Much is being made these days about the players in the NBA gaining more control over their careers than ever before.
The recent buzz about it started with Anthony Davis demanding New Orleans trade him – and not only deal him but telling the team WHERE to trade him. And then it really blew up when Kawhi Leonard landed with the Los Angeles Clippers and Paul George bailed out of Oklahoma City to join him.
For the most part, fans seem to be in favor of this, even though it’s another step toward the problem of three or four big-market franchises dominating the league.
I think fans have become more sympathetic to the players lately for several reasons. No. 1, owning an NBA team is big business and nobody is a fan of big business in this era. And players, of course, are perceived as employees – just like you and me. Working stiffs, you know.
Often, I hear reasonable people’s empathy toward players based on them coming out of college and being subject to a draft – meaning they have no choice of where they will live and work and that they must go where they’re told, if traded.
This, of course, in an era where a lot of non-basketball-playing people have very little to say about their own employment. I see a lot of young people exiting college these days with very few options. And in order to get a job they want, they are faced with very difficult choices about relocation, salary or – in many cases – taking a position they are over-qualified for at a low salary. Sometimes, too, they are forced to transfer to another location in order to keep their job. And if they are lucky enough to get a two- or three-year contract, it can often be voided if they underperform or get on the wrong side of a new boss.
Not so with NBA players. They get every penny of every dollar owed them, no matter what. And sometimes, the teams paying that money can’t say they are getting their money’s worth in return.
Meanwhile, working conditions for NBA players are collectively bargained. If the players don’t like the rules, they have the opportunity to do something about it when their agreement expires. Their union is stronger than yours, I bet, and we will see that in the next CBA negotiation – which promises to be contentious.
But, of course, the players have other options, which they have long employed.
You think NBA players haven’t been able to dictate trades for decades? You think they haven’t been able to get out of contracts at times? Well, they have.
And the old-fashioned way was a form of brutal blackmail.
In previous eras, players had the power to have their contracts renegotiated or just torn up and replaced with new ones. If you had a bad year, you just sat back quietly and collected your guaranteed money. But if you had a great year – or a player not as talented as you got more money than your contract called for -- you knocked on the team’s door and demanded a new deal.
And you had plenty of leverage.
If they didn’t pay you, you just quit on them. Yes, that’s right, you either sat out with a mysterious injury nobody could find or you simply gave less than 100 percent effort. What choice did the team have? And for old-school teams that tried to hold the line on “a deal’s a deal,” they could be torn apart by dissension. The rapid decline of Portland’s one and only NBA championship team was almost as much about players wanting new contracts as it was about injuries.
Even in today’s NBA, “requests” by players to be traded are often accompanied by an implied threat that if a deal doesn’t happen, the player will not be happy enough to give his best effort.
Folks, the players have always held all the cards, they just don’t always decide to play them.
The paying customers don’t buy merchandise with the owners’ picture on the front. I get that. But if your team is located in Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Memphis … or yes, Portland, you should also understand that a league retaining some control over competitive balance is to your team’s advantage. Ultimately, it’s to the league’s advantage.
The big markets -- and the superstars who want to play in them -- already have enough advantages.