Do Stars Have Too Much Power…or Not Enough?

USA Today Sports

“In life, we never get what we deserve, but what we have the leverage to negotiate.” — Jalen Rose

Every time an NBA superstar demands a trade, I am reminded of the sage words of the basketball community’s Champagner-and-Campaigner-in-Chief. Our freshest example is Jimmy Butler, who this week requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves — the second time in fifteen months he has attempted to force his way out of an undesirable situation — but the star using his leverage to improve his lot is a tale as old as time. However, the practice is now so commonplace, and the strategies surrounding it so complex (for players and teams), that it’s worth asking a couple of key questions. First, how did we get here? And second, has it gone too far?

When approaching the topic of player leverage, it’s not too hard to draw a convincing through line from Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson all the way up to Jimmy Butler. At the same time, swiping right on two franchises in back-to-back seasons is a far cry from threatening to sit out the 1964 All-Star Game as the only means to have their value and basic humanity recognized. The evolution of the power dynamic has been gradual, from the elimination of the reserve clause, to the Bulls’ front office famously using their leverage to convince Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to sign long-term deals which would prove to be well below-market by their conclusions (and the subsequent vilification of Pippen for what he perceived as being treated unfairly).

The 90’s as a whole turned out to be something of a tipping point in the player empowerment narrative, and ownership’s backlash to the era set the tone for labor relations in the league to this day. Contracts for unproven rookies ran wild (Chris Webber’s 15 year/$75 million deal with Golden State, including an escape clause after year 1 — which Webber famously triggered — remains the extreme example of this trend), leading to the league instituting the mostly successful rookie wage scale as part of the 1999 CBA. Michael Jordan — who, umm, had all the leverage a player could possess — negotiated a bonkers-at-the-time $33 million salary for the 1997-98 season, helping to usher in the maximum salary provisions in that same ’99 CBA. When the players’ union would not budge on a hard salary cap during the ’98 lockout (a position they have maintained, well, forever), the owners instead pushed to impose the luxury tax, which continues to inform roster-building decisions two decades later.

The players undoubtedly got hammered in the ’98 lockout, as the pendulum swung back the other way from the unmitigated gains they had made earlier in the decade, but the owners’ desire to rein in the salary cap and be saved from themselves in that deal largely shaped the era of player movement which was to come. The subsequent CBA’s (in ’05 and ’11) decreased the maximum lengths of contracts, which helped teams mitigate disastrous roster decisions, but as an unintended consequence, got players to free agency sooner, while also increasing star players’ leverage as free agency approached. But hold that thought.

How did we get where we are now? Superstar trade requests are nothing new, from Wilt to Kareem to Shaq, but the common thread was you had to be at the very tip-top of the league hierarchy to be able to pull off such a move. In 1991, when Scottie Pippen publicly told Bulls’ brass to “pay me or trade me,” the front office calmly responded by effectively telling him to sit down and shut up, then proceeded to underpay him for the next half-decade. So why, in today’s league, can third-team All-NBA guys not only demand a trade, but have the gall to tell their franchise to which teams they would like to be traded?

As with most things, it all begins with LeBron. I try not to write much about LeBron, as he’s obviously been covered to death, but we can’t discuss this topic without him. He is the Patient Zero of modern player empowerment, and it’s easy to trace the outbreak back to The Decision. However one views the execution of his move to Miami (personally, I found the “not one, not two, not three…” welcome party spectacle to be far more repugnant than The Decision itself, but that’s just me), there is no way around the tectonic shift in player agency it represented. The league’s brightest star, with the whole world watching, provided a blueprint for how an elite player can chart his own professional course and take his “talents” where he wants them to go, and his fellow players heard the message loud and clear. The era of “pre-agency” had begun.

