Why NBA Legends Don't Fully Endorse AD, KD's Public Displays of EmpowermentFebruary 21, 2019
CHARLOTTE — Following his four-minute, 53-second shift as LeBron James' teammate in the All-Star Game on Sunday night, Anthony Davis headed back to the New Orleans Pelicans and into the unknown.
The Pelicans don't play again until Friday, when they visit the Pacers in Indiana. Davis will presumably return to the lineup after last Thursday's mishap against the Thunder, when he bruised his shoulder, left the game and then left the arena with his agent, Rich Paul, reportedly to get an MRI.
The next day, the Pelicans fired general manager Dell Demps, and ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Pelicans owner Gayle Benson was "livid" with Davis for leaving the arena.
All of that happened after Paul tossed a hand grenade into what coach Alvin Gentry later described as a "dumpster fire," announcing that Davis would not re-sign with the Pelicans and had requested a trade.
This nouveau spin on superstar free agency—a player making demands about where and when he wants to be traded despite having nearly 18 months left on his contract—has unleashed an uncomfortable set of circumstances. Commissioner Adam Silver referred to it in his All-Star Weekend address as "the law of unintended consequences."
Trade demands are nothing new in the NBA. But Davis' especially aggressive and public approach to influencing where he plays next struck several prominent former players and Hall of Famers interviewed by Bleacher Report during All-Star Weekend as over-the-top.
"We've seen it with Kawhi [Leonard], we've seen it with Paul George; Carmelo [Anthony] did it with Denver," Hall of Famer Grant Hill told B/R. "The school of thought used to be, 'Well, I'll wait until I'm a free agent and then I'll make a decision.' Now, with the players understanding their power—and also teams not wanting to be left holding the bag—it's more acceptable. I don't know if it's good or bad. I think maybe it's good for the player, but I think it also puts the team in a tough spot."
Hall of Famer Rick Barry, who challenged the reserve clause in 1967 and helped pave the way for modern-day free agency, called Davis' tactics "ridiculous."
"That I have a real issue with," Barry said. "He has a contract. If you have an issue, go in and talk to the people. Say, 'Hey, look, is there any way we can do something?' Work it out with the team, the agent, the general manager, the owner and try to figure out what could be done. What's in the best interests of the player? What could be done for the team? And work it out in private. I mean, coming out and doing that, I'm not a fan of that."
Hall of Famer David Robinson has an issue with how modern stars increasingly opt to bounce instead of build, especially since Leonard's decision to force a trade hurt Robinson's small-market San Antonio Spurs.
"I always appreciated when a guy was going to kind of hang in there and fight the good fight and build a team," said Robinson, who spent all 14 years of his career with the Spurs. "And the one thing that for me is a little disappointing is that guys don't want to take on the challenge of building a team. ... We've had this run for 25 years, which has been remarkable and amazing. And then you see this thing come in with Kawhi, who wants to go to a bigger market. So it's unfortunate for a city like [San Antonio]—that wants to be competitive and has built something and really gone through all of this effort for 25 years—to lose it to this trend of players wanting to go to a bigger market."
Like many things in today's NBA, it all started with LeBron.
Although James didn't invent NBA free agency, he drew up the blueprint for how stars could use their power to maximize its benefits.
When James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010—and then Miami for Cleveland in 2014, and Cleveland for the Lakers in 2018—he went the traditional free-agent route in every case. But what he created was a new era of player empowerment. It's an environment in which star players feel comfortable leveraging their power and, if need be, forcing trades to the teams of their choice without having to wait for free agency.
"The salaries have gone out of the roof, and so when you have that, you allow players to have power and allow them to dictate terms," said Sonics great Dale Ellis, who changed teams once as a free agent and eight times via trade during his 17-year career. "I can understand Davis wanting to play for a winning team. That's what I wanted to do: compete for a championship. The closest I got was the Western Conference Finals. So I don't blame you for wanting to jockey for a situation that will allow you to compete."
After LeBron's eye-opening move to Miami to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, players quickly realized that his power play was a perfect storm that would be difficult to replicate through traditional free agency. The team you want to play for has to have a max salary slot to sign you, which means the team was likely either not all that good or had been deliberately tanking and/or moving contracts off the books to clear room for its new star (or stars).
Following LeBron's original power play, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard soon thereafter went about the messy process of trying to force their teams to trade them to the destinations of their choice before they would become free agents. Melo wound up with the Knicks, Paul landed on the Clippers, and Howard had a brief, disappointing tenure with the Lakers.
Sandwiched between the Anthony and Paul trades was the 2011 lockout, which lasted five months and was prompted in part by owners' concerns about the players' rising share of revenues and system flaws but also by their fear of star players who wanted to cluster in big markets and form superteams.
More than seven years after the lockout ended—and in the second year of another new collective bargaining agreement—Silver is still struggling to reconcile his sacred goals: ensuring that all 30 teams, if well-managed, have an opportunity to make a profit and compete for a championship. At this point, he's all but given up on parity as a concept that the league aspires to, renaming it "parity of opportunity."
