Can Nets, Lakers Front Offices Wrest Back Control from Stars?

Eric PincusFeatured Columnist IApril 27, 2022

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 23:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)   LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers in action against Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on January 23, 2020 in New York City. The Lakers defeated the Nets 128-113. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers went from winning the title in 2019-20 to not even qualifying for the play-in two seasons later.

Meanwhile, the 2021-22 season went off the rails early for the Nets, with Kyrie Irving refusing to get vaccinated. But never fear, he'll help manage the team back to contention:

Scott Cacciola @ScottCacciola

Kyrie says he plans to re-sign with the Nets: "When I say I'm here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe and Sean."

This is the same player who didn't suit up until January 5 or play at home until March 27 and whose choices contributed to James Harden's disillusionment. Suddenly, Irving will "manage this franchise" with Kevin Durant, the team's governor and general manager?

Durant doesn't seem to have the same perspective.

Vincent Goodwill @VinceGoodwill

Kevin Durant to ⁦<a href="https://twitter.com/YahooSports?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@YahooSports</a>⁩ on belief that he, LeBron run the show for their franchises: “I feel like that’s a narrative that [media created]. I don’t even think LeBron does that.” <a href="https://t.co/PoLiRGWhGr">https://t.co/PoLiRGWhGr</a>

Durant is right, to an extent. However, Irving's quote is not a media creation, just a transcription of his words.

It's messy, but clearly, the stars have significant say in L.A. and Brooklyn. Based on recent results, their influence may have steered their respective franchises astray.

Upon the urging of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the franchise traded its championship depth for Russell Westbrook, yet the three stars still ended up with an extended vacation. After the season concluded, Davis said he would meet with James to "reevaluate in the offseason. Upstairs, me and him, talking about the season and what we'd like to see next season."

Ideally, their suggestions to the Lakers' front office will be better than acquiring Westbrook.

But James certainly has a strong influence on the Lakers' decision-making. Multiple sources indicate the team's front office is internally blaming pressure from Klutch Sports Group (representing both James and Davis) for Westbrook.

That may be an epic level of passing the buck. An NBA team should consider its stars' wishes but ultimately make the best decision for the team. But James is eligible for a contract extension this summer, and the franchise needs to try and get on the same page as its star if the marriage is going to continue.

Star players gained power over the last decade, in part because contract length has shrunk. Historically, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) used to fight for lengthier deals. Several years ago, one general manager decried that "the players caved" in accepting shorter contracts in recent collective bargaining agreements (CBA).

It's quite the opposite, as star players have grown to understand how to utilize their leverage better with shorter contracts. Whether it's with the Lakers or another franchise, James will get paid the maximum allowed.

Sam Amick of The Athletic recently wrote, "James is considering playing out this contract rather than signing a two-year extension this summer. If flexibility and freedom are the goals here, James … could go back to the year-by-year approach he perfected in his second Cleveland stop."

James will be a free agent after the 2022-23 season, but what is best for him long-term may not be what's in the franchise's best interest. Can the team successfully resolve its Westbrook mistake (the one James lobbied for) without taking on long-term, unwanted salary or giving up significant future considerations?

If James won't commit long-term, would the Lakers be willing to move forward outright without a headliner of James' stature? If not, then James holds significant leverage.

Similarly, in Brooklyn, should the front office appease Irving by ceding to his vision of roster construction, given he was the root of many of the season's dysfunctions? Will he extend before the draft to enable the Nets to hit the draft with clarity?

Irving can opt out or in, re-sign, extend or leave a free agent. Each scenario would mean a slightly different salary figure in the $36-43 million starting range. How much of a long-term commitment should Brooklyn even make, given Irving wasn't willing to show up every day this past season?

The Nets saw the future with Harden, who forced his trade to Brooklyn in January 2021. He would end up with the Philadelphia 76ers one way or another after the season. His leverage stemmed from his short contract, and now it's the Sixers who have to consider reinvesting in Harden with the hope he won't decide it's time to force yet another trade should the team underperform.

That Durant is under contract through the 2025-26 season may limit his influence. Similarly, Davis cannot leave the Lakers until after the 2023-24 season (if he exercises his early termination option).

Lengthier contracts can give teams stability, but as players become less impactful as they age, at the highest of prices, that too can be a problem. It's one the NBA and NBPA wrestle with once or twice a decade when it's time to hammer out a new CBA.

The next set of changes (likely after the 2022-23 campaign) won't impact the Lakers and Nets in their respective situations. Neither James nor Irving "control" their respective front offices, but their contract situations certainly give them power.

The Lakers may need to stray from James' vision if it's another dead end like Westbrook. Reinvesting in Irving will keep the Nets deep in the luxury tax for years to come.

High-volume scorers don't typically make the same commitment to the defensive end, especially as they age. That's not to say star power isn't vital, but so too is roster balance and depth.

If the 2021-22 playoffs (now without both the Lakers and Nets) have shown us anything, an overreliance on star power and their roster whims may not be the path to winning a title.

*Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.