Is more star player movement good or bad for the NBA?

Photo by David Berding/Getty Images
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images /

Player movement seems to define the NBA landscape more and more each year. But what does this mean for the NBA as a whole? What about the games themselves?

The modern NBA is an ever-happening game of musical chairs. Stability is the exception rather than the rule. I do not mean to imply that this is entirely new — a qualitative shift from the past —  but I do believe that the music is picking up pace.

The question is no longer if there will soon be a disgruntled star who wants out of his current situation, but rather who that star, or those stars, will be. James Harden and Ben Simmons were just traded for each other at the recent deadline, yet already the specter of future exit strategies from All-Stars like Zion Williamson and Damian Lillard is haunting the league. None of these moves on their own mark a crisis for the league nor are any of them worth fretting about individually, but collectively they raise questions about the present and future state of the NBA.

Intent as I am on supporting players, I am not sure that an uncritical endorsement of this state of affairs furthers that goal. The whole idea of player empowerment has only benefited a handful of stars with the rest of the league serving as moveable pieces in order to accommodate them. The structure of the current CBA encourages this to happen. Even if a player wants out, why not wait a little bit longer so they can sign a massive extension beforehand? With players being incentivized to re-sign with their current teams in the form of an additional year and tens of millions of more dollars cumulatively, that they are doing this is thoroughly understandable even if the effects are often frustrating. If, as many expect, the league and the team governors decide to push back against these trends during the next CBA negotiations, it could become worse with the rank-and-file being punished for the decisions of the stars.

I do not harbor any ill will or malice towards any of the players who decide to force their way out though. I cannot blame James Harden for, presumably, being frustrated with Kyrie Irving’s intermittent availability and wanting to go elsewhere. And while I do not believe Zion Williamson is handling his situation in New Orleans very well, I can sympathize with his reported frustration at having no say in what team he begins his career with, that feeling of being trapped for the first several years of your professional life. Indeed, if you have the ability to change your circumstances and place yourself in a more favorable or comfortable situation, why wouldn’t you?

The primary difference between the stars of today and the stars of the past is how much easier it is to forge a path elsewhere. Perhaps if Harden in Houston or Brooklyn, or Anthony Davis a few years back in New Orleans, had known they were actually stuck with their current teams until their contracts expired they would have handled their situations differently. However, with the nascent knowledge that the possibility of escape was real, it became a lot easier to burn bridges and focus on what could happen after they reached the other side. What does a temporary public relations hit mean when compared to the glory of a potential championship? Is there anyone who can look at Anthony Davis and honestly say he made the wrong decision in light of the title he earned in his first year as a Laker? At this point, three years later, who besides a small core of Pelicans fans still cares?

Can we really blame NBA stars for chasing their bliss?

It is not a novel observation that many fans have an easier time relating to a team’s executives than one’s favorite players, but it is one worth repeating. It is easier for the average fan to imagine themselves successfully putting together a winning team than it is their doing literally anything on an NBA court successfully. The unfortunate effect of this is that it then often leads to their empathizing with management and their decision-making process more than the people whose lives are affected by those decisions. Players are signed and cut and traded as if they are objects, abstract entities, floating contracts and assets to be exchanged at will.

The irony is that even though players have taken more control of their careers, it has failed to humanize them in the eyes of executives or fans. It also brings behind-the-scenes machinations to the forefront since the process they must set in motion in order to actualize their wishes plays out in public. They do not have the luxury of an executive, who can work out deals behind the scenes, revealing only the finished product to the public, creating whatever narrative they want after the fact. It can be hard to remember that such a massive gap in power oftentimes exists between the individual players and the teams they play for; the trend towards star empowerment has lessened that gap, but it remains far from eliminated.

I remember once talking with a friend many years ago and we joked about how the NBA was the world’s best unscripted drama. At the time, we meant it as a positive, with the league’s personalities and its soap opera elements working as a slight and entertaining additive that made the games more interesting. But now, it often feels as if the drama has come to overshadow the match-ups themselves. They are no longer an additional spice, but the main ingredient.

I am excited that the trade deadline has passed and that the home stretch of the regular season is upon us. I am excited for postseason basketball and for the focus to again be on the court and the magic that the players are capable of rather than off-court rumors. I love the NBA, but I am tired of the noise — the incessant chatter, the trade rumors, the endless speculation about who may want out and where they may go. The consequences of such decisions are undoubtedly real, but in the interim, the ceaseless talk is abstract, divorced from what is happening on the floor. The music keeps speeding up.

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