Perhaps no other achievement is more applauded in sport than the outcome of a player finishing their career with the same team they started with. The careers of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant to name a few are indefinitely looked at through rose tinted glasses, due to their tenures only having taken place with one franchise.
The likelihood of this happening again for all time players – and role players alike – grow slimmer every summer. With player power increasing by the day, and teams shrinking their time scales for success even quicker, seeing another Duncan or Kobe story seems almost impossible. Of the 56 active players in the NBA who have played 10 seasons or more, only two have played for one franchise: Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors and Udonis Haslem with the Miami Heat. Each of them have won three championships in their respective tenures with their teams.
However, the mythology surrounding this feat – which is almost entirely based on a combination of luck, devotion and franchise competence – has to be dissected. Recent events would make out that this is a recent problem, and that there are hordes of players before the Decision Era who managed to stick it out in one city. However, this is a post hoc fallacy, an X caused Y simplification, and a nostalgic view of the past.
If we look through the history of the NBA, we can see a common correlation between the players who stayed with a team, and those who didn’t.
Not only titles to their names
The NBA came into being as we know it in the 1949-50 season. Since then, there have been 47 players who have played 10 seasons or more for the same franchise. The NBA has seen a staggering dominance by two franchises: the Boston Celtics and the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers. During this time span, the teams have won 33 out of a possible 73 titles, but also drafted and retained 13 of the 47 players who played for one franchise. The interrelationship between these two numbers is obvious to see, and visibly showcase that winning oftentimes equates to longevity with one team.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken. For these two teams they experienced several different eras of dominance. Prior to the past 10 years or so, players did not have the same incentives (such as stardom, extra money or playing with pals) to leave a team, and this resulted in many retiring only ever having played for one franchise or the other.
Let us take the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, announced during the All-Star weekend of 1997 to demonstrate this. Of the 50, only nine players finished their careers without an NBA championship (Elgin Baylor remains contentious as he did suit up for nine games during the 1971-72 season when the Lakers won against the New York Knicks in the Finals). Of the nine players, only two ended up playing for one franchise (Elgin Baylor and John Stockton). Regardless of whether it was the team moving on from a player (Patrick Ewing and Nate Thurmond), or the player moving on from the team (Charles Barkley and Karl Malone), the main factor costing any of these players from staying with their teams was their perceived lack of success.
With this in mind, it is unrealistic to expect a player who isn’t, at the very least, getting his team to the finals a couple of times a decade to remain with the team who drafted him.
In contrast to the dominance of the Lakers and Celtics, another large portion of players who represented one franchise did so simply due to market size. As is the case with teams such as the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks (who have a further 10 players who never suited up for another team), they lack the cachet to bring in big name free agents, and oftentimes are playoff teams resulting in a slim chance of getting lottery draft picks.
This results in a decade-plus dilemma in which the team – more often than not – will opt to take their chances and stick by their superstar. It has worked out with great results, with Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan delivering championships, but has also ended in finals appearances being the limit of success (as was the case with John Stockton and Reggie Miller).
Loyalty goes both ways
On 30 August, 2017, this was the day they realized for too long franchises have got away with their failures in keeping players in house. There have been dozens of examples throughout the history of the NBA of teams moving on from a player in less than generous circumstances, but the way the Boston Celtics and more specifically Danny Ainge treated Isaiah Thomas left a sour taste in the mouths of many. After leading the Celtics to the top seed in the Eastern Conference, two All-Star seasons, playing through a serious hip injury and suiting up for a playoff game the day after the tragic death of his sister, he was traded for Kyrie Irving.
Damn dog, my guy I.T. Deserve better. I understand it's a business but that dude did a lot of the organization. Only going to get better!
— Evan Turner (@thekidet) August 22, 2017
This trade set a precedent for any argument involving loyalty. For too long, the notion that players who didn’t manage to stay with one team was the player’s decision was dominant. To this day, we still have players, such as Paul Pierce and Charles Barkley, pushing this outdated narrative (despite the fact the Celtics got rid of Pierce and Barkley wanted off of teams he played for during his career). What happened in Boston should now act as a counterbalance to this viewpoint.
The Chambers Effect
The NBA has arguably the most complex Collect Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in all professional sports. With this being said, prior to 1988, free agency looked gravely different to how it does more than 30 years later. Before this time, player movement was limited. In theory and practice, the only way players could join a team would be through the draft or a trade, as free agency was limited to the team owning the rights of the player being able to match any offer from another team. When Tom Chambers turned down a qualifying offer by Seattle and instead opted to join the Phoenix Suns, the NBA had to react.
And what ensued laid the foundation for where we stand today. Since that time the CBA has gone through countless changes, including revisions to salaries for traded and signed players, what qualifies a player as a restricted or unrestricted free agent and even the ability to veto a trade.
There has been a huge shift in successful teams being made up of drafted players versus free agent signings and trades. Of the 18 players since the 1988-89 season who have won Finals MVP, nine have won the award for a team they were not drafted by. Between 1969 – when the award was created – and 1989, only four players won the award on a team that didn’t draft them (Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Moses Malone and Dennis Johnson).
A matter of execution
When we hear the word ‘loyalty’, it conjures up images of a never ending love, or commitment which doesn’t waver.
With this in mind, it is accurate to consider the careers of Bryant, Duncan and Miller. Considered by most to be the greatest players in their respective franchises’ history, all three players showcased best that unwavering loyalty.
Except, they didn’t.
Despite finishing their careers untouched from another team, all three expressed a desire at one point throughout their careers in leaving. In 1996, Reggie Miller was reportedly bothered by the New York Knicks signing Allan Houston, and cited it as a major reason as to why he re-signed with Indiana. Tim Duncan in 2000 was “real close” to abandoning the franchise who lucked out in drafting him and teaming up with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in Orlando. And Kobe Byrant in 2007, after being blamed for the demise of the Lakers dynasty went public in his demand to be traded to Chicago.
The sheer fact that these three men stayed with their teams is a matter of failed execution. Had they got what they wanted, all three wouldn’t have been part of the 47 players who stayed with one franchise. And they are not the only ones: countless players from Kevin McHale to Isiah Thomas were either ready to up and leave, or their franchises up and leave them. The result may all be the same, but the path it took to get there was far from perfect.
In truth, loyalty has never been a part of the NBA. While every era has been blessed with players who were lucky enough to stick it out with one franchise, the vast majority were not affronted this opportunity, or chose to squander it. Zion Williamson can be saluted for stating without even having played a professional game for the New Orleans Pelicans that he would like to be with the franchise for his whole career. And Damian Lillard can be commended for preferring to try (and potentially lose) in Portland rather than win with another team. However, if New Orleans or Portland in the future decide to go in a different direction, we may potentially look back at their career with disappointment. Loyalty dies the moment it is questioned, and with this in mind it is time to come to grips with the fact that we may never have another player who can spend their whole career with one franchise, or franchise who wants a player to spend their whole career with them.
And we should be okay with it.
Featured photo – Ethan Miller / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington