Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and how recruiting has changed the NBA

LeBron James is both the king of the NBA and a king-maker

Teams used to build rosters by drafting and developing talent over the years, hoping to eventually find the right combination of veteran guile and young talent to contend for an NBA title. 

But no longer. 

As big moves by James have shown, the NBA is in win-now mode. All you need is a power trio of All-Stars to muscle your way through the playoffs. If your team has one or two really good players? Have fun golfing this spring while the playoffs go on without you.

For the past 15 years, every NBA championship team has featured at least one All-NBA first or second-team player. If you don’t have one of the best players in the league, all you’re winning is a participation trophy. 

Moreover, the players are now recruiting each other to form super teams. Mere mortals have no chance against these powerhouses. Is it possible to draft and develop an NBA champion? Maybe, but that’s not the trend as NBA players pick and choose where to fight for their legacy.

Recruiting in the NBA

NBA players are used to being recruited. For most, it started when they were 8 years old, getting pushed or pulled to play for a club team or an AAU roster. Then came high school, college, and finally, the pros. 

But in the NBA, players are the ones doing the recruiting. 

It started in earnest when Dwyane Wade, James, and Chris Bosh met at the 2008 Olympics. They would all be up for free agency in 2010, and they talked about joining forces. 

They knew they wanted to play in a major market. Sorry, Milwaukee. 

James and Wade considered going to Chicago to join a young Derrick Rose. They talked about going to New York to join the hapless Knicks.

But Wade and James wanted Bosh with them, and make no mistake — nobody was taking a pay cut to make this play, Wade said on the Player’s Tribune “Knucklehead” podcast.

“And when it came down to it, Miami was the only team with enough money to get all three of us,” he said. “Every other team only had two max contracts. When it came down to it, we thought CB [Bush] was the perfect match. And ultimately, bro, I just wanted to win.”

It worked out. The Heat won the 2012 and 2013 NBA titles before James went back to Cleveland. 

A few years later, all-world forward Kevin Durant signed a free-agent deal with the Golden State Warriors, joining All-Stars Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudala, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green in 2016. 

In announcing the move, Durant made no mention of winning titles. But it had to be part of the math.

“The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction,” Durant wrote. “But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth.”

Durant and the Warriors won the 2017 and 2018 titles before injuries derailed a run in 2019.

In 2021, Durant was again at the center of a new power team. Paired with All-NBA teammates James Harden and Kyrie Irving, Durant and the Brooklyn Nets took the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. LeBron, meanwhile, played general manager for the Lakers, demanding a trade for All-Star forward Anthony Davis at any price. His hunger for a title paid off with the 2020 NBA title.

Max deals and choosing home

By NBA rules, teams can only pay one player so much money. When a star free-agent like Kawhi Leonard just wants to go to his childhood favorite team, there’s no enticement another team can offer to change his mind. Leonard, the 2019 NBA Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors, chose his Los Angeles Clippers in the summer of 2019 and immediately turned them into a playoff threat.

What’s the lesson here? If the money is all the same, there needs to be a driving reason for a superstar player to join a team. Whether it’s the chance at a title or redeeming your hometown franchise, it’s about more than dollars — with the understanding that players are still making plenty of money.

Is there hope for teams in less-cool cities? Look at the 2021 NBA playoff contenders. Sure, the Milwaukee Bucks are led by an MVP player they drafted, Giannis Atetokounmpo. He won back-to-back MVPs in 2019 and 2020. But of their next seven-best scorers, only Donte DiVincenzo was drafted by the Bucks. 

The top seed in the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz, is led by a soon-to-be MVP candidate in Donovan Mitchell. But the Jazz’s next three leading scorers all started with other teams before landing in Utah. 

Maybe the ray of hope for non-cool teams is really the Philadelphia 76ers. The No.1 seed in the Eastern Conference is led by the power duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, both drafted by the 76ers, with fellow lifetime 76er Shake Milton adding a 3-point shooting threat.

All it took to get here were three straight years where Philadelphia had less than 20 wins

If the 76ers get knocked out of the playoffs, there’s hope: Kawhi Leonard could be a free agent again this summer. Maybe he has some distant relatives in Philadelphia. Does Embiid have Leonard’s cell phone number?