clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Player empowerment and the good of the game

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Brooklyn Nets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Both last summer when Kevin Durant first requested a trade and again last week, when the deal went through, one recurring theme emerged from conversations with Nets fans. They swear they will never wear a star’s jersey again. “If the player has no loyalty, then why should I?” is the logic and it’s hard to argue with.

As both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving said over All-Star Weekend, they believe that player empowerment trumps contractual obligations. The reining attitude among stars and superstars (and their agents) is take the big money contract with the years of guaranteed income. If you don’t like it there, for whatever reason, you can demand a trade, All those personalized uniform jerseys need to be dumped, maybe even burned.

Indeed, the Nets ownership and front office played the player empowerment game like no other and got burned. They own the downside of player empowerment. They got a decent haul for KD and Kyrie, but a lot of that haul is in draft picks — five first rounders, a first round pick swap and four seconds — most of which are in drafts that will come after Durant and maybe Irving departs the game. What they didn’t get back (so far) is star power and stars win championships. Go back three decades and you’ll find only one, maybe two championship teams without superstars: the 2003-04 Pistons and the 2018-19 Raptors.

But for the players, there’s no downside, as Durant and Irving argued. For them, it’s a labor issue: Players for decades worked under the uncertainty of where they might be required to play the next season or the next day. Now, if they achieve a certain level of success, they can make decisions on their own. Things have changed, they say.

“I don’t think it’s bad for the league, it’s bringing more eyes to the league,” Durant said. “The tweets that I got, and the news hits that we got from me being traded, Kyrie being traded — it just brings more attention to the league and that’s really what makes you money is when you get more attention. I think it’s great for the league, to be honest. Teams have been trading players and making acquisitions for a long time, now when a player can dictate where he wants to go, leave in free agency or demand a trade it’s just part of the game now. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

Well, it is good for the players and it can be good for teams (but mostly big market and successful franchises) and maybe it is for the league too. But it can’t be good for the fans, the individuals from age 5 to 75 (or in Mr. Whammy’s case, 87) who give it their all, following the players everywhere, buying their jerseys, seeking their autographs and selfies, buying in ... literally.

As Jerry Seinfeld famously said in one of his routines, “Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing; the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it.”

Sure, the Suns fans are happy with things, Mavs fans too for now, just as the Nets fans were when their team wound up with James Harden (for a heavy price.) But at some point, personal loyalty becomes tarnished and fans may turn cynical. Why root for this guy or that guy? He may have a contract for four years, but he could ask out in two — or in KD’s case — a half-season into a new deal. Perhaps we are being naive. It is a star’s league, a superstar’s league. And superteams attract, even demand, attention. But if the tempo of change increases and superstars greet the question of loyalty with a shrug, forgive fans for not committing fully.

Irving who forced his way out of Cleveland, left Boston behind and now Brooklyn, it’s about having the same rights of everyday labor. If you don’t like where you work or who you work for and with, you should be free to go.

“What’s a bad situation and why doesn’t anybody have the ability to ask for trades? That’s my question,” Irving explained. “When did it become terrible to make great business decisions for yourself and your happiness and your peace of mind? Not every employer you’re gonna get along with so if you have a chance to go somewhere else and you’re doing it legally then I don’t think there’s a problem with it.

“The speculation and narratives is what makes this entertainment kinda seem a little bit more important, more priority than it actually is,” Irving told the press. “Like, it’s my life. It’s not just a dream that everybody can gossip about. I take it very serious, and most of the work that I do doesn’t get seen so I don’t know if it’ll ever be truly appreciated. But, all in all, when you work as hard as I do or anyone else at a specific profession, I feel like you should have the liberty and freedom to go where you’re wanted and celebrated and where you feel comfortable.”

So what is it? Is it a partnership with ownership and players equal? Or is it labor vs. management? Us vs. them? The Nets like other teams in the league, other stakeholders like shoe companies, give the players not just big bucks, but the medium to build their brand, gain more fame, more opportunities to make more money. Put aside how many times Irving embarrassed his employer/partner and the league itself, aligning himself with anti-vaxxers in a time of a national health crisis; endorsing one Alex Jones conspiracy theory the day he went on trial for spreading another; sharing a link to an antisemitic video with his nearly 20 million viewers on social media, etc. etc. He certainly has put them aside.

Adam Silver offered his own take which was a bit cynical as well. The league he said has deliberately fostered an environment where there is robust trade in players, but player trade demands are bad! In essence, he said that team governors (aka owners) can make deals but not players.

“I think on the other hand, a certain amount of player movement, now, not focusing on demands, but this year, for example, in the week leading up to the trade deadline, something like 12% of the league changed teams,” Silver said in his annual All-Star Game press conference. “And that’s something that we were intentional about because we shorten contracts. We recognize that that ability for teams to rebuild, now it’s not just about players, but for teams to make changes in direction, and that’s healthy around the league.”

“So again, it’s about finding the right balance around player movement,” Silver added. “But trade demands are a bad thing. We don’t want them to happen, and we got to focus on that and make sure that everyone is honoring their agreements.”

Whatever. There have been calls for changes in the CBA to lessen the effects of player empowerment on rosters. There won’t be anything significant. The league and players want this CBA done and now. The valuations of teams are skyrocketing and with dramatically increased revenue expected from TV and streaming rights, not to mention more international penetration, sports betting and expansion, no one wants to shake things up too much. Everyone will win.

So what’s a fan to do? As we noted at the beginning, some say they will simply eschew connections to current players. Maybe we’ll see more fans with Julius Erving, Drazen Petrovic or Vince Carter jerseys rather than current players. Others will simply transfer loyalties once again. You know, Bridges over troubled waters. And virtually all of them will boo when the prodigals return. The prodigals won’t care.

Don’t expect the Tsais to abandon the superteam model, either. He just created the WNBA’s first superteam. In the past, the women’s league had a record of building from within. Now, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai have acquired three of the best players in the the world.

“We want to have a superteam,” Clara Wu Tsai said in a press conference at the Barclays Center introducing the new Liberty roster hours before Kevin Durant was traded.

Maybe next time, it will be different. The players the Nets acquire in this new era may have to pass a “loyalty test,” so to speak. Mercurial personalities will be avoided even more now.

In the meantime. KD and Kyrie are all-Stars this weekend facing yet another awkward manifestation of player empowerment: two superstars who got to the game because of what they did for one team while wearing the uniform of another. How’d they do? Don’t know. Didn’t watch.