In the NBA, there’s been a trend towards players having more power over their fate. Super star players are the main league attraction: Curry, Durant, James, Harden, Doncic, Irving, Westbrook, Leonard, Embiid, Griffin, Paul, the Greek Freak, and Anthony Davis.
A superstar can publicly demand a trade, refuse to play, destroy team chemistry, undermine the coach, and force a trade. This strategy only really works for critical star with a lot of upside.
Davis has waited to the near end of his contract, and then made his desires for a trade known publicly, told his team mates privately, and now the team has a chance to get the best deal, as does Davis. This all assuming Davis will consent to a deal and sign a big contract with a new team. If he doesn’t, he can just sign for a year, and then go where he wants, kind of like Kawhi Leonard now with Toronto. The whole point for Davis is that he is exercising leverage now, to control his fate, because he has that much power as a superstar. No reason not to, really.
The idea of team loyalty has become a farce; teams ultimately treat players transactionally, and trade players left and right trying win and get marginal advantages. When players hold more cards, fans talk about lack of team loyalty, but let’s face it, it’s a dog eat dog world, nothing really wrong with star black players sticking it to white billionaire owners by demanding trades. If this was really about loyalty we wouldn’t have seen so many poorly handled trades by teams already.
In the past, teams and owners had all the cards and controlled player’s fates, Oscar Robertson could never move; now stars increasingly dictate. The players union is strong. Anthony Davis has demanded a trade, and the rest of the league is in an uproar over the potential of getting him. He’s a top five player, if not top three.
Other stars have forced trades, most recently Jimmy Butler from Minnesota to the Sixers. Now, I love the Sixers. Dr. J was the man and still is; even Jordan, the GOAT, the greatest of all time, strove to imitate the Doctor. 1983 championship Sixers, the Doctor, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Billy Cunningham… and in the 1984 draft, they got Charles Barkley. Philly was alive with basketball! A great era.
Years ago, Carmelo Anthony forced a trade from Denver to NYC. He was seen as a super star, but here is the lesson, all that glitters is not gold. After proving to be a loser, now no one wants Carmelo as a free agent. It’s all a big gamble, short term glory vs. long term vision and build a team from the bottom up. Short term is bought, long term is made.
With the ascent of stars controlling their fate and players knowing their true worth to the game, there has come an era of player-defined super teams. Lebron James started it by taking his talents to Miami and winning two championships with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Kevin Durant saw that, and thought, “hey, why not me”, and as part of the “Hampton Five”, now has a few championships with the Warriors as well. The Warriors now have five All Stars! With the Dubs picking up DeMarcus Cousins for a song, Cousins coming back from an Achilles tear. If Boogie can buy into the culture, and recover, who can stop the Warriors?
Everyone knows Cousins won’t get his big day in the Bay, as it will simply cost the team too much to pay five All Stars max contracts and then the luxury tax on top of that; even billionaires have to draw the line somewhere, they want to win yes, but don’t want to be seen as profligate spenders too.
Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach, has been the right guy at right time. He learned the culture right from the start with coach Lute Olson at the U of A (wild about the Cats!), to coach Phil Jackson and the Bulls, being a team mate with Jordan, coach Popovich and the Spurs, a team mate of Duncan. That’s a top flight winning pedigree, and Kerr has managed to put it all together in Golden State and make a special alchemy of his own, from his past great ingredients and lessons. Kerr has always had a great personality, from the minute I first saw him in Tucson, in 1983, as a freshman at the U of A, same year as the Sixers won the championship….. Kerr has a super history and a now super team!
Back in the day, there were the Larry Bird Celtics and the Magic Johnson Showtime Lakers. These were damn near super teams. DJ, McKale, Parrish, “Cornbread” Maxwell; Abdul Jabbar, Worthy, Michael Copper, AC Green etc. And then the 1983 Sixers, with the Doctor and Moses Malone, pretty great. That era gave way to the Jordan Bulls. Forget the Bad Boys in Detroit, what jerks! With Jordan, a new sheriff came to town, with Scottie Pippen as the super role player. Somewhere in there Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler won a few championships. These were proto super teams, but there were no players demanding trades in those days. You had to have an actual team.
BTW, my all-time greatest team that no one will ever beat: Olajuwon, Pippen, Tim Duncan, Jordan and Kevin Johnson.
