We’re Going Home

“My city got a bill and I just came to pay it.”

Hometown by Arrogant, ARRO 

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lj3I’m coming home: with these three impactful words, the NBA family, its fans, and especially, the city of Cleveland knew the decision that LeBron James made in his 2014 free agency.  LeBron, the best basketball player on the planet, and one of the greatest of all time, chose to leave the sunny beaches and palm trees of Miami to take his talents back to the industrious people and frigid winters of Northeast Ohio.  Not only did James leave the glitz and glamour of being in Miami, he also left his best friend, Dwyane Wade, who was his right-hand man in winning his first two NBA Championships.  He left to play in a city which, at the time, had not won a championship in any of the four major professional sports for 50 years.  James’ departure also marked one of the only times that fans of any sport saw an elite player in their respective sport leave a Championship contender to sign with a team that had not made the playoffs for years, for the sole purpose of winning a Championship, and repaying their dues to their home town.  The ripple effects of this move resonate throughout NBA, and will continue effecting free-agency decisions for the near future.

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The gem of the 2015 NBA Free-Agency period was Power-Forward LaMarcus Aldridge.  Aldridge spent the prior 8 seasons in Portland after being drafted second overall, averaging 23.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG and leading his Trailblazers to the 5 Playoffs appearances, including 2 consecutive appearances in his final two years in Portland.  Despite teams like Los Angeles, Toronto, and Phoenix making their pitch to Aldridge for his services, it was a small market team in Texas that won the Aldridge sweepstakes. Aldridge, a native of Texas and a former Texas Longhorn, decided to forgo the lights of Los Angeles, and the heavy recruiting (including the Aldridge billboard featured above in downtown Phoenix, to return to his home state and sign with the San Antonio Spurs.

Perhaps the most head-scratching instance of a player going back home was the departure of revered Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade from South Beach, where he had played for all of his 13 years in the NBA, to play for his hometown of Chicago to join the Bulls. Though teams like Denver and Milwaukee were also in the mix to sign Wade this offseason, it was his hometown that ultimately had the greatest pull.  We even saw 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Award winner Dwight Howard leave his teammate. MVP candidate James Harden, to head back home to play for the Atlanta Hawks.  Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 4.28.05 AM

With the NBA Salary Cap climbing this past year from $74M to $94M, and poised to climb again next year to a projected $106M, many teams will have the ability to sign at least one player to a max contract.   As recent history has shown, this upcoming 2017 Free Agency could prove to be just as bizarre an off-season as the last.  Could we see an irritated Russel Westbrook demand a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder, leaving them like his long-time teammate Kevin Durant did?  And if so, would it potentially be to his hometown team, the Los Angeles Lakers?  And might they re-sign the electric UCLA alumnus?  

With both Durant and Westbrook leaving Oklahoma City, the Thunder would have a large spot for another start to fill on their roster, and who better to fill that spot with than upcoming free agent, Oklahoma native, and Oklahoma University alumnus, Blake Griffin?

Going even deeper down the rabbit hole, if the chemistry between MVPs Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry doesn’t work out as expected, and Curry feels that he is losing his domain to Durant, would Curry consider a move back home to join the Charlotte Hornets?

Just to make things even crazier, if Durant finds that he regrets his move to the Bay Area, and doesn’t find the success that he wants, could he opt-out of his deal with Golden State and choose to go home to D.C. and join John Wall and his former coach Scott Brooks?

Though unlikely, similar events might unfold; it seems that when players choose to leave their team in the off-season, it is only acceptable to the public when that decision is made through the desire to play for one’s hometown.  Maybe the stigma of leaving in free-agency is lessened because of the public’s understanding of the importance of family and friends being close to you.  Maybe it’s because the familiarity and comfort of being back home is something bigger than sports.  Or maybe it just makes for a better story, and a much greater reward if the athlete wins it for their home team (see LeBron James).

A homebound movement might be on the NBA’s horizon.  Already, players are saying no to the teams that drafted them, disregarding large-market teams, and saying no to teams that could offer them a better chance to win a championship or make more money. Instead, we may see NBA players choose to return to their hometowns to play the role of the prodigal son and attempt to will their hometown team to NBA glory.  We’ve seen this trend develop in a handful of stars already; though, one superstar insists that an NBA homecoming isn’t in his cards:

by Daniel Ianetta