The Contested Terms of "Ownership" in the NBA

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lurker
Aug 11, 2010
24
In the midst of all of the player-by-player, team-by-team excitement marking this year’s NBA off-season, it’s easy to lose sight of the deeper trend. Amid all the hurly-burly, beneath the frenzy of migration and maneuver, players in the NBA are laying claim an unprecedented degree of control over their careers. And in the process, they are wresting that control from teams’ purported “owners.” Players are asserting the power to decide where and with whom they spend their basketball careers. The terms of “ownership” in the NBA – once contested – have been for all intents and purposes reappropriated.

Consider the unfolding of this story mega-star by mega-star.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson more-or-less accommodated themselves to their respective teams and ownerships. I don't know how they could have done otherwise. (and consider, in this context, how important, how iconic through this era, the stewards of ownership and management were for their respective teams. Red Auerbach, Jerry West – these were not merely former coaches and players – they were integral figures in the story of their teams’ ongoing success.)

Then comes Michael Jordan, who grew notoriously restive within the confines of Chicago Bulls ownership under the hand of Jerry Reinsdorf, even as Jordan’s stature outgrew any Chicago fame of reference. Jordan feuded openly with Reinsdorf, attempting to strike new terms of belonging to the team when he re-signed – an ultimately limited form of protest. And as his career wound down, Jordan made himself an “owner” of his own.

Contrast this course with the one wrought by LeBron James. LeBron’s “Decision” deeply shocked and unsettled both owners and fans – but ultimately asserted the right to decide where and with whom he would play. And LeBron, of course, has punctuated the point repeatedly since, moving on from Miami back to Cleveland, and then to LA. He insists on charting his own course -- and casts this control not as a single one, but a continuous right of choice. (How fitting, that we call him “the King.”)

Now – and especially dramatically in the past few weeks – LeBron’s peers have asserted the same rights and privileges, “forcing” trades and choosing teammates as soon as their stardom gives them the leverage to do so. Who has shaped next year’s Lakers, Clippers, Nets, Celtics? The players, really (and their “agents” – another telling term here). As recently as a year or two ago, players executed these maneuvers via fraught negotiations with GMs and owners. But those negotiations are growing less fraught, less contentious.

Even fans are adjusting. As we grow accustomed to it, this behavior seems less and less like a betrayal – more and more like a new game that teams and ownerships either play well or don’t.

Compare the current situation in the NBA to that holding in other sports. In baseball, a jarring surge in “free agency” in the 1970s (Goodbye Carlton Fisk!! I still lament that one) has been largely contained by subsequent contract renegotiation between MLB and the Players’ Association. Superstars can only choose where they play only after long periods of indentured servitude – and cannot effectively collaborate with other superstars to build rosters.

Football I still consider an elaborate form of serfdom – the players’ relative helplessness made all too apparent by the recent handling of player health and discipline issues by the NFL. (Compare the effort to punish Kaepernick, vs. the cautious respect given to LeBron when he makes very similar utterances.)

(Hockey I’m not really qualified to speak on.)

Ah, but basketball…

I suppose there are various reasons that it would be basketball that has most trenchantly and successfully challenged traditional notions of “ownership.” The teams are relatively small (only five players on the court), giving players much more leverage.

But I wonder whether another factor at work here is the preponderance of African-American players among the sport’s elite. That cultural identity has given players a vocabulary and framework of understanding that has informed and given expression to their efforts to redefine their professional roles. From civil rights to Black nationalism to hip hop to an African-American presidency to Black Lives Matter, NBA players have learned to perceive their careers in a larger racial, socio-economic and cultural context – and taught them to resist exploitation and take control.

Just a notion.

But it does offer perspective, doesn’t it? For most fans, the manifestation of new dynamics for team building have been unsettling, at least at first. But i begin to believe that the emergence of a post-colonial NBA is not merely a necessary development, but a positive one.
 

lovegtm

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Apr 30, 2013
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The difference between baseball and basketball isn't the indentured servitude period--that period is actually longer in basketball. RFA is a massive hammer, and effectively gives teams 8-9 years of control, although stars tend to make trade demands starting around year 6.5.

The biggest change that has led to this is probably the shorter contracts that came into effect after the 2011 lockout, and the prevalence of player options in the final year for stars.
 

lexrageorge

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Jul 31, 2007
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The big difference is that baseball draftees are all still long shots to make The Show, and so they toil in the minors for a few years before even making the MLB minimum. Yes, the top players get draft pool bonus money, but even that is relatively limited when compared to the salaries NBA draftees make. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.

