How the NBA’s Stars Took Control of Their Destinies

If you’re a VIP, you’ve got all the leverage

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Jimmy Butler / Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

NBA stars demanding trades is nothing new. But All-Stars releasing a list of acceptable trade destinations—and their teams actually listening to them—is more of a recent phenomenon.

If Larry Bird walked into Red Auerbach’s office and demanded to be traded, but only to a few teams, Red would have [puffs cigar] calmly told Larry to GTFO, and then buried him to the end of the bench indefinitely.

In 2018, it’s a different ballgame. In the last decade, the relationship between NBA front offices and players has been rejiggered.

Players have realized that they don’t owe anything to their billionaire owners. NBA front offices confirmed their allegiance to the business over the livelihood of the players through the trades of Isaiah Thomas, Blake Griffin and now DeMar Derozan—players who had all served as the faces of their respective franchises. These transactions—despite empty promises of commitment—have entitled the new consensus change in stance of the players: Career decisions should be made above the franchise. And because of this, players have shaken front offices with their newfound leverage.

As players have proven they will leave a suboptimal situation, would-be trade partners are much more hesitant to offer valuable assets for players with one year left on their contract, knowing that they do not plan to stay with the franchise they were traded to. As a preventative measure, teams scurry to backchannel, hoping to establish (with some degree of certainty) that a player might be willing to sign an extension with his new team. In this scenario, the player has the upper hand—Jimmy Butler doesn’t care whom he’s traded for, just that he himself ends up in a desirable place.

Sometimes, however, teams are willing to take the risk of bringing in a player for a single year, and then selling that player on their franchise’s culture. When Kawhi Leonard demanded a trade in June, it was well known that he wanted to head to Los Angeles. However, as a last resort to blowing up their roster, the Raptors risked the potential one-year rental and ponied up the full price for Kawhi. Of course, if they can convince Kawhi to stay—during the seven coldest months of the year—they will have found a loophole to acquiring a superstar in a league that requires teams to have a top ten player in order to be relevant.

(We’ve seen this work, though. Last year, the Thunder bet on the hidden paradise of OKC (a.k.a. Russell Westbrook’s physical and mental grip) and made Paul George commit to four more years in the Malibu of Tornado Alley.)

In the NBA, to be in the middle of the pack is to be stuck in place. Franchises either tank and close their eyes until the draft lottery or try to time up the primes of enough All-Stars and fool themselves into thinking they can beat the Warriors. And players are no different. Because of the lopsidedness of the league, star players immediately rule out the bottom 15 teams in the league (unless you’re Bron, because it doesn’t matter who’s on his team) during free agency. And then—when you factor in the importance of being in a large market—the players understand the pros and cons of every situation better than ever.

Ultimately, this is just the most recent consequence of player empowerment in the NBA. Players are no longer bashful when it comes to knowing their value. The concern, however, is that the players do sign a contract governed by the NBA. But at the same time, it’s impossible to know what promises the coaches and owners make when courting players, and just how those agreements might dissolve.

Previously, NBA front offices lived in a bubble. In general, they were protected by the public ridicule of franchise players leaving their team. But as stars continue to flee teams with poor culture, it’s becoming less taboo, giving management less of a cover to hide behind. Players like Kyrie, Jimmy and even KD leaving bad situations behind are good for the league because they will force teams to commit to improving their culture, effectively begetting better franchises with better culture all around. Top players “sticking it out” in toxic environments will only enable poor culture and lead to wasted talent.

The importance of company culture is trending everywhere else. Why shouldn’t the NBA be next?

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