From a mid-season blockbuster swap involving two disgruntled
stars, to rumors that a former No. 1 overall pick wants a change of
scenery in only his third season, the topic of player empowerment
is front and center in the NBA.
Superstars wanting off their team isn't a new concept. Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar forced a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Los
Angeles Lakers in 1975. In recent years, superstars demanding to be
dealt is so common that the term “player empowerment” established
itself in our NBA lexicon.
But this season feels different, in that it is rife
with unique trade demands. Like Ben Simmons' refusal to play a
single minute for the Philadelphia 76ers while requesting a trade,
with a whopping four years left on his contract. Or James Harden
asking off of his second team in as many years. Even the Zion
Williamson situation — rumored to be disgruntled in New Orleans
after playing a total of 85 games — is unprecedented. With every
new trade demand, it feels like stars are pushing the limits and
boundaries of player empowerment.
Either the NBA's Mercury is in retrograde or we’re witnessing
the dawn of a new era.
“Player empowerment” was popularized in 2010 after LeBron James,
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh conspired to play with each other in
Miami. Suddenly, players realized they could control their own
destiny and team up to form super-teams.
Since then, player empowerment has largely come to mean trade
demands from superstars.
Many executives have decried it as ruining the league's parity
and even the sanctity of the game.
"Player empowerment is a catchall for the fact that the league
has done a terrible job of empowering teams, the players have all
of the leverage in every situation. I think it's the worst thing
that ever happened to professional sports on all levels," an
anonymous NBA general manager told Isaac Chotiner of The New
Many fans view it as a win for laborers.
The NBA is, after all, the most progressive sports league.
However, without even touching the racial undertones that weave
throughout the narrative about the league, it is easy to see why
the masses support the players. Fans have watched players lose the
battle over the means of production — from owning 57% of league
revenue in 2005 down to only 50% today — so witnessing players gain
autonomy over their playing career by stripping control from owners
is celebrated as a nice consolation prize.
As we become inundated with debate over the merits of player
empowerment, we’ve seemed to skip over what the term actually means
and how it actualizes itself in the league.
There is no denying that some players have power and some of
those players have controlled the make-up of the league for over a
decade. The issue is that player empowerment is a term that poses
as the league's players uniting, but instead, it is merely a select
few exercising their power over everyone else.
Let’s break this down.
Were the Los Angeles Lakers' young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon
Ingram and Josh Hart empowered when Anthony Davis forced his way to
Los Angeles? Not likely.
It’s also impossible to imagine all six of Jarrett Allen
(Brooklyn to Cleveland), Taurean Prince (Brooklyn to Cleveland),
Caris LeVert (Brooklyn to Indiana), Rodions Kurucs (Brooklyn to
Houston), Dante Exum (Cleveland to Houston) and Victor Oladipo
(Indiana to Houston) felt empowered after being forced to uproot
themselves midseason during a pandemic because Harden wanted to
join the Nets.
Framing the whims of a small few that can disrupt the lives of
many as player empowerment feels disingenuous. A better term would
be “superstar entitlement.”
With the knowledge that player empowerment really means
superstar entitlement, it’s easy to understand how empowerment
stories are often framed as prima donnas throwing tantrums until
they get their way.
But maybe it should be framed as superstars earning power
through loss of salary.
With the advent of max salaries, stars are never fairly
compensated. The bigger and brighter the star shines, the more they
lose out — with their play forever eclipsing the money they make.
Ergo, player empowerment is less about empowering all or even most
players and more about compensating superstars in a salary-cap
Heliocentric is another popular term in our NBA vernacular;
we’ve heard the term “heliocentric offense,” and we’ve heard stars
described as heliocentric. But it’s also a term that can refer to
the league itself.
To briefly go back to the 1500s and Copernicus — heliocentrism
is a cosmological theory that the Earth and planets revolve around
the sun. And in the NBA, everything revolves around certain stars.
The bigger and brighter the star, the stronger their gravitational
pull — the LeBronicus Theory, if you will.
Superstars wield more power than ever. They influence nearly
every aspect of an organization — from coaching hirings and
firings, to player personnel and roster construction.
The Harden-for-Simmons swap is an interesting case to dissect,
because it centers around two stars whom everything
doesn’t revolve around.
On one side, there’s Harden, whose status as a heliocentric star
diminished as soon as he left Houston for Brooklyn. And on the
other side is Simmons, a player who could never cement himself into
anything more than a secondary star in Philadelphia.
Though both players had leverage, Harden had more because of the
status of his contract. Neither were in a place to force their
teams to bend to their will — at least not in the same way Harden
was able to back when he told Houston they had a problem.
In Brooklyn, Harden reportedly never voiced his desire
to leave, and 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl
Morey threatened to hold out on trading Simmons for the duration of
"You're going to think I'm kidding, I'm not. This could
[go on for] four years... We're in the prime of Joel's career...
Either Ben Simmons is playing for us, or we have to get back a
difference-maker," Morey said.
