The Contested Terms of "Ownership" in the NBA

Bunt Single

lurker
Aug 11, 2010
34
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

Member
SoSH Member
Apr 30, 2013
4,677
Kiev, Ukraine
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

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 31, 2007
7,837
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

Member
SoSH Member
Apr 30, 2013
4,677
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

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 3, 2000
10,053
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

Member
SoSH Member
Dec 19, 2009
4,993
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?
 

Bunt Single

lurker
Aug 11, 2010
34
Sorry, I feel compelled to revive this thread to see if people here want to continue poking at it. Players' assertion of control over what team they play for might be about what city they work in, or whom they play with. Either way, something deeper is happening. I find it telling, in this context, that even the term "owner" has become freighted. Silver has adopted "governor." Balmer, buying the Clippers in the wake of the Sterling fiasco -- itself a watershed moment -- calls himself the "chairman" of his team.
 

HomeRunBaker

bet squelcher
SoSH Member
Jan 15, 2004
18,024
Sorry, I feel compelled to revive this thread to see if people here want to continue poking at it. Players' assertion of control over what team they play for might be about what city they work in, or whom they play with. Either way, something deeper is happening. I find it telling, in this context, that even the term "owner" has become freighted. Silver has adopted "governor." Balmer, buying the Clippers in the wake of the Sterling fiasco -- itself a watershed moment -- calls himself the "chairman" of his team.
.......as feminist groups lose their collective minds. I kid, I (kinda) kid.

The old adage of “you can’t move forward until you’ve hit rock bottom” rings true right now. Guys like Sterling unknowingly create change as they force a strong reaction. I feel we will experience same as a country post-Trump. The Nassir’s, Epstein’s, Madoff’s, etc etc are highly influential in creating change. In a twisted sort of way these individuals bring awareness to issues that ultimate have or will strengthen us as a whole.
 

mauf

Anderson Cooper x Mr. Rogers
Staff member
Dope
Gold Supporter
Most of the difference between NBA players and NFL or MLB players is attributable to the differences between the sports. NBA rosters are smaller. A smaller minority of NBA players is responsible for an outsized share of value creation. And the best 5-10 NBA players have an impact on the game and a degree of wealth and celebrity that is only rivaled by pantheon-level quarterbacks.

Other factors play a role also, but any in-depth discussion will tend to overstate the relative importance of those other factors, simply because the fundamental differences between basketball and other sports are so obvious that it’s hard to say anything insightful about them.
 

sezwho

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 20, 2005
496
Brooklyn by way of Orono
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.
PA might be in line too but Max salaries are the creation of ownership, just like max years and max pick trades, because they don’t trust themselves (and shouldn’t).

The era of player empowerment is upon us: some folks will lose their minds when a player demands a trade with 3 years remaining and think it’s fine for the team to trade the same player with 3 years left.

Im sure curious as I don’t know where it’s headed, but we’re seeing players choose destinations for reasons beyond purely maximizing their contracts, which is the only lever ownership has.
 

lovegtm

Member
SoSH Member
Apr 30, 2013
4,677
Kiev, Ukraine
Most of the difference between NBA players and NFL or MLB players is attributable to the differences between the sports. NBA rosters are smaller. A smaller minority of NBA players is responsible for an outsized share of value creation. And the best 5-10 NBA players have an impact on the game and a degree of wealth and celebrity that is only rivaled by pantheon-level quarterbacks.

Other factors play a role also, but any in-depth discussion will tend to overstate the relative importance of those other factors, simply because the fundamental differences between basketball and other sports are so obvious that it’s hard to say anything insightful about them.
I agree, but think you can go a bit further with this. There are a few other really fundamental differences between the NBA and other professional sports, and these differences lead directly to the superfriends trend:
1. Coaches matter a lot less
2. Getting one more incremental star dramatically moves the needle
3. High impact stars can be complementary
4. Way more health certainty--odds are high that Kawhi and PG are both on the floor in May

If Tom Brady wants to team up with Julio Jones, it matters a lot with which coach he does so. Because the rosters are bigger, their combined impact is less. You can't have 2 QBs, and so you can't get the same kind of complementary effects that LeBron gets with AD. And then after all that, there's a decent chance one gets hurt anyway. With all those factors, it makes sense that star QBs generally stay put and just get the coach fired if they want a change.

Star NBA players have always dictated their destinations--that playbook has been in place since Kareem. LeBron's big innovation in Miami (with a bit of prior art from KG/Ray Allen) was realizing that you could dictate the destination of multiple players at once and so create mobile units of extremely high value. He repeated it again by coordinating Kevin Love with him to Cleveland, and then Kawhi worked a similar thing this summer.

This summer's Kawhi deal was a big turning point, because it showed that not only could players bring other guys as a package, but that they could effectively force teams to mortgage their future by signaling a willingness to bring that package to town.

Now that people know how to execute what Kawhi did, I expect we'll see it more going forward: player picks team A, picks co-stars who are under contract with team B, and commits to team A. At that point, because of maufman's factors and also points 1-4, team A almost has to sell the future farm, because its championship equity in this scenario is so good. If Team B is capped out and without young talent, it has to do it too, because it's such a better path forward than other alternatives.
 

sezwho

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 20, 2005
496
Brooklyn by way of Orono
.Now that people know how to execute what Kawhi did, I expect we'll see it more going forward: player picks team A, picks co-stars who are under contract with team B, and commits to team A. At that point, because of maufman's factors and also points 1-4, team A almost has to sell the future farm, because its championship equity in this scenario is so good. If Team B is capped out and without young talent, it has to do it too, because it's such a better path forward than other alternatives.
I don’t agree, particularly because of the crippling mortgage costs.

