We all know that in the summer of 2017, Kyrie Irving invented not wanting to play for the team that drafted you anymore. What this column presupposes is that other things happened first. Though the history of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement is mostly a depressing record of union lawyers getting their asses handed to them by Larry O’Brien and David Stern, players have broadly been acquiring more freedom of movement over time. The NBPA, via an antitrust lawsuit Oscar Robertson filed in 1970, won a highly limited version of free agency in 1976, then a slightly less limited one in the 1980 CBA and a system pretty similar to the one we have now in 1988.
Of course, stars have been trying to force their way out of town since before the league even had hard and fast rules governing player contracts. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar re-signed with the Bucks for three years in 1972, but by 1974 he had made it plain to management that, alienated and slightly bored in a medium-sized midwestern city, he would like to move on after his deal was up. Milwaukee sought to accommodate Kareem, sending him to Los Angeles in June of 1975, because he was honest and straightforward with them—not to mention he had already won the franchise a championship—but also because they didn’t know what would happen if they let him walk.
This was a year before the Robertson Agreement in 1976, which established a (not terribly well-defined) compensation protocol for when a player switched teams. In 1975, Kareem was technically free to sign with another organization, but they would probably be compelled by the commissioner’s office to forfeit something—cash, draft picks, perhaps a player or two—to Milwaukee. Or maybe—again, there were no laws that dictated what needed to occur—the league would stand by and do nothing. So the Bucks took the safe option, trading their three-time MVP to the Lakers for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, and a pair of first-rounders. Kareem got his way.
A more modern example: Chris Webber. He’s drafted first overall by the Magic in 1993, traded to the Warriors, and signs a 15-year, $75 million rookie deal… which includes an escape clause after one year. Don Nelson loves an undersized, smooth-passing center but Webber hates banging with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. Nellie trades Billy Owens away for Rony Seikaly so Webber can move to the four, but he’s already upset and threatens to activate the clause. The Warriors have no choice but to ship him to Washington.
In the mid-to-late 90s, player movement among young players exploded. The CBA, agreed to in 1995 and applied the following offseason, abolished restricted free agency, which meant that instead of being more or less compelled to endure two contracts from the franchise that drafted them, guys could make a clean exit as soon as their rookie deal expired. Mark Heisler writing about the (highly temporary) end of RFA in the Los Angeles Times: “last summer’s War Between the Lawyers produced a new NBA players’ contract whose impact can be summed up in three words: everything just changed.”
This wasn’t an exaggeration. In the coming summers, a slew of stars became available ahead of schedule. In the fall of 1995, contract extension talks between Alonzo Mourning and the Hornets stalled and, knowing they wouldn’t be able to simply match whatever offers came in after the season was over, they sent Zo to Pat Riley’s Heat. After getting swept by the Bulls in the 1996 Eastern Finals, Shaq’s relationship with Penny Hardaway was on the rocks and his relationship with Magic head coach Brian Hill was in the toilet, so he left for Los Angeles as a free agent. That same offseason, Dikembe Mutombo and Allan Houston both wrapped up their rookie contracts and switched teams.
The Blazers picked Brian Grant off the Kings in 1997, then added Damon Stoudamire in the middle of the 1997-98 season, when he told the Raptors he didn’t plan to continue in Toronto. Antonio McDyess was drafted by the Nuggets in 1995, traded to the Suns in 1997, then retraced his steps via free agency in 1999. The Wolves, desperately wanting to hold onto Kevin Garnett in what had swiftly become an open market, gave him a gigantic seven-year, $105 million extension in 1997, a number that by 1999 rubbed a young Stephon Marbury the wrong way. Feeling undervalued and culturally marooned in Minnesota, Starbury issued a by-then familiar trade me or I’ll walk threat and got himself sent to the Nets.
You get the idea: all of a sudden, teams had to start worrying about retaining players who were in their second or third season, as opposed to being able to take for granted that they were going to be around for a while whether they liked it or not. Predictably, this arrangement didn’t last long. Management doesn’t like to have such provisional control over its labor. The league crushed the players’ union in the 1998 lockout and, among other victories, got restricted free agency reinstated starting in 2000.
Which is why Kyrie Irving requested a trade at age 25, with two years remaining on his second contract, rather than two years into his career, when nobody would have blamed him for wanting to abandon a destitute Cleveland franchise. He was, you might say, unempowered at that time: staring down a pair of team options and then a choice between a max contract and a one-year qualifying offer that provided relatively scant financial security. Once Kyrie finally gained some leverage, he decided he to use it to serve his own unknowable interests. This was 2017, not 1997, so that leverage was hard-won indeed. Stars have been trying to force their way out of town for nearly as long as the NBA has existed. All that has changed, in fits and starts and not always in one direction, is their ability to make it happen.