The NBA world spent the last month discussing Anthony Davis demanding a trade out of New Orleans. Last fall, Jimmy Butler demanded a trade out of Minnesota, leveraging the players’ newfound power. But do players really have the power to dictate their own destiny?
The drama of the NBA Trade Deadline and free agency has escalated. Trade demands, theatrical free agency announcements and Twitter drama is all part of the norm. But who really holds the keys when it comes to player agency?
On July 8, 2010, NBA free agency changed forever. Up until then, it was all business. Players entered the league and rode out their rookie contracts, the NBA teams courted them behind closed doors, and then we found out where they would play the following years of their careers. The whole process remained purely transactional in nature. Until The Decision.
LeBron James, having played his entire career for the Cleveland Cavaliers, flipped the entire process on its head. On paper, it made sense. He was one of the most coveted players to hit the market, possibly ever. He recognized one thing: he had all the power in this situation. Teams were lining up for an opportunity to print money in his backyard. He was already one of the most talented players to ever play the game, and he had full freedom to choose where he wanted to play.
Again, on paper, this line of thinking made sense. In practice? The Decision was a disaster.
But despite the astronomical failure resulting in hundreds of burned jerseys and some misplaced use of Comic Sans, something changed on that day in July. LeBron James, unlike most superstars before him, began to unlock the idea and power of player agency in the NBA.
Basketball players already have increased visibility. They are some of the most identifiable athletes. They don’t have to wear helmets, every position matters as much as the next, and the league has done quite well to empower its young stars to express their personalities. The foundation was already there. LeBron just started to build upon it.
Fast forward to the present. Two years ago Paul George made it known that he wanted to go to the Lakers, demanding a trade before eventually re-signing with Oklahoma City and never making it to Los Angeles. But the discussion around George was largely muted, overshadowed by his narrative of returning from a gruesome injury a season prior.
That same year Kawhi Leonard sat all but nine games due to an injury, or so we thought. Kawhi himself was trying to force a trade out of San Antonio to what his agent described as “a bigger market.” He got his wish, as San Antonio flipped its disgruntled star to Toronto, the NBA’s sixth largest market in 2018.
The drama climaxed this year. Jimmy Butler, who had forced his way out of Chicago just a year prior, demanded a trade from Minnesota. When the Timberwolves didn’t oblige, he started to miss practices, and eventually, games. Jimmy did everything in his power to not be a member of the Timberwolves. His wish was granted, but in the eyes of the public, his reputation was forever tainted.
A couple of months later, Anthony Davis’ agent made it known that Davis wanted out of New Orleans. Unlike PG, Kawhi, or Butler, Davis had an extra year on his contract, and the Pelicans decided to absorb the risk for a season and check the market in July when the Celtics are allowed to offer Jayson Tatum in negotiations. And with that, Anthony Davis became a team pariah. He was suddenly a “hostage” of NOLA.
As the players slowly started to take back power in the wake of The Decision, we embraced the idea of these young men empowering themselves at the expense of billionaires who, up until this point, had unprecedented control over their lives. Yes, they were getting paid millions of dollars, but they were subject to a variety of limitations by teams and league rules. So LeBron again found subtle ways to chip away at those.
First, LeBron started signing 1+1 deals (effectively only agreeing to one guaranteed year, with a player option for a second), allowing himself the flexibility to switch teams more frequently than if he had been locked into long-term deals. If LeBron didn’t like how things were going, he could always leave next summer. That unprecedented power helped LeBron push the Cavaliers front office to make coaching and personnel changes to appease him. LeBron was demonstrating that players have the power to dictate what happens in their NBA careers.
But we mustn’t forget who signs the checks. New Orleans demonstrated that teams still had power by choosing to retain Anthony Davis. AD still had a year on his contract, and New Orleans could afford to keep him until summer when the return for their superstar will most certainly be better. Butler, Kawhi, and PG were all in the last year of their contracts. With free agency looming, it provided those players leverage Davis lacked.
When a team trades a superstar, they almost never get an equal return. So teams have a responsibility to exhaust all available options. New Orleans chose to do just that, keeping their team’s interest in play long enough to find the best available outcome.
Teams can always choose not to trade players, and players can be assessed to fines and penalties by both teams and the league for breaking their contracts. They are obliged under contract to perform or to lose income.
Teams do not have such demands. They can choose to trade, waive, and sign players as they see fit, negotiating the best terms for them. They fully control the process with small concessions to the players based on star power and personal calculations. Just look at the narrative around everyone not named Anthony Davis.
Butler, Kawhi, and PG had their teams against a wall. The teams had to make a move or risk losing them for nothing. The players made power moves, and people turned on the players. Anthony Davis tried to do the same thing, but the wall was too far away to corner the Pelicans.
NBA teams remain in control because owners don’t need their teams to be profitable. Every one of them is sitting on a billion-dollar asset, according to Forbes. As long as they’re the ones negotiating and fulfilling the contracts, they have the power to sabotage the entire organization just to spite a superstar. Even if they’re run out of town like Donald Sterling, they’re a billion dollars richer.
Players can certainly make their own choices such as free agency decisions, trade requests, and even the terms of their contracts to maintain flexibility, but the employer-employee dynamic governs this relationship.