Power is an amorphous thing, a seemingly abstract concept with real world weight and consequences. It’s not easily won, and the accrual and wielding of it is a constant negotiation. Despite these difficulties, power has subtly, though definitely, been won by NBA players in a number of ways in recent years. They are not working through the courts as the likes of Curt Flood and Oscar Robertson did several decades ago, but through their newfound ability to engage directly with the fans, who are almost always going to take their side over that of a coach or a faceless executive.
On the morning of October 8th, 1969, Curt Flood received a phone call from a sports writer at 4 AM telling him that he was being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies from the St. Louis Cardinals, with whom he had played the last 12 seasons of his career, winning two World Series and seven Gold Gloves while with the team. However, Flood refused to report to the Phillies, frustrated with his complete lack of control over his own destiny and career after 14 seasons as a professional baseball player.
MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused Flood’s request to become a free agent, leading Flood to sue Major League Baseball in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Flood eventually lost the case, and would only play 13 more games in his career, but his lawsuit helped set the stage for free agency that would follow in the years to come.
Concurrent to Flood’s lawsuit was a suit filed by the National Basketball Players Association that sought to block a merger of the NBA and ABA as it would prevent players from being able to choose which league and which team they wanted to play for. The leagues had initially planned to merge in 1970, but the suit, which would come to be known as the Oscar Robertson Suit, blocked the merger for six years until the Players Association and NBA settled, again opening up the doors for free agency.
Players of the current era have become acutely aware of the fact that they are the show, the reason the fans show up or tune in, the reason the league has a product to sell. Of course the tricky part is that the players are both the reason the product exists as well as the product itself. Nevertheless, stars have accrued a leverage that is, if not more profound than in years past, at least more pronounced. To name just two examples, there are endless jokes about LeBron being the real GM of whatever team he plays on, and in every battle between a star player and a head coach, the coach is going to lose essentially every time. Perhaps most pointedly, though, we see it in players determining where they want to play. Despite the fact that their current team can offer the most money and a longer contract than any other, players want to go to a team that is more suited for them, whether that means a warmer climate, better teammates, more competent management, or just a change of scenery.
Over just the past few years, we’ve seen Kawhi Leonard work his way out of San Antonio, Jimmy Butler leave Minnesota, DeMarcus Cousins finally get out of Sacramento, Paul George leave Indiana for Oklahoma City, and Kyrie Irving manage to leave LeBron’s shadow in Cleveland. Now, when a team signs a superstar to a long contract, it doubles as a countdown, a blade hanging over management’s head. And honestly I think this is mostly fine.
But for all this talk of player empowerment, what’s missed in these conversations is how few players this actually applies to. Yes, front offices and owners will bend backwards for LeBron James, and try to placate other stars in order to get them to re-sign, but there’s a lot of collateral damage that goes unnoticed.
Think of all the rumored trade offers for Anthony Davis that leaked to the public over the last few weeks and what Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Solomon Hill must make of all the talk about how empowered players are right now. It seems to me that by focusing on the power at star players’ disposal, we’ve missed the fact that most players are rotation pieces who will never play in an All-Star Game or make an All-NBA team, and are pawns in a larger game that is beyond their control. In addition to these players whose names were merely floated as potential trade pieces, there were a number of moves made this deadline by owners and general managers desperate to get under the luxury tax, or at least lessen their tax bill. When traded for that reason, players are no longer players, but impediments to the owner maximizing their investment. I get why it happens, and it makes a certain amount of sense, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it either.
When we talk about the NBA being a players’ league, a league where the players appear to have more power than ever before, we need to be more conscientious of firstly, just how limited that power is relative to ownership and secondly, how few players we’re talking about when we talk about the leverage they possess. There is no easy fix to any of this, and it’s unlikely that many of these problems will be able to be solved, or even potentially addressed, until the negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Just this week, though, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, and Bismack Biyombo were named vice presidents on the Executive Committee of the National Basketball Players Association, replacing Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, and Andre Iguodala. Perhaps these three, who are all decidedly non-stars compared to the players they’re replacing, will be able to work toward finding ways to empower players who shine less brightly than the faces of the league, ensuring that player power is at least a bit more evenly distributed than before.