"I think the issues are fixable," Silver said. "And ultimately, I think the players and their association have the exact same interest as the league does in creating as competitive a system as possible. I mean, think about it: Players shouldn't have an interest in some teams having a competitive advantage over others."
Unfortunately, that's what's happening—and it only seems to be getting messier for everyone.
"I'm torn because I'm a player, but I'm also in ownership and I'm looking at it sort of from two different angles," said Hill, a member of the Atlanta Hawks' ownership group. "And at the end of the day, if AD wanted to leave, he'd leave in 2020. But now it gets messy. It seems like nobody really benefits."
Howard's clumsy attempt to force his way out of Orlando included backtracking on a verbal commitment to waive the early-termination option in his contract. Anthony's situation dragged on for so long that it gained a nickname: "Melodrama." (Howard's fiasco, meanwhile, was dubbed the "Dwightmare.")
Year after year, All-Star Weekend was overshadowed by the latest star who wanted out. Trade-demand shenanigans became such a distraction that last season, the NBA moved the deadline to a week before its showcase event. This year, speculation about Davis' future stole headlines, anyway.
"No one likes to see an instance where a player is demanding that he be traded when he still is in the middle of a contractual obligation to a team," Silver said. "It's one of the reasons why, in the most recent case, I fined the player [Davis was docked $50,000] even though it wasn't the player, but his agent, who demanded that trade.
"In terms of trade demands, certainly that's nothing new in this league," Silver added. "I won't name names, but some of the greatest players in the history of this league have demanded trades at various points in their contract."
If Silver wasn't naming names, Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was—because he was one of them.
"It mirrors almost exactly the same situation I was in in Milwaukee," Abdul-Jabbar told B/R. "Almost exactly."
Before the 1974-75 season, with two years left on his contract, Abdul-Jabbar informed Bucks management that he would not be re-signing when his deal was up.
"I told Milwaukee, 'I'm going to New York or I'm going to L.A.,'" Abdul-Jabbar said. "I won't be going to Kansas City.'"
And the Bucks had to decide whether to appease Abdul-Jabbar or risk losing him for nothing.
"I told them, 'Look, I'm not signing again,'" Abdul-Jabbar said. "'You guys gotta find a place to put me where you can get the best deal that you can make. Because I'm out of here.' And they got that. And the fact that I had a good relationship with them—I respected them, they respected me, they paid me well—they did the best deal that they could do for themselves, and it was a pretty good deal. Given they got four very good players for me, I thought that everybody won."
In June 1975, the Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley to the Lakers for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters. He played the final 14 years of his career in L.A., competing in eight NBA Finals and winning five championships with the Showtime Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar's power play—which was ahead of its time—is arguably the main reason the Lakers remain a glamour destination for NBA stars, from LeBron on down.
"It looks like Anthony Davis is in the same position," Abdul-Jabbar said, though he noted Davis hasn't handled it the same way.
"He just shouldn't do it in public," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Those are discussions for behind closed doors."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joins Howard Beck on the The Full 48 podcast to talk about who the NBA's GOAT is, Anthony Davis' trade request, athlete activism, the NBA age limit and more.
But in today's NBA, nothing is behind closed doors. More than 1,800 media members were credentialed for All-Star Weekend. Every transaction is on Twitter before some players, coaches and executives even know about them. In an expansion of their newfound power, players now leverage social media to circumvent traditional reporters and communicate directly with fans.
"From a media coverage perspective, it's very, very difficult for the players now," Robinson said. "The expectations are ridiculous."
However, Davis and his agent could have chosen the behind-the-scenes route and tried to work things out amongst themselves. Paul publicly airing the trade request was a clear attempt to force the Pelicans to trade Davis to the Lakers, as the team with the best package of assets to offer, the Celtics, won't be able to do so until the summer because they already have Kyrie Irving on a designated player contract.
Sometimes, attempts at media manipulation backfire. Sometimes, anti-media rants backfire, too.
Kevin Durant, who famously left the Oklahoma City Thunder and signed with the Golden State Warriors as a free agent in 2016, doesn't like this side of the player power equation. He made those feelings abundantly clear in a scathing rant against the media earlier this month.
Durant was able to take the traditional free-agent route to Golden State, but only because of an unprecedented spike in the salary cap that created room for the Warriors to sign him while having three other All-Stars—including the reigning league MVP, Stephen Curry—on their payroll. In following the LeBron blueprint of leverage and control, Durant has opted to sign three "one-plus-one" deals with the Warriors—a two-year deal with a player option for the second season. The third such deal gives Durant the opportunity to hit the free-agent market this summer for the fourth consecutive year.
Just don't ask him about it.
"I agree with him, leave him alone," Barry said. "He's a great player on a great team, a two-time MVP of the Finals with one of the most exciting, fun teams ever to watch. Why does he have to talk about that? Leave him alone. Let him play the season, see what happens, and when it comes time for him to be in that situation, that's the time to talk about it."
