The NBA Has a Drama Problem

by Zach d’Arbeloff

On January 28th, Anthony Davis informed the New Orleans Pelicans that he would not sign his Designated Veteran Player Extension – also known as the supermax – and his agent, Rich Paul from Klutch Sports, officially informed the team that Davis “wanted to be traded to a team that allows him a chance to win consistently and compete for a championship.”

This marked the biggest fish to land in the trade market since Kevin Garnett in 2007, and arguably, in terms of player value due to Davis’ age, the biggest player to hit the trade market since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A bona fide superstar on both ends, Davis turns 26 in March and has most of his athletic prime ahead of him.

Immediately, the NBA went into a frenzy. The Lakers offered two-thirds of their roster. Danny Ainge hopped on the line to whisper Dell Demps sweet nothings in an effort to delay any trade until the summer. Every national writer fired up their typewriter and the ESPN Trade Machine and pumped out at least 5-6 terrible trade ideas.

While requests like Davis’ aren’t exceedingly rare – Kyrie Irving requested a trade just 18 months ago and ended up in Boston, and Paul George had his request granted a few months earlier – for the trade to be a request public in the media is. In fact, it is staunchly against league rules. Davis was fined $50,000 for the offense, the equivalent of roughly $100 to normal people, and the NBA carried on losing its mind over where he would land without a second thought.

Just for clarification to those who might not understand the grey areas around tampering and player movement: players are allowed to request trades internally, which then gets leaked to the media. Players are not allowed to publicly request (or have their agents publicly request) a transaction. It’s a silly rule that might be part of the reason we’re in this situation.

Finally, ten days after Anthony Davis’ strangely public trade request, the NBA put to rest the most active week of player movement in its history. Davis was still a Pelican. Meanwhile, 57 other players switched teams, meaning they have to pack up their houses, deal with the fallout for their families, and completely uproot their lives. Some of them, like Marc Gasol, have spent a decade in their cities, enmeshing themselves in the community and building a life. Marc, in this situation, was excited to leave, but that is not always the case (see DeMar DeRozan).

We live in the era of “player empowerment,” when teams have increasingly little control over their labor force, and when players are planning ahead, banding together, and often sacrificing economic stability for flexibility. For the most part, this is good. NBA teams are owned by billionaires, most of whom likely took advantage of their labor at some point in their rise to uber-wealth. Giving non-billionaires the ability not to be controlled by billionaires is, as a concept, good. Likewise, for the NBA, speculation fueled by educated (and often sourced) gossip makes the league a year-round endeavor. More people are talking and writing about basketball than ever before, to a point that there are fans and even writers who focus more on the gossip and less on the actual basketball.

For writers who need topics and paychecks, this is great. For fans who want to follow the league year round, and who need something to get excited about during the February NBA Doldrums, more gossip is like content delivered from heaven.

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the NBA has a serious drama problem.

The NBA has always been shaped by talent and vibrant personalities. More than any other league, a singular talent is the key to success. Take this list of 11 players into consideration: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Julius Erving.

Every single NBA champion since 1980 except the 2004 Pistons, 2008 Celtics, and 2011 Mavericks had one of those players on the roster (and you could easily count Dr. J’s 1983 title in the exceptions but the man deserves more respect than that). Those are also the most famous figures the league has produced, and are responsible for the vast majority of the market share, from advertising to signature sneaker sales, of professional basketball as a whole.

Talent rules the NBA. More than any other league, the NBA has to create a mirage of competitive balance in order to get past the depressing fact that you can usually name the NBA champion in October. Upsets are the exception to the rule – the three aforementioned title teams that bucked the trend – and shifting the playoff format to a seven game first round made excitement even less possible.

Nowadays, we see NBA fans laud LeBron holding a franchise at gunpoint due to his contract, simply because Dan Gilbert is the worst. Nobody (outside of the Bay Area) is upset that Kevin Durant has taken a series of short contracts to maximize his flexibility and earnings. Kyrie and Paul George requested trades from bad situations and landed in very good ones. Kyrie is again at the center of controversy surrounding his next destination, a topic that has no possibility of any meaningful answer for almost five months.

What’s left on the fringes are the players whose lives and careers are thrown aside in order to cater to the star players. LeBron can post on Instagram all he wants about Harrison Barnes getting traded in the middle of a game, but he hung Cleveland out to dry, forced Kyrie Irving out, and left the team without a single appreciable asset to rebuild with. Kyrie Irving was traded for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, who the Cavaliers unceremoniously dumped at last years’ deadline for other parts to make their team work. Crowder and Thomas, guys who both made less than $7 million last year, had to move twice and explain to their wives and children why exactly neither team wanted them.

This year, LeBron (and the agency that he basically owns, Klutch Sports, who also represent Anthony Davis) very clearly wanted to bring star talent to LA. Whether or not James had anything to do with orchestrating Davis’ public request, the two had publicly dined together when the Pelicans played the Lakers earlier in the season, and the optics of the situation implied that LeBron was the puppet master. Whether he was or not, we’ll never know, because information in the NBA gets passed through anonymous sources to reporters who would die before revealing said sources.

During Davis’ very public saga, the entire Lakers roster was thrown into trade scenarios. Public debate raged about whether Brandon Ingram would make an All-Star team, or if Kyle Kuzma would ever consider playing defense. LaVar Ball did his best to stir up a storm that would keep his son Lonzo in LA (or at least keep him away from the Pelicans). The players at times visibly struggled with this dynamic, and LeBron was forced to publicly address how difficult it must be for the young players to be thrown into those rumors and keep playing.

We might be in the “era of player empowerment,” but the top 1% of players – both in talent and earnings – are the only ones empowered. Contracts are shorter. Rosters are less stable. For the guys on exceptions, or league minimums, that are filling out your bench units, this means that their career of choice has gotten much harder.

We promote player empowerment in the face of tearing down the power of billionaires, but the players we empower will all be near billionaires by the end of their careers. The average NBA player will make close to $25 million in his career; Steph Curry is making $37 million this season alone (without including his 8-digit annual endorsement from Under Armor). LeBron’s deal with Nike is undisclosed, and many have estimated it at over a billion dollars in total.

If we want to pretend to be a “woke” fanbase, one who doesn’t suffer the strange conservative ideology of the NFL, or the “humans are a math equation” outlook of MLB, we, as fans, writers, pundits, and agents, need to change how we operate as a media sphere. Rumors and gossip are all fun and well except to the person they are about. Players are people, not financial assets, and they have careers and families to worry about. They deal with depression, anxiety, and the challenges of life just like everyone else. They’re expected to be both superhuman athletes and infallible public figures, and we tear them down when they turn out to be humans just like us.

The modern NBA media narrative has turned the NBA into TMZ, and as the league tries to champion mental health, it’s putting its labor force in the hardest position an employee can be in: the feeling of replaceability, instability, and not knowing where your next job will come from. As fans, we can do better: it’s time to hold the media accountable.

Zach d’Arbeloff is Deputy Emeritus at Pace and Space. Follow Zach on Twitter @swarbleflop.