The Celtics-Lakers rivalry has long defined the NBA, but we’re used to seeing legendary players compete on the court. This time, front offices are battling in private — except when information is leaked and the process becomes so overreported that it complicates the negotiations. As enjoyable as the constant speculation and reality-show aspect of the NBA can be, this is a problem. At some point, the actual game needs to carry the league again.
The quality of play is certainly there, as is the talent and charisma of the league’s top players. But star movement has filled a vacuum created by a lack of parity. It has caused personnel acquisition (free agency, trades, the draft at times) to become as popular as the regular season and playoffs. That’s fine if it all leads to a more balanced league in which, say, five or six teams have legitimate championship dreams. Right now, however, it seems to be a vicious cycle of instability, led by players who have assumed power without really knowing what they want.
On the whims of entitled 20-somethings who would rather escape than grind — or who would rather go to the next shiny market than coexist with another star (here’s to you, Kyrie Irving) — the NBA keeps spinning and spinning. Every prominent player is in pursuit of a move that supposedly will change the landscape of the league, yet the Golden State Warriors have no established worthy adversary.
It has been nearly nine years since LeBron James changed the game by joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. They had the intelligence and audacity to orchestrate a superstar partnership, and while it took the leadership of Heat President Pat Riley and the coaching of Erik Spoelstra to help them win two titles in four years together, the lasting legacy of the Heatles is that they taught players how to manipulate the NBA system and wield their power in the team-building process.
Since then, stars have craved such freedom, and the league has dealt with a dilemma. The shocking trades, the innuendo and the free agent bonanzas have caused fans to obsess about the sport more than ever.
But star retention, especially in small markets, is a concern. The supermax contract was implemented to give elite players financial incentive to stay put. But as LeBron and Co. taught them, when you’re a max-contract player who supplements that salary with fat endorsement checks, you don’t have to be a prisoner to the biggest offer.
Two years ago, when Chris Paul was trying to figure out his future, he allowed ESPN to produce a documentary about his decision. In the doc, he met with his friend, Jay-Z, the rap and entertainment mogul. Paul was telling him about various offers, ranging from $150 million to $200 million. Jay-Z listened and then spoke his mind.
“Ain’t gonna change your life,” Jay-Z said about the offers. “You get 150, you get 200 — it’s the same thing. You’re gonna ride the same plane. You’re gonna wear the same sneakers. That [expletive] ain’t gonna change your life. One-fifty, 200 — same thing. . . . Your happiness, now that’s worth everything.”
When you’re in such a financial stratosphere, you can think differently. And that makes it difficult for the NBA to create a retention strategy that doesn’t involve making players eligible to receive an even greater amount of ludicrous, mind-blowing money to stay.
But something has to change soon. The Davis situation could end up being a tipping point. Really, over the past nine years, there have been just a couple of league-altering star decisions: James’s moves to Miami, then back to Cleveland and now to Los Angeles and Kevin Durant joining the Warriors in 2016 and creating the super-est of superteam rosters. Davis figures to be the third player on this exclusive list. He is the best of all modern big men, and he’s only 25. If he forces his way to the Lakers — his preferred destination — he both would join James in a historic tandem and set up Los Angeles to thrive post-LeBron. And it would tick the rest of the league off, perhaps more than when Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State.
This intrigue is carrying the sports world through what is typically a slow week. But beneath all the interest and drama, there is the troubling notion that the league’s best player has been transparently conniving in pursuit of a superstar partner.
Rich Paul, the founder of Klutch Sports, lured Davis as a client in September. Paul and James are longtime friends. James caused a ruckus in December when he declared in an interview that it would be “amazing” to play with Davis, and after accusations of tampering, he grinned the next day and told reporters, “I would love to play with a lot of great players.”
Now Davis is available, but he reportedly is willing to consider signing long-term with just a few teams after his contract expires in 2020. The Lakers top his list. They are pushing hard for a deal, and despite the scrutiny that their young players face, a package that includes Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, multiple first-round draft picks and cap relief for the Pelicans is a stunning package that New Orleans General Manager Dell Demps should take seriously. But in addition to the pressure of making the right deal to redirect his franchise without Davis, Demps is being forced to think about the best interests of the league, and most teams don’t want him to settle for the Lakers’ offer before this summer.
It’s all about power, and James has more team-building influence than any player in the history of team sports. As a player who’s so much more than a player, he can talk to other stars and dictate decisions in a manner that front office executives are forbidden to attempt. His power extends from his on-court brilliance to the say he has with any front office that has “managed” him to the decision-making sway he has because Rich Paul, one of the game’s most powerful agents, is like family to him. But for as easy as it is to connect the dots, it’s virtually impossible to prove that James is the mastermind.
You can make the business of sports complicated, but these leagues function with a few simple core principles: Owners and players split revenue, and in these collectively bargained leagues, there’s a constant back and forth about how to do that fairly. Prosper, and players should be entitled to more money. But when it comes to the long-term health of the game, we tend to believe that kind of authority should tilt toward ownership because it has more to gain in preserving the sport.
Money is the pacifier. But power is priceless. It’s also a great responsibility, and most players don’t want that burden. James is different. He has made the NBA more player-driven than it has ever been. He has made it more fun, but he has also made it more erratic and impatient.
Now he stands off to the side, eager for good news, as Davis tries to force a trade. Rumors swirl. The game plays in the background. The drama — an intoxicating but unsustainable guilty pleasure — hogs the ball.
For more Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer