On the asymmetry of player movement in the NBA
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One of the narrative threads in the ever long discourse around player empowerment in the NBA is that superstars who make trade demands with multiple years remaining on their contracts — and especially stars without no-trade clauses that create a list of teams (or, uh, “team”) they would be open to playing for — can hold teams hostage, and by extension hold other players hostage. The Damian Lillard trade saga, for example, could have created friction not just between Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers (which it obviously did) but between Lillard and other players on the Blazers (there is no evidence this happened in this case).
Essentially, superstars who do stuff like this have inordinate disruptory power. Plus, the mindset of the modern superstar is such that free agency is actually a time to consider other teams. This is seen as a major ingredient of mass disruption as well: you build a team around a player, they don’t tell you what they’re thinking and then … poof! They go sign with the Lakers, or the Warriors, or the Heat. All is lost.
But when it comes down to it, while both mid-contract trade demands and free agency exits are highly disruptive to teams and non-superstar players, the impact of this type of player empowerment is still completely asymmetrical to the disruption caused by teams’ power to trade almost anyone almost anywhere almost anytime.
Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say a legendary player with four years remaining on his contract gets a little disenchanted with his situation. He meets with the general manager to express his desire to be traded, and his agent calls up one of the reporters who break this sort of news to get the word out. What happens then?
Well, depending on the stature of the superstar, the state of the team and the time of the year, maybe nothing for a while? The potential trade partners will come to them, but largely this happens entirely at the team’s pace. Kevin Durant requested a trade in September 2022. He was traded in February 2023. Damian Lillard requested a trade on July 1. He was traded at the end of September. Anthony Davis wanted one in January 2019. He wasn’t moved until July.
Sometimes, a slower pace executed by the team in question can lead to escalation of disruptory actions by the star. Ben Simmons basically refused to report to the Sixers while his trade request was pending, leading to contractual battles. James Harden famously tanked his performance for the Rockets to nudge them along. This type of behavior is not particularly common, though, and it is widely recognized as anti-social, unproductive and unbecoming.
In terms of stars leaving in free agency, the incumbent teams don’t control the pace like they do with trade demands. But the calendar is plainly clear to everyone: GMs know when the last trade window before a player’s free agency strikes, and makes calculated decisions based on whatever intelligence they’ve gathered about whether the player has a good chance of re-signing or leaving. The pace is set by the calendar, not the superstar. Perhaps there are surprises if a star gives rise to hope they’ll re-sign with a team but then leaves. In many of these cases, I suspect, the player is truly torn until a decision has to be made. (I strongly believe that was the case for LeBron in 2010 and Durant in 2016, but not for LeBron in 2018 or Durant in 2019.) GMs and those sympathetic to team management can fault superstars for not being totally forthcoming about their intentions to bail on a timeline that is actionable for the team to recoup some investment, but that is also not those superstars’ responsibility. Setting yourself up for a pre-free agency trade to a team not of your choice — say when Paul George asked to be traded to the Lakers a year prior to free agency only for the Pacers to instead trade him to Oklahoma City — should not be seen as any sort of moral duty.
With that segue, we get to the meat here: the only situation in which parties are left totally flat-footed and stunned about a major, life-changing decision made for them in any of these scenarios is when a team trades a player. And in the modern NBA, because of various rule changes, almost no superstar players can stop a team from trading them almost literally whenever a team wants to almost literally wherever a team wants.
Damian Lillard requests a trade to a specific team on July 1. About 12 weeks later, Joe Cronin trades Lillard to a different team. Meanwhile, Joe Cronin’s job probably gets a little less comfortable, a little more stressful. Or a lot. But there’s no risk he’s going to have to move house at a moment’s notice. Unless he gets fired (a real risk for most GMs), his life isn’t in line to get completely disrupted.
Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday — not a superstar but a very good player — tells the world he wants to retire as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, and one day later, out of the blue, he gets traded. And then there’s a week of uncertainty because he’s too good for his new team, which wants to be bad for a few years because of the NBA’s draft incentives, and then Holiday is traded again.
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Lauren Holiday, retired professional soccer star and Jrue’s wife, touched on what a massive disruption trades are for the players being traded and their entire family ecosystems.
It’s a great post, and I strongly encourage you to read it. (Click the post to see the full carousel. Or someone posted the text version on Reddit.) What Holiday’s post points to is the massive asymmetry involved in relationships between teams and players — even championship-winning All-Stars like Holiday. There is no disruption like being traded. And this one happened in the waning days of the offseason. At least Holiday was home when the news broke, and not on a long road trip with 48 hours to report to the new team, trying to cobble together living arrangements on the fly, in between flights and shootarounds and press conferences and games. At least in this case Holiday had a few days to work on the massive life adjustments before dealing with the basketball adjustments.