I don't see the issue as so much "post-colonial". I mean, you cannot have a professional sports league without owners providing capital. The Collective Bargaining Agreements over the years have attempted to balance the interests of large market team owners, small market teams, star players, and journeymen. It's why the CBA currently has provisions for maximum contracts, Designated Player salary exceptions (aka, supermax), Larry Bird exception, restricted free agency, and other terms. The NBA does have a vested interest in seeing all their teams get access to future star players via the draft, and the soft salary cap allows those smaller market teams to compete on a somewhat evened playing field (although imbalance clearly still exists).

It's interesting to note that the terms of the last CBA were intended to prevent the building of super teams via player collaboration. Interestingly, it has had the opposite effect. Small market teams are reluctant to pay players the super-max, as doing so could easily push them into luxury tax territory and prevent them from building a team around their highly paid star player. Meanwhile, star players are more than willing to give up the super-max money to team up with other stars.

One possibility is the elimination of the max (and super-max) contracts, which would make it harder for star players to team up. Whether players or owners would agree to do that remains uncertain. The owners will never give up the salary cap or the draft, and the players will never accept a hard cap.
 

lovegtm

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Apr 30, 2013
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Kiev, Ukraine
The big difference is that baseball draftees are all still long shots to make The Show, and so they toil in the minors for a few years before even making the MLB minimum. Yes, the top players get draft pool bonus money, but even that is relatively limited when compared to the salaries NBA draftees make. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.

I don't see the issue as so much "post-colonial". I mean, you cannot have a professional sports league without owners providing capital. The Collective Bargaining Agreements over the years have attempted to balance the interests of large market team owners, small market teams, star players, and journeymen. It's why the CBA currently has provisions for maximum contracts, Designated Player salary exceptions (aka, supermax), Larry Bird exception, restricted free agency, and other terms. The NBA does have a vested interest in seeing all their teams get access to future star players via the draft, and the soft salary cap allows those smaller market teams to compete on a somewhat evened playing field (although imbalance clearly still exists).

It's interesting to note that the terms of the last CBA were intended to prevent the building of super teams via player collaboration. Interestingly, it has had the opposite effect. Small market teams are reluctant to pay players the super-max, as doing so could easily push them into luxury tax territory and prevent them from building a team around their highly paid star player. Meanwhile, star players are more than willing to give up the super-max money to team up with other stars.

One possibility is the elimination of the max (and super-max) contracts, which would make it harder for star players to team up. Whether players or owners would agree to do that remains uncertain. The owners will never give up the salary cap or the draft, and the players will never accept a hard cap.
You forgot to add one final “never”: the players union will never give up maxes (under a capped regime). It would be terrible for 90% of its members.
 

Devizier

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Jul 3, 2000
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Somewhere
It's hard to argue that the game has tilted in the player's favor given that they have never recovered the revenue share that they had around the lockout.

What has happened is that the salary spread has diminished. A lot of the old data is gone but this comparison is illustrative.

1997-1998 (the final year before the lockout), top ten salaries were (from Wikipedia):

Michael Jordan
$33,140,000​
Patrick Ewing
$20,500,000​
Horace Grant
$14,285,714​
Shaquille O'Neal
$12,857,143​
David Robinson
$12,397,440​
Alonzo Mourning
$11,254,800​
Juwan Howard
$11,250,000​
Hakeem Olajuwon
$11,156,000​
Gary Payton
$10,514,688​
Dikembe Mutombo
$9,615,187​


Last year, that same list:

Stephen Curry
$37,457,154​
Russell Westbrook
$35,665,000​
Chris Paul
$35,654,150​
LeBron James
$35,654,150​
Blake Griffin
$31,873,932​
Gordon Hayward
$31,214,295​
Kyle Lowry
$31,000,000​
James Harden
$30,570,000​
Paul George
$30,560,700​
Mike Conley Jr.
$30,521,115​


Worth noting that it wasn't until the 2017-2018 season that a player (Curry) even earned in non-adjusted dollars what Jordan made (inflation-adjusted has him >$50M).
 

Mueller's Twin Grannies

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Dec 19, 2009
4,488
Contrast this course with the one wrought by LeBron James. LeBron’s “Decision” deeply shocked and unsettled both owners and fans – but ultimately asserted the right to decide where and with whom he would play. And LeBron, of course, has punctuated the point repeatedly since, moving on from Miami back to Cleveland, and then to LA. He insists on charting his own course -- and casts this control not as a single one, but a continuous right of choice. (How fitting, that we call him “the King.”)
Does this make him the Ragnar Lothbrok of the NBA?