LAS VEGAS — It appears Kevin Durant’s trade request would be a game changer in the era of player empowerment, a chance for NBA team owners to reset the paradigm after over a decade of star movement.
If a star in the New York market just about to start a four-year extension worth nearly $200 million can force his way out, a contract between player and team might as well be written in vanishing ink.
A time that began with LeBron James exercising his free agent right to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami in 2010, sparking a flurry of players picking up and going where they pleased seems to have gone awry be – what to say of all is the dismay at Durant’s request.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke about balance, trying to walk the fine line between recognizing the league’s evolution over the past 20 years and acknowledging that it’s helped the NBA grow in popularity.
“Both we and the players association need to come together and I think we need to recognize the principles that are at stake here and that is the sanctity of contracts and the desire for stability that not only benefits that player but other players as well concern,” Silver said after Tuesday’s Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas. “We have a very productive relationship with our players’ association. We won’t necessarily completely eliminate players who ask for a transfer, but we will find a way to bring the attention back to the pitch.”
Multiple league sources told Yahoo Sports that the issue of player movement among NBA team owners has not been raised, although it will certainly be discussed in some form when the National Basketball Players Association and team owners meet for the next round of collective bargaining.
They have bigger issues on their agenda at the moment – the gap between teams big and small, a la, the rich versus the richer and the future of revenue in relation to local and national TV deals.
That’s not to say that someone like Durant who requested a trade didn’t send shockwaves through the NBA ecosystem, but as one team owner pointed out to Yahoo Sports, the Nets don’t need to trade him.
“Not really a problem for players looking for multi-year trades [remaining]’ said the team owner. “Honestly, in this position, players can test their leverage, but at the end of the day, they are under contract and you don’t have to trade them.”
To be clear, Sliver said, “We don’t like it when players request trades and we don’t want it to go the way it is,” and from here it would be a prudent move from the Brooklyn Nets rather sooner than to trade with Durant later, lest that cloud hang over their heads, either Durant or the League.
Whether or not Durant’s desire to leave is reasonable given the amount of agency he’s had in the Nets organization is immaterial. The Nets took on Kyrie Irving and all his complexities over Durant, hired Steve Nash as head coach with Durant’s blessing, and certainly gave his voice a lot of weight.
But it’s the way of the NBA, the power structure has tilted and doesn’t seem to be retaliating anytime soon. For the star who chooses to leave, there are several stars who choose to stay. For the stars looking to leave, there’s a team with a treasure trove of draft picks, cap room and opportunities waiting to absorb the wayward star.
It’s not good for everyone, but it’s never been like this. The teams with a championship footprint in the post-playoff expansion era (since 1984) are few, but that’s not the standard for every star player or franchise.
“I don’t think that’s going to change at all,” an executive told Yahoo Sports.
The NBA could stand for a quiet summer so fans can see some connective tissue between players and teams to let the story simmer a bit. But in the league’s never-ending quest for world domination, they don’t seem to mind the constant publicity and keeping up to date in July – even if it mars the November-April games.
“I think it creates more of a sense of renewal in certain markets and gives players and teams more opportunities to rebuild and change circumstances,” Silver said. “You want to find the right mix. In the end it all comes down to the game. So we don’t want the game to be a sideshow to social media and all the intrigue surrounding our players.”
The landscape is so multi-layered and no longer linear. Is a player’s first responsibility to themselves or their franchise? Himself or the NBA as a whole? These are all different agendas that seem to contradict each other, rather than being 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 few weeks before — without a public trade request.
Of course, none of these players have the stature of Durant, a generational player with the inherent responsibility of carrying the league on slender shoulders.
Only a handful of players have that gravity. Even perpetual All-Stars wouldn’t spark that interest.
That’s worrying, but a bit exaggerated.
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 in general, when words like “legacy” are inappropriately used on a daily basis to discuss a superstar’s reputation – as if this weren’t a move a goal that won’t be final until the goodness of time arrives to let us all take some deep breaths.
It was easier for players of previous generations to stay put and put down roots where they were raised. Freelance wasn’t such a viable option, the 24-hour news cycle blared and didn’t evaluate their careers in real time as often as it does now. And while the money was great for the time, it wasn’t astronomical.
The players, team owners, and the league itself have made a covenant to make the game grow, a responsibility to make the pie bigger for everyone to eat.
Well, the pie is pretty big now, built from the sweat capital of the players who helped make the game global and enhanced by today’s stars. It’s likely to get even bigger in a few years when the TV rights deal is in place, sure to put more money in team owners’ coffers and players’ pockets.
The greatest elixir is the evidence of the last two champions, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors. Both anchored by stars (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry) who exude stability on the ground and institutionally, organizations that have dug deep into the resources financially, and more than that – the stars trusted the organizations to do their jobs competently.
This is a model that the next generation of stars wants to emulate. For all of Durant’s wondrous gifts and even his legitimate desire to leave what appears to be an unstable organization, there are no teams lining up with their best offer to nab him.
What should prevent Durant from doing the same thing in 12 months, some teams openly say. It’s no shot at Durant, but some teams have no idea what it would take to keep him coming when he comes.
It’s an unintended consequence created by the NBA to protect their teams from bad decisions. Long-term contracts (six to seven years) were cut significantly to help them get out of bad contracts, meaning even the most reliable stars would encounter free agency several times over the course of a long career.
Rookie-scale deals keep early wages low, while older players can take up a bigger chunk of the cap – meaning they always opt for front-end stability and worry about geography later, often in the form of a trade request.
There is no perfect solution as the market will dictate the next trend – be it salary kicks in the early years of deals, should a player stay, or some other mechanism the league and NBPA can come up with.
But Durant’s request isn’t a turning point or a turning point in the era of player empowerment, because nobody really wants it that way.