It is possible to sympathize with the players in the empowerment era and not love the ever-changing NBA landscape as a fan.
I have been wrestling with this notion for several years now, maybe ever since The Decision, because people are passionate about the subject one way or another, and both sides have a point. I supported Kevin Durant’s right to leave Oklahoma City for the Bay Area despite the competitive imbalance it created, just as I support his right to join the Nets despite the sexier story arc across the Brooklyn Bridge. Who am I to dictate what makes him happy? But also: Who is he to dictate what makes me happy?
The relationship between players and fans is more complicated than ever, and Durant embodies that more than anyone, with the possible exception of LeBron James. Durant broke OKC’s heart by enjoying a whirlwind affair with Golden State. He is bound by no fanbase, not in the way Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ faithful have embraced each other, and Durant may be at peace with that.
The recent retirements of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and Paul Pierce have left Curry as the exception rather than the rule. There is a reason Nowitzki’s one championship means more to Dallas than the two Durant won in Golden State and LeBron won in Miami. Even LeBon’s return to Cleveland seems like a dalliance at the high school reunion. There is a love lost between player and fan for the next generation of Hall of Famers, and I have yet to find peace with that.
Kawhi Leonard navigated the new NBA normal better than anyone last season. Unlike Kyrie Irving in Boston, Leonard made no commitment to Toronto. The terms of engagement were clear. He gave a championship-starved Raptors fanbase everything he had while they were together and left everyone satisfied when he embarked on his next conquest. His signing with the Clippers has been billed as a homecoming, and he may well settle down there, but make no mistake: He can be a free agent in two years.
Everyone is a free agent, it seems. At least, the trade that sent Paul George by Kawhi’s side made it seem that way. He too can leave on his own accord in 2021. And if the Anthony Davis saga taught us anything last season, it is that a star is also not bound by a signature that says there are two years remaining on his contract. In the NBA, it is not even until free agency do us part.
I grew up a Celtics fan, and I would like nothing more than to see Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown become to this generation what Pierce was to mine and Larry Bird was before him. But I am under no such illusion, even after Brown signed a lucrative four-year extension. If there is any romanticism left to my fandom, the Celtics’ treatment of Isaiah Thomas all but extinguished it.
In two short years, Thomas forged a bond with Boston unlike anything I have seen since I started covering the NBA. It culminated in the emotional night when he played before an adoring playoff crowd on the day his sister died. He laid his body and a $100 million contract on the line for the city, playing through severe injury, only to be traded months later — for Irving, no less, a paragon whose eyes were wandering almost as soon as he pledged his loyalty to a horde of season-ticket holders.
This works both ways, you see. We are reminded more and more by everyone involved that the NBA is a business. The delicate dance the league just performed around the Hong Kong protests is the latest example. Nobody wants to root for a business. We would at least prefer the perception that a symbiosis between player, team and city is still possible. Giannis Antetokounmpo may be our last hope, and I grow increasingly skeptical about his commitment to Milwaukee with every star who changes his stripes.
I am convinced the day will come soon when someone demands a trade on his rookie contract and maybe even as a rookie. True or not, rumblings about Zion Williamson’s desire to play in New Orleans poured water on the start of their relationship, as if Pelicans fans would have approached it any other way after being dumped by Davis and Chris Paul for the bright lights of L.A.
Maybe the generation of fans who devote themselves to players rather than teams has it right. Players can let you down, too, but at least then you are not putting your faith in the hands of some other billionaire heir you have no investment in. But there is a love lost there, too. Part of the fun of being a fan is sharing the experience across generations with your family, your friends, your city. A title for the Knicks would pull harder at your heartstrings because fathers and sons spent their lives waiting for it.
If anything, the empowerment era has taught us to live in the moment, to treat each season as if it were the last, because it may be for your favorite player on your favorite team. Hold on tight to Ben Simmons, Philadelphia. Appreciate Bradley Beal while you can, D.C. Embrace Russell Westbrook as if he were always there, Houston. Maybe we can all learn to love the NBA again.
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