NBA Superstars Hold an Unprecedented Amount of Power to Make Decisions and Shape Their Future.
*This story was originally posted on February 24th, 2019, on Mis tardes de baloncesto, my basketball blog.
“Power to the Players” is the name of a company created by Spanish soccer superstars Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué. Far from trying to promote this company, I used its name as the title of this post because it is the best description of the process that is shifting the landscape of the NBA.
The NBA trade deadline, one of the most hectic periods of the season ended a couple weeks ago, and as usually, it left no one indifferent. During this time of the year, nearing the All-Star weekend, the league is synonym with earthquakes that come in the form of unexpected trades and conflicts between players and organizations. These movements completely shake the competition and make some teams (especially the ones which acquire valuable pieces) and the rivalries between them a totally different animal than the one happening from October until now.
Aside from the yearly craziness that ensues the February trade deadline, we are witnessing a remarkable era in sports, and especially in the NBA, in which players are leveraging their power more than ever before, constantly pulling and pushing with their teams to achieve ideal scenarios in which star players demand not only to be generously payed, but also to have an ecosystem built for them, with or without the team that currently employs and pays them.
Among the relatively recent items that called my attention were statements from Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, former teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers who seemed to dislike each other a few months ago, and on the contrary seem to love one another more recently, according to James´ words. Irving, the Boston Celtics´ franchise player who signed in the summer of 2017, said at a preseason event in the Celtics´ stadium that he was “planning on re-signing,” a statement that Celtics fans celebrated as if their team had won a championship, which is certainly what the statement deserved, given the team´s ascending path over the past few years, and the improvements that a player like Irving brings with him.
Irving, however, seemed to already have forgotten about that plan about two weeks ago, when he left his continuity as a member of the Celtics in the air. “I don´t owe anybody s — t,” Irving said when asked about his future decision on re-signing with the Celtics or becoming a free agent and join a different team.
While Irving, like any other player, has a right to decide where he wants to play, he fails to realize that, in fact, he does owe something to a franchise that is planning around him and that has its hopes set on him, the same way the Celtics owe him something for performing to the best of his abilities. It is a mutual relationship, and this type of statements do not help strengthen said relationship. As a Celtics fan, I just hope our General Manager, Celtics legend Danny Ainge, won´t regret his recent words about the Celtics-Irving relationship being similar to an engagement in which they will “get married on July 1,” when free agency starts.
Irving might think he doesn´t owe anything to anybody, and he might be in the right to do so, but he should have thought twice before making that initial statement about planning on re-signing with Boston and assessed whether that affirmation could come back in the future to bite him, just like it might happen with Ainge´s mentioned statement, especially keeping in mind the Celtics´ current chemistry issues, colorfully explained by Celtics player Marcus Morris recently:
“I watch all these other teams around the league and guys are up on the bench, they’re jumping on the court, they’re doing all of this other stuff that looks like they’re enjoying their teammates’ success, they’re enjoying everything, and they’re playing together and they’re playing to win. And when I look at us I just see a bunch of individuals,” Morris said.
Irving´s history and behavior with the Celtics have many other complicated caveats that could be analyzed, but let´s not get distracted from this “dichotomy” (I love that word and just had to use it in the headline) the NBA currently has to deal with, and jump to another example in which there is palpable tension between a team and its superstar player.
Anthony Davis was, without a doubt, the main star of the NBA trade deadline. Arguably one of the NBA´s best five players at just 25 years old, Davis requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, the franchise who drafted him in first position in 2012 and that ever since has been trying to surround Davis with enough talent to at least get past the team´s historic threshold: the second round of the Playoffs. Whether because of the inability of the Pelicans´ front office to acquire the right players or Davis´ lack of impact in winning at a high level, the Pelicans never succeeded and Davis, aware of his value in the market and anticipating himself to the end of his contract in the summer of 2020, requested to be traded before the February 7th deadline, with the Los Angeles Lakers as the main candidate to sign a player that is projected to become the cornerstone of a winning team.
The Pelicans didn´t pull the plug despite the Lakers´ significant offers, one of which including the entirety of their young core, with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, along with draft picks and salary-cap relief, according to NBA guru Adrian Wojnarowski.
Furthermore, it was known that Davis had a “short list” of teams to which he would want to be traded to. More recently, however, Davis stated that “all other 29 teams” (other than the Pelicans) are on his list. In a harsh blow to his team, Davis is basically saying he would rather be anywhere else than in New Orleans. Again, while the team keeps the power of keeping or trading Davis (until he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021), the player has much more leverage in this situation. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that Davis´ trade requests hurts relationships with his teammates, the chemistry between them, and the overall performance of the team.
After Davis´ trade request, the Pelicans hinted at significantly reducing his minutes or even shutting him down for the season to avoid injuries that could jeopardize his value in a future trade. Far from understanding the delicate situation in which a small market team like New Orleans is and letting it operate accordingly, the NBA is forcing the Pelicans to play Anthony Davis. From a league perspective, this decision makes perfect sense, given Davis is one of the NBA´s biggest stars. While the Pelicans, on the other side, still own a tremendously valuable (and toxic at this point) asset, are left with the challenge of keeping that value by trying to navigate a significant internal crisis without the help or support of the NBA.
For now, what has already been labeled “the Anthony Davis saga” already has its first casualty: former New Orleans Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps. The team was not happy with the way Demps handled the situation overall. It is fair to argue that the Pelicans might not need a basketball business-savvy General Manager, but a crisis manager who can navigate the turmoil in the least harmful way possible. The Anthony Davis case will be one of the major developing stories in the NBA for however long Davis remains a Pelicans player. It is a story that tells the tale of a transformed NBA in which the player, and no longer the team, is king.