Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Players synonymous with their cities and their franchises are now gone in a summer of upheaval the NBA has rarely seen before, and the teams left behind begin their searches for new identities after saying the hardest of goodbyes.
“You never would’ve been able to convince me a couple years back that Wade wouldn’t finish his career in Miami or Durant would have moved on in his prime from that great Oklahoma City team, or Rose after his MVP year, four years later he’s not in Chicago anymore,” ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “It just shows you. It’s a hard league. It’s hard to keep your group together. And when it is able to stay together, stay relevant, stay competitive, you’re very, very fortunate.”
Count the San Antonio Spurs among the chosen few. Duncan fell in their lap when the Spurs won the draft lottery in 1997, and coach Gregg Popovich has long credited that bit of luck for the franchise’s unprecedented run of success.
Five championships, two MVPs for Duncan, the most enduring success story in American sports.
“Leadership can come from many different areas, but when your best player is the best leader, it’s amazing how everybody else falls in line,” said Timberwolves GM Scott Layden, who was an assistant GM with the Spurs for the previous four seasons. “The other thing is how he’s done it with such humility and modesty. Not looking for any attention and accolades. It’s more of what is good for the team. … Both on and off the court, he set the tone day-in and day-out.”
Bryant beat Duncan out of the door by a couple of months, ending 20 colorful seasons with the Lakers with a 60-point outburst in his final game. The consistency wasn’t the same as Duncan’s, but the Lakers captured five titles as well during Bryant’s time and vaulted back into the league’s hierarchy.
Wade left the Heat for his hometown Bulls after 13 brilliant seasons and is perhaps the biggest sports hero in Miami history, having delivered three championships to South Beach and serving as an ambassador for the glitzy city by the bay.
“Moments like this, it sucks,” Wade said on Saturday after taking a two-year, $47 million deal from the Bulls over Miami’s offer of two years and $40 million. “The business side of the sport, sometimes it just sucks. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Durant stunned the NBA by leaving his beloved Oklahoma City for the juggernaut in Golden State, ending a nine-year love affair between the low-key superstar and a city he and Russell Westbrook put on the basketball map.
“Kevin was a part of the renaissance,” Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett told ESPN last week. “This city has come so far, so fast, probably further, faster than any city in American history. Kevin was right there along with us. There’s a slight sense of panic.”
And finally, the Bulls traded Rose, a former MVP and one of the city’s favorite sons, to the New York Knicks. Noah followed his friend to the Big Apple in free agency, meaning two of the players who embodied the franchise’s grit and determination are now elsewhere.
The departures came under different circumstances and by different means, but they have served to upend the NBA. Player movement is one of the league’s hallmarks, but Dwyane Wade in a Bulls jersey?
All players see their careers end eventually. But Kobe and Timmy in the same summer?
Injuries to Rose and Noah no doubt forced Chicago’s hand. But both of the proud fighters wearing blue and orange?
It will take some getting used to for everyone involved, and it stands to have a major impact on the playoff chases in both conferences.
Duncan may not have been the force of nature he was for the Spurs in his earlier days, and he may have passed the torch to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge last season. But his loss in the locker room, and in the paint, will be hard for the Spurs to overcome.
With Leonard, Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and now Pau Gasol in the fold, the Spurs should still be able to hang near the top of the Western Conference. Without No. 21 in the middle to keep things calm, it won’t be easy.
“I think it goes way beyond the championships and the winning,” said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a longtime Spurs assistant. “I think the culture that really, he’s kind of the pillar it’s been built around. It is almost impossible to quantify.”
In some ways, things have only gotten easier for the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, who have met in the NBA Finals the last two seasons.
Durant’s move to Golden State gutted the Warriors’ chief rival in the West and assembled perhaps the most potent starting lineup in league history in the Bay Area.
Wade’s move to Chicago weakened a challenger to LeBron in the East.
Maybe the only question left to answer going into next season is not who will be there in the end, but how each of these proud franchises will handle their new beginnings.