CHARLOTTE — Before Adam Silver could deliver his annual state of the NBA address at All-Star Weekend, Charles Barkley beat the commissioner to the punch.
The outspoken TNT commentator and Hall of Famer didn’t mince words in a blistering critique of the league’s lack of competitive balance, slamming agents for their role in steering players to Superteams and even predicting future labor strife.
“I hear all these clowns on television talking about how it’s great that all these players are exerting their power,” Barkley told a small group of reporters at The Underground, a small music club. “Workers ain’t never going to have power over their ownership. Ever. It might work for a couple guys here or there, but in the history of the world, no workers have ever overtaken the people who own a business. When these guys are sitting home locked out in a couple years, I want you to remember I told y’all that.”
Anthony Davis’s situation with the New Orleans Pelicans prompted Barkley’s harshest takes. In late-January, Klutch Sports agent Rich Paul requested a trade on behalf of Davis, who is under contract through the end of the 2019-20 season and signed with Paul last September. The NBA fined Davis $50,000, and the Pelicans faced aggressive trade overtures from the Los Angeles Lakers before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
The Lakers, who are seeking a second star to pair with LeBron James, Paul’s close friend and business partner, ultimately struck out in their pursuit. Yet plenty of ugliness ensued in the two weeks of rumors: Lakers players were heckled by rival fans over James’s alleged connection to the affair, and Davis was repeatedly booed by Pelicans fans upset over his desire to leave New Orleans.
“Don’t ruin your reputation as a great player and one of the nicest guys in the world,” Barkley said, when asked for his advice to Davis. “Remember: Your agent works for you, you don’t work for him. They handled that situation wrong. It’s going to come back to bite them in the ass.”
In Barkley’s view, though, the Lakers, who reportedly offered a trade package that included Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and multiple draft picks, have no reason to hang their heads about their inability to consummate a deal.
“At some point Anthony Davis is going to be with the Lakers,” Barkley predicted. “The fix is in. I actually got a call from Rich Paul. I said, ‘Dude, the fix is in, you know he’s going to the Lakers.’ Once [Davis] signed with Klutch, the fix was in.”
After the deadline passed, the NBA required that the Pelicans play Davis for the remainder of the season because he is healthy, rather than allowing him to be shut down to protect his summer trade value or to pursue better odds in the draft lottery. As a result, Davis has returned to the court in halfhearted fashion, scoring three points in an ugly loss to the Orlando Magic on Tuesday before tallying 14 points in just 16 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday before leaving the game with a shoulder injury.
“This is a bad situation,” Barkley said. “This is a bad look for the NBA. That kid can’t go out there and play 100 percent because he’s worried about getting hurt. The Pelicans aren’t trying to win. The guy is the second-best player in the world and he’s had three points. That’s not a good look for the NBA or New Orleans.”
While Barkley expressed concerns that the Pelicans franchise might not survive in New Orleans after they trade Davis, he also painted the situation as part of a leaguewide epidemic. In recent years, Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Lakers, Kawhi Leonard ended up on the Toronto Raptors after forcing his way off the San Antonio Spurs, and Jimmy Butler strong-armed his way to the Philadelphia 76ers from the Minnesota Timberwolves. This flood of talent shows no signs of stopping, and Barkley suggested that NBA owners might attempt to further restrict it during the next labor negotiations.
“With the invention of the Superteam, we’re going to raid the small markets and they’re going to become extinct,” Barkley argued. “That’s not a good business model. The next couple of years, when we have to redo the [Collective Bargaining Agreement], the owners are going to say, ‘Okay, you guys all want to play together and we don’t have any competitive balance.’ Let’s see what’s going to happen.”
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association reached a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2017 that runs through the 2023-24 season and includes a mutual opt-out in July 2023. The agreement included clauses intended to help incumbent teams keep their franchise stars, such as the so-called “Supermax contract,” but the deal has done little to stem the aggregation of top talent on a select few teams. Barkley suggested that power broker agents are playing a central role in the league’s new Superteam era.
“If an agent is representing the same players and saying that my players have to play together, you don’t think that’s collusion or a conflict of interest? That’s ridiculous,” Barkley said. “If a player wants to get traded, I have no problem, I understand that. But we can’t have agents saying, ‘I represent this guy and he has to be traded to my team,’ that’s not fair.”
One negative byproduct of the competitive balance issue, Barkley argued, was the consolidation of the league’s media coverage. He said the league’s major television partners cover the Warriors, Lakers, James Harden’s scoring feats and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP-caliber breakthrough, leaving the other 26 teams behind. That development was “just not good for the league in the long run,” adding that the fierce competitive landscape of the 1980s and early 1990s was no longer present.
“We don’t have a guy going through a wall to finally get that [title],” Barkley said. “We’ve got guys saying, ‘We’re all represented by the same guy, we’re all friends, let’s play together and dominate the league.’ That’s what I have a problem with. Look what Michael Jordan went through. He went through the [Detroit] Pistons, they beat the hell out of him for X amount of years, and then he beat the Lakers [in the Finals]. That’s the beauty of sports.”
Silver will get his chance for rebuttal on Saturday night.