NBA Lockout: LeBron James and the kingdom ruled by knights

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source: Getty Images

In 1964, the players for the NBA All-Star Game refused to leave the locker room at the famed Boston Gardens. The game was going to be televised, a huge step forward for the league, and the players knew this was their best chance at getting the owners by their tender parts. They refused to walk onto the floor unless the league recognized their union and promised a pension plan, paving the way for the players to finally start having some say in how the league they drove was run.

That was the first spark. Bill Russell, as documented in Aram Goudsouzian’s “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the basketball revolution,” was one of the most adamant in refusing to play. The players eventually played, disaster was averted, but from there on out, the power dynamic has shifted. At the time, the owners’ refused to acknowledge the players’ position and were outraged at the defiance.

Not much has changed.

In 1970, Oscar Robertson, as head of the NBPA, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA in pursuit of blocking the NBA-ABA merger, reforming the draft, and freeing players from being bound to one team. Can you imagine a world where if you were a star drafted by a team, you had no alternative than to stick with that franchise barring a trade? It took six years for the suit to be settled, but in 1976, NBA free agency was born. If Russell and the 1964 All-Stars had shown the owners they had fists and teeth, the Robertson suit was what showed the owners they were prepared to use them.

From the New York Times in 1988:

”What we’re going to do is discuss whether to proceed with our antitrust suit as expeditiously as possible, a work stoppage during the regular season, All-Star Game or playoffs, to cease having the union as being the bargaining agent for the players or a combination of any of the above,” Larry Fleisher, the general counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, said in an interview yesterday.

The players, who are seeking to eliminate the college draft, the right of first refusal and the salary cap, have been without a labor agreement since last June.

Since June, there was a three-and-a-half-month moratorium on player transactions, but that failed to hasten negotiations. The players have filed an antitrust suit in Federal District Court in Newark, and the league has countered with an unfair labor practices suit against the players hoping to bring them back to the bargaining table. There have been nine fruitless bargaining sessions.

via N.B.A. Union Hints at Strike – New York Times.

And in 1999, the NBA instituted its first lockout, killing half a season and destroying the sport’s lingering momentum following the exodus of Jordan’s Bulls, primarily because of the strength of Kevin Garnett and his six-year, $126 million contract.

The point I’m trying to make is that this battle has been going on for a very, very long time.

There’s a common mistake made in regards to these labor disputes, that they are about one thing. They are about money. They are about pride. They are about power. They are about labor strength. They are about employer rights. They are about all of these things, and somewhere running as a vein underneath the black, ashen skin of this decades long standoff is this: they are about the power of the individual player.

In short, the teams want to be the brand, the product, the market, the control. They want the players to be the asset, the employee, the robotic function of the system the team structure creates. You can argue that end point is about money. But it also speaks to ideological divides over whether the young, yes, in most cases black athlete should have the strength and power to determine his or her own basketball destiny.

And that’s where we reach this new group of superstars, smack dab in the middle of the whirlwind.

There were rumors as far back as 2008 that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh had a plan to play together. Particularly Wade and James were connected, each finding a friendship in one another born of stardom. But the “brat pack” or whatever name you want to identify them as goes so much further than those two. One of James’ best friends is Chris Paul. They are thick as thieves, those two plus Paul’s brother. Carmelo Anthony? Also very much part of the group. These players are the actualization of years of player empowerment. It’s part of what makes people so repulsed by them, the attitude is “This game is ours, and we’ll run it as we see fit.” That doesn’t go over well with a team-centric American spirit that believes in truth, justice, and the American role player’s way. We idolize above-average defenders who can’t score while scorning gunners. And while these players are complete (ok, that might be a bit extreme with Carmelo, but roll with it), they are still icons of individual dominance.

The older players have taken center stage in this current conflict, most notably Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and, I’ll admit it, scapegoat Kevin Garnett with their little exhibition in front of the owners, according to reports. I’ve blasted and mocked Garnett for his antics. They were unproductive and unprofessional, if reports are to believed. But they’re also not anything most players wouldn’t do or wouldn’t like to do. While I think lionizing Garnett under some obscenely veiled “he’s not a hero” (like John McClain wasn’t a hero, is the subtext there) is a bit much, it doesn’t alter the fact that Garnett just had the guts to say what most players want to but can’t because they don’t have the power. It was an exhibition of power.

