Well, at least we got a couple of days of fun out of it. Otherwise, Star Hunt I mostly served to prove that the Sixers will need to bring something more substantive to the free-agent market than Brett Brown's boundless optimism. To be fair, it was a heck of a display, even according to the lofty standards he'd set for himself. If this whole general-manager thing doesn't end up working out, he'll be a hit down at the speakers bureau. Even I was starting to believe that the Sixers' juju was going to work.
Alas, in the end, the NBA labor market proved to be the same cold, calculating, self-aggrandizing place it has always been. Sometimes it feels as if elite players and their representatives attempt to make up some of the compensation they lose because of the league's salary structure by turning the first few days of the free-agent signing period into a participatory puppet show in which the billionaires are the ones with the strings hooked to their rumps. Perhaps they have a side pot that goes to the player who forces the highest Net Worth/Distance Traveled, with some multiplier for length of meeting. And that's not a criticism. It sounds like fun. Rare is the person who gets to tell Josh Harris to take off his hat when walking indoors. If he's willing to kiss the ring, might as well get that mental image for your scrapbook.
For all of us Process Watchers who are not yet familiar with the world of NBA relevance, the past 48 hours have served as a lesson. We are not privy to the real-time decision-making machinations of the free-agent market's upper realm. Most of what we eventually witness has already been long decided. The brevity of the press release announcing LeBron James' contract with the Lakers wasn't due to the fact that his agency waited until after its meeting with the Sixers to write it. For the Sixers' purposes, the important thing is to keep the reality of the environment at the forefront of their decision-making from this point forward. These are players who have had every step of their careers professionally managed and plotted out since the dawn of their stardom, a period of time that, in a lot of cases, stretches back to their early-to-mid-teens.
Hey, shooters shoot, and you don't lose any points for missing. If a player such as LeBron decides he wants to play with a certain teammate, or for a certain coach, or in a certain city, it doesn't matter how high you hold your head and shoulders, or how elaborately you detail your recruiting pitch. Chances are, Magic Johnson is waiting back at his crib with two hands' worth of championship rings in his safe and a big ol' smile on his face.
In that regard, perhaps the Sixers' fruitless meeting with LeBron's people really was the genuine kind of courtesy. If nothing else, it should serve as a reminder of the way this particular Process works, which is the kind of thing that could end up paying huge dividends in future editions of Star Hunt. This could prove especially valuable in whatever dealings the Sixers end up having with the Spurs regarding Kawhi Leonard's availability. The Sixers don't just need to have their eyes wide-open — they need to have them clothes-pinned to the peaks of their brows.
In the midst of Sunday's swirl of smoke about the legitimacy of LeBron's openness toward playing in Philadelphia, the NBA's hybridized reporter/press-agent sphere featured all sorts of tidbits dribbling out about Leonard's willingness to consider signing a contract extension somewhere other than Los Angeles. That kind of thing poses a unique danger to an organization that possesses a fervent belief in itself, in particular an organization currently led by a man wired to believe he can make the best out of any situation.
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In general, coaching is a profession that attracts men of a certain mind-set, and Brown is a textbook case study. Like many of his brethren, he is wired to orient himself to the upper bound of the possible, with a steadfast belief in his own ability to control a situation and maximize its outcome. Coaches operate on a granular level that exists entirely between the first ticks of the game clock and the final vibrations of the fat lady's vocal cords. They have no choice but to believe that what happens between those two lines is entirely dependent on internal factors such as ability, strategy, and will. But on a macro level, the NBA is an environment largely shaped by externalities, an aggregate sum of hundreds of cases of individual self-interest and their exponents. Navigating such an environment requires that an organization understand and assign proper weight to that which it does not know and cannot control.
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Think about it within the context of the choices that any individual in any industry and any economic strata makes with regard to his or her own life and career. When a worker is first and foremost looking out for No. 1, there is only so much that an employer can do to impact that worker's decisions.
If Leonard wants to play near his home, or be a star in a land full of stars, or drive around with the top down more than four months per year, he is in a position to make that happen, be it this year or next. Maybe he would fall in love with Philadelphia: its fans, its restaurants, its vibe. Maybe he simply doesn't yet know how much he appreciates art, or history, or Center City Sips. But maybe he is a huge Jack Nicholson fan, or is allergic to overcast skies. Any trade package the Sixers construct must be the result of a meticulous projection of the Certainty/Uncertainty curve, submitted with the full understanding of the limitations they'll face in persuading Leonard to remain with the organization beyond this season.
Granted, it should be clear by now that he who underestimates Brown does so at his own peril. Anybody who makes it to the top of the coaching ranks is, by nature, someone who possesses a keen understanding of power structures and the optimal way to navigate them. Anybody who starts where Brown did with the Sixers and emerges five years later as the most powerful man in the organization possesses a formidable combination of talent, charisma, and will. But on a grand enough scale, all strengths end up subject to the law that underlies the Peter Principle. Only the universe is all-powerful, and the moment you end up believing too strongly in your or someone else's abilities is the moment they become liabilities.
A pang of warning reverberated from the microphone last month when Harris pointed to Brown's ability to sell JJ Redick on the Sixers as evidence of the strength of the organization's position heading into free agency. Redick clearly liked what the coach had to say and the environment he had built, sentiments that clearly lasted through the season. But to focus on that side of the deal risks underestimating the reality that the Sixers were one of the few teams in the NBA willing and able to give Redick $23 million and the chance to hit free agency again one year later.
The price the Sixers paid ended up playing a key role in their 52-win season. Even if it hadn't, the long-term costs of the transaction would have been relatively easy to bear. That's not the case with Leonard. We tend to overlook opportunity costs when it evaluating the wisdom of a given decision in the here and now. The true cost of an acquisition often does not come into focus until well down the line. Say, when a team realizes the options it would have to upgrade its roster were it still in possession of the lottery pick it traded away the previous offseason.
True, not every road leads back to the Markelle Fultz deal last spring, but it does stand as a good example of the fallacy of viewing a prospective transaction in zero-sum terms. The pertinent question isn't "Does Player X maximize our competitive chances right now?" It's "Does Player X better maximize our competitive chances in the aggregate than whatever future Player(s) Y we could acquire with the assets we spend on Player X?"
In other words, the question isn't whether Leonard makes the Sixers a better team in 2018-19 than Dario Saric, Fultz, and a future draft pick(s) would. The question is whether Leonard is the best way to spend those assets, or if the future might offer some better opportunity to spend those assets in a way that better enhances their chances of winning a title within the next 5-10 years.
With that, we circle back to the lesson of LeBron. There's a thin line between hunting and taking your gun on a walk through the woods.