“I want my freedom. My goal is to control my own destiny. And as you’ve seen in my career, I’ve never been in a position to do that. I know some teams out there are saying, ‘Oh, Chauncey will be great in mentoring’ and I’m tired of that. I’ve got a few good years left to play, and I’m not trying to come in and sit on the bench, or be a mentor. I’m not going to be that guy. I want to go somewhere and win. I want to choose.” – Chauncey Billups
Welcome to the players’ revolution. The tide is changing in the NBA and across professional sports, and the result is players taking an increasing role in deciding where they go and who they play for. At the heart of this sea change is that central desire – to have that freedom to choose.
The friction that’s part and parcel with this change came to a head when NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed a trade that would have sent Chris Paul, the shining jewel of the abridged offseason, to the perennial powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers. When the three-team trade was initially announced, there was a hue and cry from the NBA’s small market owners. Led by Cleveland Cavalier’s owner Dan Gilbert, these owners characterized the trade a “travesty.” Gilbert, famously scorned by LeBron James for the Heat, complained that if such a trade is allowed, all but a few fortunate NBA teams ought to change their names to the Washington Generals.
This lament was a recurring theme of the most recent collective bargaining negotiations. Repeatedly, small market owners pushed for greater parity, greater balance, and frankly, greater control in a league where players are increasingly setting the agenda. They complain that this allows certain lucky teams to dominate the offseason, and often the postseason. The Cavs’ owner is the mascot for a growing fear that cities like Cleveland will be left sitting at basketball’s kids table.
Stern eventually bowed to this pressure and vetoed the trade. This move was complicated by the fact that the Hornets are currently owned by the NBA in a bid to keep the organization as flush as possible while the team is shopped around for a potential buyer. The media response to this choice has been sharp, with numerous strong rebukes of the commissioner’s actions. The outcry has been so forceful that Stern has bristled under the pressure from the other direction, feeling compelled to explain his actions lest he be labeled a puppet, a patsy, or a meddler. These protestations were not enough to prevent him from vetoing another trade, however, this time one that would send Paul to the Clippers.
Yet, no matter what the outcome in this particular situation, players like Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James have put themselves in the driver’s seat as free agency approaches. This growing trend raises three big questions. First, is this the new normal for professional basketball, and perhaps professional sports a whole? Second, is this sort of maneuvering bad for the NBA and what can be done in response? And third, should the NBA be doing anything at all?
The fact is that this is going to be the reality in the NBA for the foreseeable future. Some players, especially superstars, are going to be able to dictate the terms of their departures. Increasingly, front offices are going to find themselves bent to the will of the select few. These superstars are going to be able to pick and choose teams, fellow players, and maybe even coaches.
Like it or not, the NBA is a star-driven league. In a league where one guy can make such a huge impact on a team, the LeBrons, the Kobes, the CP3s, move the dials. Whether they’re there to cheer or boo, they bring out the fans and the ticket-buyers and the viewers at home. What’s more, with the rise of super-teams like the Celtics with Garnett, Pierce, and Allen and the Heat with LeBron, D-Wade, and Bosh, stars want to play with other stars. It’s too much for any team, no matter how noble, to ignore.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to basketball. ESPN’s fantastic 30 for 30 series spotlighted the infamous Wayne Gretzky trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles that rocked the NHL. The NFL’s Eli Manning and his father engineered a trade to the New York Giants to avoid having to play for the team that drafted him out of college. Chris Palmer masqueraded a retirement from the Bengals until they were willing to trade him. Baseball’s Manny Ramirez has misbehaved his way off of more than one team he was unhappy with. Good or bad, more and more players are taking this route.
There’s plenty of room to debate about their methods. I spent a great deal of digital ink talking about how LeBron made an imminently defensible choice in a terrible, repugnant manner. Carmelo should be gracious and professional in his dealings with the Nuggets rather than publicly discontented. Chris Paul shouldn’t play cautiously down the stretch for the Hornets in order to protect his knee and his payday. But these three men realized something important – that they are worth a great deal in this market, and they used that market power to give themselves choice.
That’s why these sorts of trades and free agency periods where players exert more and more leverage on their home teams are going to become the norm. The genie is out of the bottle. Every other hot near-free agent is going to see what sorts of shots guys like Chris Paul can call, and say, “me too.”
They’re going to say to their General Managers, “I’m worth a great deal in this league, and you have two choices. You can either play this my way and get a piece of that value back in a trade, or you can let me play out my contract for another year and get nothing.” And if you’re one of those General Managers like New Orleans’ Dell Demps, what can you say?
You can stand your ground, watch a valuable player walk out the door in a year, and leave yourself empty-handed. You’ll have your principles, but you’ll also have an unarmed team with no new parts to forge into a championship. Or, you can accept that this superstar wants to leave and work with them to bring some value back to your organization.
That’s why this is where professional basketball, and professional sports generally, are going. Not only have these players realized what they’re worth, but they’ve figured out how to turn that market value into market power, at least in the NBA. In an industry where personnel moves are “just business,” you can expect those players with enough leverage to turn the tables on their front offices.
Which begs an important question – is this trend bad for basketball?
When it comes to what’s best for the NBA, it’s a tough call. On the one hand, the NFL has proven that parity can be a recipe of success. Perhaps it’s the “Any Given Sunday” nature of football, but whether you’re a fan of the championship Green Bay Packers or the woeful Rams, you can reasonably believe that with the right drafts, the right schedule, and a few good bounces of the ball, next season could be a big one for your team. Every fan can have a little faith in their local squad and the NFL has never been bigger. Winning breeds fans, and parceling that winning around helps make the entire country invested in your sport.
On the other hand, powerhouses and dynasties have brought the NBA a great deal of success. The 2010 NBA finals, featuring the aforementioned All-Star Celtics against a Lakers team regarded to have gotten the far better end of a trade that landed Pau Gasol, scored the league their best ratings in a finals game since Michael Jordan’s Bulls (another noted dynasty) played in the championship. Whether folks tuned in to support the Heat or wish for their demise, Miami was a ratings smash in the 2010-2011 season.
Moreover, these superstar teams have created some great David vs. Goliath narratives in the NBA. The 2011 Dallas Mavericks NBA Championship captured the attention of the nation. It built on the narrative of the Mega-powered Miami squad against a group of mostly unheralded Mavericks players. The end result was a compelling series that told a great underdog story that spurred more interest in basketball.
That said, how many fans are those smaller market teams luring into the stadiums, arenas, and living rooms these days? Dan Gilbert may be right that while the NBA as a whole may prosper from this trend, it will be the few prospering at the expense of the many. No businessman wants to invest in a franchise with little shot at upward mobility, and no fan wants to invest time and energy into a team that could never raise a championship banner.
The best rebuttal, however, to these concerns and criticisms are the San Antonio Spurs. Hailing from only the nation’s 37th biggest media market, the Spurs have been persistent NBA Champions without dominating free agency. Instead, the organization has built through the draft, shown a franchise-wide commitment to good basketball, and created a system that works. The team has managed to hold onto free agents by instilling an inviting culture that breeds success, making it a welcome NBA destination despite its smaller media footprint.
But just like not every team can be the Lakers, not every team can be the Spurs. What works within one organization may not fit another. What’s good for the league on average may not be good for each individual team. In the end, it’s a mixed bag, raising the question of what, if anything, could be done to stem the tide of players moving to big markets and dictating their terms in the process?
The only answer is an unpalatable one – end or severely restrict free agency.
There’s really no other option if you believe that this sort of movement hurts the NBA. The league could give teams even more advantages in resigning their own free agents. The league could implement even greater revenue sharing. The league could nix these sorts of trades until the cows come home. In the end it will not matter for one simple, unavoidable reason – most free agents would rather play in Los Angeles than Cleveland.
They would rather be in Boston than Milwaukee. They would rather be in Miami than Toronto. They would rather be in New York than Denver. You can put in all the league rules you want, but no administrative move is going to change this. Again, this is a star-driven league, and NBA players want to go where they can be stars. They don’t just want to be the best – they want to be the best in the biggest cities. They want to play where their names will be put on the national marquee. They want to play for teams with histories, legacies, and pedigrees. They want to play where they can be a champion and they want to decide where that is.
To the point, the Knicks recently used their amnesty clause to waive Chauncey Billups. Known as a good-natured veteran, Billups warned the teams who might pull him off the waiver wire that he would not be a good solider if he was the chosen rather than the chooser. In the quote at the top of the page, he made it clear that he wanted the freedom to pick his own team rather than be drafted into service. He wants to put himself in a position to win, and wants to be the architect of that success.
It’s easy to say, “What happened to sportsmanship? These players ought to go wherever they’re sent and play their hearts out.” But what about a player like Billups who sees his career entering its twilight and wants to have a chance to play for a contender? What about a talented player like Chris Paul who is at the cusp of free agency and does not want to give up the ability to choose who he plays for? Why should these players sacrifice the professional goals and aspirations they deem best for teams who can be expected to jettison them as soon as they are no longer useful?
Aren’t those players after what we all seek in life – the ability to pick our own paths? Don’t we all, at some level, yearn to have the strength, the value, to decide for ourselves what we do and how we do it? Why should NBA players be robbed of taking advantage of this ability to choose?
They have market power and they’re exercising it. It’s debatable whether this is good or bad for basketball, but even if it is, what are we supposed to say to guys like Chris Paul? “The fact that you’ll make millions of dollars no matter where you go means that we can deny you the autonomy to achieve professional fulfillment instead of just personal wealth.” From some combination of natural ability and hard-work, Paul has become one of the premier players in the NBA. He has earned the position he’s in. While he should go about his business as a professional, he has every right to use that position to seek personal satisfaction in his chosen field, wherever that takes him and however he goes.
Slowly but surely, players like Paul are recognizing their value to their organizations and to the league beyond just dollars and cents. They’re using it to carve out the path to success they want. Owners and general managers have been capitalizing and leveraging that value for decades, why should Paul or Carmelo or Billups be denied that same opportunity?
They shouldn’t. One of the ideas our nation was founded on is the fundamental liberty to pursue happiness. We believe in the notion that individuals should be afforded the broadest freedom to choose a course for themselves that they think is best. Athletes like CP3 are simply doing that – using their worth to pursue the outcome that they believe will make them the happiest.
We can disagree with some of their methods. We can debate about whether it’s good for the game. But at the end of the day, we cannot deny these players their autonomy just because we dislike what they’re likely to choose. That’s not what this country is about, and it shouldn’t be what the NBA is about.