Just like “The Decision.”

I’ve made the argument in the past that there’s more of a bloodline between Garnett and James through their responses to adversity and exertion of their power in finding better places to contend. But what’s revealing in this context is that James and Garnett are both champions of the power of a player, just through different means. Garnett yells and spits and screams and broods, that’s how he found his way out of Minnesota. Never turning his back on the fans or even the team, but clawing at the cage and disturbing the others enough to where the Wolves were forced to send him elsewhere. James, on the other hand, isn’t as dramatic or unrestrained, he’s the opposite, preferring to preen and smile while popping on a pair of designer shades. The Russell-Wilt comparison isn’t insane here, if you’re just talking about approach. (It should be noted here that Wilt was also the first player, reportedly, to want to end the boycott at the ’64 All-Star Game, so that, along with pretty much everything about both players’ games, makes this comparison chemically unstable. Again, just go with it, I’m rolling.)

Consider this from the Arizona Republic Saturday:

(Note: Forgive the extensive blockquote, please go read the entire article which is quite good, if only for food for thought, even if it’s a bit uneven on the pro-owner side.)

Behind the scenes, during the 2008 Olympics, James’ status among fellow players was impossible to miss. While Kobe Bryant acted like a perfect student around head coach Mike Krzyzewski, James struck a different pose. He wore bulky headphones to most open media sessions, making it clear he was off limits until he chose otherwise.

Once, Jerry Colangelo imported the late Myles Brand to speak to the Olympians. When Brand identified himself as president of the NCAA, James interrupted the speech with a shout from the back of the room.

“Of who?” he said.

“The NCAA,” Brand responded.

“I missed you, man,” he said. “My bad.”

The joke was inappropriate and yet hysterical. James was pointing out that he didn’t know Brand because he didn’t need college to get where he was going. You could almost hear his teammates bursting with laughter, yet they remained governed by a sense of restraint.

Later, I asked Wade about James’ brand of leadership, and why fellow players seemed to gravitate to him.

“He’ll say anything to anybody at anytime,” Wade said with near reverence.

At times, James might be misguided and tone-deaf. In a recent negotiating session, it was explained to James that the 43 percent of basketball-related income received by owners was not profit, rather a number that came before operating expenses.

According to a source, James replied, “Well, I have expenses, too.”

via NBA players elicit a stern warning as lockout rolls on.

Well, it isn’t quite “I’ve got a family to feed” or “We make a lot of money but we also spend a lot of money,” but had this been public, it would have been right up there on the Family Feud board for “things you can say which will destroy your PR positioning with fans during a labor dispute.”

Nothing better crystallizes the perceived arrogance of LeBron James better than that, or the dichotomy that exists. Many will be quick to point out the widely held belief that the players in fact find James’ arrogance distasteful. But consider the difference between how a player finds an opponent on the floor, or as a teammate, and how they consider him as a leader for their industry, as an example, as a leader for strength. LeBron James took the power fought for by Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson and translated it into the perfect… okay, nearly perfect re-organization of the sport’s DNA. He shifted the balance of power in the NBA over the next six years, even if they don’t win a championship, the path goes through Miami. He showed that a player can enter free agency, and not only go where he wants, but get a sign-and-trade to get the extra year he wants on the deal, and do it alongside two of his best friends.

The quote from James above is also a continuation of what we’ve seen from James and his crew. Chris Paul is on the labor committee, the smartest of all that group, quietly working to do what’s best for the players and control the interests of both his superstar friends, and the majority of the union made up in role players. Dwyane Wade reportedly told David Stern to get his finger out of his face, saying “I’m not your child.” Is there any clearer image of the divide than that? Wade, the friendly, championship-ring-bearing hyper-marketed superstar telling the league’s commissioner to treat him as the power entity he is and not as a burger-flipper taking too long on his lunch break. (Note: I’ve been that burger flipper who took too long on his lunch break. Those jobs suuuuck and it’s one of the reasons I still find the players’ position unpalatable. Burger-flippers work hard, too!)

Wade’s outburst was his Michael Jordan moment, where Jordan laughed off owner Abe Pollin and said if he can’t compete to sell his team. If James is the rod, and Paul the handle, then Wade is the tip of the spear.

