With the 2019-20 NBA season being suspended, or potentially canceled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many players and sports fans have already begun to look to the offseason.
The NBA offseason seems to increase in drama each year, to the point where many compare it to a soap opera. The dramatic nature associated with the business side of The Association can largely be attributed to the increasing ability of players to control when and where they play.
Andre Iguodala’s trade from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Miami Heat on February 5th marks the latest example of players’ increasing autonomy.
Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors, Iguodala had not once suited up for the Grizzlies, citing a desire to play for a contender in the waning years of his career.
His refusal to play for a non-contender marks a new peak in player autonomy that could prove harmful to small-market teams.
Players wanting to play for a championship is nothing new. Free agency was introduced in 1970 and players have been leaving unsuccessful teams for marquis franchises ever since. Their near-complete control of when and where they play outside of free agency is a new phenomenon.
Kawhi Leonard pioneered the recent increase of player power with his 2018 departure from San Antonio. After sustaining a mysterious injury, the Spurs locker room became divided on the issue of Leonard’s health. Teammate Tony Parker and Head Coach Greg Popovich even publicly expressed their doubts about the severity of his injury.
Most theories regarding Kawhi’s refusal to play revolve around a rumored schism with the Spurs’ players, coaches, and medical personnel. Others made the claim that his injury was an excuse to get him traded to his hometown of Los Angeles.
Tensions continued to rise until Kawhi was finally traded to the Toronto Raptors in a package deal for Demar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick. Kawhi would play only one season with Toronto, winning both the championship and finals MVP.
The next domino to fall in the escalation of player autonomy was Anthony Davis’ exit from New Orleans. Davis was considered among the NBA’s elite during the majority of his six-year stint with the Pelicans, yet saw only one playoff series win.
In search of a team that could better utilize his prime, Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, publicly requested a trade. He added that Davis would only play for a select list of teams, including the Lakers, Knicks, and Celtics.
By handling the situation so publicly, Davis and Paul limited the Pelicans’ leverage and potential partners in trade talks. Despite New Orleans’ reluctance to trade Davis to his preferred destination, they were left with no choice but to trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The $50,000 fine handed out to The Brow for tampering amounts to less than 0.2% of his 2019-20 salary, hardly a deterrent for a max-contract player. Still, Davis would continue to play for the Pelicans, albeit with limited minutes.
Now we have Andre Iguodala, making his own power moves. Iguodala’s refusal to play for a non-contender is both unfair to the team by giving up valuable pieces for his services and undermining the competitive balance of the league.
Basketball fans have complained about the lack of parity in the NBA since 2011. Increased player autonomy could allow players to continue to team up in desirable locations and further diminish what parity is left.
Simply, the NBA needs to take action to prevent players from continuing to do this.
They have proven to be tough on teams’ front offices for tampering, as we have seen with Magic Johnson’s numerous fines for tweets and conversations. They need to continue to show that tampering from players or staff members is no longer acceptable.
No potential punishment is without its flaws. The fines being given out right now are a nonfactor for most players. In the words of Kevin Love, “Go ahead. I have plenty of money.” If the fines are increased to an amount that becomes significant in the minds of the players, then the injury loophole could become more prominent.
Yet, if we believe Kawhi’s claim that he suffered an injury, to fine him for refusing to play would be an egregious infringement upon his rights. By forcing players to either play or be fined, we could end up seeing another situation like Tracy McGrady, where the injuries were not taken seriously enough and eventually derailed his career.
We could see another situation like Kevin Durant’s, where he feels pressured to come back from a minor injury far too early and ends up leaving with something as serious as a torn Achilles.
Adam Silver has proven himself capable and competent as a commissioner, but there is no easy solution for him to solve these problems.
Nobody wants to play for a losing team or inept ownership, but if Silver is unable to find a way to prevent players from shooting their way out of their franchises, it will not be long before the league becomes even more top-heavy than it has ever been.
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