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Superstar Empowerment Is Wreaking Havoc on the NBA

Star players have earned their power and their autonomy. Still, their choices can have severe consequences for teams and fans.

In the early days of the Superteam Era—after the rise of Boston’s Big Three, after the birth of LeBron’s Heatles—Carmelo Anthony made his own power play, forcing a trade from Denver to New York, where he would join Amar’e Stoudemire, recruit a third star and transform the Knicks into title contenders.

It all sounded so promising. It did not exactly go as planned.

The Knicks, having surrendered all their best assets in the Anthony trade, had nothing left to acquire a third star. Anthony and Stoudemire never meshed. The later arrival of Tyson Chandler provided the illusion of a Big Three but none of the potency. The trio made one postseason appearance, losing in the second round. Anthony never made the playoffs again as a Knick.

If LeBron’s leap to Miami in 2010 was the first shot fired in this era of superteams and superstar empowerment, then the Knicks’ Carmelo gambit was the first shot fired into a team’s own foot. But clearly not the last.

Nearly a decade later, this whole experiment remains messy and combustible, with superstars alternately forging and breaking alliances, uplifting some franchises, wrecking others and sometimes wrecking the ones they tried to uplift.

Just ask the Nets, who were both beneficiary and victim of James Harden’s changing whims—landing him when he forced his way out of Houston in January 2021, only to watch him grow sour and force a trade to Philadelphia 10 days ago. The superteam of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving lasted just 13 months.

Or ask the 76ers, who dragged their franchise through competitive purgatory for four years so they could draft elite talents such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons—only to have a disillusioned Simmons force his way out, in the swap for the equally disillusioned Harden.

Or ask the Lakers, who might have killed their own championship hopes when they traded half their rotation for Russell Westbrook last summer—reportedly at the behest of their other superstars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

In the NBA, the superstars giveth, and the superstars taketh away. They have more power than ever, and flex it more frequently than ever. Which might be good for the cause of player autonomy but not great for team-building.

In the last five years alone, nine stars have forced trades, including two who did so twice: Harden and Paul George. Even for a league that has championed player empowerment, this is a jarring, destabilizing trend.

“It’s no secret that I’ve expressed my unhappiness with public trade demands,” commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday night, during his annual All-Star weekend press conference. But he said there were no clear solutions to slow the trend.

Alluding to the case of Simmons, who refused to play for the 76ers until he was traded—and had millions in salary withheld in response—Silver called it a simple stalemate that was ultimately resolved by the trade.

“I don't want to pretend standing here that I have some secret idea that I know can fix that problem,” Silver said.

But it is a problem, especially for team owners and general managers, who can no longer assume roster stability, even if their franchise star is signed for multiple years. Team executives, especially those in smaller markets, feel under siege.

“You want to make sure people are honoring their commitments,” said one Eastern Conference executive. “Teams should be able to plan through it.”

Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and guard James Harden.

The teams that have a star are feverishly doing everything to keep them happy. The rest are plotting to poach them. Around the league, team executives are already bracing (and/or plotting) for the next disenchanted star to ask out, with speculation focused on Zion Williamson in New Orleans, Damian Lillard in Portland and Donovan Mitchell in Utah.

The disenchanted star demanding a trade is hardly new to the NBA, of course. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975, forcing his way from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. There have been others since then—but never so many in such a short span. Forced trades are now just another staple of the NBA season, along with load management and player buyouts.

Not only is the frequency increasing, but the demands are coming earlier and earlier in a player’s contract.

When Paul George asked the Pacers to trade him in 2017, he did so with one year left on his contract—which provided him leverage but also gave Indiana a chance to recoup some value instead of losing him for nothing. That same summer, Irving asked the Cavaliers to trade him with a full two seasons left on his deal—an extreme rarity then but no longer.

Harden and Westbrook had two seasons left on their respective deals (not counting player options) when they asked out of Houston in the fall of 2020. Ditto for John Wall, whose trade demand in Washington led to him being swapped for Westbrook. George also had two years left (plus an option) when he asked the Thunder to trade him to the Clippers in ’19.

But Simmons blew away all modern precedent last summer, demanding a trade from Philadelphia with four full seasons left on his contract.

“This one just went over the line,” said another Eastern Conference executive.

Worse, in the view of some executives, is that Simmons had signed the so-called rookie supermax extension—a mechanism specifically created by the league to keep young stars with their teams. Indeed, nearly every wrinkle the league has adopted in its labor deals over the last decade has either backfired or has been rendered moot by empowered (and increasingly wealthy) players dictating their own career paths, no matter what the contract says.

“You have players with literally a unique skill on the planet, and that’s always going to give them leverage,” Silver conceded.

The league and the players’ union could begin discussions on a new labor deal within the next two years. This issue is sure to come up. But, Silver said, “I don’t think there’s sort of some silver bullet here that we’re going to go in in collective bargaining and say, ‘Now we’ve fixed this problem.’ These are human beings.”

Star players drive the league. They produce the thrills and the awe-inspiring plays that sell tickets, light up Twitter and help generate the nearly $10 billion in annual revenue that the league now boasts. They have arguably earned their power and their autonomy. Still, their choices can have severe consequences for teams and fans.

To wit: This might be the first season ever in which three legitimate contenders had their title hopes torpedoed by their own stars.

In the Sixers’ case, it was Simmons refusing to play for 54 games while waiting for a trade. In the Nets’ case, it was Irving rejecting the coronavirus vaccine, making him ineligible for home games, and then Harden—fed up with Irving’s part-time status—demanding a trade. And in the Lakers’ case, it was a front office that caved to James’s desire for Westbrook, instead of standing its ground and making less drastic moves.

Now the Nets are trying to forge a new Big Three on the fly, with just 23 games left in the season. The Sixers are hoping Harden and Embiid click quickly enough to make a deep run. The Lakers, mired in ninth place in the West and four games under .500 at the All-Star break, might be beyond repair.

And that’s just this season. It wasn’t long ago that Harden, having grown weary of Chris Paul, agitated for Paul to be swapped for Westbrook—a disastrous deal that ended the Rockets as a postseason force. Paul himself has forced two trades—leveraging his way from New Orleans to Los Angeles in 2011, then forcing the Clippers to deal him to Houston in ’17.

Everyone loves playing for a superteam … until they don’t.

Yet the best versions still dominate the league—from the Celtics of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen; to the Heat of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; to the Warriors of Stephen Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; to the Cavaliers of James, Irving and Kevin Love.

And so the stars will keep trying and conspiring and forcing their way from city to city, in search of NBA power and glory. And the league, by all appearances, will be powerless to stop it.

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