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  • When NBA teams make trades they are praised as shrewd, while players who make trade demands are deemed selfish. This week Steve Kerr, who is usually on the right side of things, reinforced one of the most unfair double standards in sports.
By Rohan Nadkarni
July 25, 2019

Warriors coach Steve Kerr is apparently not a fan of how Anthony Davis ended up on the Lakers. In an interview with The Warriors Insider Podcast, Kerr opined about how Davis asked for a trade with two years left on his contract with the Pelicans, saying he thinks it’s a “problem” when a player decides not to honor a contract. 

“When you sign on that dotted line, you owe your effort and your play to that team, to that city, to the fans," Kerr told Warriors Insider. “And then it's completely your right to leave as a free agent. But if you sign the contract, then you should be bound to that contract.”

I’m a huge Steve Kerr fan, both on and off the court. I think he’s an underrated coach with a measured demeanor, and whenever he speaks up about other issues, basketball-related or not, he usually has something smart to say. But I think he couldn’t be more wrong about Anthony Davis. 

Kerr’s thoughts echo what Adam Silver said in February at the All-Star Game, when he said trade demands should remain private and he wished players would carry out their contractual obligations. This is a line of thought that’s incredibly unfair to players, and practically ignores the fact that teams decide not to “honor” the contracts they sign all the time. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Why is all the onus on the player when it comes to contracts? Teams can basically trade anyone they want and there’s never a public discussion about whether it was fair or not. Most of the media (myself included!) basically spent a year worshipping Masai Ujiri for boldly acquiring Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs to vault Toronto to an NBA title. But that meant trading away DeMar DeRozan, someone who wanted to honor his contract with the Raptors, and someone who was legitimately upset to be traded away. Why wasn’t Toronto bound to him? 

DeRozan is far from the only example. Blake Griffin was a Clipper for life headed toward his jersey retirement until L.A.’s front office shipped him to Detroit. Now the Clippers are celebrating their most exciting offseason in franchise history, in part because they dumped Griffin—and then Tobias Harris!—for contracts that expire earlier. Isaiah Thomas put his body and mind on the line for the Celtics in one of the most unforgettable postseason performances ever in 2017—and then he was unceremoniously traded for Kyrie Irving, and his career hasn’t been the same since. Does Chris Paul really want to spend the next year in Oklahoma City? 

Kerr’s comments reinforce one of the most blatantly unfair double standards in sports. When teams make trades to improve their roster, it’s hailed as smart team-building and bold thinking. When players want to leave for better situations, their actions are deemed selfish, and people from the commissioner down on to coaches believe they should be honoring their deals. I don’t understand how, in 2019, we’re still having this conversation about trade demands.

If teams don’t want players to request out, then build better teams. The Pelicans were literally gifted control of the first seven years of Anthony Davis’s career thanks to ping pong balls, and they weren’t able to build a consistent winner. Both the team and Davis share some of the blame for that, but why should he have to suffer any longer? If Davis was slightly worse, and the Pelicans could have traded him for a better star, would the front office have even thought twice? 

Kerr’s comments also ignore the financial sacrifice Davis has had to make because of the Pelicans’ incompetence. AD had to both turn down a supermax extension and waive his trade kicker to facilitate a deal to the Lakers. Davis basically had to turn down tens of millions of dollars to finally start playing for a contender. Is that system fair to him? Should a player—whether its Davis or Kemba Walker—have to get paid less than what they’ve earned just to finally play for a good team? 

Davis’s trade demand also didn’t sink the Pelicans. Even in what seemed like a one-team race, New Orleans was able to extract a huge package from the Lakers, consisting of both young talent and future first-round picks. The same can be said for the Thunder and Paul George. I do have sympathy for teams who feel like there is nothing they can do to ever keep a superstar player happy. But the league needs to stop singling out trade demands, and think more critically about the root of these issues. Is the draft really fair to players? Is the max salary actually helping with parity? 

Anthony Davis didn’t choose to play for the Pelicans. And it would have made no financial sense for him to not re-sign there after his first contract. (Don’t get me started on restricted free agency.) His trade demand may have been handled less artfully than others, but if teams are applauded for taking big swings on star players through trades that are immediately parsed by how shrewd they were, why can’t players do the same? If the ADs of the world are expected to be bound to their contracts, then teams should be as well.

This is perhaps most relevant to the Warriors. Stephen Curry was underpaid for years because his ankle injuries forced him to sign a contract that ultimately didn’t reflect his impact by the start of Golden State’s Finals runs. It was both Curry’s contract and unselfishness (among many other things) that helped kickstart the Warriors dynasty, giving them room to bring in guys like Andre Iguodala, and eventually, Kevin Durant. 

When the Warriors finally made Curry whole and gave him a supermax extension, the team refused to give Curry—the catalyst of all their success—a player option. They also refused to give him a no-trade clause. What would be the reason for Golden State not to give its biggest star, the best player in its franchise history, and the biggest reason for all its success a no-trade clause? Maybe the Warriors don’t want to be bound to his contract. 

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