Los Angeles is one of the most inviting cities in the United States, a paradise of warm weather, beaches, and nightlife. New York City remains the cultural hub of North America, and is one of the busiest and craziest cities in the world. Similarly, they each have an iconic NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, which have long traditions and seen great players. However, neither of these teams can land a good free agent in the summer of 2015. Why?
Well, the most obvious reason is that both teams are currently terrible, and unlikely to be good in the next year or two. For NBA players, who can decline rapidly and only have one or two big paydays, moving to a lottery team is not particularly desirable. However, each team does have young players, prospects who could reverse the fortunes of the franchises if they pan out. I think the real reason both teams have lost their appeal is something much deeper and more subtle.
Simply put, the world is far different now than it was 20 or even 10 years ago, and these changes have impacted the way free agents operate at a fundamental level.
1. Travel has conquered the weather aspect. Rich and famous people, including star athletes, have always had the option to have more than one home. They can afford it, and it must be nice to live in different areas depending on the year. Now, however, with the ease of travel and the luxury of expensive/private flights, moving around has never been less taxing. LaMarcus Aldridge could have a house in Portland that he lived in during the NBA season, a residence in his hometown of Dallas to visit family and friends, and a quiet home in Orange County where he can relax or do whatever. You get the picture.
What this means is that playing for an NBA team no longer consigns someone to spend all their time in that teams' city. While everyone who plays for the Timberwolves probably has a place to stay in Minneapolis, I am sure they all have residences elsewhere as well. It just makes sense.
An NBA player plays 82 games if they are healthy, and 41 of those are at home. That means 41 games can take place in "bad weather towns" such as Minneapolis, Detroit, or Milwaukee. And yes, some of their away games are in wintry landscapes as well. But everyone on the Clippers has to go to away games in those places as well. Sure, they don't have as many, but in the grand scheme of things, an extra 30 games (maybe around 50 days equivalent) in poorer weather does not seem like that big of a deal. So when a team like the Lakers, Clippers, or Warriors use an argument to sign with them for the weather, it is probably not very effective. Players from other teams spend their off seasons in Los Angeles all the time, and during the regular season, the amount of travel limits the time spent at "home" anyway.
One of the reasons that the Clippers thought they could keep DeAndre Jordan was because he had played in LA for 7 years and seemed extremely into the city and the culture. Which is true. However, Dallas has a fair amount of nightlife itself, and I would guess that Jordan is going to spend most of his future off seasons in LA anyway.
2. Branding has spread. It used to be that players from smaller cities weren't quite as well-known as those from larger ones, even if they played for successful teams. The market size of Los Angeles and New York hugely enlarged the profiles of the athletes who played in those cities. And it still works like that today to some extent, but.
But smaller market stars have become increasingly prolific in their media dealings and appearances. You can't turn on a sports channel without seeing a commercial featuring Kevin Durant or Damian Lillard. They play in Oklahoma City and Portland respectively, and while both are lovely cities, neither is exactly a cultural or media powerhouse. They make bucket loads of money from these endorsements and commercials, and both consistently rank in the top 10 of NBA jerseys sold as well. LeBron James' popularity has not been hurt in the slightest because he moved from Miami to Cleveland, and Kyrie Irving is thriving right alongside him.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Kobe Bryant are all extremely popular because they play for Los Angeles franchises. They get plenty of commercials themselves, and are highly visible. Perhaps some of that is due to the cities they play in. However, it seems like most of the attention is because they are (or were) great players. Greatness sells, and now it doesn't matter where it is located. This past Golden State-Cleveland Finals had the highest ratings of any NBA Finals in a long time, and that time period includes the Lakers-Boston Celtics clashes in 2008 and 2010. The Warriors-Cavaliers had a higher rating than Lakers-Celtics!
Free agents may think they can get a few more advertisements if they play for New York or Los Angeles, and they are probably right. However, true star players will make big money through off the court deals no matter where they play.
3. The Celebrity Aspect. One of the things that the Lakers apparently tried to sell LaMarcus Aldridge on, and definitely something they tried to recruit Dwight Howard with, was the attraction of living in Los Angeles, the home of celebrities and glamour. Much the same appeal can be made from the Knicks in New York. This argument largely rings hollow in today's social climate, however.
With the advent of cell phones, social media (and to a lesser extent that luxury travel), it is much easier to be "connected" than it used to be. Even if someone is living in Charlotte or Minneapolis, they are well able to communicate with friends and admirers elsewhere.
Do the Lakers really think LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't already have a lot of celebrity connections just because he is from Portland? Please. All of these NBA players have social media connections with each other, with professional athletes from other sports, with musicians and actors, with every kind of celebrity or famous person there is. The seemingly most random people have relationships to one another. Maybe they just hit it off sometime at a party through mutual friends. Perhaps they discovered one another at a club in Dallas. Did you know that Drew Gooden and Aaron Rodgers are apparently close? John Wall was seen at Kanye West's birthday party a week back, and they have no tangible connection besides both of them being famous. All celebrities-including professional athletes- in today's day and age seem to know each other or at least have 2nd degree connections. Living in Los Angeles or New York might help make a few more, but is that really a sales pitch?
The point is, none of these guys needs or wants to play for the Lakers or Knicks just to become more popular with other famous people, or to acquire a couple more connections. No, they are already plugged in, fully aware of any big event that's happening. It is all the easier for NBA players, who can afford quick flights and hotel visits if need be.
4. The Upshot. So what are the advantages of playing for a "high profile franchise" in a "big market"? A few extra commercials? 40-50 more days in the sun? A couple more famous people in your "I can break bread with this guy" list?
None of those benefits is worth substantially less money, or a worse playing situation. The money is obvious, but never forget that while basketball is a job to NBA players, it is still one they enjoy and love doing (for the most part). Why play in Los Angeles with a grumpy Kobe and a bunch of rookies and minimum contract players when one can go to San Antonio and have perhaps the greatest basketball coach of all time mentoring you, possibly the best ever player at your position helping him, and two All NBA defense wings to help you out on that end of the floor? Is the choice a difficult one? At all?
The NBA has built measures into place in order to help keep the larger markets from swooping in and stealing the smaller markets' young stars, which seems to suggest that the league is still worried about such things happening. While larger markets are still more enticing, it is interesting that Aldridge turned down the extra money of Portland not for Los Angeles, or even Phoenix, but for the proven championship mix in San Antonio.
The next time the Knicks or Lakers call on a max contract star in free agency, they need to look around at their competitors, look at their own team, and start planning accordingly. There are still some advantages to big market teams, but they need to be tempered with actual basketball reasons to join and backed up with competitive amounts of money. If you have youth, like the Lakers, discuss just how promising Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D'Angelo Russell are. Ditto for the Knicks with Kristaps Porzingis, Jerian Grant, and Langston Galloway. These arguments will likely be more persuasive than any discussion based on lifestyle. Even if they aren't great their rookie seasons, sophomore and junior players make significant impacts all the time.
D'Angelo Russell could be a draw for free agents, a reason to switch teams. Jack Nicholson being in attendance at all your home games is merely an interesting fact, one that wears off quickly. Bringing a championship to Madison Square Garden would vault one's legacy beyond almost anything else, but is playing in New York, with its pushy media and impatient fans, really worth it? Next year, when Kevin Durant is a free agent, Los Angeles and New York teams will be in the mix, as they always are. But it won't be a surprise to anyone if they end up being bridesmaids at the altar.