Has player power even been stronger in the NBA? Well, James Harden got his wish. In a four-team deal, Harden found his way to the Brooklyn Nets to team up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to form a powerhouse that is sure to dominate the Eastern Conference for the next few years.
Harden’s trade is the latest in a series of moves that all carry the same message – the players hold all the power in the NBA. How did the league get to this point?
In the other top American sports leagues, the teams still have a huge amount of control over their players. Rules around contracts and free agency in the four major US sports leagues – the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB – are set up to keep young players with the teams who drafted them out of college.
In the NBA, players sign a rookie contract when drafted, and at the end of that contract they enter restricted free agency. This means that the team that drafted them have the right to match any offer extended to the player by another team to keep the player. At the end of their first non-rookie contract, they become unrestricted free agents, and are free to sign with any team they choose.
This never used to be the case. Teams would always have first right of refusal, just like in current day restricted free agency. But in April 1988, the league and the players union, the National Basketball Players Association, agreed to allow players with more than seven years in the league to be free to sign with any team. Power forward Tom Chambers signed with the Phoenix Suns and became the first player in NBA history to sign a contract as an unrestricted free agent.
Since then, there have been a number of superstar players making the most of the opportunity to join a winning team. In 1996, Shaquille O’Neal joined the Los Angeles Lakers, winning three straight championships between 2000 and 2002 with a young Kobe Bryant and former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson. Chauncey Billups signed with the Detroit Pistons in 2002, winning a title in 2004. LeBron James has signed for three teams in free agency – the Miami Heat in 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, and the Lakers in 2018 – and has won championships for all three. Kevin Durant teamed up with Steph Curry in 2016, signing for the Golden State Warriors and winning two championships.
But now, the players’ power extends from free agency. More players are forcing their teams’ hands and forcing through trades.
Players have always been able to request a trade. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asked for a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks in 1975, and was dealt to the Lakers where he would win five championships. Vince Carter fell out with the Toronto Raptors, requesting a trade in 2004 and being sent to the New Jersey Nets. Carmelo Anthony requested a trade from the Denver Nuggets numerous times over the course of a year, finally being sent to the New York Knicks in 2011.
But now, we’re seeing a trend of players being able to not only request a trade, but be in full control of their destination too. While players have been sent to their preferred destinations before, such as Anthony’s trade to the Knicks, it wasn’t nearly as frequent as it has been over the last few years.
Anthony Davis had grown disgruntled and disappointed at the performances of his New Orleans Pelicans by January of 2019. He wanted to play for a winning team, and requested a trade to the LA Lakers. Davis was set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020, meaning it would be difficult to trade him anywhere else as he could leave after just one year. Davis was dealt to the Lakers in July 2019, teaming up with LeBron James and winning the Lakers’ 17th NBA Championship.
But that wasn’t the only blockbuster trade of the summer. Paul George requested his own trade to the Lakers in 2017, but the Indiana Pacers decided instead to make a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder. George immediately found chemistry with Russell Westbrook, and signed a contract extension to stay in OKC. However, in summer 2019, he demanded a trade to the Lakers cross-town rivals, the LA Clippers, in order to play with free agent signing Kawhi Leonard. That same summer, Westbrook’s patience with the Thunder had run out, and he got his desired trade to play with Harden in Houston.
These trades all coming within months of each other are no coincidence. With players seeing their peers get the moves they want to their preferred locations, they’ll be more likely to assess their own situation and see if they can team up with friends and fellow stars to challenge for a championship.
So, what does this mean for the league? It seemed that the era of the ‘big three’ superteam was over. Between 2008 and 2020, ‘big three’ teams – the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo; the Heat’s big three of LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh; the Warriors’ Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson, the Cavaliers’ LeBron, Irving and Kevin Love – almost had a monopoly on the NBA Championship. The 2019 champion Toronto Raptors featured three stars too, although perhaps only Kawhi Leonard could be deemed a true superstar alongside the emergence of Pascal Siakam and the veteran Kyle Lowry.
Last season saw a group of ‘dynamic duos’, two superstars teaming up with strong supporting casts. The Lakers (James, Davis), Clippers (Leonard, George), Nuggets (Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic), Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton), and more all featured these duos, and all signs pointed to the end of the ‘big three’ era. But will this Brooklyn trade lead to other teams trying to reassemble big threes? Only time can tell, but if the Nets go on to win the title, that might prove to be the only way to stop them.
And what does it mean for player power? Well, simply put, it has never been stronger than it is now. Players make the decisions in the NBA. They have the power. And, more often than not, it’s working out.
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