Why the NBA offseason excitement will lead to apathy and hurt the league in the long run

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook reacts after dunking against the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on February 1, 2019. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS)
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook reacts after dunking against the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on February 1, 2019. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS) TNS

It’s a ticking time bomb.

For me, it’s a situation I look at both subjectively and objectively — and both stink.

Russell Westbrook most likely will be moving on from the Oklahoma City Thunder here soon. For OKC fans like myself, he’s been the rock, the player you could always count on after Kevin Durant jumped ship. Even when Paul George forced his way out a few days ago, I could at least think “We lost Robin, but we still have Batman.”

It’s a hard pill to swallow. It just plain sucks.

However, the bigger picture worries me more. I’m worried for the NBA. More specifically, I’m worried for the NBA fans.

The Anthony Davis saga last year was troubling. He basically forced his way out of New Orleans, though the Pelicans at least stood their ground by making him wait until the offseason.

Paul George: “Hold my beer.”

Los Angeles Laker players LeBron James, center, and Anthony Davis, right, take in an NBA summer league basketball game between the New York Knicks and the New Orleans Pelicans, Friday, July 5, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus) Steve Marcus AP

George, who signed a four-year extension with the Thunder just last summer, all of a sudden decided he wanted out when he learned that Kawhi Leonard would go to the Los Angeles Clippers if they could also land George from OKC. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, who had been trying to add pieces to a contender, had no choice but to acquiesce George’s wishes as he was looking at an offer of an expiring contract (Danilo Gallinari), a promising young player (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and five — yes, five, including four unprotected — first-round draft picks.

It was a king’s ransom, no doubt Presti had to do it but it also jump-started a franchise rebuild.

That said, it sets a bad precedent moving forward. Contracts and a player’s morale — George said all great things about Westbrook and OKC — now are nothing more than year-to-year facade.

I’ve heard the argument. Yes, I know the teams have the power to treat the players with the same lack of respect. It is a business.

Therefore, this column has nothing to do with who’s right and who’s wrong. Nor is it about finding an answer to a problem that likely doesn’t have one. Instead, it’s about who will get hurt in the long run: the fans.

This newfound player empowerment era is great for them, but not for those who buy their jerseys and merchandise. If this trend continues it will be hard for fans to feel intimately connected to franchises. If a guy is there for only a handful of years, can you really claim them?

I felt connected to Durant, and that’s why it hurt when he left. However, down the road I’ll look at the big picture and want to see his jersey hanging in the rafters. After all, he was with the franchise for nine years, including one as a Seattle SuperSonic. Same goes for Westbrook, who has been with the franchise for 11 years.

I still root for James Harden, Serge Ibaka and others who spent some time with OKC. Unfortunately, I was just starting to feel like George was a part of the franchise’s fabric. Yet, now he’s gone.

In the grand scheme of things, he’ll be somewhat of a blip on the radar — not nearly as minuscule as the Carmelo Anthony experiment — when you think of OKC, and that’s a shame. Heck, he might even be booed when he returns to play in Oklahoma City as an opponent, something I don’t think will happen to Westbrook if he goes to Miami or Detroit or wherever via trade.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George in transition against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Leah Klafczynski/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS) Leah Klafczynski TNS

But let’s face it: To boo is to care. To cheer is to care.

The road the league is going down will likely lead to apathy in many ways. Looking forward, players will feel like rentals and mere vehicles to bring a championship banner at any cost. We won’t care when we see them in commercials or hear about them becoming fathers.

We’ll develop a “shut up and win” mentality.

Aside from the fans’ plight, teams’ strategies are likely to change as well. This short-term commitment era will likely leave just two ways in which teams can win a title. You either strike gold through the draft in consecutive years and try to win a title or two while the players are still on rookie contracts, or you do what the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers are doing now: get stars to team up while still in their prime.

I’ll still enjoy watching the league, but I fear I soon won’t care quite as much. What for years has felt like an investment to a team will likely transform into something that’s merely entertainment. No more screaming at the TV. No more running through my apartment in glee when a player re-signs or the team pulls off a big trade.

Nope. Instead, there likely will soon be rather disconnect.

The dreaded moment could come at any time. Therefore, when it does, I hope all Thunder fans join me in thanking Westbrook for hanging in there when many would not have. We’ll miss you, Mr. Triple Double.

I’m kind of at the point where I want it get over with. Rip the Band-aid off already.

At least then I won’t have to care as much anymore.