Suffice it to say, the league and the teams were not prepared for the realities of this brave new world, as evidenced by the bizarre dramas surrounding the superstar trades which happened in the aftermath of The Decision. The first domino to fall was Carmelo Anthony, who came into camp that fall and requested a trade, preferably to the Knicks. Everyone played chicken for a while, but eventually New York obliged, sending a king’s ransom to Denver and immediately agreeing to a three-year extension with Melo, even though everyone knew of his desire to go the Knicks, and how they could have signed him the following summer as a free agent without giving up half of their rotation in the process. It was considered an overpay even at the time, and hindsight doesn’t do the deal any favors. Outside of a one-off 54 win season in 2012-13, the team was never competitive with Melo as its alpha, paid him in excess of $130 million, and eventually traded him away for pennies on the dollar in order to undertake a full-on rebuild. Good times for the Knicks, as always.

The very next day, the Nets traded for Deron Williams. This deal may be our closest analogue to Jimmy Butler’s trade out of Chicago: D-Will was under contract with Utah through ’11-’12 and had a player option for ’12-’13; he did not specifically request a trade, but had clashed with legendary coach Jerry Sloan, who resigned about two weeks before the front office made the move. Much like the Bulls, the Jazz pulled the rip cord early on an unhappy star, endured some short-term pain as a result, but ultimately came out in a stronger position on the other side. Unlike in Minnesota’s case, however, Williams decided to re-sign with the Nets for five more years, a deal which turned out to be an albatross and will continue to carry dead money on Brooklyn’s cap all the way through the ’19-’20 season after they ultimately waived Williams via the stretch provision in 2015. Perhaps Minnesota can look to this scenario as a cautionary tale (both players were about the same age and occupied a similar position in the league hierarchy at the time of the respective trades) and be content to get something in return for Butler, rather than assume the risk of paying $188 million for an injury-prone malcontent who will be 34 by the end of the presumptive max deal. For what it’s worth, Williams, another physical player prone to missing chunks of games, was last seen washing out of the league with Cleveland in ’16-’17 at age 32, even as his ghost continues to haunt Brooklyn’s cap sheet.

After the lockout — during which, remember, the owners AGAIN pushed for shorter contracts — came Chris Paul’s trade to the Lakers, David Stern’s veto (and our introduction to “basketball reasons”), and the subsequent trade to the Clippers. In addition to being one of the great NBA “what if’s?” of all time, this trade actually worked out well for the team acquiring the superstar. The Clips got six mostly successful years of Lob City, the Hornets/Pelicans got virtually nothing out of the deal, and LA ultimately extracted decent value in the trade with Houston and avoided paying Paul another $160 million for the downside of his career. [Note: Houston pretty much had no choice but to sign Paul to the new contract, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s going to end badly.]

Next came the Dwightmare, Dwight Howard’s awkward and painful exit from Orlando in 2012. The resulting four-team deal remains so remarkable and has altered the landscape of the league in so many ways, both intentional and otherwise, that it deserves its own 30 for 30, or at least its own column I will someday write. The trade set into motion the gradual implosion of the league’s marquee franchise, “The Process” in Philadelphia, and the formation of the “Death Lineup” in Golden State, but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

The inexplicable James Harden trade followed soon after, but that deal was ostensibly a salary dump, not some sort of power play pulled by Harden. [As an aside, it remains hilarious that OKC was unwilling to pay a few million bucks in luxury tax to retain a 22-year-old Harden, yet is set to trot out one of the most expensive rosters in NBA history this coming season, and it would have been a lot worse had they not been able to dump Carmelo Anthony, who as you may have heard, now plays in Houston…with James Harden. The NBA is just ridiculous sometimes.] Harden aside, superstar movement hit a lull after the Dwight shit-show, and when the Lakers’ Superteam of Dwight, Kobe, Nash, and Gasol crashed and burned, it gave the teams and the league a chance to subconsciously take stock of what all this post-Decision weirdness meant and how to respond to it in the future.

Melo’s hoodwinking of the Knicks, combined with Dwight subsequently taking less money with Houston to escape Kobe’s wrath, made front offices understandably wary about paying a premium for security which may or may not exist. The ascension of Golden State’s homegrown core, along with LeBron’s homecoming to Cleveland to join up with the assets they collected in his absence, highlighted additional paths to contention outside of “go get the star and figure the rest out later.”

