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Is Dirk Nowitzki The Last Single-Franchise NBA Superstar?
Does loyalty still exist in the league?
by Louie Claudio | Feb 2, 2018
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The end of January capped off a bizarre week in which DeAndre Jordan, famous for being "held ransom" by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the Clippers in an attempt to reverse his commitment to Dallas in 2015, suddenly found himself alone as the lone proprietor of Lob City in California.

Paul couldn’t have bolted faster from the Clippers earlier this season, presumably tired of losing to the Golden State Warriors every year and shouting at teammates every game. Griffin and Co., betrayed and blindsided by the decision, have tried—to varying success—to fight the Clippers curse and prove themselves better without Paul—but it was clear the dribble-happy guard's loyalty was to winning and not Steve Ballmer.

Just this week, the Clippers unceremoniously traded the oft-maligned and injured Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for younger, more injury-free players. The five-time All-Star, publicly incredulous over losing his standing over a team he has committed nine injury-ravaged years of his career, proclaimed the following in his press release with Detroit: "I want to play for an organization that wants me to play there."

In a single season, the Clippers have shown the two ugly sides of loyalty that blur the lines between sentimental and practical values on and off the court.

One-team players/superstars/icons are a dying breed.

Such is the reality of the NBA today, where only fans who have invested in Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili jerseys have managed to reap its benefits well beyond 15 years. All three players, despite having completely different styles and career trajectories, are products of systems that have weathered changes in playing culture, roster styles, and ownership mindsets—all of which required patience and discipline on both front office and players alike.

Nowitzki, currently in the midst of his 20th season, is enjoying above-average efficiency in a significantly smaller role for the Dallas Mavericks. He is far from the player that dominated the 2011 Finals, and yet he continues to play in meaningful spurts by avoiding isolations, forced shots, and drives that he can no longer do, relying instead on catch-and-shoot situations which encourage younger Dallas guards like Dennis Smith, Jr., Seth Curry, and Yogi Ferrell to roam free around the basket.

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Parker and Ginobili’s transition to limited roles wasn’t as graceful as Nowitzki’s, but the San Antonio Spurs’ wealth of talent and ingenious drafting helped it maintain competitiveness by allowing their understudies Patty Mills and Danny Green to learn effective basketball alongside—and not in spite of—their accomplished peers. Even now, the Spurs have continued to pass on the torch, this time to a young, unproven Dejounte Murray.

Two other active players have played longer than 14 seasons: Udonis Haslem and Nick Collison, immortal workhorses for the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder respectively who did the dirty work needed to reach the Finals. Their presence continues to be both a benefit and reward for their respective teams, as long as they can provide leadership and good habits to today’s younger, more antsy players at a bargain bin deal.

Why is it then, that the possibility of long-term loyalty for a single team seems highly unlikely as each season progresses? Why is it that despite Jordan, Marc Gasol, and the mighty Russell Westbrook currently in their 11th season, it doesn’t seem like they will be staying for the long haul?

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Changes in culture and market forces may have something to do with player’s growing impatience with their home teams, and here are some of our theories:

Mo money, mo problems

Five years ago, Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant were the highest-paid players in the NBA, valued upwards of $50 million in salaries during the 2012-13 season.

In 2018, after the cap explosion resulting from the new TV broadcasting deals, here are some names with $20 million annual income and up:

Paul Millsap – $31.3M (3rd highest)
Al Horford – 27.7M (11th)
Jrue Holiday – 26.2M (14th)
Chris Bosh – 25.3M (15th)
Otto Porter – 24.8M (17th)
Chandler Parsons – 23.1M (25th)
Harrison Barnes – 23.1M (26th)
Nicolas Batum – 22.4M (34th)
Danilo Gallinari – 20.6M (29th)
Serge Ibaka – 20.1M (40th)

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Man, Dirk and Kobe chose the wrong decade to make a living. Millsap today is earning more than Kobe ever did in a single year.

It took Kobe 10 years to get earn his first $15M annual salary (2005-06); Harrison Barnes, a five-year vet, made his first $20M last year. How many players in that list can even be included in the Top 40 players in the NBA today?

Providing more than enough financial security this early in their playing careers makes ring-chasing a more immediate reality for players younger than their primes, which likely causes tensions to front offices sooner than later.

This is the reality that the Indiana Pacers had to face with Paul George ($80M career earnings), the Portland Trail Blazers with LaMarcus Aldridge ($147M), and the Utah Jazz with Gordon Hayward ($86M). This is the reason why Sam Presti cries himself to sleep every night thinking about whether Westbrook ($130M) will bolt for the Los Angeles Lakers next season, since Kevin Durant and James Harden have largely done the same.

This is the reason why Gasol and Mike Conley’s future with Memphis Grizzlies remains cloudy. Gasol has successfully led the ouster of David Fizdale, and have left the Grizzlies without a coach, a grit-and-grind persona, and a prominent player outside of (cough) Tyreke Evans. Having a winning regular season record and a great fan base is no longer enough to keep one’s faith steady.

Back in the days of John Stockton and Reggie Miller, the NBA did not have ridiculous contracts to bandy about for role players, and it was more important to find stable work than cement a legacy.  Stockton earned an estimated $67M across 19 years, equivalent to 3.5M per year and Miller earned roughly $104M across 18 years, good for $5.7M a year.

Today’s ballooning contracts effectively double the rate of return for NBA players, and one doesn’t even need to be a superstar to earn them anymore.

