James lebron – from The Decision to beyond – ushered in an era of player empowerment in the NBA.
The players conspire together to team up. They change teams in free agency and require trades. Beyond the court, the players express themselves on issues that are important to them.
“Empowering players is a trap for the fact that the league has done a terrible job of empowering teams,” a current NBA general manager told me. “The players have all the weight in every situation. I think this is the worst thing that has happened to professional sports at all levels.
Players have to push for whatever they can get. These are their (short) careers at stake. If someone wants to change teams and has the power to do so, they should.
Whether it’s good for the league is a more complicated question. This frequent rotation of the roster can disaffect the many fans who still support a team rather than a player. Obviously, fan engagement is crucial in generating the income that funds high player salaries.
So what is good for an individual player may not be good for the players collectively (or the league). Finding the right balance is a constant battle.
But the system has been SO oriented towards teams throughout NBA history. Players have gone decades without a free agency, and even longer without a restricted free agency. The change was gradual.
Even now, teams are getting exclusive rights through the draft for the top players, who set salaries and can’t negotiate with other NBA teams. Players selected in the first round cannot unilaterally leave their original squad for five seasons. And even leaving so early would require a massive one-year salary sacrifice thanks to qualifying offers for the stars. More likely, the stars are linked to their original team for at least eight years before they can leave unilaterally.
Teams can also swap players almost anytime they want. No-trade clauses are rare. In fact, no player currently has one. (Some players may veto trades because they have a one-year contract and would have bird rights after that, but that’s not the same as a negotiated no-trade clause. )
So, it’s not like the teams are suddenly powerless.
But the dynamic has changed. This is reality, and teams need to work on it. Even if the GM was only talking about player roster issues (not political activism), he’ll still struggle with that attitude.
Empowered, players generally prefer teams that respect their autonomy.