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When free agency never ends

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How a flawed CBA and player empowerment can make the process of drafting superstars feel futile

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Press Conference Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t tell you how every small-market fan felt after Paul George was traded to the Clippers, but I can tell you how I felt.

Obviously, the first twenty minutes were pure, unadulterated shock. Paul George just finished third in MVP voting, with 3 years left on his contract, and still requested and received a trade to the Clippers to team with the reigning, defending, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. And unlike most transactions in the NBA, this was a complete surprise. No prior reporting even suggested Paul George wanted out or was available in a trade.

But when the shock wore off, like the selfish knucklehead I am, I thought about how it impacted Memphis. Memphis has never had a player as good as Paul George or Kawhi. I would be unfathomably sad to lose a player of that quality knowing how rare a commodity they are. It’s almost unfathomable to conceive of a superstar even playing for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Well, Memphis might just have a potential superstar on their hands, maybe even two. Jaren Jackson Jr. showed all the potential in the world to be a big difference-maker at worst, superstar big man at best. Ja Morant may be the most highly regarded draft prospect in team history. If they reach the lofty expectations placed upon them, Memphis could have two All-Stars on their hands. After an offseason that totally revamped the Grizzlies’ roster, Ja and Jaren have a chance to mold the franchise and its culture in their view.

How Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol created and embodied “Grit N Grind”, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr can create a new definition of what it means to be a Grizzly. Once they lead Memphis to some winning seasons, the franchise will be in their image. A culture and organization that is the fruit of their labors and development. Hopefully, one that is attractive to free agents around the league and translates to a slightly more appealing style of basketball to fans and players alike. Memphis doesn’t even have to be in title contention - making distinct and impactful moments can happen just by watching two amazing prospects grow as players and people.

That is the idealistic best case scenario for those two in the first 7-ish years of their careers when Memphis will have the most control over their contracts. Is that enough? Is anything enough to keep your superstar talents anymore? Recent league history tells us no, unless they REALLY want to stay. All-Stars have requested (and received) trades from the teams with which they signed their rookie extension (Anthony Davis with the Pelicans, Kawhi Leonard with San Antonio, Kyrie Irving with Cleveland). All-Stars have willingly left championship-level teams in free agency (Kevin Durant with Golden State, Kawhi with Toronto). All-Stars have also done whatever it is you’d call what Jimmy Butler did with the Timberwolves last year. Players are going to do what they want.

And even when an organization does seemingly everything right to secure a superstar, he can also just ask for a trade to play with who he likes. Paul George signed a long-term contract with the Thunder last year. He had up to three more years left on his deal and the Thunder appeased his trade demand faster than you can say “Playoff P.” Oklahoma City had all the leverage in the world to keep their superstar in place for another playoff run, but they chose to take the best pick package possible and start over.

All for another chance at a draft pick that might land you a Paul George.

It’s an exercise in futility, and frankly, stupidity to project whether or not Jaren Jackson Jr. is going to request a trade in 2022, or whenever. But it’s hard not to have some pause when watching developments around the league. I see two exciting prospects that could define a generation of Grizzlies basketball for a new era of fans. I also see that it might not even matter. Because it is not about what these two young men personally want to do, it’s about the viability of a small-market to keep its stars.

It’s a fatalistic view, I understand that. Why have draft picks at all if they’re going to leave you? Trade the #2 overall pick for Cash Considerations and be done with it. It doesn’t have to be THAT woe-as-me, but it is difficult to get truly excited about a superstar when you know your hold on them is always vulnerable. Vulnerable to the whims of the player, who has every right to be a mercenary or a franchise mainstay, and vulnerable to the CBA which has shortened contract length without properly incentivizing superstars to stay put. Free agents can generally sign a 5-year deal with their original team while only being able to sign a 4-year deal with other teams. The so-called “supermax” extension, one that is available only to those that meet certain criteria such as making an All-NBA team or winning an MVP, has not been that effective in convincing the truly elite to stay. LeBron has turned it down to leave for Los Angeles last year, as did Kevin Durant to leave for Brooklyn. The Charlotte Hornets had the opportunity to offer Kemba Walker the supermax and didn’t, and he left because of it.

This offseason has provided more hope for Grizzlies fans than almost any other in team history. They have a new head coach, they’ve made savvy moves to acquire assets in exchange for Mike Conley and other vets, and they’ll boast this year’s #2 overall draft pick Ja Morant as well as Jaren Jackson Jr looking to improve upon a great rookie year. But I can’t help but be plagued by the temporary nature of stars in this league when projecting this team’s future. This nature has been amplified by player empowerment and this CBA. The former should be encouraged and the latter should be highly modified. A “supermax” that doesn’t count towards a team’s salary cap number, the removal of a maximum salary, and giving teams and players the option for 6-plus year contracts would all either incentivize the star to stay or convince the team to pay up.

These are solutions to a problem that doesn’t even exist for Memphis yet. If Jaren and Ja are as good as advertised, they’ll be able to do whatever it is they want with this franchise for as long as they want. But other players were given that latitude, too. In appealing markets, in unappealing markets, on good teams, on bad teams. It’s foolhardy to worry about this situation so far away, but it’s also foolhardy to think Memphis is immune to the same problem plaguing the rest of the league.

Down the road, if Zion Williamson comes recruiting our All-Stars like Kawhi did with PG, will Memphis be able to say they’ve supported their young stars to the best of their ability? If Memphis has, will it even matter?

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