During the NBA’s 2011 CBA negotiations and ensuing work stoppage, with a lockout that cut all the way to Christmas, the owners successfully lobbied for more of the Basketball-Related Income (BRI). The players ended up taking home closer to 49 or 50 percent of the BRI, down significantly from the 57 they had as part of the 2005 CBA. The NBA’s billionaire owners were more than willing to cancel the whole season, and it became increasingly clear they held the leverage in the negotiations. The power dynamics reminded some—including HBO’s Bryant Gumbel and the New York Times’ William C. Rhoden, who wrote a book on the topic—of the American plantation; except, the slaves in this metaphor made millions of dollars. The owners and union have agreed on one more CBA since the lockout of 2011, but players, specifically stars, have wrestled a lot of the agency back from the owners. Indentured servitude still persists, primarily in the middle and lower tiers. However, star players control the conch now, as we’ve seen with the recent wranglings by Jimmy Butler to get out of Minnesota.
Butler has met with Wolves owner Glen Taylor and with Tom Thibodeau; He’s napalmed a practice and sat with Rachel Nichols immediately after in a preplanned interview that rendered any organic anger at his teammates, moot. Regardless of what could be read between the lines, he’s still got control because the Timberwolves need him to win. They had a net rating of 8.4 last season when he was on the court, and - 4.9 when he wasn’t. That’s probably why Tom Thibodeau reportedly asked for more draft picks at the last second in an all-but-done swap with the Miami Heat. Josh Richardson isn’t Jimmy Butler, and Thibs knows this better than most.
Regardless of why Jimmy wants out of Minnesota—whether it’s Minnesota’s disinclination to renegotiate his deal (they would have had to deal Andrew Wiggins and/or Gorgui Dieng for next to nothing to create the room), or he really does think Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins don’t possess the necessary fight to be a title contender—his power play has worked. Fans and analysts might consider him more of a prima donna than they did before, but he’s got options.
The same is true of Kawhi Leonard. The stone-faced star played nine games last year and didn’t even bother showing up for the playoffs. Gregg Popovich tried to bridge whatever gulf opened between the team and his star when they disagreed over his convalescence, which Tony Parker further exacerbated with his foolhardy comments. But Leonard was already gone by the time summer rolled around, and they did what they could to get a real return with DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. But it was Kawhi’s decision to make, and the Spurs—the preeminent “our way or the highway” of the NBA—were powerless to stop it.
That same new-found agency applies to the rest of the NBA’s stars. Why would Houston give Chris Paul a max deal that’ll net him over $44 million in a 21-22 season when he’ll be 36? It’s not because they think he’s worth over $500K a game at that age (and likely a lot more considering his injury history and mileage). They were forced to bring him back or risk losing their championship window with James Harden, who will make close to $44 million himself in 21-22, after signing his own max extension the day after Paul. In Houston’s case, the will of the players and team aligned, but the same can’t be said for the Warriors.
Golden State will again face an unknown offseason after Kevin Durant signed another 1-and-1 contract that’ll almost certainly mean he becomes a free agent again this summer. Durant learned the stratagem from LeBron James, who’s successfully wielded his free agency like a cudgel to crack Dan Gilbert on the kneecap every time he hesitated to re-sign the pieces around him—J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and others—necessary to compete for a title. James saw Pat Riley shed expensive contracts in Miami (e.g. Mike Miller) simply to avoid luxury taxes, and he wasn’t going to allow that upon his return to Cleveland. To James, money doesn’t matter when his window to win inches smaller each year. The Cavs ached so bad for him after his four years in Miami, it wasn’t even a question of whether they’d agree to a LeBron free agency every summer, but merely how fast they would. Such is the power of the game’s best player.
Durant is nearly as omnipotent, especially after two consecutive Finals MVPs, and a third on the horizon. He’s been the second-best player in the NBA since before his 2014 MVP, and he’s the closest LeBron comparison in terms of his ability to catapult any team to the playoffs simply by putting on their uniform. Whether he goes to New York next summer, stays with Golden State, teams with LeBron in LA, or some other move prognosticators haven’t been creative enough to theorize, he controls his own destiny.
In the 2019 offseason, Anthony Davis will face the same crossroad. It’ll be his to make, too. If he doesn’t think a maxed-out Jrue Holiday, and a plethora of trailing Nikola Mirotic threes give him a good chance to win a chip, the Pelicans will shop him in his final year so they get something in return. He gets to choose, not the Pelicans, or their screwy ownership situation. Giannis Antetokounmpo faces the same courses of action a year later with the Bucks. Milwaukee’s hedge fund owners might have gotten the city to pay for their new arena and made their fortunes moving money around in the unregulated fugue of Wall Street, but a lanky Nigerian kid who hawked bric-a-brac on the Athens streets where he grew up gets to decide his future; not them.
However, now that stars control their own fate, and are largely absolved from the old tenets of single-franchise fiefdom—thanks LeBron and KD!—they also shoulder some of the blame when their decision doesn’t go according to plan. Carmelo Anthony will always be considered a me-first player because of how his deal from Denver decimated New York’s coffers of young players in 2011, and his near-max deal in 2014 put a cap on the players that could be put around him. But, he was in New York, and that was what mattered most to him. If LeBron fails to make the playoffs, or his young Lakers get bounced in a first-round sweep this April, there will be whispers about how he’s sacrificed his legacy to chase mogul status in Hollywood. No one knows this better than Bron, though.
James’ responsibility is but a minor burden for a man who has endured near-universal loathing before eight successive Finals trips and three rings, including 2016’s iconic comeback for a Cleveland franchise that had proudly burned his jersey half a decade prior. LeBron, more than the rest of the stars mentioned, has definitely earned the opportunity in L.A.