Two of this summer's most intriguing free-agent moves—the ones made by LeBron James and Chandler Parsons—were largely motivated by emotion, which should serve as a reminder that NBA players, as much as we like to call them assets, are also actually human.
With the rise of analytical and economics-based thinking throughout the league, it's become increasingly easy to forget that.
"We have a lot of options and a lot of assets to maneuver within the draft," Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said in January, per Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe.
Better still: a hierarchy of assets.
Getting bogged down in semantics isn't all that productive, and it may not be very fair to executives like Ainge and Daryl Morey. They're just using the same terms everyone else is—probably without even intending the depersonalization that comes with calling human beings "assets."
Still, those words point to an overarching linguistic and ideological change in the league: More than ever, basketball players are becoming commodities.
In the strictest business sense (the NBA is, after all, a money-making enterprise), that's true. Players are assets to their employers, just like any employee in any business. But there's a danger in getting too caught up in the parlance of the times—something Morey might be finding out the hard way.
Another general manager characterized much of the criticism as sheer jealousy, but added that there's a growing perception around the league that Morey treats his players as assets in a game of arbitrage, something that's alienating players and their representatives.
It's popular to pick on Morey because of the way Parsons publicly reacted to being treated like an afterthought.
"Honestly, I was offended by the whole process," Parsons told Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports. "They publicly said that they were going out looking for a third star when I thought they had one right in front of them. I guess that's just how they viewed me as a player."
It's also easy to target Morey because he stands as a symbol for the NBA's increasingly analytical, perhaps even cold, approach to personnel decisions. Easy, but probably not fair, per Andrew Sharp of Grantland:
People criticize new GMs for treating players like assets instead of humans, as if other GMs are paragons of trust and loyalty. The reason that GMs like Morey do more deals isn’t because they somehow value players less than other GMs. It’s because they’re less complacent than a lot of their predecessors.
Yes, Morey is one of the most active general managers in the league. And you might argue the reason he's so willing to wheel and deal is precisely because he's not concerned with the human side of those transactions—the real-life upheavals players face—like moving to a new city, starting over and, of course, the sense of rejection that comes with being dealt.
Then again, it's probably not fair to equate a willingness to work hard at one's job (which Morey very clearly has) with outright misanthropy. Morey could struggle immensely with the idea of treating players like widgets; we don't know.
Still, that asset-driven stance is something Mavericks owner Mark Cuban doesn't necessarily agree with, and the Mavs' more humanist approach to the Parsons situation paid dividends. In an interview on KTCK-AM 1310 in Dallas (via DallasNews.com), Cuban said:
They looked at every player as an asset. That asset was a step toward getting another asset. We look towards how do you build a team. Chemistry matters to us. Culture matters to us. We made it a difficult contract to trade because we have no intentions of trading him.
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, a Morey protege, is easily as analytically focused as his mentor. But he may also be doing a better job of focusing on the personal side of his personnel.
Per Jason Wolf of USA Today: "The 76ers, meanwhile, will receive $82 million in tax breaks to build a palatial practice facility and team headquarters in Camden, N.J., a 120,000-square foot complex that will rank as the largest in the NBA. Hinkie's fingerprints are all over the blueprints."
Cynically, maybe building a massive, glistening practice facility could be viewed as a way to attract "assets." But it's also true that the Sixers, under Hinkie, seem genuinely concerned with improving the quality of life their players enjoy.
When you're losing on purpose, it's doubly important to pamper players.
Maybe the Parsons and James examples of this summer are unique. After all, Parsons' wounded pride, which ultimately led to him signing an offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks, may have also been related to his previous bargain-basement deal, which made him one of the league's least financially appreciated stars.
And James' emotional decision to go home is basically without precedent. Still, it was a call he made from the heart. However you spin what happened with Parsons and James, it's hard to view their behavior as that of mere "assets."
Realistically, we shouldn't expect things to change. If you're waiting for the NBA to become less analytical, or for its application of impersonal business norms to diminish, hunker down. You're in for a long wait. If anything, more data-driven and objective ways of thinking are on the horizon.
Ironically, as more empirical evidence mounts saying players need to sometimes be treated like humans, we could see subtle changes. The motivation for those changes, from executives' points of view, will be the same: They'll always want to get the most out of their employees/assets/commodities.
But Parsons and James are data points now, examples that show general managers there's more to consider when evaluating players than their efficiency ratings and salaries. If we get a few more such data points, we might see patterns change.
There's some weird cyclical irony in the notion that the people who we most criticize (general managers, owners and board room executives) for their failure to treat players like people will eventually be taught a lesson in humanity by the numbers they so treasure.
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