The NBA, more than any other professional sports league, boasts a prolific free agency period in which recognizable players changing teams can drastically affect the league as a whole. Even a relatively innocuous player like Evan Turner could contribute vitally to a team's chemistry, or, as was the case with the Pacers, an abysmal dearth thereof. So it matters to the league itself, to fans of the league as a whole, or to fans of whichever team a marquee player like Carmelo Anthony joins.
Since it matters to the landscape of NBA rosters, because the stakes for signings like these can actually swing championships, it's also fun to observe, or at least it should be. Rumors of Phoenix's intentions to pursue LeBron may dissipate alarmingly fast, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable to exercise some imagination and picture what a starting lineup that included Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and LeBron James would do to its opponents (it would run them through hell and leave them there). That almost certainly will never happen, and even in terms of a rumor, it might be no more weighty than an offhand comment from a powerful executive as superficial as "man, sure would be great to land us a LeBron James." But hey, it's the summer, and the World Cup is almost over, and I'm sitting here pretending like the Chicago Cubs don't exist between Adam Wainwright pitches, and could you just leave me to my world-is-burning apocalyptic basketball fantasy of LeBron James on a Jeff Hornacek-coached team?
Any basketball fan with a functional internet connection can sift through and muse on these rumored basketball fantasies with an appreciation for the possibility of some basketball, but it's not long until that fan realizes that the possibility of a basketball reality is not actually basketball, and, as it turns out, has very few similarities with it. Basketball the sport, especially played as well as the San Antonio Spurs played it during their playful and creative and ruthless annihilation of the Miami Heat, is as moving and transformative as any art form. Free agency, though, is that bitter reminder that basketball, like much of our modern art forms, is also a business. Free agency is an unwelcome reminder, not because most of us ever really forget that fact, but because when we're watching the game, it feels like more than that, and when we're talking about contracts and agents and salary caps, it almost always seems like less.
It's the growing up of the sport, really. What we as children thought about as a complex game, one ruled by all sorts of mystical forces like heart and desire and destiny and self-belief, has maintained and even expounded its own complexity at the loss of its very nature as a game. Now, we've traded in the language of the child, the mystery and poetry, for the language of the accounting firm. As a child, you lie awake in bed in awe at the overwhelming aesthetics of a gorgeous film until you fall asleep. As an adult, you turn off the DVD player only to walk over to your desk to pore over bank statements.
On Monday, in an article for Grantland, Zach Lowe revealed some revenue figures for a number of NBA teams that were, at least until his article, entirely unknown to the public. It was interesting as data, sure, and useful information for anyone trying to better understand how the league functions. But it was also a ready-made microcosm of the kind of conversation about the sport that free agency engenders. Having read it, I felt as though I understood a little more completely how NBA team owners and executives think about their franchises. I think I even grasped a little of what it is that makes the business aspect of the NBA so captivating to the fans and writers who process it that way. In short, I understood the NBA, the actual association itself, better because of it, just as I will be able to better predict what happens this season as a consequence of following free agency. I guess I should be grateful for that knowledge, but I can't help but mourn the virtue of the season, or of my childhood years of fandom, when I didn't need that knowledge, or more significantly, when I had no reason to want it.