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.

Wizards reportedly to finally remove interim tag from GM Tommy Sheppard

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Tommy Sheppard has been doing the work as the Wizards GM since April when Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM.

Sheppard was the GM through the draft. Through free agency. All the time with the “interim” tag on his job title. In Las Vegas for Summer League, plenty of other executives wondered why that tag was still on Sheppard’s title.

It’s finally coming off, reports Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.

The Washington Wizards removed the interim tag from Tommy Sheppard’s title Friday, promoting him to be the 12th general manager in franchise history, according to a person with knowledge of the situation…

The promotion of Sheppard, who will be entering his 17th season with the Wizards, mirrors the internal hiring decision Leonsis made with his hockey team. In 2014, Leonsis elevated Brian MacLellan as the Washington Capitals senior vice president and general manager after firing George McPhee. Before the promotion, MacLellan had spent the previous seven years under McPhee as an assistant general manager.

This likely will be made official in the next 48-72 hours.

Part of the delay may have been that a couple of prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at different times. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri coming to the District, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

Making Sheppard the full-time GM provides some stability just as the Wizards reach their most important moment of the summer.

On July 26 the Wizards can offer star two guard Bradley Beal a three-year, $111 million extension. The Wizards have been talking to Beal’s people and the offer will be made.

What Beal decides will decide the Wizards future for years. If Beal doesn’t sign that offer, the Wizards have to look at trading him. If he signs it, they need to build more around him.

Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards. However, there was plenty of informed speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and could choose to not sign it and essentially force his way out.

Either way, Beal’s decision will define the next steps for Sheppard for years.

 

Child tries to call out James Harden for step-back travels, he says it’s no travel

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If you tried this move in a high-school game 10 years ago, you would have been called for traveling.

In today’s NBA, as the rules are interpreted, James Harden‘s step back is not a travel.

At an event on Friday, a young fan tried to call Harden out on the travel and he defended himself. Via Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Harden’s stepback is not a travel (when he executes it properly). Even if it looks like it is.

Here is the play in question.

The official response — meaning from officials:

I know when you played Junior High basketball in 2002 that was a travel, but the NBA hasn’t called it that way in years.

The NBA rule here (Rule 10, Section XIII) simplified is a “gather and two steps.” Meaning one step while Harden is gathering the ball, plus two more. Nobody pushes the boundary of the gather step like Harden, he has mastered the grey area. But when he executes it properly — and he doesn’t every time — it’s not a travel.

No matter what that young boy’s father tells him.

Justin Holiday reportedly reaches deal with Pacers, will join forces with brother

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The Pacers just added the wing depth and some defense at the position they have been looking for.

It’s through someone they have long had their eye on, Justin Holiday, the six-year NBA veteran who split time last season between Chicago and Memphis. He has reached an agreement to join the Pacers — and his brother, Aaron Holiday — for a season in Indiana. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

The Pacers have been in touch with Holiday for a while, reports J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Holiday averaged 10.5 points a game last season, shot 34.7 percent from three, and played solid wing defense.

Victor Oladipo is the team’s best wing player, once he returns from injury (the Pacers are hoping around Christmas or a little after). Beyond him there is Jeremy Lamb, C.J. Wilcox, T.J. Warren, Doug McDermott, and Brian Bowen. Holiday can find minutes in that group.

This also sparks the dream of an all T.J./Holiday lineup. The Pacers have two Holidays, Justin and Aaron, as well as three un-related players named T.J. — T.J. McConnell, T.J. Warren, and T.J. Leaf. We need to see those five on the court together next season, if only for a few minutes.

Rumor: Clippers offered Marcus Morris three-years, $41 million at start of free agency

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Marcus Morris thought it was his time. Coming off a 13.9 point, 6.1 rebounds a game season where he shot 37.5 percent from three and was one of only a couple of guys who seemed to bring it nightly in Boston, he thought he was going to get PAID this summer. As in the $20 million a year range.

The market for Morris was not quite that hot, and there is a lot of buzz around the league about how that frustrated him. His agent, Rich Paul, ultimately set up a two-year, $20 million contract with the Spurs, which Morris agreed to then backed out of to take a one-year, $15 million contract with the Knicks. That move pissed off the Spurs and led to Morris changing agents.

Rumor is Morris could have gone to the Clippers for three years at an average of $13.7 million at the beginning of free agency but turned it down, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Morris, however, lost out on a much more lucrative contract with the LA Clippers, who were prepared to pay him $41 million over three seasons. A Clippers source said the three-year deal included a provision for Morris to receive 50 percent of his salary on Oct. 1.

Morris was hoping to earn $40 million over two years but the Clippers couldn’t offer that deal if they wanted to sign Kawhi Leonard to a max contract. Once Morris took that stance, the Clippers moved on and acquired Portland’s Maurice Harkless in a four-team trade that included Jimmy Butler signing with the Miami Heat.

One of the biggest challenges for agents is to get the player to understand market realities. For players, their salary is a measuring stick of their worth (even though we know that is flawed reasoning), kind of a capitalistic “you are what the market says you are” approach. Players have egos and often people around them who continuously pump them up. Players often expect the market to be more robust for them than it will end up being, and the agent has to be the voice of reality.

Morris is a good player, but one caught somewhat by circumstance. The market moved very fast this summer — more than 50 deals reached in the first 12 hours — and players who hesitated got lost. The Lakers and Clippers were hung up holding space open for Leonard. This July saw more “you have an hour to take this offer or we have to move on” conversations than in years past. Morris understandably thought he would get a higher payday, but by the time he pivoted the market got thin.

For the Clippers, everything worked out just fine, thank you very much.

For Morris, what kind of season he has and what kind of market there will be for him next July will be something to watch.