What a ride this NBA free agency season has been. It is hard to recall a time over the course of the NBA’s history that was more befitting of the venerable label of “silly season.”
While I am writing this story today about the biggest NBA free agency story – which just so happens to be a collection of bits that most of the mainstream media has been distracted from covering – it is hard to ignore this LeBron fella and his recent decision. LeBron has managed to kill his brand and reduce himself to a coward. LeBron has managed to easily differentiate himself from real champions like Kobe Bryant. While Kobe did put up a stink a few years ago, forcing Shaq to leave town, he also used his leverage to create a better situation for himself. But, he did so without causing a massive stir in the sports world and wearing out the poor Twitter Fail Whale. Bryant quietly signed a three year contract extension to be in L.A. through 2014.
Kobe understands how to keep his head down. He also understands how to win championships. While L.A. used to dominate with flare and showmanship, the Kobe anchored Lakers keep their heads down and win. As a reward for that hard work and championship determination, the Lakers have also earned my nod for the biggest story of free agency.
You see, the biggest free agency stories are not always the ones that garner the most media attention. They are the ones that put the team in a better position to win a championship. The Lakers free agency is packed with those types of stories.
Of course the biggest was getting Kobe Bryant to sign a three year extension in April, well before all of the craziness we’re still not on the other side of yet. It did not make huge headlines. But, sometimes it’s not about the splashy moves – it’s just about getting better. That is what makes for a good narrative, and a good story.
The supreme challenge for a champion is to get better despite the underlying difficulties to achieving that lofty goal while sitting atop the league. It truly takes a champion to win out, then evaluate weaknesses and continue to get better. The biggest winner of 2010 free agency has not been any team involved in the sweepstakes – it has been the current champion, quietly and deliberately getting better while the rest of the NBA universe sits distracted.
Aside from the key Kobe signing, the team also inked the very underrated Steve Blake. Derek Fisher is not getting any younger, but Blake is also a reliable floor leader, a solid defender, and an efficient shooter from the outside. Adding him to the backcourt is a smart move that makes an already good team even better.
After adding a good player – and having targeted several more even at this supposed late stage of the free agent season – the Lakers biggest story was stability. Phil Jackson will return as coach for another shot at a championship. Seven of the last ten seasons have showcased the Lakers in the Finals, complete with five wins. That is the kind of stability every team covets, but only the Lakers have. The ability to preserve that is not splashy and does not make big headlines, but it makes the team better.
Speaking of stability, Kobe also announced that he is not playing in the World Championships. After a long season where Kobe nursed several injuries, it is understandable that he would take some time off to heal and take another run at yet another championship. Stability is important, and Kobe’s reasons are noble.
It is hard to avoid comparisons today, so pardon the comparison to LeBron James. LeBron indicated that he, too, would be skipping the tournament due to his busy schedule. That unavoidably busy schedule was an appointment with the most gratuitous and self-aggrandizing event in sports history, and a movie that has been indefinitely (and likely mercifully) delayed.
The lesson here is that the “biggest” stories in NBA free agency are what teams are doing to contend for a championship. One team has made a series of quiet moves to embolden its position and contend for yet another championship. That team is not the Miami Heat, not the New York Knicks, and not the Chicago Bulls. It is the L.A. Lakers – the REAL biggest story of free agency.