A mighty deluge of NBA signings, rumors and speculation arrived at the tip of the first weekend in July — a news storm so powerful it practically broke Twitter. Okay, so maybe Twitter broke Twitter, but the NBA certainly contributed a tornado of transactions and hype starting June 30 when the free agent market officially opened.
Fred VanVleet to Houston! Kyrie Irving back to Dallas! Damian Lillard wants out of Portland! James Harden wants out of Philadelphia! And it went on. By the Fourth of July holiday, more than 80 players had agreed to new deals exceeding $1 billion. The list included recent champions (Bruce Brown, Khris Middleton) and future Hall of Famers (Draymond Green, Russell Westbrook). Blockbuster trades involving Lillard and Harden are sure to come.
Watching it all unfold from a distance, David Falk – the NBA’s original super agent and longtime confidant of Michael Jordan – sat back and sighed. Not out of envy, but ennui.
“I think it’s a bit boring,” Falk, now semi-retired from the agency business, told me last week. And it was hard to argue the point. Despite all the splashy headlines and flashy numbers, not much of consequence actually happened. No franchise-changing stars switched teams. Neither did any secondary stars. Most of the movement was by role players. The NBA’s balance of power did not change in any noticeable way.
Blame the stars, whose newfound habit of forcing trades has supplanted old-school free agency. And blame the NBA’s increasingly complex and restrictive financial system, which has practically stifled free agency (especially for the highest level of players) into submission. Regardless of the culprit, it has reached the point where I sometimes wonder: Are we seeing the death of free agency as we knew it?
“I don’t think free agency is dying,” said Falk, whose client list in the 1990s included Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Juwan Howard and Dikembe Mutombo, among others. “I think as the rules become more and more restrictive, it’s harder and harder to be creative.”
The early results of free agency in 2023 do not exactly testify to a vibrant, free market economy. Consider ESPN’s ranking of the top 25 free agents, as released on June 22. As of Tuesday morning, only five of those names had switched teams, all with modest resumes: VanVleet (Toronto to Houston), Donte DiVincenzo (Golden State to New York) ), Brown (Denver to Indiana), Grant Williams (Boston to Dallas , in a sign-and-trade) and Patrick Beverley (Chicago to Philadelphia). Five of the top 25 were still in play, though none are likely to change anyone’s fortunes. The other 15 — including 12 of the top 14 in ESPN’s rankings — have either re-signed with their teams or declined free agency entirely by exercising player options.
That includes Irving (who re-signed with Dallas), Harden (who joined and then demanded a trade), Middleton (who re-signed with Milwaukee), Cameron Johnson (who re-signed with Brooklyn) and Austin Reaves (who -signed with the Lakers). Kristaps Porzingis, ranked No. 4 by ESPN, entered the final year of his deal with Washington to facilitate a trade to Boston, where he promptly agreed to a two-year extension. Defensive ace Josh Hart (No. 9) opted in his final year to work on an extension with the Knicks. Naz Reid (No. 22) did the same with the Timberwolves. Westbrook (No. 25) re-signed with the Clippers.
In addition to this list of 25 were several other high-impact vets who barely took a phone call before resigning with their teams: Draymond Green (with Warriors), Brook Lopez (Bucks), Harrison Barnes (Kings), Kyle Kuzma (Wizards ). ) and Nikola Vucevic (Bulls). The defending champion Denver Nuggets lost two rotation players (Brown to Indiana, Jeff Green to Houston), as did the second-place Miami Heat (Max Strus to Cleveland, Gabe Vincent to the Lakers). The Rockets also signed defensive specialist (slash provocateur) Dillon Brooks.
But the most dramatic headlines so far have centered on Lillard and Harden’s trade demands. And the most dramatic moves so far have all been trades, too: Bradley Beal going from Washington to Phoenix, Chris Paul from Phoenix to Golden State (via Washington), and Marcus Smart from Boston to Memphis (as part of the Porzingis deal).
It’s a far cry from the swinging 2010s, when James used free agency to bounce from Cleveland to Miami, back to Cleveland and then to LA; while Durant jumped from Oklahoma City to Oakland to Brooklyn; and Kawhi Leonard jumped from Toronto to the LA As The Caller’s Zach Kram recently documented, the $100 million free agent is running on steam. Seven free agents signed such deals in the summer of 2019; since then, only two – Jalen Brunson (with the Knicks) in 2022 and Gordon Hayward (with the Hornets) in 2020 – have done so.
Now, most stars follow a simple, lucrative, low-risk formula: sign as much as they can, as soon as they can—and ask for trades later (if necessary), knowing they’ll almost always get it.