We talk about player empowerment and what is said to be the outsized role a strict minority of the biggest stars have on the machinations that affect teams, front offices and lower-level players. But not enough is made of the fact that the greatest disruption of all — telling someone they have to live somewhere else and work for someone else, immediately — is completely in the hands of teams, front offices, management. It’s the trump card in this power struggle, and it effects even very good players like Holiday.
NBA players are compensated very well, of course, and this is one of the costs of that lifestyle, one that subtle changes in the collective bargaining agreement between labor and management has rendered evermore important. No-trade clauses used to be relatively common. Players of Holiday’s stature used to be able to add no-trade clauses to their contracts through normal business, albeit having had to remain with one team for a number of years. It just doesn’t happen any more because of tweaks to the no-trade clause rules and because players are incentivized to sign extensions in lieu of new contracts in free agency (a benefit to teams), and extensions cannot include new no-trade clauses. You wonder if the labor union might want to start negotiating no-trade clauses back into the mix. You know teams don’t want that.
To me, this is what the debate over player empowerment really comes down to: Boston will be the fourth team for which Holiday — a two-time All-Star, five-time All-Defense, three-time Tyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year — has played in his career. Holiday has never requested a trade, left a team in free agency or threatened to leave a team in free agency. And yet, this will be his fourth team.
Where’s his power?
Cynics, contrarians and pro-management voices will try to convince you that some players have assumed too much control in the NBA because a few of them sometimes orchestrate movement via trade demands and free agency decisions. Not a damn one of those superstars can make the decision to make someone else uproot their family and move across the country to work for a new company on a whim. Remember that when deciding who has the power in this league.
It sure as hell isn’t Jrue Holiday.
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As you may know, Twitter/X is an increasingly terrible way to build an audience. The default “For You” tab is algorithmically designed to drive on-platform engagement, which currently means watching viral videos and observing or participating in the most heated debates over, often, the silliest things. Twitter was always a mess and never drove much traffic. But it’s messier than ever and more useless than ever, especially for Substack writers who don’t have the patience to mask their links through a separate domain thanks to the ongoing pissing contests between Substack and Twitter.
Even over the past year or so, I have thought that Twitter remained helpful to continue to track conversations around the NBA, and find stories that I’d otherwise miss out there. But it’s just not been the case. I’ve been gauging where I get basketball information, links, interesting thoughts over the past few weeks … and it’s not Twitter. It’s almost like the old days of the NBA blogosphere where I’m going to actual content websites like The Athletic and ESPN and The Ringer and Yahoo! Sports and Andscape plus my email inbox to find interesting takes and news. That stuff is really not surfacing on my Twitter feed anymore.
This is all to say that while I already don’t tweet very much, I’m planning on doing even less on that platform and am headed toward deactivating my account. I’m going to stop posting links to my newsletter as of today. (Engagement is crazy low nine times out of 10 anyways.)
As someone who runs an email newsletter, this makes me nervous! Twitter has long been a key subscriber funnel. I have almost 50,000 followers (a number that hasn’t really budged in almost a decade).
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Howard Beck is at The Ringer! Now that’s a smart match, if it’s not too bold to say. Here’s his piece on player empowerment in terms of neither Damian Lillard or James Harden getting what they want. His framing is that teams are taking power back. As you can see above, my position is that teams had the power all along.
A couple of Zach Lowe pieces for you. First, on Jalen Green’s importance as a player who could rocket Houston up the standings. On ESPN+, Lowe has his five potential X factors (not including Green).
I found it very interesting that Kawhi Leonard was first dismissive and then (seemingly) indignant about the NBA’s new player participation policy. I would say that’s not a great sign for the Clippers, but it’s hard to know what’s real on this count with Kawhi.
In related news, Paul George and the Clippers are discussing an extension but based on the comments from both PG and Lawrence Frank, it does not sound like they are getting close anytime soon.
Michael Malone, in apparently trying to downplay the Nuggets’ feud with the Lakers, essentially does the Mariah Carey GIF.
on Michael Jordan trading the mediocre Charlotte Hornets for a spot on the Forbes 400. Best trade of MJ’s basketball management career!
unveils his first run of “Title Tiers,” which is a really smart way to construct a take on teams’ potential but also wrong because there’s no way the Kings should be so much lower than some of these other teams.
David Thorpe at with a list of 64 NBA players who teams might be able to trade for.
Interesting piece by Emmet Ryan at Ball In Europe on the struggles of two major European clubs in London and Paris where club basketball is just not a major draw despite the obvious upside.
John Hollinger at The Athletic picks five teams he expects to underperform preseason win expectations.
Alright, be excellent to each other. See you Friday.
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