The date on this glorious Tuesday afternoon is July 9th, 2019.
We’ve officially reached the dog days of the North American sports calendar, my friends; the MLB regular season won’t return from its annual All-Star break for another three days, NFL rookies won’t report to training camps until, at the earliest, July 17th, and the CFL is, uh, still a league, I guess.
And standing above them all in its towering glory is the NBA: the greatest reality show of all time.
Kicking off the June 30th free agency period with a game of musical chairs so chaotic it, at one point, caused Adrian Wojnarowski to tweet six different times within a span of 45 seconds (It happened. I saw it with my own two eyes), the NBA has managed to dominate both the Twittersphere and the news cycle at large for practically the entire summer thanks to a dizzying display of player movement and off-court intrigue.
It’s stunning, really. There is truly no such thing as a dull moment.
But the mayhem on Canada Day Eve was only the beginning. As the NBA world slept soundly at 2 am this past Saturday morning, Kawhi Leonard detonated a nuclear bomb that irreversibly eviscerated the entire basketball landscape and changed the complexion of the league forever by agreeing to terms on a 4-year, $142 million contract to join the Los Angeles Clippers and, in the process, somehow bringing 2018-19 First Team All-NBA forward and candidate for both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award, Paul George, along with him.
The only caveat to that last one? George was still under contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder for another two years. In fact, the day AFTER his eventual departure was officially coronated as “Paul George Day” in Oklahoma City, as if this situation hadn’t been poetic enough.
But that didn’t matter. And in a feat of unprecedented badassery, Leonard effectively circumvented the sheer concept of free agency by first spurring George to request a trade from the Thunder and then, soon after, convincing the Clippers to pay the richest asset haul in NBA history in order to get him.
Meanwhile, the NHL’s hottest story at the moment is something along the lines of whether or not the Leafs will play Cody Ceci on their third pairing or their second. Catch the fever!
Of course, you may be wondering why 300 words on a hockey website were just dedicated to a basketball free agent signing. And I would reply to you by saying that the Kawhi Saga warrants mention for one reason: it’s transcendent.
The path down which Leonard has travelled over the past calendar year – trapped in a toxic situation in San Antonio 12 months ago to now leaving Toronto for his hometown with an NBA title, Finals MVP award, 142 million dollars, the adoration of an entire nation and a true superstar running mate under his belt – stands as the ultimate demonstration of control from a pro athlete. Perhaps, in all of sports history.
It sets a precedent.
The NHL, on the other hand, operates its free agency with the implicit intent to prevent these very situations from happening altogether – much to the dismay of fans and casual observers alike.
One half of the blame here falls on the shoulders of the league at large; for its absurd hard cap system, restrictive RFA guidelines and, in the context of this particular year, incomprehensible failure to establish a definitive salary cap ceiling until AFTER the busiest trading day of the summer, while the other half falls on the general managers; for their notoriously conservative team-building approaches, suffocating culture ingrained with a stigma towards taking risks, and their equally maddening refusal to actually use the few weapons of intrigue afforded to them, like offer sheets, and instead default to the status quo.
Each year, the groundwork of NBA free agency is laid by a season’s worth of speculative lead up to the moment when an entirely new batch of marquee talent hits the open market and immediately justifies the hype. A typical signing period in the NHL, in comparison, tends to be driven by tense discussions pertaining to the cap logistics of adding a 37-year-old depth winger to a middling roster.
Strip away all of the grandfathered-in emotion which drives your continued adoration for hockey and ask yourself one simple question:
Who really wants to watch that?
No one. And yet they still do, which encapsulates one of the central reasons for why the NHL lacks its own equivalent to the Kawhi Saga: in years past, there was no perceived push for one, at least internally.
For all the faux macho, “Please Like My Sport” posturing that dominates the game’s culture today, hockey players are generally too afraid to adopt the badass qualities needed to pull off a Kawhi-level chess move. Standing out is frowned upon in the Hockey League that is National, even if it means forfeiting control over your career to a system that is designed to operate against your own best interests.
Kawhi didn’t care one bit about George’s legally-binding contractual agreement with the Thunder, of which George had signed a mere one year prior. Kawhi wanted to team up him, fuelled by a belief that making George the Pippen to his Jordan was the best conceivable avenue for his career, and proceeded to leverage every morsel of power at his disposal to make it happen.
The result? A happy Kawhi, a wide-open NBA, countless fascinating storylines for the season ahead, and a seismic shift in power from the owners back to the players.
The NHL needs their own Kawhi Saga. Badly. This is a league in desperate need of fresh air, suffocating from its climate of self-inflicted staleness. And after the one GM brave enough to actually use an offer sheet this summer managed to botch it so hilariously and yet all too predictably, that fresh air clearly won’t come from the executive side. It has to come from the players’. And not just any player. The player.
In Edmonton, Connor McDavid finds himself mired in a situation that is, for different reasons, similarly unfavourable to what Kawhi experienced during the 2017-18 season in San Antonio. Simply swap out the Spurs’ injury mismanagement for the Oilers’ perpetual on- and off-ice failure, and the parallels become clear.
McDavid is the best player his sport has to offer, a star just entering the apex of his prime with an MVP already adorned atop his shelf, and yet stands on the precipice of having his potentially historic career wasted by playing for a perpetual punchline.
So, do something about it.
McDavid holds the ability to change the way the NHL views player movement – the only player capable of forcing all 30 other teams into a bidding war for his services were he to actually demand a trade, $12.5 million cap hit be damned. Think of the asset haul Ken Holland could recoup for his superstar, the intrigue around the specifics of the deal, and the Shakespearian plot lines underscoring the season to come. Then think of the ripple effects cast out on the league as a whole, driven by its top player doing what was once thought to be unthinkable and wrestling back control over his own life.
No other player is capable of transcending the confines of cap space and roster need the way McDavid could be. This gives him leverage. It gives him power. And with that power, his next move could alter the course of his own career and, in the process, the NHL itself.
God knows they both need it.