If these deals don’t work, and frankly even if they do, they will impact their teams for years and not be a successful model for strong franchises.
 

lovegtm

Member
SoSH Member
Apr 30, 2013
4,677
Kiev, Ukraine
I don’t agree, particularly because of the crippling mortgage costs.

If these deals don’t work, and frankly even if they do, they will impact their teams for years and not be a successful model for strong franchises.
Meh. The NBA limits the mortgage to 7 years out, which is about how long a young player rebuild takes anyway. If you get 3-5 years of 10%+ annual championship equity in that span, a lot of teams would take that deal.
 

Jimbodandy

Member
SoSH Member
Jan 31, 2006
3,075
around the way
Meh. The NBA limits the mortgage to 7 years out, which is about how long a young player rebuild takes anyway. If you get 3-5 years of 10%+ annual championship equity in that span, a lot of teams would take that deal.
Yeah, if it gives you a few years of legit championship potential, it's worth it. Some rebuilds take longer than others. If the draft pick haul sent is just stupid bad, it lengthens that window. But there aren't any GMs in the LAL or LAC shoes that wouldn't make the deals that just got made.

I mocked the LAL for turning "our young guys will get us AD" into "our young guys and a billion picks will get us AD". But you make that trade. You just do. You have Lebron/Kawhi and you can get that other guy, you now know that you are getting a bite at the apple.
 

mcpickl

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 23, 2007
3,250
Meh. The NBA limits the mortgage to 7 years out, which is about how long a young player rebuild takes anyway. If you get 3-5 years of 10%+ annual championship equity in that span, a lot of teams would take that deal.
I agree with you here. There is no price too high to acquire a Kawhi/AD level player.

What I'd bet ends up happening is some dumb owner/GM will make this kind of deal for a guy that's like the 15th best player in the league rather than an elite guy, and that team will be crushed.
 

lovegtm

Member
SoSH Member
Apr 30, 2013
4,677
Kiev, Ukraine
I agree with you here. There is no price too high to acquire a Kawhi/AD level player.

What I'd bet ends up happening is some dumb owner/GM will make this kind of deal for a guy that's like the 15th best player in the league rather than an elite guy, and that team will be crushed.
Or, in the case of Billy King, for two maybe top-50 players who are old as hell.

To finish up the thought regarding Kawhi: the big innovation here is that Star Player X doesn't have to coordinate with Star Player Y way in advance or wait for everyone's free agency (ala the Heatles). He can just scour rosters at the time of FA, recruit a couple guys (Kawhi wasn't particularly tight with KD or PG prior to this), and then force the destination of his choice to mortgage 5-7 years to get him and 1 of them as a package.
 

sezwho

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 20, 2005
496
Brooklyn by way of Orono
To finish up the thought regarding Kawhi: the big innovation here is that Star Player X doesn't have to coordinate with Star Player Y way in advance or wait for everyone's free agency (ala the Heatles). He can just scour rosters at the time of FA, recruit a couple guys (Kawhi wasn't particularly tight with KD or PG prior to this), and then force the destination of his choice to mortgage 5-7 years to get him and 1 of them as a package.
Fair enough, the genie is out of the bottle and to your (and pickl's) point I agree we are going to see it more often. There will be always be poorly run ownership groups like the Lakers and second citizens like the Clippers who play the card, but there are a couple reasons strong franchises will avoid it.

You are only buying a two year window, not 3-5. Kawhi's contract is for two years plus his option. LeBron has two years left to work some AD magic. KD’s contract is for three years plus his option, and the first one is a write-off.

There is definitely a price too high for AD/Kawhi if you can't then immediately also build a winner around them. If the ‘ring chasers' don’t come how long will this group of players stick around without picks or cap space to improve?
 

Tony C

Dope
Dope
Apr 13, 2000
11,201
thought this was interesting on LeBron and player power -- from Draymond Green

Host Tyler Mathisen:
One of the things that’s interesting, we’ve remarked on this in the past, the anticipation for this season is really very high. And one of the things that think the NBA has done well as the NFL has is to make the league a year-round conversation topic. It’s partly the summer league, it’s partly the draft and so on and so forth. But the player movement this year has been really significant and has people talking.
Green: It has a lot of people talking and obviously that’s a huge and large credit to LeBron James. You know, with what he’s done in his career that’s kind of shown everybody else the power that you have as a player. And that’s, you know, that’s why you saw the movement this year is because the athlete, the basketball players have taken control of their own future. We’ve taken control of our destiny. And I think a lot of people hate that but I think that’s one of – you know, everybody celebrates LeBron for his basketball career and the things he’s been able to accomplish. I think the doors that he’s opened for athletes and especially basketball players is his biggest accomplishment.
View: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2019/09/12/why-nba-champ-draymond-green-is-betting-on-smiledirectclub-long-term.html
 

lovegtm

Member
SoSH Member
Apr 30, 2013
4,677
Kiev, Ukraine
Yeah, LeBron definitely opened up the narrative of a player who makes the team. Even Kareem did his career in the context of choosing the Lakers for life after his initial Bucks run. LeBron was the first guy to really show that a star could do a non-team-dependent career arc, and other players then started copying that once he proved concept.