Running the Break: Player empowerment is good for the players, bad for the Association

Long before he was the face of the Los Angeles Lakers, NBA superstar LeBron James left his home in Cleveland to join stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat — and instantly became the most hated athlete in American sports. 

James wasn’t the first to do it, but at the time, he was the most recent and by far the most popular athlete to leave his team for one with better talent in hopes of winning a championship. Since then, conversations about “superteams” and player movement have been commonplace (and mostly negative) in sports circles.

The current incarnation of the 2010s Heat is the 2021 Brooklyn Nets, and the NBA feels less exciting and less competitive than it did a year ago. 

The construction of the Nets was enabled by the power the players hold in the NBA. The NBA is a player’s league in comparison to other U.S. sports leagues, in which coaches and owners have more influence, and an individual player has less impact on a team’s success.

James did not start the era of superteams, he just made it seem like the only way to win was to pair multiple stars. James will be remembered for changing the formula for success in the NBA, but the reality is superstars stacking the deck has been a part of the NBA for years before James’ decision. 

There was the Boston Celtics’ “Big Three” in 2008. There was Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on the Lakers in 2004. There was former MVP Charles Barkley requesting to be traded to the back-to-back champion Houston Rockets in 1996. 

Even before there was free agency in basketball, Wilt Chamberlain demanded a trade to the Lakers in 1968. Players have known for a long time that teaming up with other great talent can result in championships. They knew back then, and they’ve tried to do it ever since. 

Of course the players should have a say in where they take their talent, but it doesn’t always create the best product for fans. The most extreme example of a superteam began in the summer of 2016, when superstar Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join reigning MVP Stephen Curry on a Golden State Warriors team that had just won an NBA record 73 games in the regular season.

We know what happened next. It wasn’t very entertaining to watch an NBA season when you knew who would be holding the trophy in June. 

Here we are two years after Durant’s injury and the Warriors’ downfall, and the story is the same. Durant leads another star-studded team in Brooklyn, which was already a solid group before he and Irving signed in free agency two offseasons ago. 

When reigning scoring champion James Harden was unhappy in Houston and demanded a trade to a contender, he listed the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers as desirable locations. The Rockets’ hands were tied. Harden wasn’t buying in for another season with Houston; he didn’t even show up to training camp on time. They were forced to trade him, and Brooklyn had the assets. 

This brings us to this week, when Blake Griffin, once a dominant power forward in the NBA, makes his way to the Nets. Griffin is a six-time All-Star and was a critical piece of a Los Angeles Clippers team with high hopes several years ago. You might remember that team also featuring DeAndre Jordan, All-Star and now Brooklyn Nets center.

Griffin signed a five-year, $171 million contract with the Clippers in 2017 and was traded to the Detroit Pistons months later. But this year, Griffin decided he was done playing in Detroit, and the Pistons bought him out of his contract, making him a free agent. Griffin will still make $75.7 million over this season and next, and ended up in a favorable situation. 

He might not be in his prime, and Jordan might not be either, but Griffin is joining a lineup full of All-Stars and is being paid generously by Detroit to contend for a title in Brooklyn while his old team languishes in the lottery. 

In this case, Griffin got the best of all worlds, and what he left behind in Detroit is probably the worst team and situation in the NBA. On the other hand, the Nets have three of the best scorers in the NBA, and the projected lineup of Harden, Irving, Durant, Griffin and Jordan has a history of 32 combined All-Star appearances. 

I have no problem with Durant and Irving choosing to sign with a team as free agents. Even Durant signing with an elite Warriors team was technically by the book, although it also destroyed the competitive balance of the league for a few years. Same story with James choosing Miami as a free agent.

Players should choose where they want to play — that’s the point of free agency. But forcing a team to trade you where you want to go or sitting out until your team releases you is another conversation. We’ve seen this frequently over the past few years, and it’s getting out of hand. You should be obligated to uphold the contract you sign. 

So, the result is that there’s yet another superteam in the NBA, and it’s perhaps the most talented team ever put together. Brooklyn can easily have at least one superstar on the floor for all 48 minutes of a game. 

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see the Nets doing anything other than dominating the league for the next couple of seasons. This was all possible because Harden got exactly what he wanted from Houston, and that’s the nature of the NBA today. It’s good for the players and bad for the product that is professional basketball. 

Wyatt Allsup is a junior writing about Los Angeles sports. His column, “Running the Break,” runs every other Tuesday.