NBA's player movement era creates buzz for league, freedom for players. But is there a downside?
SALT LAKE CITY — The consensus around All-Star weekend is the seemingly overwhelming player movement is good for the league, because of the interest it generates and social media buzz that keeps the NBA on a 24-hour swivel.
But is there some unintended consequence with it?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver estimated around 10% of players were traded around the trade deadline, as a flurry of activity was sparked by the relative parity the league seems to enjoy.
More teams feel like they’re in contention than ever, with Silver calling it the most competitive season in league history.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving each defended the idea of players angling for trades, under the guise of taking control of one’s career. Over the last two weeks, Irving wanted out of Brooklyn due to not getting a maximum contract extension and then Durant followed suit, being sent to Phoenix.
Irving spoke about freedom and having agency in one’s career. Durant’s framing was interesting, talking about the interest generated on Twitter and the talk shows. Each is working on his fourth team, and Irving could sign with a fifth in free agency this summer if he and the Dallas Mavericks don’t come to terms.
LeBron James has two Cleveland stints on his resume, along with going to Miami for four years and being a Los Angeles Laker currently.
It’s becoming more commonplace to see stars pack up their bags or use practical leverage to force trades, and players are no longer being associated with teams. Fans pack their bags when their favorite player moves once, or twice, or a third time.
How many times do we hear a fan say when asked of his favorite team: “I’m a LeBron fan, wherever he goes, I go.”
“You can put LeBron on the Akron Zips and people will watch, KD on the Harlem Globetrotters and people will watch,” New Orleans Pelicans guard C.J. McCollum told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. McCollum also serves as the NBPA’s president. “It’s more so about the talent and the work the player puts into it. You should be able to go where you want, especially when your contract is up.”
That’s certainly not up for debate, at least not here — especially in free agency. It was fought for decades ago and today’s players are enjoying the fruits of that labor.
And eyeballs will go, in the micro, where the stars go. And there seems to be more stars to go around than at any point in NBA history. Even though both have missed considerable time with injury, James and Anthony Davis are bona fide stars.
And the Lakers are far from championship contention.
So the itch to move around will be more annoying than ever, especially factoring in the never-ending rabbit hole of social media.
“It’s bringing more eyes to the league, more people are more excited,” Durant said Saturday at the All-Star practice. “The tweets that I get — the news hits that we got from me being traded, Kyrie being traded — it just brings more attention to the league and that’s really what rakes the money in, when you get more attention. So, I think it’s great for the league, to be honest.”
However, that rabbit hole has created some unhappy players, with players like Durant complaining about the conversation random fans and television shows create around narratives of things other than the game itself.
In 2019, Silver said: “We are living in a time of anxiety. I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”
And Silver also said Saturday night of trade demands, “I think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s corrosive to the system. Certainly fans don’t like it. Even lots of players don’t like it as well because, ultimately, they may be going to a particular team under a belief that that player is still going to be there.”
Drama wins on social media, but it’s hard to see if that’s actually a good trend for a still-growing league that has exciting players and games. And if the eyeballs are watching the games as they should compared to being fatigued or satiated with the ancillary issues of the day.
Star players being stagnant or in bad relationships isn’t good for the league at all. Franchise negligence or incompetence shouldn’t be rewarded by blind loyalty. There are plenty of examples of players applying pressure to their franchises and the results being positive. Greats of yesteryear often implored players to take agency in their careers, so negative history couldn’t be repeated.
With that said, perhaps this is a bit of nostalgia, but it felt like the league could tell a better, more complete story when its stars were stable in their respective situations.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came to ready-made situations and won quickly, while Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon went through the ups and downs of building with a franchise before rewarding that equity with championships.
Not only did those players stay in one uniform, but the franchise and teammates added a level of depth and texture. Supporting players became household names as well as the stars, and weren’t merely footnotes in the moment.
The players became synonymous in the cities they lived in. You can’t think of Los Angeles without picturing Magic or Chicago without thinking of Michael. Whether those players knew it or not, the excellence kept those franchises on the map through down periods.
“You have Steph Curry, Dame Lillard in Portland, Giannis in Milwaukee, Jokic,” McCollum said, mentioning players who’ve become and remained synonymous in their drafted cities.
The world has gotten to know Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and plenty of others surrounding the orbit of Steph, and with another ring or two, we could certainly say the same thing about Giannis and his crew of teammates, as well.
There’s certainly a line, or at least a balance, between franchise power and player power. Neither should overwhelm, each should complement.
The world moves faster than ever, particularly the NBA. So it won’t be easy to figure out the metrics of this era as quick as we’d like. More people are consuming the game than ever, or at least the conversation.
How the public responds to too much of any one good thing will foretell the true future of the NBA.