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LAS VEGAS — It would appear Kevin Durant’s trade request would be a tipping point to the player empowerment era, a chance for NBA team owners to reset the paradigm after a decade-plus of star movement.
After all, if a star in the New York market who’s just entering a four-year extension worth nearly $200 million can force his way out, a contract between player and team might as well be written with disappearing ink.
A period that began with LeBron James exercising his right as a free agent to leave his hometown-adjacent Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami in 2010, setting off a flurry of players picking up and going wherever they desire, seems to have gone awry — telling from all the consternation in the aftermath of Durant’s request.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke about balance and attempted to walk the fine line between the acknowledgment the league has evolved over the last 20 years while also admitting it’s helped the NBA grow in popularity.
“It takes both us and the players association sitting down and I think acknowledging the principles that are at stake here, and that is the sanctity of contracts and the desire for stability that affects not just that player but other players as well,” Silver said following the Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas Tuesday. “We have a very productive relationship with our players association. We are not necessarily going to completely eliminate players asking to be moved, but we are going to find a way to move the attention back onto the court.”
Multiple league sources told Yahoo Sports the topic of player movement wasn’t broached among NBA team owners, even though it’s sure to be discussed in some form when the National Basketball Players Association and team owners reconvene for the next round of collective bargaining.
They have bigger topics on their agenda at the moment — the gap between big-market and small-market teams, a la, the wealthy versus the wealthier and the future of revenue as it pertains to local and national TV deals.
It’s not to say someone like Durant requesting a trade didn’t send shock waves through the NBA ecosystem, but, as one team owner pointed out to Yahoo Sports, the Nets don’t have to trade him.
“Not really an issue of players seeking trades with multiple years [remaining],” the team owner said. “Honestly, players in that position can test their leverage, but at the end of the day, they’re under contract and you don’t have to trade them.”
To be clear, Sliver did say “We don’t like to see players requesting trades, and we don’t like to see it playing out the way it is,” and from here, it would be a prudent move from the Brooklyn Nets to trade Durant sooner rather than later so this cloud isn’t hanging over their heads, Durant’s or the league’s.
Whether or not Durant’s desire to leave is appropriate given the amount of agency he’s had in the Nets organization is immaterial. The Nets took on Kyrie Irving and all his complexities because of Durant, hired Steve Nash as head coach with Durant’s blessing and certainly have given his voice a lot of weight.
But it’s the way of the NBA, the power structure has tilted and doesn’t look to be swinging back anytime soon. For the star who wants to leave, there are multiple stars who choose to stay. For the stars who want to leave, there’s a team with a treasure trove of draft picks, cap space and opportunity waiting to absorb the wayward star.
It’s not all good for everybody, but it’s never, ever been that way. The teams with a championship imprint in the post-playoff expansion era (since 1984) aren’t plentiful, but that’s not the standard for every star player or franchise.
“I don’t think this is changing, at all,” a general manager told Yahoo Sports.
The NBA could stand for a quiet summer, for fans to see some connective tissue among players and teams so the story can simmer a bit. But in the league’s endless quest for world domination, constant publicity and staying atop the news cycle in July doesn’t appear to bother them — even if it takes away from games in November through April.
“I think, in fact, it creates more of a sense of renewal in certain markets and gives players and teams more opportunities to rebuild, change circumstances,” Silver said. “You want to find the right mix. At the end of the day, everything stems from the game. So we don’t want the game to be a sideshow to social media and all the intrigue around our players.”
The landscape is so layered and no longer linear. Is a player’s first responsibility to himself, or his franchise? Himself, or the NBA at large? Those are all differing agendas that seemingly conflict as opposed to running on the same track.
Blake Griffin was traded six months after telling the world he would be a “Clipper for life,” Rudy Gobert signed a five-year extension with the Utah Jazz before the start of the 2020-21 season only to be shipped to Minnesota a couple weeks ago — without a public trade request.
Of course, neither of these players are at the stature of Durant, a generational player with the inherent responsibility of carrying the league on slender shoulders.
Only a handful of players have this gravity. Even perennial All-Stars wouldn’t generate this interest.
It’s a concern, but a bit overblown.
It’s not impossible, but it’s hard to tell a player to look out for the greater good of a franchise or the NBA at large when words like “legacy” are improperly used daily to discuss a superstar’s reputation — as if this isn’t a moving target that won’t be definitive until the benefit of time sets in to let us all take several deep breaths.
It was easier for players in previous generations to stay planted, to grow roots where they were drafted. Free agency wasn’t as viable an option, the 24-hour news cycle wasn’t blaring and evaluating their careers in real time as often as it does now. And the money, while great for the time, wasn’t astronomical.
The players, team owners and league itself entered into a covenant to grow the game, a responsibility to make the pie bigger so everyone could eat.
Well, the pie is pretty big now, built from the sweat equity of those players who helped take the game global and enhanced by today’s stars. It’ll likely get even bigger in a couple years, when the TV rights deal is up and sure to add more money into the team owners’ coffers and players’ pockets.
The greatest elixir is the evidence of the last two champions, the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors. Both anchored by stars (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry) who exude stability on the floor and institutionally, organizations that dug deep with resources financially and what’s more — the stars trusted the organizations to do their jobs competently.
That’s a model for the next generation of stars to aspire to replicate. For all of Durant’s wondrous gifts and even his valid desire to leave what looks to be an unstable organization, there are not teams lining up with their best offer to snag him.
What’s to stop Durant from pulling this same act 12 months from now, some teams openly opine. It’s not a shot at Durant, but some teams have no clue what it would take for him to stay if he comes.
It’s an unintended consequence, one created by the NBA to protect its teams from bad decisions. Long-term deals (six to seven years) were cut significantly to help them get off bad contracts, which means even the most reliable stars would hit free agency multiple times over the course of a long career.
Rookie-scale deals keep early wages suppressed while older players can take up a bigger chunk of the cap — which means they’ll always opt for the stability on the front end and worry about geography later, often coming in the form of a trade request.
There’s no perfect solution, as the market will determine the next trend — be it salary kickers in the early years of deals should a player stay put or some other mechanism the league and NBPA comes up with.
But Durant’s request isn’t a tipping point or inflection point in the era of player empowerment, because nobody truly wants it that way.