With the NBA’s 2019 Free Agency period winding down, one thing is clear: the National Basketball Association is a player’s league. Unlike other professional sports leagues, the balance of power is shifted toward labor instead of resting in the hands of management. With LeBron James changing the dynamic with The Decision and taking his talents to South Beach, the landscape of the NBA is dramatically different than it was just a few short years ago.
Basketball teams, unlike other teams sports, can be dramatically improved with just one player. One player can change the a team’s fortune from being in the lottery (out of the play-offs) to being a championship contender. Not only in the NBA, but in the NCAA as well. Most folks Big Blue Nation will point to Jamal Mashburn’s recruitment as being a key moment to the program returning to its former glory after the NCAA scandal wrecked it. One person can absolutely change things. And because of that, when NBA Free Agency hits, it is the players that are in control.
Some folks don’t like it. Many writers and pundits and even Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr have been critical of players exercising this freedom. Players are signing shorter contracts, making trade demands on their teams and assisting in roster construction like never before. That change, unsurprisingly, has brought out the more paternal side of NBA’s management. They don’t like players making trade demands. They don’t like players working together to form “super teams.” They don’t like that players now hold all the cards.
Teams have been trading players since professional sports leagues become a thing early in the 20th century. We’ve all seen teams get rid of long term players so the team can get younger or maybe they have to move on from a bad contract (that both parties willingly signed). It happens and will continue to happen. When things are at the benefit to the team, we, as sport fans, have been conditioned to see this as the default way these things should operate. We see the players as commodities, not as human. We side with management, not labor.
Players, like Kentucky’s own Anthony Davis, are able to have control over their careers like never before. Instead of toiling away in bad situations, like Kevin Garnett in Minnesota or a Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta, players like Davis, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard can put themselves in the best situations for themselves. Players can pretty much play where and with whom they want to. The players have agency over their careers and how can freedom of choice and freedom of movement be a bad thing?
While some like to bemoan the good old days of the NBA, this mythical time when the league wasn’t top heavy, that isn’t factual. The Minneapolis Lakers won 4 straight titles in the league’s early years. The Boston Celtics won 9 straight through the 50s and 60s. The Lakers and Celtics combined for 8 titles in the 80s. The Bulls and Rockets also combined for 8 titles in the 90s. And over the last 20 years, the Spurs, Lakers, Heat and Warriors have for 16 titles. Outside of the 1970s when the Bullets, Warriors and Sonics managed to make multiple Finals series and win titles, the NBA has never been balanced.
The difference in 2019 is that it’s the players that are forming super teams and not the front offices of the teams. The players are calling the shots. For a league that is more player driven than the other sports, it’s only natural. Basketball courts are smaller, the settings more intimate than other sports. There’s no equipment, the players are just wearing shorts and a tanktop. That’s it. The NBA has been showcasing its players for years. The players are the show. And now, they have the power to show for it.