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NBA GM: Player empowerment ‘worst thing that ever happened to professional sports’

Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 30: LeBron James #23 and Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers stand for the national anthem before the game against the Phoenix Suns during Round 1, Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2021 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron James – from The Decision to beyond – has ushered in an era of player empowerment in the NBA.

Players conspire together about teaming up. They change teams in free agency and demand trades. Beyond the court, players speak on issues important to them.

Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker:

“Player empowerment is a catchall for the fact that the league has done a terrible job of empowering teams,” a current N.B.A. general manager told me. “The players have all of the leverage in every situation. I think it’s the worst thing that ever happened to professional sports on all levels.”

Players should push for whatever they can get. It’s their (short) careers on the line. If someone wants to change teams and has the power to make it happen, he should.

Whether that’s good for the league is a more-complicated question. This frequent roster churn can disaffect the many fans who still root for a team rather than a player. Obviously, fan engagement is crucial to producing the revenue that funds players’ high salaries.

So, what’s good for an individual player might not be good for players collectively (or the league). Finding the right equilibrium is a constant battle.

But the system has been SO oriented to teams throughout the NBA’s history. Players went decades without free agency and even longer without restricted free agency. Change was gradual.

Even now, teams gain exclusive rights through the draft to top players, who have slotted salaries and can’t negotiate with other NBA teams. Players selected in the first round can’t unilaterally leave their initial team for five seasons. And even leaving that early would require a massive one-year salary sacrifice through qualifying offers for stars. More likely, stars are tied to their initial team for at least eight years before they can unilaterally leave.

Teams can also still trade players almost whenever desired. No-trade clauses are rare. In fact, no player currently has one. (Some players can veto trades because they’re on a one-year contract and would have Bird Rights afterward, but that’s not the same as a negotiated no-trade clause.)

So, it’s not as if teams are suddenly powerless.

But the dynamic has shifted. That’s reality, and teams must work within it. Even if the general manager was talking only about the roster issues of player empowerment (not political activism), he will still have a rough time with this attitude.

Empowered, players generally prefer teams that respect their autonomy.