Editor’s note: The following story is co-published with Freddie deBoer’s Substack.

I get it. I do. I get that there’s a labor argument to be made for the “player empowerment era” of the National Basketball Association – roughly the past 15 years or so, where star players have been increasingly emboldened to demand trades with multiple years left on their contracts, forcing their way to desirable cities like Miami or Los Angeles for better marketing opportunities, better teams, and better weather. I understand that people want to empower players, otherwise known as labor, in their interactions with teams, otherwise known as capital. And I think that there’s a lot of things that could be done to increase player movement in a rational way, or to better compensate players if movement doesn’t increase. But the current NBA reality where a player in the second year of a five-year contract waves his hand and his team feels forced to trade him for pennies on the dollar? You can’t have a healthy sports league that way.

NBA fans already know why I’m writing about this. For the rest of you, there was an event yesterday that represented an NBA team bucking this trend. Not long after this past June’s NBA finals, Damian Lillard, massively-talented but aging and extremely expensive guard for the Portland Trailblazers, demanded a trade. This, in and of itself, is nothing new; as I suggested, NBA players have been forcing their way off of teams for better than a decade now. Lillard took it to a bit of another level, though – he had two years left on his contract with Portland, with more than $90 million due for those two years, and demanded not just that he be traded, or traded to a list of acceptable teams, but to one and only one team – the Miami Heat. And when the Heat laid out their (underwhelming) trade offer early in the process and said that they would not move from it, Lillard demanded that the Blazers accept those terms. So we had a player on a massive contract with multiple years remaining demanding not just a trade, but a trade to a specific team, for a specific compensation package. This, if satisfied, would have to represent something like the zenith of player empowerment. But Portland’s leadership seemed offended by whole situation, and yesterday they traded Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks for an also not-particularly-impressive package.

“The current NBA reality where a player in the second year of a five-year contract waves his hand and his team feels forced to trade him for pennies on the dollar? You can’t have a healthy sports league that way.”

My question for those who are vocal defenders of the player empowerment era, like Dan Le Batard or Amin Elhassan, is how any of this could be sustainable for the league over a long enough time frame. The NBA already has a profound haves and have-nots problem. Some franchises are considered intrinsically more attractive because of weather, taxes, and fun. (Le Batard’s partisanship for constant trade demands is convenient, given that he’s a Miami guy and Miami boasts great weather, low taxes, and legendary nightlife.) There’s an element of that for any league, but it’s particularly acute for basketball – since there’s only five guys on the floor at any time, eight or nine who get consistent playing time, and fifteen total on a roster, the movement of any one player is much more significant than for baseball or football, with their much larger rosters. A star quarterback in football is the only player in American team sports who can rival a superstar NBA player in terms of total team impact, and the conditions are different in the NFL. (For one thing, the NFL has proven that they can market stars from smaller cities, with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City being clear examples; there are very few comparable success stories in baseball or basketball.)

In the early days, stars forcing their way out of certain NBA cities was more rare and had more obvious logic. A star in the last year of their contract could make it clear that he wasn’t going to resign with his current team, that team wouldn’t want to lose him for nothing, so they would spin him off before the trade deadline for some assets, usually as the beginning of a “rebuild.” And there isn’t anything nefarious about this. There isn’t anything nefarious about any of it! The trouble is, first, that once trade demands became normalized, teams began acquiescing more and more often and to more and more players; once upon a time, a Kevin Durant might force a trade, but a Bradley Beal-level talent would not necessarily be seen as the kind of player who would have the juice to do so. Now everybody seems ready to make these demands. It also used to be that these demands only happened near the end of a contract, but my anecdotal sense is that players don’t feel any compunction about signing a deal and turning right around and demanding a trade, now. Most destructively, the progression from “just trade me” to “trade me to a team on this list of five” to “trade me to this team, and take the shitty package they’re offering you” is just murder for struggling teams.

The big problem for the NBA is that you have a dozen or more franchises who have no way to convince their local fanbases that they can consistently produce a winner.

