The NBA Finals will be jammed with beautiful basketball theater. The Warriors and Cavaliers will tangle once again, unless a Higher Power intervenes, and we’ll watch drama of historical levels.
I can barely wait.
But the NBA’s future is teetering.
Players have seized control of the league, and I’m fine with that. Players – not owners – expose their bodies to grave risk. Players endure elbows to the nose. Players deserve control over their careers.
But NBA stars keep making decisions that threaten the health of the league they control. The current fad, started by LeBron James to bolt to the Heat in 2010, is for superstars to gather in one place to chase a title.
This trend makes for must-watch TV, at least when we’re talking about The Finals.
This trend is devastating for out-of-fashion destinations.
Carmelo Anthony abandoned Colorado for New York and the Knicks in 2011, and soon Pepsi Center became the home of losers and a lonely destination on game nights, with oceans of empty seats.
The Nuggets, led by the eccentric and gifted Nikola Jokic, are finally returning to life, although empty seats remain the norm in their big room on the western edge of downtown Denver.
But what if Jokic follows the NBA fad and flees when his contract is up in 2019?
The answer is easy.
Repeat devastation for Colorado basketball fans.
If you’re an NBA fan – and I’m a devoted one – keep an eye on Gordon Hayward’s looming decision. Hayward is the undisputed leader of the Utah Jazz, a forward who slowly transformed into a star. He led the Jazz to 51 wins this season. He’s not spectacular at any one slice of the game, but he’s wise and diligent and versatile. He averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
He has the option to become a free agent. If he opts out of his Jazz contract, expect a frenzy of interest. Hayward will be chased by more than two dozen teams.
In the final minutes of the Jazz’s last game, a playoff loss to the Warriors, fans in Salt Lake City chanted Hayward’s name. They chanted because he’s stolen their hearts. They chanted because he’s classy and determined on the court and a devoted family man off the court at his Salt Lake home.
Mostly, they chanted because they’re terrified he will pull a Carmelo and abandon them for a more glam destination. Utah fans know Hayward already has shown shaky loyalty. He signed a $63 million offer with Charlotte in 2014. The Jazz quickly matched the offer.
I realize Hayward faces a complex decision. Remaining in Utah could hamper his endorsement opportunities. Remaining in Utah could limit his hopes to dance on the court as an NBA Champ. The Jazz have come close, but never ruled the NBA.
But Hayward would be wise to examine Carmelo’s days after departing Denver. Carmelo believed all sorts of wonders were available in New York that were not available in Colorado.
Carmelo was wrong about the greatest wonder. He almost carried the Nuggets to the NBA Finals, and probable victory in those Finals, in 2009. He never came close in New York.
If Carmelo had taken a stand against the fad of departure and remained the undisputed basketball star of Colorado, he might have missed out on a few endorsements, but he could have captured a prize that is eternally underrated.
He could have earned deep and lasting respect.
Hayward will be tempted. In a few years, Jokic will be tempted, too. Fleeing is always a temptation, but there’s a better way. Staying in a city that supported you while you grew up as a player offers vast reward.
I hope Hayward and Jokic refuse to yield to temptation. The NBA teeters because the biggest stars have focused on their own ambitions and lost sight of their precious connection with fans.
These stars have the control they deserve. Let’s hope they have the wisdom to start making the right choice.