The NBA Will Always Be A Commodities' League
There are good reasons for the Cavaliers and Andre Drummond not to want each other. The big fella’s only in Cleveland in the first place because the Pistons salary dumped him last year, and he’s still in town because he had a player option he knew nobody would match, so he’s taking the money while it’s there, putting himself on exhibition for the 2021 offseason, when he’ll hope to sign a fat new contract, or a slimmer one for a contender. The Cavs, for their part, grabbed Drummond not because they desperately wanted him, but because he was available for dirt cheap. They took a flier, thinking maybe they would build around the then-26-year-old center. Having recently acquired a younger, more useful player at that position in Jarrett Allen, they’re through experimenting with Drummond. They want to move him for a pick or someone who fits their rotation and their timeline. Failing that, they’ll buy him out and let him walk.
All of this is reasonable enough, everybody involved using the leverage they have, and being more or less honest with one another about what they want and where they stand. What’s unusual about the arrangement is that the Cavs have now taken the unprecedented step of benching Drummond and announcing that he won’t play again until they ship him out. The trade deadline this season is a much-later-than-usual March 25th date, which means Drummond could be idling in street clothes for five weeks before he’ll know where he’s going. In the meantime, he has to keep going through the motions, hitting the gym and participating in film sessions, exposing himself to the elevated COVID risk all NBA players face, at least appearing to remain engaged with the operations and fortunes of a team he literally no longer plays for.
Draymond Green doesn’t like it. He said as much in a brief monologue to the press on Monday night: “as a player you are the worst person in the world if you want a different situation, but a team can say they are trading you, and that man is to stay in shape, he is to stay professional and if not, his career is on the line.” Draymond’s incensed by what he perceives as a double standard. Teams treat players as eminently disposable, but players are villainized when they agitate for a move.
While it’s true that players catch flak for pretty much everything they do—they’re public figures; people can be jerks—the hypocrisy Draymond describes seems to me much less prevalent than it was even five or ten years ago. Maybe it’s just the media I consume, but most reporters and columnists I read, the folks on the podcasts I listen to, are generally supportive or at least accepting of players looking out for themselves, whether that’s forcing their way off a bad team and onto a good one or going wherever the money is most plentiful in free agency. They understand that labor, especially young labor, doesn’t have much autonomy in the NBA, and that if you put in the work to accrue some power of your own, you’re more than entitled to use it to play where you want to play, live how you want to live. This is to say that if Andre Drummond said he’d like to leave Cleveland, I don’t think he would be widely crushed in the press.
But if he started noticeably dogging it in games, he would probably start to catch some ire. If he actively held out, released a statement reporters that said he was unilaterally ending his time in Cleveland, that he refused to play another game for them, then we’re getting into territory where I could see a lot of media types siding with the franchise over the player, sneering commentary about player empowerment, vacuous slippery slope arguments furthered with anonymously sourced comments from the league office.
That kind of NFL-style holdout would be the rough equivalent of what the Cavs are doing to Drummond. It doesn’t appear that he had much input on the decision, given that he publicly thanked Green for advocating on his behalf. Drummond was told how things are going to be. He’s still getting paid, at least, but it’s clear that his employer doesn’t value him at all.
I wrote about the NBA’s rotten labor dynamics at length this past offseason, when James Harden was partying in Vegas while his teammates were assembled for training camp in Houston. Toward the end of that piece, I posited that the resentment that travels in both directions, between players and owners, is fundamentally irresolvable. The construction of the league itself would have to be reimagined—with the owners cut out of the deal entirely—to make that enmity disappear. As things are currently set up, franchises have immense control over what players are allowed to do—where they can work, how they work, what they can say, even what they do in their limited spare time—and sometimes stars rebel, like Harden did, in ways that are not really correct or fair but are easily forgivable given what the vast majority of them put up with. Players look at what’s happening to Drummond and they see clearly that, at bottom, they will always be treated more like commodities than people.