With the modern quest for super teams, and needing to shell out crazy max contracts to players like Anthony Davis, the money needed to get the super star takes up too much of the salary cap, and pushes a team into crazy luxury tax territory. The upshot is the loss of role players and bottom-up, team building draft picks in huge trades. Further trouble and risk comes in that you can’t buy team culture, especially when coaches are expendable and get fired even if they are winning. “It’s a business” they all say, just like the Godfather, “this is business!” All transactional, no heart. The NBA might as well be crime for how it makes people into faceless commodities. That’s capitalism, oh, crime like business, imagine that…
Getting a super star like Davis turns out to be a major compulsion for those who think they can buy it all. This deal with the devil comes with the great potential for it to be just an illusory gain. If Davis goes to LA, LeBron James and Davis can’t win by themselves, with no role players. LA will need to gut the team to be able to trade for and to pay Davis. Boston is going to sell the farm and try to win with just Kyrie Irving and Davis? The real sport and game of basketball has turned to almost a fantasy level, with billionaire owner compulsion to buy the shiniest objects, just because they can. It is a spectacle of greed and money porno. The mutual benefit is in that all the top cats can somehow leverage the whole deal for even more money, and keep fans like me interested to follow it all, and maybe spend crazy money for tickets and paraphernalia and $12 hot dogs.
You can’t buy team chemistry and culture, and you can only buy so much talent in what is fundamentally and necessarily a team game. Teams rely in real relationships, that take skills maybe super stars don’t have. Talent alone is not sufficient to win, intangibles like attitude and character are very important; look at the Blazers teams with Pippen and Arvidas Sabonis, they bought a lot of stars, but they couldn’t get along, they didn’t have it. In the past, LA bought Karl Malone and Gary Payton, to go with Shaq and Kobe, didn’t work. Shoot Shaq and Kobe are Exhibit A of how big egos ruin big talent equations.
But, now everyone is trying to replicate the Warriors super team model, but even that will fall apart as all the stars and mid-level players can’t get the super pay day, and some will move on. You need “glue guys” to keep the locker room together; what if the good glue guys say, “I need more money”, to play a patsy in other Alpha’s quest for glory. The best you can hope for is that the star’s own egos will force them to get along and share the ball, in quest of rings and legacy.
In a pot of ways, sports and basketball is the perfect metaphor for all human endeavor: fans, referees, coaches, players, owners, GMs, all the roles of society are there, all the gravy and all the foibles and pitfalls.
Some journeymen players may come in and work for the minimum, to be with stars and a chance to win; some stars may take less pay in order to get good role players, this is admirable, but they may all feel like suckers, as the owners are not sacrificing like that, at least not that is advertised. To be Alpha, a certain amount of cut throat behavior is called for, and putting Number One first is the first thing. When winning is the ultimate measure, nice guys always come in last, on that scale.
Speaking of stars and chemistry, the Thunder had Durant, Westbrook and Harden but couldn’t pay and play them all to the satisfaction of each. Why couldn’t they do it? Scott Brooks and the owners didn’t have a sense of how to create the culture, the ineffable something that makes it fun to come to work and give the extra effort? And OK City is a major red state in a black players league. Small markets are like high school, the university and big leagues are in the big city.
There’s a limit and a balance on what you can buy and who can get along and who can be satisfied with a role. Kyrie Irving had to get out of LeBron Jame’s shadow in Cleveland and go to Boston. People need a challenge, and room to grow, and you just can’t have too many Alphas, some have to be subordinate, and super stars don’t do that well. Look at Carmelo Anthony, the perennial loser who brought strife and malfunction to all his teams, he was good, but a poison pill. Good players make each other better, not worse.
James himself grew personally, he moved past youthful folly, and is now a mature, well-respected man. Some of the payers seem to remain perpetually shallow, but that is part a function a defense mechanism against a media that constantly looks to gin up false intrigue and controversy. People love that intrigue, it gets the clicks.
To win against a Warriors type team, you need two to three super stars, plus enough depth off the bench, and you can’t have that bench, and decent rotation players, if you trade them all to get the super stars in the first place. The Warriors got Curry and Thompson in the draft, and stuck with them. The Warriors made a super team in an unusual way, authentically. They picked up Draymond Green at the end of the second round of the draft lottery.
Only a small window will be open for winning in the NBA, as it is a young man’s game; if a team already has good enough role players and a good enough bench to put up 30 plus points a game, and a team can somehow get a couple of stars, plus has draft picks… then maybe. It’s kind of a formula with the need for luck and intangibles too. And the end is always foretold, as all these players want a big payday and they will leave given higher pay elsewhere. It’s a fine line for winning, small window.
There’s also tension in league between big and small market teams. Anthony Davis leaves small market New Orleans for big somewhere; bets he does not even look at another small market destination; players of his caliber, after years of losing in New Orleans, want the top action, the Big City, the fame, the endorsements, not Podunk Corners. They want to win too, no matter how much money you make, losing gets old.