When Carmelo Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, I described it as an example of the new NBA player power structure. Anthony, again, close friend of Wade and James, manipulated his way not only out of Denver, where he didn’t want to be, but to the Knicks, where he specifically wanted to go. Lots of players have forced their way into a trade over the years. Tons. But few have been able to point to the NBA map, to a team already laden with salary and a superstar, with few assets to return (but Isiah Thomas still found a way to give up too much!), and say “There. That’s where you’ll trade me.”

The shortening of players’ contracts, the extreme luxury tax penalties, the Bird rights reforms, the pursuit of the elimination of the sign-and-trade, where do you think these things come from on the owners’ part? They’re trying to stabilize their economic model, that’s certain. But to do so, they know they have to regain power. They can’t sit by and watch a league that became driven by superstars starting with Magic and Bird, the only way the league survived, much less flourished, be controlled by those superstars. It’s fine to market those stars, to demand they smile for promos, do all the appearances, act and dress the way the owners need them to in order to make the league more popular. But those same players can’t control what happens in the league. That has to be the owners’ prerogative, in their minds.

Owners: “We have the money, we should have the power.”

Players: “We are the brand, and we will take what is rightfully ours.”

This has been going on since before 1964. From All-Star boycotts to antitrust suits to threats and Garnett all the way to “The Decision” and the looming force of Dwight Howard threatening to once again render the league’s landscape entirely reformed in the summer of 2012, this is about money, it’s about economics, it’s about labor law, it’s certainly about ego (past: Dan Gilbert, and future: the Orlando Magic). But it’s also about the power of the man who owns the floor, the ball, the court, the logo (but not the arena!) vs. the man who controls the hand that dribbles, passes, defends, and scores.

When you look at the history of this conflict, from ’64 all the way to the Decision and beyond, and you consider the racial implications which cannot be avoided in this context, the bitterness over what is essentially 2 percentage points, and quickly becoming less money than will be lost in a further-prolonged lockout becomes more understandable. It’s absurd, and it’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing, all at the same time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have seen it coming.

It’s the modern NBA mythological history. The owners in search of their gold, and the players in search of their destiny.

Minnesota’s Wiggins considers contract deal without agent

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Andrew Wiggins says he feels good about a max contract offer that is sitting in front of him with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he’s in no rush to get it signed.

Wiggins says he is going over the five-year, $148 million offer from the Wolves deliberately to make sure everything is where he wants it before he signs. He is being extra careful because he is operating without an agent after parting ways with Bill Duffy and BDA Sports in August.

Wiggins says he has only positive things to say about Duffy. But he made the decision “from a business point of view.” He says he is leaning on parents, who were both high-profile athletes.

He says he appreciates the level of commitment the Timberwolves have shown and wants to be in Minnesota for the long term.

 

Report: Carmelo Anthony adds Cavaliers, Thunder to list of teams where he will accept trade

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Carmelo Anthony wants most of all to be traded to Houston (and he has leverage thanks to the no-trade clause Phil Jackson/James Dolan gave him). However, to make the deal work the Rockets needed to unload the three-year, $60 million contract of Ryan Anderson — which the Knicks do not want, and neither did any third team without a couple high first-round picks as a sweetener. Also, the Knicks wanted quality you assets back the Rockets didn’t have (or would part with), so the deal was dead. Anthony tried to wait it out, but nothing happened, and at this point the Knicks expect ‘Melo in camp Monday.

In the face of that, Anthony has expanded his list of teams where he will waive his no-trade clause to include the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, according to multiple reports.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN was first with the news about the Cavs.

Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star, has delivered the New York Knicks an expanded list of teams — including the Cleveland Cavaliers — with which he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause, league sources told ESPN.

After the Knicks insisted that they were unable to make a deal with the Houston Rockets, his primary trade destination, Anthony and his representatives honored New York’s request and furnished at least two more teams within the past 10 days, league sources told ESPN.

ESPN’s Ian Begley filled in the details.

Cleveland was on the initial list of teams Anthony gave the Knicks (teams he would waive his no-trade for) but the Knicks wanted Kevin Love and Cleveland shot that down (that was before the Kyrie Irving deal, now Cleveland is even less likely to make that trade). The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of young talent on their roster, and that’s what the Knicks will want back in a deal, picks and players who are on Kristaps Porzingis‘ career arc.

