NBA Superstars Versus The League

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Adam Silver & LeBron James
[Image via Sports Illustrated]

In 2010 LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh kicked off the player empowerment era when Bosh & James joined Wade to play with the Miami Heat. Executives no longer called the shots about who played where, rather, the players did. More specifically NBA superstars did. Needless to say, the situation has escalated since then.

The NBA’s latest blockbuster trade between two publicly disgruntled superstars was yet another win for player empowerment. The question is, who’s losing in this exchange?

13 months after being acquired by the Brooklyn Nets, James Harden forced another move to Philly.  The beard is feared alright, but now, it’s for reasons “off” the court. On his third team in two years, the former NBA MVP is taking a lot of heat for his methods. Former teammate Kevin Durant & Rockets legend Tracy McGrady both felt Harden’s injury was fake. An accusation not taken lightly in the NBA.

3x NBA All-Star Ben Simmons has been on the chopping block as well. Reportedly, Simmons felt unhappy with teammate Joel Embiid and head coach Doc Rivers. Specifically, he felt limited in the 76ers’ system. Whatever his reasons may be for wanting a change, skipping games to force a trade is a big problem.

ESPN First Take Analyst Stephen A.Smith stated:

“That is the issue why I say the owners are coming for these guys.. it’s because you’re not showing up to work but you’re still demanding to get paid.”

While this writer may not always agree with Smith, he couldn’t have said it better on this occasion.

 

The Klaw Opens Doors

Kawhi Leonard & Gregg Popovich
[Image via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports]
It all began in 2018 when one of the league’s top talents, Kawhi Leonard, expressed his desire to be traded from the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi’s top destination was Los Angeles, as it is close to where he grew up. Instead, he was shipped out of the country to Canada along with Danny Green to play his last contractual year with the Toronto Raptors. A move the Spurs organization would never have made had their hand not been forced.

“Fun guy Kawhi” shocked the world by leading the Raptors to their first NBA championship in franchise history. Kawhi, who had played only 9 games in the season prior, averaged 30.5 points & 9.1 rebounds in the 2018-19 playoffs. Glorifying his dramatic journey and doubling the appeal in trading for superstars in the league overnight.

The following off-season Kawhi got what he wanted (besides a third NBA title), which was to play for his hometown Clippers. Yet that wasn’t all, Kawhi reached out to Paul George and convinced him to join LAC too. It wasn’t enough to land one MVP-caliber player, the Clippers had to acquire Kawhi’s desired partner in crime too.

Due to George signing a 4-year deal to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder just a year beforehand, he was not able to join the Clippers. Thus, LA traded Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a massive haul of draft picks (including five first-round selections) to land him.

It had to be done to keep Kawhi Leonard invested in the new Clippers era. Kawhi and PG13 instantly made LAC the favorites to win the 2020 championship, while superstars around the league took notice of the brand new possibilities.

 

Rich Paul Ball

Rich Paul with Anthony Davis & LeBron James
[Image via Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images]
After a disappointing 2018-19 campaign with the New Orleans Pelicans, Anthony Davis wanted out. Rich Paul informed the team that his client wouldn’t sign an extension and demanded a trade. It is important to note that Paul is very well connected, specifically to one of the greatest players in league history, LeBron James.

In the past, players had requested trades heading into their final year of the contract, using free agency as leverage to be dealt where they wanted earlier. However, Davis still had a year and a half left in his contract. Add to that the fact that Rich Paul made it known that Anthony wouldn’t sign extensions with certain teams like the Boston Celtics.

Boston among other teams that had been targeting Davis for a long time and likely would’ve given the Pelicans more valuable assets in the trade. By demotivating the Celtics to trade for Davis, Paul made the Pelicans’ options extremely limited. He publicly expressed Davis’ desire to be a Laker. A beneficial situation considering Paul’s other client, LeBron James, was waiting in LAL with open arms. Interesting how that worked out, eh?

In July 2019, Paul and Davis eventually got what they wanted, but Pelicans couldn’t say the same. The Lakers won the NBA Championship the following year, putting more power in the hands of NBA superstars. As this title win put value in these player-actions.

Parity Problems

Out of the 74 NBA Championships, 56 of them have gone to NBA’s top ten media markets. That’s 75.6% of titles going to big market teams. Of the 18 titles won by smaller market teams, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs won five of them. Of course, San Antonio’s team featured some of the most underrated stars in the league and some of Europe’s best.

Doesn’t come as much of a surprise when you consider the free agency dominance of these big market teams. Top-tier free agents are attracted by the winning culture and amenities of the big cities. This helps big teams avoid long droughts and rebuilds, and also helps retain star players. Even if the team isn’t winning, the market keeps players interested.

Add to that, the endorsement of these big market teams in Christmas day games, higher amounts of nationally televised events, and selective league promotion. The league is understandably incentivized to showcase big market teams to maximize revenue.

How Does The League Level The Playing Field For Smaller Market Teams?

Smaller market teams get draft picks to try and recreate another Golden State Warriors’ Cinderella Story. That and supermax contracts which, as Ben Simmons recently displayed, is a flawed tool. The most anticipated No.1 pick in recent years (NBA 2K Cover athlete before he made his NBA debut) was University of Duke superstar, Zion Williamson.

Zion was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019 and played around 24 total games his rookie season. He then played 61 games in the 2020-2021 season. Yet as of this writing, Williamson has yet to play a game for the current 2021-2022 season at all. This is due to several different injury issues, but some believe it is much more than that for Zion.

Healthy or not, it is believed that Zion is setting himself up for another great NBA escape story. No one can blame the kid who wanted to play for the New York Knicks but ended up in NOLA. Just like no one can blame AD or Kawhi. The system is failing small market teams and catering to the demands of the superstars it depends on.

There are times when players end up on the team they generally wanted but just want out because of bad management.

Take NBA Superstars like LeBron James. King James was drafted #1 overall in the infamous 2003 NBA Draft. He went to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a big deal for the Akron, Ohio native. The King literally dragged the Cavs to the NBA Finals one season and was never given any real help. He felt he had to leave to accomplish his goals.

People can understand LeBron’s reasoning, but that cannot be said for other players.

 

Finding Balance Between NBA Superstars & The NBA Itself

Commissioner Adam Silver
[Image via Getty Images/Ringer Illustration]
While the league believes NBA superstars contribute to their growth, the fans have been vocal about the drama and frequent ugly trades being too much. These antics are taking away from the events that occur on the court. Besides that, many non-superstar athletes are added to these trade packages to sweeten deals.

It creates more inconsistency and constant shuffling for other NBA players as well. While this writer is all for player empowerment, it’s only a select few superstars benefiting from it. Too often the invested time, money, and effort of smaller market teams lead to failure. This failure resulted in losing their superstars and losing out on winning titles.

This is why NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is urging his players to honor their contracts due to a common goal. The league as a whole can benefit if these trends can be avoided. Ben Simmons signed the supermax and then sat out and forced a trade the following season. Harden and Kawhi possibly faked injuries to get traded. AD’s agent bullied his employers, and now Zion is reportedly detached from the same small market organization.

It’s all because NBA superstars want to form super teams in big market cities and continue to dominate the rest of the league. Perhaps, all we can do is cheer on the Cleveland Cavaliers or another small-market team to win the title, and hope nature restores balance.

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