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Ring-chasing and the evolution of the superteam

In the last 15 years, the only teams that have managed to win championships organically through a steady influx of drafted players, development, and modest recruitment are the Pistons, the Spurs, and the Warriors. Everyone else (Lakers, Boston Celtics, Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and even the Mavericks) needed to recruit a top name to bolster their championship aspirations, and hardly feature more than one prominent draft pick per team.

An offshoot of the incredible upturn of wealth in the NBA is the ever-growing necessity to ensure championships by forming the best team possible—and look no further than Lebron James’ quest for his first championship, which led to his team up with two of his best friends to try to secure a championship in Miami instead of his home team in Cleveland. Lebron’s formula ultimately proved to be successful, dethroning every aspiring team in their era for the most part.

But Miami’s Big Three was mostly a more publicized and flamboyant reintroduction to a system already set in motion by 2008 Celtics Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. While the latter was seen more as a cunning coup-de-grace by Danny Ainge, Miami’s version was seen more as a player-designed movement spurred on by the desperation to win. Even if Pat Riley was also to blame, ultimately what resonated most with fans was the poorly conceived television event that ultimately cracked what could have been an iron-tight legacy for Lebron.

This led to other teams scrambling to compete against Miami by haphazardly arranging superteams of their own, most notably the failed Lakers core of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol.

Lebron’s Heat did set a precedent that sent countless teams overpaying into free agency, but that reached a new high right around the time Golden State found their groove. Their sheer two-way supremacy and long-range efficiency marked something of a new standard by which the NBA desperately needed to chase after, and that sent some semi-competitive teams once again scrambling desperately to find a key cog to make their roster worthy of the Warriors—and for a while it looked like it was impossible to do so.

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This newfound desperation brought about another talent space race that attracted even more players to find greener pastures in an attempt to stay competitive. This is the reason Paul is sharing the ball with known ball-hog James Harden, and this is why even James is reportedly mulling interest in signing with the Warriors, two years after being beaten by them in the Finals (see also: OKC, Durant).

'Here we have Dirk exuding a sense of nobility and humility slowly becoming extinct in an era of commercialism and media-dictated narratives'

This, and the fact that roughly every championship won in the past 20 years involves Michael Jordan (1), Bryant (5), Tim Duncan (5), James (3), Shaquille O'Neal (4), and Stephen Curry (2). Dynasties tend to cause tired franchises to be open to trading “loyal” assets in an attempt to compete with the playing field, or at least start afresh (see Clippers, Indiana, Sacramento, Denver, Chicago).

This is probably why Curry, safely on the winning side of the basketball revolution, may be the last, most likely player to stay in the franchise for their entire career. He ticks off a lot of boxes that have always eluded most players: 1) He found a winning system with the team that drafted him; 2) He won a championship early with the team that drafted him; 3) His team could compete with the reigning dynasty of his time in Lebron; and 4) He has established himself to be an identity marker for his squad on and off the court.

Duncan and Nowitzki had a similar effect to their teams: the former’s low-key leadership and no-frills workmanship gave San Antonio its selfless defensive mentality, while the latter’s never-say-die attitude rubbed off on even the lowliest of DeShawn Stevensons en route to an unlikely championship.

For players to create a strong sense of home for themselves, it appears one needs to win a championship as soon as possible to remove the stigma of “legacy.”

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The formula for loyalty

Following this logic, it appears for a player to stay in a team for the entirety of his career, he must 1) be drafted into a competitive team and stay despite the adversity; 2) win a championship midway through his career (only valid for stars drafted from year 2000 and up); and 3) have a steady front office that will support the team and prevent it from tanking until the end of his career.

Duncan, Curry, Kobe, and MJ all fit these descriptions well.

For younger players, #1 will be a problem. Discordant front offices and subpar teammates will be the biggest challenge to this point, and Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, and Anthony Davis will have to deal with them sooner than later if they want to find some form of inner peace in the NBA.

For middling veterans, #2 will be the point that determines whether they will stick with the team or get on with with their championship quest elsewhere. DeMar DeRozan, John Wall, together with Westbrook, Conley, and Jordan will find the championship to be the biggest prize moving forward—and unless their teams find a way to land a superteam, these talents will soon bolt to a team which can—most likely a big-market one.

Under these assumptions, Pierce might have something to say about #3. It was apparent only after his Brooklyn days that Pierce regretted his decision to ring-chase outside of Boston—but this may have been front office’s fault.

The outlier

Though he had a stellar start to his career, Dirk’s terrible loss to the Heat in 2006 would have been enough to send Dirk packing for a contender. It took him 13 years to win a championship, and yet he stayed those 13 years, when his teammates slowly morphed from Steve Nash into Josh Howard into Marquis Daniels into Jason Terry. There were also times where Dallas paid him below market value.

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Like Pierce, all signs pointed to Nowitzki joining Duncan and the Spurs or Kobe and the Lakers for a sure shot at winning a championship in the mid 2000’s.

But here we have the soft-spoken German who felt he owed the franchise something for believing in his unproven self during his rookie years, exuding a sense of nobility and humility slowly becoming extinct in an era of commercialism and media-dictated narratives.

Perhaps this is the missing ingredient?

He defied the logic behind the business of loyalty, and despite taking the longer road to get there, he still managed to win at the highest level. Frankly there may never be a player like Dirk in the NBA, not when the market seems as competitive as ever—which is why fans of today should buy NBA jerseys assuming they would have to change it to another color sooner rather than later.

 

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