As every year passes, one of the things that becomes more and more clear in the NBA is that the players are increasingly in control of the league. After decades in which the power dynamic was mostly tilted towards management and the team, the people fans are actually tuning in for are finally the ones who in large part run the NBA.
A lot of that is due to there being more money for players in things outside of their direct salaries — like endorsements — than ever, as when someone is making millions on a shoe deal, a few million here or there on their playing contract may not matter as much as picking the situation that they want to be in.
One of the consequences of that new reality — along with shorter contracts and less ways for team’s to hold on to unhappy stars — is that there is a new, year-round interest in the league, as fans can always dream of the next disgruntled star joining them in a forced trade or free agency. The constant roster upheaval is great drama too, which draws in some otherwise less interested in the game.
During an appearance on CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green says that a lot of the credit for showing players that they have the power to take advantage of this new status quo should go to Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James (emphasis mine):
Host Tyler Mathisen: One of the things that’s interesting, we’ve remarked on this in the past, the anticipation for this season is really very high. And one of the things that think the NBA has done well as the NFL has is to make the league a year-round conversation topic. It’s partly the summer league, it’s partly the draft and so on and so forth. But the player movement this year has been really significant and has people talking.
Green: It has a lot of people talking and obviously that’s a huge and large credit to LeBron James. You know, with what he’s done in his career that’s kind of shown everybody else the power that you have as a player. And that’s, you know, that’s why you saw the movement this year is because the athlete, the basketball players have taken control of their own future. We’ve taken control of our destiny. And I think a lot of people hate that but I think that’s one of – you know, everybody celebrates LeBron for his basketball career and the things he’s been able to accomplish. I think the doors that he’s opened for athletes and especially basketball players is his biggest accomplishment.
Whether it’s James’ biggest accomplishment is debatable and depends how one defines achievement, but the way James upended the status quo and made it more accepted for players to do what is best for them instead of their team in free agency while simultaneously showing that loyalty has to be earned is certainly one of the most impactful ways he’s affected the NBA.
James took a bunch of heat for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami, but in doing so he also set a precedent in the minds of players that they could go where they want, and put the thought in the minds of fans and team executives that stars could leave whenever they were a free agent. In turn, that made other players less hated (nationally) for their own free agency decisions, and tilted the power dynamics towards players when negotiating with teams who suddenly needed to go above and beyond to prove that they were the best spot for a player to be.
The impacts of that go beyond free agency, too. It’s why Anthony Davis is a Laker today, as the Pelicans knew they weren’t going to be able to keep him and instead opted to get something for him before he bolted. That similar fear of players bolting is also probably (at least in part) why Green got a rich extension this summer rather than Golden State risking annoying him by sending him to unrestricted free agency.
When James goes down in NBA history books, he will of course be remembered as arguably the best player to ever play the game, but like all other great players, his impact on the way the league is structured will be felt just as widely. In the 1970’s, Oscar Robertson gave the NBA free agency. In the 1980’s, Larry Bird led to team’s getting “Bird Rights” still seen today that allow them to exceed the cap to re-sign an incumbent player. in the 1990’s, Michael Jordan raised the interest in the game to previously untouched heights, resulting in a rise in the money that players are able to make.
The list goes on and on beyond just those players and James, and it will be interesting to see what path the next generation of stars take the league down. When they do, they’ll almost certainly have the freedom and power James helped make more acceptable to thank.