It wasn't Simmons' refusal to play games or Harden’s pouting
that forced their teams’ hands.
It was that Embiid’s play pressured Morey to make a deal, and Kevin
Durant reportedly wanted one
Ultimately, the deal came down to what was best for the biggest
stars. While James and Ben were the players who used their leverage
to request out, Durant and Embiid — being the heliocentric star of
their respective teams — made the final call.
What Harden lost in star power in moving to Brooklyn, KD gained
by doing the same. Though Durant’s play has always been stellar,
it’s clear he has more power within the Nets' organization than he
did with the Warriors. It was Durant, after all, who reportedly requested Kyrie Irving be
allowed to play road games despite the stance Sean Marks and the Nets
took earlier in the season.
Who has power and how much they have is determined by a number
of variables, like their standing in the league, their standing on
their team, their health, the length of their contract and market
size, etc. And this list of powerful players is still arguably
fewer than 10 names long in any given season (with some
The variables at play that make Durant’s star shine brighter
with the Nets than with the Warriors are as simple as the fact that
there's another superstar in Golden State — and he was there first
and couldn’t be eclipsed.
Of course there are titans like LeBron James, who can completely
shift the paradigm of the league with a flippant comment — like
over All-Star Weekend when he hinted at a possible return to
“The door’s not closed on that… I’m not saying I’m coming
back and playing, I don’t know. I don’t know what my future holds.
I don’t even know when I’m free.” James told The Athletic.
LeBron’s comments dominated the news cycle over the league’s
busiest weekend, and that's in large part because he will be a free
agent in 2023. James signs short-term deals to maximize his
leverage even though it means leaving long-term NBA money on the
Player empowerment isn’t limited to team decisions — the NBPA
also caters to the stars. With recent negotiations featuring
superstars at the helm, contract negotiations often prioritize
Take for example the 2017 CBA. Superstar and NBPA president
Chris Paul managed to help push forward the NBA supermax deal,
given to players who have either won an MVP award, a Defensive
Player of the Year award or earned an All-NBA selection in the
previous season — or two of the previous three. The NBA supermax
allows these stars to earn massive five-year deals with a starting
salary of up to 35% of the cap.
Paul also helped change the "over-36" rule that prevented
players from signing multi-year deals if they are to turn 36 or
older over the course of the contract to "over-38." Not lost on
anyone, Paul was set to be a free agent the summer of 2017, and
pushing the rule back two years would have positively affected how
much and how long he could have signed for.
In any collective bargaining, there’s a give and a take — so
both parties can walk away feeling like winners. So as collective
bargaining agreements continue to reward those at the top, that
leaves little for the rest.
Now, let's take a look at punishments. More often than not,
disciplinary action comes in the form of fines. Technical fouls,
for example, come with a fine of $2,000 for a player’s first five
On Jan. 25 this season, the Sixers faced the New Orleans
Pelicans. Embiid and rookie Jose Alvarado got into it and were each
assessed technical fouls. That means Alvarado, who earns $462,629
this season, and Embiid, who's making $31.58 million, are meant to
pay the same amount. Though Embiid generously offered to cover the
fine for Alvarado, the benevolence of stars shouldn’t make up for
this obvious imbalance.
Fines are meant to disincentivize players from committing
offenses, but when by setting these as a specific dollar amount as
opposed to a percentage of their salary, they disproportionately hurt the lowest
earners. And consequently, they allow the elite to do as they
Calling out NBA officials comes with a hefty $25,000 fine — this
would be astronomical to rookies like Alvarado, but not to a
superstar like Embiid who has been fined for doing just that. In
Feb. 2019, Embiid told reporters the "referees f**king sucked"
after a missed call in a close loss to the Boston Celtics. Though
the fine undoubtedly hurt his pocketbook, it was a calculated risk
he and other high earners like him have the freedom of
From afar, superstar entitlement looks like stars picking their
teams; a closer look unveils real inequities like financial
penalties and disproportionate representation at the top of the
players' union. A more granular look reveals that every scenario
and every superstar is unique.
There is, however, one constant amidst the chaos in
understanding power dynamics in the league, and that’s team
control. The NBA draft, rookie contracts, restricted free agency
and good old-fashioned trades are just some of the ways in which
teams have maintained ultimate control. The difference is when
teams wield their power, it’s not much of a news story.
We clutch our pearls at Kawhi Leonard demanding a trade but not
at the Raptors for sending out DeMar DeRozan. We expect teams to
make moves to better their situation, yet players who have become
brands in their own right aren’t given the freedom to do the
Any team would be over the moon to have a superstar play for
them — we recognize this and they recognize this. So, they aren’t
going to sit back and wish upon a star for a trade. They ask, and
if they're good enough, teams will acquiesce. It is a star-driven
league, after all. So, we can’t be surprised at who's steering the
ship. And I’d argue it’s high time for the rest of the league to
just grab on to their seats and hold on, because the era of player
empowerment has only started taking off.