BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics have signed three forwards early in free agency: Amir Johnson and two returnees, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko.
No superstars; no surprise.
The club's buzz-generating move for former two-time All-Star David Lee was a trade, a salary cap dump for the defending-champion Warriors for a lesser payout to Gerald Wallace.
The narrative in the NBA for years has been: In order to land a premier free agent, you have to reside in a state with no income tax like Texas or Florida, have a warm-weather climate or lively nightlife like those or California, or be a place with significant marketing opportunities like New York City, even Chicago.
That narrative is changing.
With a salary cap structure that allows players to make essentially the same money anywhere, unless they re-up with their old teams, now it's about who's offering the most dough and which club possesses the stars and the best chance to win.
Consider some of the agreements we've seen since midnight struck on July 1. Greg Monroe passed on the Knicks and Lakers for the Milwaukee Bucks. Monta Ellis landed with Indiana. Ed Davis left the Lakers for a suddenly rebuilding Portland squad. DeMarre Carroll opted for Toronto, a city within a country where the Association hardly matters. And, yes, they get to play with the best player in the universe, but Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert re-signed in Cleveland. CLEVELAND!
It'd be unfair and untrue to say geography doesn't matter anymore, but it certainly doesn't matter as much as it once did.
Take LaMarcus Aldrdige, for instance. After passing on more money with the Blazers and refusing to even meet with the Knicks, the contracts were equal whether he went to the Lakers, Suns, or his ultimate destination, the Spurs. Now, admittedly, economics aren't truly equal because, again, there's no state income tax in Texas as opposed to a whopping 13.3 percent in California, but by all accounts the 29-year-old superstar didn't pass on Los Angeles for reasons concerning his wallet.
The Lakers are rebuilding, and probably wouldn't be a playoff team even with Aldrdige. The Spurs – with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green re-signed, David West added on the veteran's minimum, along with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and coach Gregg Popovich in the fold – have a still-indefinite championship window, and Aldridge wants to win. His being from Texas certainly helped as well.
Like Aldrdige, DeAndre Jordan – who went from the Clippers to the Mavericks and back to the Clippers in one of the most bizarre scenarios free agency has ever witnessed – was underwhelmed by the Lakers' presentation. Being surrounded by celebrities and having TV and movie opportunities are nice, but winning is better and the Lakeshow won't be doing that for a little while, even after their recent splurge on second and third-tier additions (sorry, Brandon Bass).
Monroe went to Milwaukee, a laughingstock of a franchise not even two years ago, for a chance to contend in the coming years in a top-heavy East with a dynamic and budding group of young players that includes Kris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, John Henson, and O.J. Mayo. In time, maybe Jason Kidd's club will compete with the Cavs, Bulls, Wizards, or Heat (if healthy). There's no other reason to move to Wisconsin if you're a basketball player.
Times are changing, even from a few years ago when LeBron James and Chris Bosh followed Dwyane Wade to South Beach to form a super-team. Now, once more, there's a super-team in Northeast Ohio. Money and winning mean more than nightlife and endorsements. Think about it. Few players live in their respective cities year-round and they can all afford to own or charter private jets. Love, sticking with the Cleveland example, spends his summers in LA. He played college ball at UCLA and his girlfriend lives there. That doesn't matter in the winter, though, when he's chasing a Larry O'Brien trophy (if he can stay out of Kelly Olynyk's clutches).
With social media, more and more nationally televised games, and NBA League Pass, players can build their brands like never before. Second only to James' 22.2 million Twitter followers, Kevin Durant – represented by Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports – has 10.9 million people paying attention his every 140-character move because he regularly engages his fans. He plays in Oklahoma City, the 44th-largest U.S. market and a place you wouldn't normally find a superstar. Now you can see him in more commercials than any other player in the league, including endorsements with Nike, Foot Locker, Sonic, Sprint, and Gatorade, to name a few. Only Cleveland's James has more endorsements.
Exposure isn't limited to Hollywood or the Big Apple anymore. It's a global phenomenon.
So where does this leave the Celtics?
CSNNE's Rich Levine wrote a great column recently, stating his disdain for the narrative Boston can't sign free agents and, in his belief, the city's role (it's miserably cold here, filled with snow, everything outside of Chinatown closes by 2 a.m., you know the rest) in the decisions influencing where top talents will sign has been overblown.
The core of Levine's argument is correct: the Celtics haven't had the cap space to land a prominent free agent in two decades. That doesn't speak to the fact the franchise has never signed a top-tier free agent (apologies to Dominique Wilkins and Xavier McDaniel), but let's focus on the recent past.
Levine is also right in noting how little movement actually takes place. Since 1996, only 14 elite free agents have changed homes; Shaquille O'Neal, Shawn Kemp, Penny Hardaway, Brian Grant, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, David Lee, Dwight Howard, James again and, this year, Aldrdige (wait, what happened to Jordan again?). It doesn't happen often.
Levine fails to point out, however, the biggest counter to an argument that should otherwise silence the critics: Unlike many of the franchises who try and fail to net their big fish, the Celtics are never even in the conversation. They can't get a meeting. They had room to sign not one but two max-level free agents this summer and you'll scour the web for all eternity to find a rumor they were legitimately attached to. Love saying a couple of years ago he likes Boston and respects coach Brad Stevens doesn't count. He was a Cav again in a blink.
Now, that doesn't suddenly mean, 'Oh my goodness, Boston's racist! That's why black players don't want to come here!', so let's slow that ever-popular train right now.
It goes back to the Aldridge, Jordan, and Monroe situations. Unlike the Spurs, Mavericks, and even those Bucks, the C's don't have a core star or two to build around. Maybe someday Marcus Smart, James Young, or another present roster player is that guy, but not today. The Celts are several pieces away from contention and might not even be a playoff team next year as currently constituted, though it's likely Lee's addition put them back in the mix.
Tradition doesn't matter to today's NBA players. Seventeen banners and a billion retired numbers are nice, but don't hold the clout of being able to win your own ring sooner than waiting through a rebuild in your prime years.
Also, the debate isn't all about cap space. That's maneuverable. We saw it last year when Celts president of basketball operations Danny Ainge helped the Cavaliers swing trades for both James and Love, we watched the Kings make a laughably poor deal with the Sixers to free up $13 million this offseason, the Suns opened space for Tyson Chandler, and the Spurs dealt Tiago Splitter in order to welcome in Aldridge. There are several more examples, too. The cap in the NBA is nothing like the NFL, but there is a certain flexibility to it that should be acknowledged. If Ainge felt he had a shot at a prime addition during the new Big Three era, he would have responded accordingly.
Historically, the Lakers have always bagged free agents, not only because of their location but on account of being exceptionally good. Now, they're coming off of their two worst years ever. In time, once Kobe Bryant walks away, the Lakers will contend in free agency again. Fact is, players don't want to share the court with him. Ask Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, or Aldridge. Other than Stoudemire, the Knicks have never really had much success in free agency, so their reputation is something of a big market myth. You don't apply here, Robin Lopez.
If the Celtics wish to find their way into the conversation of free agents choosing places like Milwaukee or Indiana, Ainge will have to keep his books manageable, find a franchise cornerstone or two in the draft, or swing some deals for marquee talents. Until then, the ring-chasing narrative will continue to gain steam, but Boston won't be included for very different reasons than we all once whined and screamed about.
They just aren't ready to win, and that's the biggest problem.
Adam Kaufman, a native of Massachusetts, was named Morning Sports Anchor for the top-rated, award-winning WBZ NewsRadio 1030 in February 2015, and has been an on-air personality at 98.5 The Sports Hub since June 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamMKaufman.
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