Kevin Durant has decided to join the Warriors. NBA basketball fan reaction has gone from joyous to highly critical. Some say it’s unfair or disloyal, even cheating for Durant to leave his current team. But why would players be loyal to a team if teams routinely trade players for the team’s and not the player’s best interest? The whole Durant discussion revolves around whose interests are at stake and who is in control: the fans, players, teams, leagues, or owners? Let’s examine some of this.
NBA basketball mixes a game, business and human competitive instincts. Winning equals success over a number of different dimensions. Escalating TV contracts have driven NBA and team income sky high. Owing to a strong union, players have gradually gained more power to have more of a say in this business. As a result, the spoils of a team’s basketball-related income are divided near evenly between players and owners. Just how the money is divided up and who decides where and when players go, goes right to the heart of fairness in the league.
Parity among teams in the NBA is important because games have to be compelling enough to want to pay to attend and to watch, in an 82 game season. Part of parity rests on the chances and finances of large vs. small market teams; i.e. who has an inherently better chance at getting star players and at winning? Large market teams presumably get more revenue, have more attractions, more big city lights, and the owners can pay more, even for the luxury tax penalty when they go over the salary cap. However, individual management styles matter. The L.A. Lakers and New York Knicks, premier big market teams, are now at the bottom of the pile while small market team San Antonio is recognized as the blueprint for a successful franchise, especially for fostering/ creating an elusive team culture that appears critical to winning. A great team is contingent on more than simply paying an assemblage of star players. Money can’t buy chemistry.
Many owners, and players, have tried to buy winning as a formula. It doesn’t work. Game, business, whatever it is, there is an X-Chemistry to human group success that involves sacrifice, loyalty, in-group focus, esprit de corps, and a setting of a particular tone from the top. If any of these ingredients are lacking, you won’t have the magic of our most salient adaptation as a species: teamwork. So long Tim Duncan. The greatest players never won big until they sacrificed and realized they couldn’t do it alone.
This is why some teams try to build culture and chemistry (imitate the Spurs) through the draft rather than through trades. With a trade maybe a team gets a highly skilled player but he’s a head case and messes things up in the locker room. With teams draft for skill and character; they try and select people who will play well in their system.
For parity, the League redistributes large market monies to small market teams, to make the game more competitive, and thus more compelling to want to pay to watch. This in spite of mismanagement by both small and large market owners. Why? The league is a consortium of owners who vote on their collective best interests.
Decisions about the NBA league itself are made by the owners, and their reps in NBA league administration. Players get to have a say when the collective bargaining agreement expires every so often.
Talk of league-level fairness and team parity was precipitated by the previous joining of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade in Miami’s “Big 3”, who went to the Finals four times and won twice. Instead of incrementally assembling a team from draft picks and trades, this Big 3 short-circuited a “traditional” process of how teams were supposed to be assembled. How? Because the players themselves chose the team through free agency. Boston traded for a Big 3 with Garnett, Pierce and Allen, and they went to the Finals twice, winning once. (Other “super teams” have been assembled: Kobe and Shaq, Moses Malone and Dr. J, Kareem and Magic, and they all won championships.) Back in the Oscar Robertson days, a team owned and controlled a player’s rights for his whole career. Since then, with the creation of a player’s union, the pendulum has been swinging towards players having more control, especially for top players like James and Durant.
The real issue here is who has the power and control, teams or players? If teams have more power, then players are chips in a game/ business organized mostly out of their control. If players take more power, then they get to decide personnel and mobility issues. People are now faulting Durant for a strategy expected of owners. If things are to be fair, power of mobility has to play in too.
Durant was a free agent; he and the Warriors broke no rules. The whole point of this business is to win; why wouldn’t a player make a choice to win? If you are a young man like Durant, would you rather live in Oklahoma City or the Bay Area? Durant has his own personal horizons to consider, his own growth and experience as a person.
When a player gets traded (rather than leaves as a free agent) from a team where they have established relationships, when they have to uproot their family and move to a new city and a new team, they always say “this is a business”. Implied is that the NBA is not really about teams, loyalty and cultural solidarity but about whatever teams need to do to win.
The NBA is business that is a game. The players get paid millions and their “job” is to get along with other players and play a game. It’s a version of reality TV, throw people into situations where skills, chemistry and competitiveness come out naturally, and then watch the spectacle. Maybe you get the treat of beholding a supreme gladiator like Michael Jordan, or see the building of alliances with strange bedfellows like Dennis Rodman, or the unfiltered antics of Charles Barkley.
In addition to be “just a business”, when someone dies or there is a mass shooting or other natural tragedy, NBA players always say, “this is just a game”, we need to remember what really matters in life. Who else ever says that about their job in similar circumstances? In basketball there seems to be internal confusion as to what part is business and what part is a game.
The implicit goal is to compete for and win a championship, but out of 30 teams, every year 29 others have to at least break even financially. A losing team is not a winning business formula in commonly understood terms, yet a team can be financially OK and still lose, as noted, 29 teams have to be OK in this respect.