Which brings me back to the “haves and have nots” problem. The big problem for the NBA is that you have a dozen or more franchises who have no way to convince their local fanbases that they can consistently produce a winner. The player empowerment discourse reflects why – it’s just really hard to build a small-market winner in the NBA, which in turn makes it hard to keep producing new generations of fans. To repeat the question in the subhead, why would a 12-year-old in Indiana become a diehard Pacers fan, after watching the team for their brief lifetime? What possible hope would they have that the team would be able to consistently attract star talent the way the Brooklyn Nets, LA Clippers, New York Knicks, LA Lakers, or Miami Heat can? In the height of the Miami Heat “Big Three” era, Paul George and the Pacers gave Lebron and his team all they could handle, but our 12-year-old was a toddler when that happened. Since then, the Pacers have had a few very strong players but minimal team success, as they face a major disadvantage in trying to recruit talent to come to Indianapolis. The NBA is a stars league; no stars, no championships. If the Pacers do draft a true superstar, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be gone by the peak of his career, and this goes for the Utah Jazz, and the Portland Trailblazers, and the Charlotte Hornets…. What are the odds that Paolo Banchero, a remarkably promising young forward, is going to win his first championship on the Orlando Magic, rather than the Clippers or the Heat? What are the odds than Anthony Edwards, maybe the most purely talented player in the league, will still be on the Minnesota Timberwolves in three years? Those odds look pretty damn remote to me.

People like Le Batard and Elhassan seem perfectly fine with this state of affairs. But the argument isn’t just about fairness, although yes, it’s about that too. The argument is about keeping the league solvent in the long run. The overarching problem is this: major sports leagues are actually in some danger! They’re in some danger because young people are following major sports leagues at dramatically lower rates than past generations. This is a known problem with Gen Z, one that the leagues are fretting about behind the scenes, and while “Generation Alpha” is too young to have real polling data, all of the anecdotal evidence suggests that the problem is even more acute for the youngest generation. As someone in his early 40s, my social cohort is old enough to have kids hit ages in the double-digits, and it’s genuinely remarkable how many of them say that their kids simply have no interest in organized sports, which they consider slow and dull. The typical culprits named, like a preference for YouTube and Twitch and video games, seem convincing to me. And given that fewer and fewer kids play sports now, a major pipeline to fandom is shrinking. Sports leagues need to be thinking proactively here. Only one team can win the championship every year, but the NBA needs small-market fans to be watching the games on TV, paying for season tickets, and paying for merch. To do so, they’ll have to think their teams have a chance. If no one cares about the plight of the small-market fan in terms of simple fairness or quality of product, maybe they’ll care when it comes down to dollars and cents.

If player empowerment in the sense of the ability to force trades is actually a labor issue, make it a formal labor issue in the collective bargaining agreement. 

(There’s also the fact that, in a league stuffed with transcendent talent, the three biggest stars remain Lebron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant. Curry is still a top-five player, James and Durant top twelve-ish, but they’re all well on the wrong side of 30.)

Here’s my advice: if player empowerment in the sense of the ability to force trades is actually a labor issue, make it a formal labor issue in the collective bargaining agreement. (And not just in terms of fining players for going public with them.) There’s all sorts of provisions in the NBA CBA, but trade demands remain an informal process that nevertheless have huge power in the system. So formally recognize them: create affordances for trade demands for players who have X playing time or who have made Y All-Star teams or who have Z% of their contract left, etc. Negotiate around these issues as you do any other matter where there’s a conflict between what players want and what owners want. And if the owners find it too onerous to give players formal processes to request trades and generate movement from teams, then they’ll have to pony up more money in exchange. The union and its members can make a rational calculation about how much more in salaries they’d trade for greater freedom of movement. Putting the issue in the center of labor negotiations could make things better – or at least clearer and less arbitrary – for everyone. It’ll have to wait, though, as the league just signed a new CBA in April, one with potentially major consequences for this discussion.

The NBA may have already killed the player empowerment era with its new contract. The new CBA, which includes disincentives for creating the kind of superteams that saw their zenith/nadir in the Lebron-Wade-Bosh Heat, has been represented by many as a bid for greater league parity. On paper, the agreement creates new luxury tax provisions that could potentially make having too many stars prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, I’ve been told by people who are savvy about the league that, in practice, smart GMs will be able to find various loopholes around these provisions and keep the superteam gravy train going. I’m not quite sure what to expect. I do think, though, that the NBA as its currently constituted has a real problem, and I think the league needs to work hard to convince small-market fans that there’s any reason to get invested in their teams – and I think we can find ways to do that which are ultimately pro-labor.

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