What just happened with Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets is a foreshadowing of what will be a big issue in upcoming collective bargaining negotiations between NBA players and owners. Star players now seem to dictate where they play, what coach and GM they have, and what players they want around them. They exercise their power and influence on and off the pitch.
This is in stark contrast to how it used to be in the NBA, and owners will want to turn back the clock. In 1975, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar politely asked for a trade after 6 seasons, 3 MVPs and 1 championship in Milwaukee. The Kareem’s request was an anomaly, but it was carried out in a very emotionally intelligent way. The reason such requests were so rare is because there was an unwritten rule that players would play for franchises their entire careers. Think Bill Russell and Bob Cousy with the Celtics, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor with the Lakers, and Willis Reed and Walt Frazier with the Knicks. Fans lived and died with their teams and star players who rooted them throughout their careers.
However, things started to change and players started gaining more star power. It began in the 1980s when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird launched “Showtime” and David Stern and his star student and ultimate successor, Adam Silver, began marketing NBA players as aspiring. Soon, NBA players became household names and universally admired. This trend became even clearer and stronger when Michael Jordan came into the league and brands like Nike began using “Air Jordan” in creatively persuasive advertising. This skyrocketed NBA TV ratings and made NBA star players even more famous and, in Jordan’s case, idols.
As a result, players, especially stars like Jordan, felt they were essential to the league’s success and wanted to have more influence. In the 1999 collective bargaining negotiations, this power struggle took the form of a lockout that saw half the season lost to a walkout before a compromise was reached that resulted in a new collective agreement. During this lockdown, players seriously considered creating a separate league from the NBA, but those plans were abandoned when the compromise was reached.
In the years that followed, star players like Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James became synonymous with NBA basketball and the power of the players began to grow, much to the chagrin of the owners. The best example of this is that players have increasingly dictated where they want to play, who they want to play with and who they want to coach.
Shaquille left the Orlando Magic for the Lakers. After struggling to win a championship with the Lakers for several years, he insisted they bring in Phil Jackson to coach the team because he felt the Zen Master was the only coach who could strengthen the relationship between could steer him and Kobe. I happen to know this because I represented Shaq at the time and in his defense, it actually worked and the Lakers won three straight NBA championships.
Then Lebron James famously said he was “bringing talent to South Beach” when he signed with the Miami Heat and convinced Chris Bosh to come with him to form a triumvirate with Dwayne Wade and win two straight championships. It started the trend of players choosing who to play with and where. After that, a number of star players such as Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, James Harden and Ben Simmons began making challenging trades.
Most recently, as this season began, Kevin Durant entered the first year of a four-year, $194.2 million contract extension with the Brooklyn Nets when he requested a trade unless the GM and coach were fired. It shocked everyone and turned into water-chill conversation. Durant eventually withdrew his request, but the manager is now gone and his teammate Kyrie Irving’s trade demand is the latest national topic of sports talk.
Kyrie Irving’s recent trade underscores the trend for players to wield their power to dictate where they play, and have usurped that power from NBA team owners. Needless to say, this is very worrying for these owners. Make sure this is the focus of the upcoming discussion between the NBA and the NBA Players Association as they go head-to-head in collective bargaining.