Soon there will be a display in Springfield, Mass., reminding of the arcane term that the NBA used to call free-agent recruiting.
There, at the Basketball Hall of Fame, they will play a loop of the Family Guy-style cartoon the Cleveland Cavaliers entertained LeBron James with in 2010, display the satchel of championship rings that Miami Heat President Pat Riley routinely took on offseason tours, offer a mannequin of Tiger Woods for his role in the Orlando Magic’s failed recruitment of Tim Duncan in 2000, offer context of why there was a Hamptons Five that won championships for the Golden State Warriors.
It used to be that the proposal for a free-agent marriage was everything, with NBA executives and legends reduced to props, pitches and pleas.
Now? Not so much, with these NBA Finals the latest example.
A year ago, the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that had made successful previous free-agency pitches to Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, stood poised for a similar audience with Jimmy Butler.
One they would not receive.
Because at the June 30, 2019 start of free agency, Butler arrived at the Heat’s AmericanAirlines Arena offices prepared to sign.
Says who? Said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, at last weekend’s close of the Eastern Conference finals.
“We never even got into a pitch with him,” Spoelstra said ahead of these NBA Finals between the Heat and Lakers. “We really just had dinner. We were talking shop and he interrupted Pat and I after dinner, probably five minutes into just a conversation, and he said, ‘By the way, I’m in.’
“We’re like, ‘What? We haven’t even given you our pitch yet.’ ”
If the quickness of that pitch-less closing came as a surprise, then consider how, that same day, Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks learned that Kevin Durant would be joining his team in free agency: by an Instagram post released on Durant’s public account.
“We were all sitting in the office and we all got that in real time,” Marks said the transformative moment. “We weren’t even sure if we were getting a meeting that night or a telephone conversation with him.”
Understand, it was just three years earlier that Durant entertained suitors at a $13 million house rented in New York’s East Hampton. There, he was courted by Riley, as well as the Warriors quartet of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Golden State’s foursome closed the deal, thus the birth of the term Hamptons Five.
The following year, the Heat were involved in a similar recruiting battle, this time for Gordon Hayward, touting everything and anything about South Florida, including appealing to Hayward’s love of tennis. Ultimately, he signed with college coach Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics.
By then, the trend had shifted.
When James left the Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, he barely allowed Riley to get a foot in the door of his Las Vegas suite. And when James left the Cavaliers for the Lakers in 2018, it was a decision seemingly made well in advance of the start of that free-agency period.
Just as Kawhi Leonard long had hinted of a desire to return to California well ahead of his July 2019 decision to join the Los Angeles Clippers. Or just as Kyrie Irving had been linked to his eventual destination months in advance of leaving the Celtics for the Nets that same offseason.
In the wake of such rapid free-agency decisions, the NBA enacted stricter tampering rules, everything down to the right to dump cell phones of team executives.
But as Butler, James, Durant, Irving and others showed, the empowerment no longer is with the executives. It is with the players. They decide where they next want to play, then leave the details to others.
So it was Butler in 20 minutes to the Heat, Durant in less than that to the Nets, James with bags packed well in advance of the return to Cleveland and then the move on to Los Angeles.
No cartoon remixes, no satchel of rings, no visit from a golfing icon.
Recruiting has given way to relocating.
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