What weighs in the most when All-Stars leave in free agency?

·6 min read

Every summer, the biggest entertainment for NBA fans is the start of free agency and finding out which huge stars will be headed to new homes for the following season.

That’s especially exciting for aficionados of the sport because All-Stars signing with new teams is a particularly rare occurrence, one usually brought on for any of a few different reasons.

According to our research, dating back through 2001, just 40 All-Star players have signed with new teams in free agency. We took a look at them on a case-by-case basis to determine what things typically weigh in more when they leave for another city.

Headed to warmer weather: 40 percent

A common refrain from talking heads in the NBA media world is that the Association's players favor warmer weather – truly, who doesn't? – and that playing in hotter cities actually factors into the decision-making of impending free agents. However, according to our research, warmer weather was the least important factor of the four we explored in NBA All-Stars switching teams, as just 16 of the 40 All-Stars on our list (or 40 percent) actually moved from a colder city to a warmer one in their respective free agencies. (For our purposes, we defined warmer cities as those who had at least two Farenheight degrees more on average.) And even the All-Stars who did switch to warmer cities in free agency didn't necessarily do so because of the weather. Two of those players, Gary Payton and Karl Malone, went from the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, respectively, to join the Los Angeles Lakers in 2003, but clearly did so to chase a ring with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, not because they were sick of the weather in Milwaukee or Salt Lake City. Other notable All-Star free agents who switched from a colder climate to a warmer one in free agency include Kawhi Leonard (2019), Jimmy Butler (2019), Kyrie Irving (2019) and LeBron James (2018), and none of them mentioned a warmer environment as a particularly important reason why. Being situated in a city that's warm year-round may be an added benefit of an NBA All-Star switching teams, but it's rarely the main reason why. In fact, according to our findings, more All-Star free agents actually moved to colder cities than to hotter ones. Per our research, 16 All-Star free agents who switched teams went to warmer climates; 17 went to colder cities and seven went to cities with similar temperatures on average.

To play with more All-Stars (47.5 percent)

Somewhat surprisingly, the ability to play with more fellow All-Stars wasn't the first or second biggest factor towards All-Star free agents signing with new teams – instead, slotting in at No. 3. Just 19 of the 40 players we looked at dating back to 2001, or 47.5 percent, did so to sign with teams that had more All-Stars than their previous club; 10 of them went to teams that had fewer All-Stars the year prior and 11 went to teams with the same number of All-Stars as their prior outfit. Of course, the immediate example that comes to mind when thinking of this factor in All-Star free agencies came in 2011 when LeBron James and Chris Bosh left the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, respectively, to join Dwyane Wade in the Miami Heat. More recent examples of players doing that were Kyrie Irving in 2019, who left the Boston Celtics to start a new super team with the Brooklyn Nets, DeMarcus Cousins leaving the New Orleans Pelicans to join the Golden State Warriors in 2018 (though him coming off a major injury and not being able to land a long-term contract was the biggest factor there) and Gordon Hayward going to Boston in 2017 after spending his entire career to that point in Utah. The super-team phenomenon is still a relatively new one in the NBA, though, so it wouldn't be surprising if in 10 years we take another look at the numbers and see The ability to team up with more All-Stars as an even bigger factor towards why the league's studs switch teams in free agency.

To join teams that had more wins the season prior (55 percent)

From our research, we found that the second-most-common reason why All-Stars switched teams in free agency was in order to join teams that had more wins the season prior. Some may call that the Kevin Durant special, as no free agent in league history was as egregious about it as Durant, joining a 73-win Warriors team who had just eliminated his Oklahoma City Thunder in a grueling seven-game Western Conference Finals series the playoffs prior, but he's far from the only All-Star to join a team coming off a better campaign than their own. That same 2016 offseason, an All-Star Pau Gasol left the Chicago Bulls to join the San Antonio Spurs, and that wasn't even the first time the Spanish legend had used free agency to join a more established club. In 2014, coming off another All-Star season, Gasol left the Lakers, who were coming off a brutal 27-55 season, to head to Chicago, who had just gone 48-34. Other recent examples of All-Stars switching to teams with more wins include Kemba Walker joining the Celtics (2019), LaMarcus Aldridge becoming a member of the Spurs (2015) and Luol Deng heading from Cleveland to Miami (2014).

To join a bigger market (57.5 percent)

The actual thought of joining a bigger market may never cross prospective free agents' minds, but that doesn't change the fact that the NBA's most prestigious clubs, based in the biggest cities, have enormous advantages when it comes to signing top free agents. Part of that has to do with the owners of those teams usually having more money than those of smaller-market clubs, giving them a higher willingness to spend and even pay the luxury tax if it means a shot at a championship. There's also an allure to playing in the glamour markets for players, in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami, for example. As such, joining a bigger market was the biggest factor we found in All-Star free agents switching teams, with 23 of the 40 free agents we looked at, i.e., 57.5 percent of them, going to clubs that were based in larger cities. A prime example of that took place in 2010 when Amare Stoudemire left the Phoenix Suns to join the New York Knicks. That same offseason also saw LeBron James join a bigger market (Miami), as well as Carlos Boozer (Chicago). More recently, Al Horford (Boston to Philadelphia), Kemba Walker (Charlotte to Boston), Kawhi Leonard (Toronto to Los Angeles) and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (Boston and San Francisco, respectively, to Brooklyn), also fell under this category. Then again, this is just 57.5 percent of All-Stars moving to bigger markets. Seventeen of the 40 players we researched actually moved to smaller markets, so it's not a huge difference. Perhaps the takeaway is if stars move in free agency, the factors of warmer weather, playing with more All-Stars or on better teams, or moving to a bigger market for branding purposes may matter some, but way less than when it comes to guys pushing for trades.

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