Paul George is an exception, a super star who chose Podunk Corners. Oklahoma City is small market, but has top role players, Steven Adams, Dennis Shroder, good enough to compete for a championship and win; they just might knock off the Warriors. George saw his window; he saw the Lakers young core was no good too. George is having a great season now, and Westbrook is again averaging a triple double… Shroder is sharp, Adams big and tough. They are close to having it. This is what is fun to watch. Underdogs clawing their way up.
The Pelicans lost Cousins to an achilles tendon injury, a wounded asset they couldn’t trade, they lost Chris Paul, Eric Gordon; the Pels just seem to be going nowhere fast. Now with Davis leaving, can they get assets in return that will make them a contender?
For the Lakers to trade for Davis, their young core is just not that good, Ball, Ingram and Kuzma are not that good, no consistent numbers, who will want them? Sorry Magic. Davis is worth more than that, why trade for young losers who can’t score consistently? If Davis goes to LA, it will be a bad move.
For Davis, Boston and LA will be about the same scenario, a team gutted by trades to play with one super star, James’ star is fading, he’s aging; Irving is a ball hog one-on-one player. If I was Davis, I’d be looking elsewhere, play out my contract and move to where I really want to go, not try and leverage it now. Too late though, he made his move.
Whoever gets Davis will need to lure role layers at minimum salaries, entice them with chance of a championship run. Who can say if these role players will be any good or if they will have any glue? Why bring glue and commitment when you are getting chicken scratch compared to guys making $20 million a year? The NBA minimum salary is $800,000 to $2.2 million, money easily squandered by young men.
This all starts to recap the social inequity of society at large, not fair, it gets back to the egos of the super stars and the billionaire owners, money is no object, winning is, glory, and to hell with the role players who get the chump change money. All the value is concentrated at the top, and they all still can’t quite buy what it is they want. But the league and player’s union set it up so only the stars get the big paydays and all the role players get crumbs in comparison.
In the end, whoever does get Davis will have a less than a 50/50 chance of doing well, but Davis will get wicked big money, and lots of drama will pass on by. Some owner will get to brood on how to pair assets with Davis to win. Winning after all, is the object, but winning always takes intangibles that money can’t buy. The Clippers traded Blake Griffin after promising him to be a Clipper for life, no wonder he refused to shake Microsoft owner billionaire Steve Ballmer’s hand at the first rematch. Treat people like a commodity, they have no loyalty.
If I was the Sixers, Boston, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Raptors, Nuggets, Sacramento, Dallas, San Antonio, or the Warriors, I’d stay put. Go with what you got and build an authentic team culture, get your draft picks, build from the bottom up, make your team a desirable location, and play for the process and fun of it. A league of mercenaries going for top dollar is no fun, that’s all just greed and Machiavellianism.
What is fun for me, as a 40 plus year fan, is to watch all players and all teams, and see who distinguishes themselves by the year. I watch all the ex-Arizona Wildcats, and have the satisfaction that I saw Lute build the dynasty from scratch, first with Pete Williams, then Sean Elliott, and then Kerr. This is part of the reason the Warriors have been so much fun, so many Cats, Kerr, Luke Walton, Iggy, Bruce Frazier…
I have my league favorites, my current hometown team, the Sixers, and key yearly underdogs who may climb up. I loved the Suns when I was in Tucson: Cotton Fitzsimmons, KJ, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle… Frankly, only following winners is boring for sports; it’s the chase and the unexpected glory that’s really fun. There are many small market teams that can contend for the last playoff spots, with serviceable stars content with their lot, Damian Lillard of Portland for example, Kemba Walker of Charlotte. These guys can rise out of the pack and make a fun run; the intrigue if that is winning. I watch the up and comers and root for them, now Dallas, Philly, Denver. At one point Golden State was like this, years of the dumps, but they still had Run TMC, with Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin, with Don Nelson as coach, a foreshadowing of “death lineup” small ball.
But sports is entertainment, and the drama and greed and flailing to get the stars is as much a part of the entertainment as the game itself. Will Magic Johnson get it done, get Davis, recapture the glory of Showtime, or can we “Beat LA” one more time? Nothing quite like the shameless schadenfreude of sports and glorying in seeing your bad guys lose. One fun thing, now that Davis is out with a finger injury and has asked for a trade, Jahlil Okafor has had a couple of really good games for the Pelicans, after years of being the goat with small letters. Maybe Okafor will be the frog turned to a prince here, and everyone will pull for him, and Davis will shoot the moon and lose.
By all measure, Anthony Davis is a fine young man, a great talent and a character team mate. Why does his pursuit of winning, and some team’s willingness to sell the farm to get him just not seem on the up and up? Because so many other role players lose in the process, and in the end, for all of them, there is no loyalty. It’s just a business with no heart, and a calculated, manufactured culture. It’s advertising in a way, shallow, designed to hook you in.
Sports is a simulacrum of real life; the drama works t hook us in. This six-page piece is evidence of that.