But with Durant and a growing number of NBA stars looking to leverage their paths to superteams, glamour markets and championships—and with the NBA news cycle being a relentless, 365-day behemoth—it's always time to talk about that.
"If you're somebody like Kevin, you rely heavily on social media," Robinson said. "You're out there putting junk out there all the time. Well, you better be ready for the scrutiny that comes along with that. ... So for him, that's a part of his whole thing. He's making a ton of money because of his presence in the media. Well, that's part of what goes along with it.
"I think to say, 'Y'all are making something out of this,' well, the fact that the media's making something out of it has always been to his benefit. And now you can't take the good and not take the bad. So it's a little bit unfair for him to say that's not right for him, because it is what it is. It's part of what's made him this social media star."
Former Knicks bruiser Charles Oakley—who went toe-to-toe and chin-to-chin with Michael Jordan's Bulls in the 1990s—said NBA stars like Durant are "soft."
"It's a soft league, because a lot of the guys are sensitive now," Oakley said. "... These guys that are the face of the league now are more sensitive."
During his Feb. 7 screed, Durant said he's no longer going to discuss his impending free agency for the rest of the season—something he probably should have done long ago.
"A simple 'no comment,'" Barry said. "'Don't ask me about it again, I'm not going to talk about this anymore.' Simple. Get rid of it."
But down the stretch of the season and into the postseason, Durant will be hard-pressed to get rid of the speculation about whether he'll stay with the Warriors or venture to, say, New York. (Among countless others, this piece by The Athletic's Ethan Strauss is what triggered his anti-media diatribe.) The same goes for fellow impending free agents like Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Leonard and Davis, all of whom are in various stages of the new trade-demand paradigm.
Irving, who has a player option this summer, forced his way out of Cleveland and was traded to Boston. Butler forced his way out of Minnesota and is now approaching a date with free agency in Philadelphia. Leonard wanted out of San Antonio and got shipped to Toronto, where Raptors executives are trying to "pull a Paul George" and persuade him to pass on the glitz and glamour of playing in L.A. They're among the 40 percent of NBA players who will be free agents this summer, according to Silver.
When you're in charge of an NBA team, appeasing your stars has always been a 24-hour-a-day job. The difference now is that the players have as many options as you do.
"I'm glad to see the players getting their take, because when they trade you, they trade you, and sometimes they don't tell you," Oakley said. "If we're going to hold players accountable, hold management accountable."
George's journey from Indiana to Oklahoma City is one of the rare examples when a superstar power play works to everyone's advantage. After George informed Pacers management in June 2017 that he wouldn't re-sign as a free agent in 2018, Thunder general manager Sam Presti took a calculated risk and traded for him. Against all odds, George re-signed with the Thunder on a four-year, $137 million deal last summer. Now, George is having an MVP-caliber season, and the Thunder and Pacers are third in their respective conferences coming out of the All-Star break.
"When you lose a player like that and you're in a small market," a Western Conference executive said, "typically you're done."
Thanks to exceeding Silver's definition of "well-managed," the Pacers weren't done after trading George, nor were the Thunder done after Durant left for Golden State and they got nothing in return.
To Hill, players flexing their free-agent muscle is nothing more than an extension of exerting their power in all areas of being an NBA star.
"Players are more aware of their power and they're more willing to leverage it, just as they're more willing to leverage their brand in different ways off the court," Hill said. "As opposed to maybe 20 years ago, leveraging with marketing and endorsement deals, now players are getting into ownership and doing something of substance while they're still playing. I think it's also the case when they're leveraging their value and being proactive."
Which brings us back to Davis, who isn't even assured of playing basketball until his trade demand is resolved. For his part, Davis has expressed a commitment to being on the floor with the Pelicans, but the risk-reward calculation for interim GM Danny Ferry is unenviable. It's one of the many subtexts to Silver's "law of unintended consequences."
Had Davis followed George's example and made his intentions known this coming summer, he could've been traded without all of the histrionics. Now, the Pelicans are forced to weigh giving fans—not to mention Davis' coaches and teammates—a fair shake for the remainder of his time in New Orleans against the risk of the injury-prone 7-footer getting hurt, which could hurt their leverage in a trade.
"When free agency became a tool for players, I don't think they meant for it to be used in this kind of way," Hall of Famer Sam Perkins said.
And then there's the impact on other players who chose to go to New Orleans specifically to play with Davis.
"I wouldn't want to be on a team where the player who was the key to our success—and who I developed friendships with—was going to be gone," Ellis said.
"Case in point with Cleveland," Perkins said. "Everybody got to Cleveland, and then LeBron booked. It demoralizes everyone. JR [Smith] left because of that. 'Hey, he's not here anymore? I'm booking, too.' It demoralizes the team that you're with and the teams that possibly could have wanted you. Teams get mad if they're not on your list. It leaves a bad taste when players do that."
It leaves a bad taste with the commissioner, too.
"I recognize that there's very little I'm going to do to ever stop that completely," Silver said.
That train, as they say, has already left the station.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.