Inside The NBA’s Free Agent Frenzy
It looked about how I had imagined an NBA “war room” would look. On one wall, a list of every team in the league with every player underneath including full salary information. On the other, a board with the top 200 draft prospects listed in order. Still, sitting down in a chair at the large executive table felt a little bit odd.
This was the summer of 2010. The summer of LeBron James. I had signed on to be a consultant for an NBA team just weeks earlier and here I found myself a small part of the largest free agent chase in NBA history.
It was a couple of weeks prior to free agency and the draft, and after making my way over from the expensive hotel room next door to the arena offices I was ready to get to work. On my short walk over, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some way I could ditch the posh hotel room I was in and hole up in the Motel 6 a couple of miles down the road, pocketing the difference in cash. I knew this might crimp the style of a traditional NBA employee, but the practical (okay, maybe cheap) nature was ingrained in me from an early age.
“What the hell is a consultant, anyway?” I wondered to myself as I walked. I had a unique profile as a psychologist, professor, former media member and longtime student of the NBA. I was prepared to help in whatever way I could. I had a bit of an advantage in that this was not my primary means of income. As such, I didn’t have to kiss anyone’s ass. I could give my opinion regardless of how it might be received.
The day started with introductions before I was ushered into the war room. Here I was briefed on the team’s plans and asked my opinion about a variety of players. Scenarios to sign LeBron James or trade for Carmelo Anthony (who had demanded a trade just weeks earlier) were concocted no matter how crazy they might seem at first blush. This was actually a quite enjoyable exercise that tapped into my creativity; something I wish was called upon more frequently in NBA front offices.
As the morning turned into afternoon, I was left alone in the room with the VP of Basketball Operations. A number of calls were made, on speaker, around the league. The first call was made to Steve Kerr, who had just been relieved of his duties in Phoenix to wish him well. Next, calls were made gauging the availability of various players on most every team. I simply sat and listened during the calls and was consulted periodically in between calls. I took very detailed notes knowing that information disclosed in these calls may prove beneficial in the days and weeks to come.
At one point, a couple of other employees entered the room. Since they weren’t talking to me, I took a quick glance down at my phone. I prepared to scroll through some of the NBA trade rumors. Old habits die-hard, I suppose. As I took a swig of water, I almost spit it out before it could reach my throat upon reading the first rumor. It noted that we were “having discussions” regarding a certain trade. My astonishment stemmed from the fact that we had just gotten off the phone with the other GM in the aforementioned rumor and very nonchalantly mutually agreed that there was no deal there to be made. I chuckled loud enough so that others in the room looked in my direction.
Having covered the NBA for a number of years I knew how the game worked, right? I was well aware that people with various agendas whether it be executives, agents or media members with some kind of vendetta sometimes lied during free agency. However, what I observed over the coming weeks revealed that I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did or at least the frequency and magnitude at which certain events occurred.
There were media members who undoubtedly got some things right. However, many more did not. On the calls I was privy to over the next couple of weeks, I always got some amusement looking at the rumors section and seeing how there was this kind of alternate reality that was created there, and this reality didn’t just involve the team I was working for. When speaking with other teams if one is even mildly sophisticated it is relatively easy to get an idea of a team’s general plans. So often what was reported in the media couldn’t have been further from said plans.
It is worth noting that, as we had done earlier in the day, NBA teams hold discussions with all other NBA teams during certain times of the year such as the trade deadline, draft and free agency. As such, two teams “having discussions” really isn’t news. You could have asked me at any point that summer if the team I was consulting with had spoken with any of the other 29 NBA teams and the honest response would have been yes. Notice that I wrote honest response.
The way many NBA teams operate today isn’t that different from how major political campaigns are run. While we don’t see smear advertisements on television (yet), there is much thought and effort put into “controlling the message.” If an organization can get a message out consistently and through many channels, people will often believe it regardless of its truth-value.
In this process, there is much misdirection. It is not uncommon at all for team personnel to lie to the media to advance a certain agenda. Further, there are directives from the top to not disclose some information while disclosing other information is encouraged. Naturally, when I had information I could share I did so with the people in the media world I liked.
When people at the top shared good information with media members, often a beat writer, there was an unspoken agreement that said media members would return the favor and “take care” of the organization. The favor was often returned down the line with a “puff piece” by the writer singing the praises of the organization or the executive who delivered the information.
Sometimes I forget that fans haven’t seen behind the curtain. As I read rumors in the media it can be easy for me to take the wisdom I’ve gained over the years for granted. What the media writes or says is reality for fans because they have no other sources from which to get their information. It was reality for me, too, prior to seeing how the sausage was actually made.
What is perhaps most interesting is how much fans seem to love living in this alternate free agent reality. I often say that most fans really don’t care about the NBA Finals while they are going on. Instead, they usually seem to be worried about what’s going to happen next. I suppose some of this is just human nature, but when thinking about the future comes at the exclusion of experiencing what is happening now, that is worrisome. It may not be worrisome in the world of basketball, but it is worrisome in life. And after all, this culture of the NBA is a microcosm of society where events that really matter happen.
The other element of the free agent frenzy that intrigues me is this need to know first. Fans want to know where Dwight Howard will sign, and like Veruca Salt in the classic Willy Wonka story, they want it now. If someone could get the information weeks before the general population, perhaps this would make sense. But in reality, whomever breaks the story will have it a mere seconds before everyone else in this Twitter driven age we live in. This same mentality has made watching the NBA Draft an antiquated exercise since every pick is announced prior to “the official” announcement on Twitter.
Why not just sit back and wait until Howard announces where he will sign? I’m sure the team he chooses will let us know about it in short order.
It is much like waiting in line for hours in the freezing cold to get the next best technological gizmo or pair of brand name shoes. Wait a couple of weeks and you can walk in and pick one up with no fuss. It seems that as a society we invest too much of our identities into the socially constructed status and power that comes with being the first to have a piece of information or something material. Then again, I could be turning into the jaded old man who is taking for granted the privilege of being able to spend some time behind the NBA curtain.
If the media’s version of the free agent frenzy is your bag, kick your feet up and enjoy. Who am I to tell you otherwise? Heck, guys getting paid millions of dollars to play with a leather ball is a wacky alternate reality in itself.
We might be wise to take Danny Ainge’s advice from earlier in the week: “Don’t believe everything you read, especially on Twitter.”
And Ainge would know since NBA executives and team personnel are the genesis of their fair share of the bologna that spreads like wildfire on social media.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.