LeBron’s pioneering use of the “1+1” contract structure upon returning to Cleveland, along with the shock waves from Durant’s move to the Warriors amid the cap spike of 2016, further laid out the central tension in the post-Decision landscape: players finding new and creative ways to exercise their agency vs. efforts by the owners (and to some extent, the media and fans) to “keep them in their place,” both geographically and otherwise. Injuries, oddly enough, became leverage. It was widely reported that Kyrie Irving threatened to have knee surgery (which he ultimately ended up needing anyway) if the Cavs refused to trade him last summer, and we may never know exactly what went down in the bizarre Kawhi Leonard saga, but to the layperson, it certainly appeared as though he shut himself down in protest of the way he was being treated by the team, which may have contributed to San Antonio’s willingness to cut the cord with him.

Stars have always sought to engineer their way to a preferred destination, and the “pre-agency” era is certainly no different.What has changed is how teams respond to these demands. The incumbent team is under no obligation to bend to the player’s wishes, and since the destination teams are less likely to overpay for perceived certainty, the market for disgruntled stars widens and the returns generally become more modest. Snagging DeRozan in the Kawhi trade was a nice get for San Antonio, though they also had to include Danny Green’s useful 3-and-D skill set in the deal. Cleveland’s main return for Kyrie was the #8 overall pick, and the consensus was Indiana got a bum deal in the Paul George trade when the Lakers wouldn’t bite, even though the trade looks MUCH better for the Pacers in retrospect. While a no-doubt, top-5 superstar like Anthony Davis would still command a king’s ransom if he ever became available — hold that thought — it’s unlikely we’ll continue to see teams overpay for stars in the next tier down like the ever-foolish Knicks did with Melo.

And so we come full circle to Butler. In the era of pre-agents and short contracts, the clock is always ticking on NBA front offices. The ink wasn’t even dry on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 4-year extension before the chatter began about what else Milwaukee could do with the roster to keep him from leaving. Anthony Davis finds himself in the same contract position now that Butler was in prior to the Minny trade, and the vultures are circling constantly, even if the recent news of AD’s switch in representation makes “Davis to the Lakers in 2020” feel like a fait accompli.

Butler took advantage of the timing in his escape from Chicago, and he’s going to try to do it again (though to a lesser extent) to get out of Minnesota. His ongoing drama is just the logical extreme of the league reaping what it has sown. The current financial structure incentivizes players to get to free agency (signing extensions is generally less lucrative outside of the rookie contract) and to re-sign with the incumbent team (since they can offer a bigger payday). If a player doesn’t want to remain with the incumbent team but still wants his money, his only real option is to go the pre-agency route and get his Bird Rights transferred to his new team via trade. To paraphrase Dave Chappelle, the only difference between $140 million and $190 million is an ASTOUNDING $50 million, and we’ve seen evidence that players are both willing to take the gamble and lose (Dwight) as well as to be wooed by a franchise they may not have at first considered (Paul George). That’s a powerful combination, and one the owners probably did not anticipate, so now it’s their move.

No one is ever going to hear a paternalistic, “these spoiled athletes” rant out of me. NBA stars have earned their agency, and Jimmy Butler is no different. They are the product, and they drive the value of the league by being the best in the world. There is no other industry where the top performers in the field are told they have to take a pay cut in order to go to a different company, so regardless how much they get paid, there’s no reason we should expect them to take it lying down. At the same time, the teams are under no obligation, either to cave to the trade demands or to assume the risk of trading for a guy who holds all the cards and may leave anyway, so we’re starting to see an equilibrium develop, even as the stars appear more powerful than ever. The dynamic will continue to shift as we watch the Kyrie, Jimmy, and Kawhi situations unfold over the course of the season, and as the next wave of stars (Davis, Durant, Giannis, Lillard, Wall, and others) begin to write their next professional chapters. Stay tuned; it’s going to be fascinating.

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