“You don’t need free agency,” Falk said, “because these teams, the minute the guy says ‘I don’t want to be on the team,’ they take him.” He added: “I think it’s terrible.”
Meanwhile, a new labor agreement that punishes high-performing teams more than ever has executives scrambling to offload expensive contracts. All of this leaves few juicy free agents to chase, and few teams with the salary cap space (or the desire) to chase them.
So yeah, as Falk said, ho-hum.
“That’s one of the reasons I stopped enjoying being an agent,” said Falk, who is now mostly detached from player representation, focusing instead on teaching and business consulting. (His only remaining active client is Otto Porter Jr.) “Because the knowledge you have and the creativity you have are severely limited by the rules.”
As Falk sees it, the NBA’s longtime “soft-cap” system, which was instituted in the mid-’80s, no longer exists. Although teams still operate under a so-called soft cap – i.e. they can exceed it through a series of “exemptions” – the league itself has a hard cap on player earnings overall. Since the labor agreement in 2011, the owners and players have shared revenue 50-50, and the players’ share can never exceed that figure. So all the other rules are actually simply a distribution system – of rookie scales, max salaries and supermaxes, “mid-level” exceptions, and “semi-annual” exceptions. It’s almost paint-by-numbers – boring, as Falk said. And under the labor agreement that took effect this month, teams could lose cap waivers and other roster-building tools if they spend above a certain threshold.
“The map of being an agent, it’s become so restrictive that it doesn’t require a lot of skill,” Falk said. “Mathematically, only 30 percent of the contracts have been negotiated. And I think most players really don’t need agents today.”
In his own prime as an agent — before the rookie scale, before max contracts, before the luxury tax became a de facto hard cap — Falk took pride in bending the system to benefit his clients. One example: Inserting an early termination option (the first of its kind, Falk said) into Ewing’s 10-year deal with the Knicks, allowing Ewing to become a free agent after six years if four players earned more than him thereafter. But in today’s NBA, Falk said, “seventy percent of all contracts are pre-negotiated. There are no negotiations.”
Worse, in Falk’s view, the advent of “max” contracts (in the 1999 labor agreement) has artificially capped earnings for the real elite — LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Durant — and created a “grossly homogenized” system , where second-rate stars are paid like superstars. And it is those contracts (like Bradley Beal’s) that clog a team’s cap and the system as a whole, which means less cap room league-wide, which means … a boring free-agent market.
“The system inhibits free agency,” Falk said. “Ironically, the group that has fostered the biggest rule that inhibits free agency is the (players’) union because the union wants to have more overpaid $35 million guys.”
To put it in practical terms: Instead of Curry earning, say, $100 million a year in an unrestricted market, he is limited to about half that number, meaning the other $50 million is spent on, say, a Jordan Poole (who the Warriors recently traded to dump his salary).
“The system is then clogged up by a whole group of grossly overpaid players who don’t bring in revenue, don’t sell tickets, don’t sell concessions,” Falk said. “They are good players, but they are artificially overpaid because of the foolish restraint in the system.”
“How do you separate Curry from Klay Thompson?” Falk continued. “How do you separate Giannis [Antetokounmpo] from Middleton? How do you differentiate [Jayson] Tatum from [Jaylen] Brown? You know, that’s the whole point. They created a system where it’s like gross homogenization. For me, it took all my excitement out of being in this business because you can’t separate yourself.”
Falk remains close to a number of NBA figures, including former clients like Elton Brand (now GM of the 76ers), and close to the game, just not as an active agent. He serves as a strategic advisor to a dozen companies and teaches in the programs he founded at Syracuse (Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics) and George Washington University (Falk Academy of Management and Entrepreneurship).
To be clear, Falk is all for players using their power and leverage and making as much money as they can. But he scoffs at the notion that compulsive moves and violent movement equate to “player empowerment” – or that today’s stars somehow have more power than they did in the ’90s. “Don’t you think Michael Jordan and Patrick had power?” Falk said. “Of course they had power. But they were smart enough to know they would never do that kind of thing in public because it was detrimental to the game they love.”
For Falk, the onslaught of trade demands and team-hopping is ultimately harmful to the league — and therefore to the players themselves — because it turns off the fans. “It makes it look less professional,” Falk said. “To make more money as a 50-50 partner, they don’t have to attack the business, they have to grow the business.”
Neither of those trends seem likely to change anytime soon, however, and Falk’s scathing criticism is sure to provoke more consternation than endorsement from league officials, players and their agents. Which is fine with Falk. At least no one can accuse him of being boring.