, wants an extension or a trade out of Atlanta, the only winning team he's ever known.
Anthony and Crawford aren't in identical situations, nor are they comparable players. On a good day, Anthony has franchise implications; Crawford has rehabbed himself into a nice pick-up.
But the motif is the same: as time slips away, and the icy-cold death-tentacles of the new collective bargaining agreement creep nearer, players want their situations settled. There will be no waiting game, no hedging against next summer. They want their money. They will also be trying to stay relevant in the post-Heat league. And we should all start preparing to see it happen far sooner than expected. If the Summer of 2010 had its own special nature, 2011 will be marked by, among other things, this sudden call to action. Something about the fierce urgency of now, I suppose.
Carmelo Anthony, no matter how vulnerable he is to criticism, is a major player in this league. Go with all the double entendres you want in that sentence; they're all supposed to be there. That means he's looking to cash in, as all high-level employees have a right to, and at the same time put himself in a position to win a title.
After this summer, the latter is both easier to envision -- build yourself a fantasy team -- and harder to pull of. Especially since teams, like Melo's own Nuggets, have grown so fond of dumping competent executives. Maybe players are bringing all sorts of evil into the house of sport by wanting to copy the Heat. But really, how different is that from unimaginative teams trying to spend their way to a championship? There's no difference, really, except the players have an actual sense of who they might gel with and why.
Digressions, digressions. Anthony is the prize jewel of next summer, and along with Chris Paul, the name that most frequently crops up in discussions of a new super-team being formed. The winds blows; Kevin Durant is in a position to ignore it, given everything that's right and good about the Thunder. Melo, given the state of the Nuggets, can't pretend he lives in a vacuum. Denver is pushing its extension hard because they knew, at some point, Anthony would get jitters about the figures that would be available to him under this next CBA. So he went and one-upped them. They tried to head off free agency at the pass. Melo's response was to trigger it now.
Anthony is a unique player, but it takes someone more ordinary to signal the beginning of a trend. That's why the Jamal Crawford story matters. Crawford is, relative to Melo, a working stiff. When he's intent on moving the timetable forward, that's something real. The Hawks just paid dearly to lock up Joe Johnson long-term, and are about to do the same for Al Horford. Crawford, who figures that Atlanta sees him as a valuable part of the team, would like to get in on the fun. Otherwise, the chances are higher that he'll be lost in the shuffle until next summer, when his deal expires -- and the new rules, whatever they are, would take effect.
Crawford hasn't out and out said, "I want to be traded to a team that will grant me an extension." But if he's concerned about the Hawks' ability to compensate him properly once all is and done, presumably he's hoping to go to a team that can offer him that security -- under the old rules, of course -- now. Or, at very least, seems likely to make him a higher priority when it comes to 2011, and whatever changes comes with it.
Anthony's situation is a complex, multi-faceted basketball melodrama, but we're seeing one major theme emerge -- one echoed in Crawford's case, and one would expect, several more to follow. No one wants to wait around and see what this summer brings. If they have plans, the sooner they tend to them, the better. (BS)
In Case You Missed It: I went to Springfield for the D-League's Fantasy Clinic, where I rubbed shoulders with Hall of Famers, gained some new insight into the NBA's baby brother, and found out that room service waiters make for great sources. Read about it here. (BS)
All That Thunders Ain't Thunder: On Friday, Rob Mahoney of Hardwood Paroxysm raised an interesting point. If everybody loves the Thunder -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and unconventional ideas about position -- then why isn't this edition of Team USA a critical darling? After all, it's practically built around Durant, has Westbrook on the roster, and is stuffed with guards and swingmen.
What's the difference? Well, for one, Westbrook isn't starting in Turkey. But it's deeper than that. The Thunder look weird because they're supposed to, or at least Presti has determined that he's engineered a combination of players that works. Team USA was stuck with the guys willing to show up. As it turned out, this consisted mostly of guards and versatile small forwards. This summer's squad couldn't be normal if it wanted to be; Sam Presti made a concerted choice to go in an unconventional direction. The future has not come to our national team, no matter how much we wish it were so.
Which brings us to another key distinction: it's one thing to be an up-and-coming NBA franchise, whose narrative is expected to unfold over the next few years, and a young Team USA just filling in for the summer. In the league, Durant and company are a work-in-progress, working toward greatness all the time. Team USA has one shot before the Redeem Team takes back over again -- at least for the time being.
Finally, there's the shadow of 2008's team. During the season, the Thunder are the most novel, dynamic thing going. Stick some of those same player in international competition, though, and it's impossible to not compare them to LeBron, Wade, Kobe and the rest. It makes you wonder: will the Thunder lose some liberated fans when the Heat unleash their multi-valent brand of ball on the league? (BS)
Speaking of Liberated Fandom ... : No red-blooded American would ever have dreamed of rooting against Team USA in Beijing, because the Olympics are sacred and holy. The Redeem Team could feature players as deeply hated as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Bosh and people would still have -- oh wait, all those players were on the team. But the nation still rallied around, stayed up late and cursed La Bomba's teardrop runners.
But the World Championship is different. Without gymnasts and swimmers, whose only highly public competitive mission is to glorify America, there just doesn't seem to be the same nationalist fervor, at least for Team USA. I went jogging Friday morning and saw an 80-year-old walking his dog and wearing -- no lie -- a Dream Team-era USA Basketball cap. That's about as patriotic as it gets these days.
That begs the question: is it OK for American NBA players to root for other teams during the World Championship? Is there liberated fandom in international competition, or is that just selfish individualism? I'm not talking about rooting for Iran, or even China. But Slovenia seems innocent enough. Can I root for that team to beat up on Croatia? Can I pick sides in Greece vs. Turkey, and continue to root for that team throughout the tournament, even if or when they meet Team USA?
The World Cup exposed a little bit of this, in that everyone seemed to be rooting for host South Africa, and then last remaining African competitor Ghana. There are also style-of-play preferences, deep heritage (I'm 1/16th Portugese, so I feel a real connection to Cristiano Ronaldo, OK?) and the presence of our favorite club players on their home teams.
But those excuses could be used to explain one's extra-geographic rooting interests in the NBA. Liberated fandom is supposed to be more than that. It has no rules or conditions or reasons. With liberated fandom, your fandom just is, no strings attached.
And there's an issue completely unfamiliar to the soccer realm for the United States: we're so clearly better than most opponents that we are, until the later rounds, a Goliath fighting David after David. Who wants to root for Goliath? In fact, there's a uniquely American strain that encourages us to root for Davids. That tends to be second to personal preferences in the rooting pecking order -- Lakers fans don't hope the Clippers win out the battle of L.A., ever, no matter how piddly the Clips' chances are -- but underdogism widespread and strong. Can that spread to international play? Is it wrong to hope Leandro Barbosa catches fire Monday and puts Team USA on its heels, to hope Tiago Splitter makes Lamar Odom look like a spinning top? Do we need to be out of Afghanistan before one can get away with this?
These are the questions of our times. (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.