Teams are always jockeying for power and trying through trades and the draft, to assemble a roster of players that can win a championship, and thereby get prestige. By drafting young players, a team is built from the bottom up. Trades look for the right role player, for a character player, or a star, to jump-start a team to winning faster. Indeed, NBA owners are so rich you could see team ownership as a prestige-based hobby for them, and this the element of this being a game is very strong.
To control outright buying of the all the best players and making the league a matter of the richest teams/ owners always winning, to enforce a level of parity, the NBA has a player salary cap. With the collective bargaining agreement, over time players become free agents or qualified free agents, but a team can’t just buy them as they will go over the cap and have to pay the punitive luxury tax if the cap is exceeded. No owner has wanted to win so bad they are willing to risk losing tons of luxury tax money to do it. Winning isn’t everything when it’s also mixed up with revenues of a couple of hundred million per year per team.
Winning does confer real and putative status. When you win you become great, and have all the bragging rights of the top dog. This status is culturally real. The conversation then is how many championship rings? Then we have the Hall of Fame, filled with interesting characters like Dr. J, Moses Malone, Sir Charles Barkley, Shaq, Earl the Pearl and Magic Johnson. If you are great you get into the pantheon of top dogs.
Teams have controlled players pretty closely over the history of the NBA. When a player like Kevin Durant makes a move that suits his needs, versus the needs of a team he has been on, Oklahoma City; this is news. Do we hew to ideas of loyalty, as if this was a real life situation? Is this a business? A game? Or is Durant just exercising the reasonable prerogative any employee would if they had the power and influence to do so? Companies have run roughshod over workers since day one; who wouldn’t take the power? Why would Durant care about league parity when this same league has traditionally monopolized all the cards?
In terms of interests, the fans win with this, Durant wins, the Warriors win, the league will have buzz, any game with the Warriors will sell out and bring a huge bump in $. Some teams and owners will lose status and/or money, but they always do anyway, if they suck and don’t win. This is a fun line of analysis, to realize that rich ego-maniac owners like the Sacramento King’s Vivek Ranadive, no matter how bad they want it, can’t top-down create a winning culture by being a jerk. Some owners like Mark Cuban are part jerk, part sensible, then you have the Spurs and Warrior’s owners, smart enough to hire high character team admin and then get out of the way.
Durant saw in the Warriors a real team culture, a solid basis for winning, plus talent, plus selfless play, plus fellow Christian team mates, all fostered and honored by general manager Bob Meyers and coach Steve Kerr. Kerr has been studying great team culture since he was a pasty-faced freshman at the U of A in Tucson under coach Lute Olsen. Kerr played for Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, two of the greatest coaches ever; he’s had team mates like Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan and Dennis Rodman. Kerr is as well-prepared as you can get; he’s smart, and he has the right personality. The Warriors owners are smart enough to at once recognize the value of team culture, rich enough to be able to pay for it, and to hire the right guys and then get out of the way. From this formula will come winning, status, prestige, fun and money.
The Warriors have a Buddhist feather in their cap, the formula that is not a formula. They’ve got the old Grateful Dead X-Chemistry, a sense of fun, risk and adventure. We’ll see if they can keep that up after losing critical assistants and players, in the effort to make cap space for Durant. When Jerry died, the Dead were like the Bulls without Michael Jordan, not as compelling. The Warriors are hoping that adding a top-tier player will work, but the personalities have to mesh. With Kerr and Curry as top personalities, plus Durant’s humble and understated demeanor, it looks good for success all around. You know the money will be good; so what about parity, everyone will want to see the Warriors kick ass. It will be a great spectacle. And the drama of if they lose, a great spectacle waits for the fans.
Durant saw all of this at once, real team culture with solid roots in the NBA, great personnel, the money, the opportunity to win and get the status, the great climate, geography and Progressive atmosphere of the Bay Area, a chance to cash in on various endorsements in a big market; why should he not take it? Why go back to not winning in a Red State ultimately hostile to blacks and minorities? For loyalty? Loyalty to what? Losing? No, this is business that is a game, and to succeed you need to win and in Golden State, as judged by Miami’s Big 3, Durant has a 50/50 chance for a title every year they stay healthy enough to play to the Finals.
All that remains now is for the management, coach and players to integrate Durant into the team culture, play selflessly all the while allowing the moment and letting the game come to them. I’d say they have a great chance. They play team ball and make the extra pass, it’s not isolation-heavy offense. The Splash Brothers have little ego; Draymond Green is a team player. Kerr’s and Meyers’ leadership is showing in the players. Things are looking good for being Warriors fan.
With everyone appearing to be actually authentic, win or lose, from a fan’s perspective, I don’t see any way they can go wrong. For me the NBA is about the collective drama of the whole league over multiple season’s time. I’ve followed Steve Kerr since 1983, watched Curry struggle with his ankle and then rise up. The fun for me is in the whole tapestry, and with Durant, this pattern just got a lot more interesting.