If Cleveland was willing to throw the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick in the trade it would get done quickly, but I have been told (before this news) Cleveland would not part with that pick, they see it as “LeBron leaves” insurance.

You can bet LeBron James is pushing to get Anthony on the Cavs. Adding him and Dwyane Wade — when Wade is bought out by the Bulls (eventually) — would move the Cavaliers a little closer to the Warriors, although both Wade and ‘Melo are bad defensive matchups against Golden State.

Oklahoma City would likely use Enes Kanter in any trade because his $17 million salary helps balance the money. However, the Thunder are like the Cavs in that this is not a roster with much young talent that the Knicks would want. Guys like Doug McDermott and Kyle Singler are not going to cut it.

It could take a third team to get a deal done with either the Cavaliers or Thunder.

While there had been rumors Portland was still trying to get in — that’s a team with multiple ways to make that trade if they are willing to send Zach Collins and picks to New York — multiple reports out of New York say the Blazers are not one of the teams on Anthony’s list, something first reported by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Anthony may well get moved before the start of the season now, but not likely before training camp opens for the Knicks Monday. So that awkward set of questions still gets to take place.

 

We have a (very minor) trade: Troy Daniels to Suns for pick

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Memphis had more than the max 15 guaranteed contracts on the books, and the cost of unloading one of those turns out to be a second-round pick.

Troy Daniels, who is owed $6.7 million over the next two years, has been traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Phoenix Suns, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports and since confirmed by the teams themselves. As part of the deal, the teams swap 2018 second round picks (however the Phoenix pick going to Memphis is top 55 protected, meaning it doesn’t move unless the Suns are a top five team ext season). Basically, Memphis has three second-round picks in 2018 and Phoenix gets the middle one as the sweetener for taking on the contract.

This trade is really about Memphis clearing a roster spot and some salary space, and Phoenix being willing to take it on for a second round pick.

Interestingly, Daniels and Suns star Devin Booker got in a little war of words at the end of a game last season.

The Suns consulted with Booker about that before pulling the trigger on the deal.

Pat Riley raves about Dwyane Wade, but avoids all contract talk

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade is under contract with the Chicago Bulls, meaning other NBA clubs cannot openly talk about possibly signing him until he is a free agent. As such, Miami Heat President Pat Riley was cautious Friday when asked about Wade’s future.

Wade spent his first 13 seasons in Miami before leaving in the summer of 2016 and going to the Bulls, his hometown team. But Chicago appears in full rebuilding mode after trading All-Star forward Jimmy Butler – someone Wade was close with – to Minnesota this offseason. And since Wade is in the last year of a deal that will pay him nearly $24 million this season, buyout speculation has been rampant for months.

If Wade gets a buyout, he’d be free to join any team.

“I feel great about our relationship that we had over the 13 years,” Riley said. “And anything that happens from a personnel standpoint down the road, or any opportunities that are there, we’re always going to approach that. But right now he’s under contract. He’s under contract with Chicago and I wish him the very best.”

Some Heat players, including longtime close friend Udonis Haslem, have made clear that if Wade becomes a free agent they would definitely want him to consider a return.

“He knows how I feel,” Haslem said this month.

Riley – and every other NBA executive – has to be much more guarded. But Riley made no secret of the affinity he still has for Wade, even raving about his wife, actress Gabrielle Union.

“She was stunning at the Emmys,” Riley said. “And to see him sitting in the seat next to her at the Emmys, I said `Man, we both have come a long way.”‘

The Bulls hold their media day Monday, with camp opening Tuesday. Wade spent at least part of this week in Miami, where he kept his home, and worked out at least once at the University of Miami .

Bulls President John Paxson told CSN Chicago on Thursday he and general manager Gar Forman sat down with Wade when the season ended, and plan to do so again when he returns to Chicago in the coming days.

“We were honest with him. We told him, that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Paxson said. “At that time we were not shopping Jimmy. But we also said all along that if a deal would come along that would allow us to rebuild, we’d have to look at it. We’ve said that to everybody. So with that said, Dwyane’s under contract. He has been a professional through and through. We want to talk to him when he comes in town, and we will.”

Wade is Miami’s franchise leader in several categories, starred on all three of the Heat championship teams and has kept close ties with several people within the organization since his departure. He was the MVP of the 2006 NBA Finals.

“Probably one of the greatest series that any player has ever had in a Finals,” Riley said.