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The NBA has a looming dilemma, but former MLB commissioner warns it may get worse

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It’s the player power era in the NBA, so they say. NBA players are doing all they can to force organization to acquiesce to their competitive needs on the court, and doing it without shame. After netting his second NBA Finals MVP trophy with the Toronto Raptors, free agent Kawhi Leonard convinced Paul George to force a trade from Oklahoma City Thunder to the Los Angeles Clippers, where they could team up.  With his longtime team in shambles, Russell Westbrook conspired with James Harden to join forces in Houston.  The Thunder consented to both requests and entered a permanent rebuild mode.

LeBron James has managed to coax his teams into building complementary ultra-squads on three teams. First, he teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat, then, when he decided to return to Cleveland, he got the Cavaliers to trade their top draft pick for Kevin Love. In the last year, James has been a secondary figure in the NBA’s messiest player coup— New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis’s quest to force his way off their team and onto the Los Angeles Lakers, where James is plying his trade in the twilight of his career. 

James and Davis are both represented by Klutch Sports, an agency operated by Rich Paul, James’s long time friend and business partner. This has generated a lot of questions about who was exercising incentive in Davis’s quest to get traded, if it was Davis pushing Paul, or Paul and James tugging on Davis’s ear. 

That’s not the only way these team ups seem to be coalescing in big markets. The Golden State Warriors players were trying to lure Kevin Durant away from Oklahoma City long before the summer. Then, a few years and two titles later, Durant and Kyrie Irving plotted a team up in New York when their present working situations started to irritate them. Across the league, the cool winds of player power is making a lot of teams, small markets especially, antsy about players freely seeking trades so they can team up and take on the league on their own terms. 

The looming spectre of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency is seen by some as a decisive moment for the NBA, the bellwether moment that will decide if small markets are going to seek a major overhaul of the league’s bylaws to do everything in their power to keep players in the cities where they were drafted. How these rules will get implemented could end up making big trouble for the NBA’s labor peace. Just a few years back, in 2011, negotiations over the league’s revenue split with the players cost the NBA 16 games. Could “Competitive Balance” cost them a lot more, like it once did in baseball?

In his new biography, For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Baseball, former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig documents his efforts to get baseball to adopt a salary cap to even up the economic playing field and help small market owners compete. Even getting the owners to agree to it as a negotiating point was a pain in the ass– George Steinbrenner called a room full of billionaires “socialists” at one point– and even after he managed it, the players he was negotiating with hated it even more. 

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Selig tries to imply that the union wasn’t really representing its players in the negotiations over implementing a cap. “The union leaders were not grasping that great baseball players want to win championships– and that every club should have the capacity, if well run, to compete for one.” But, and Bud must know this, when it came to money, baseball’s union and the players it represented weren’t operating in the frilly world of competition, accomplishment, rings and the like. They were operating in a material reality, and they knew that the implementation of a salary cap would inevitably lead to them getting paid less than their market value in the long run.

In the end, Selig’s efforts to even the fiscal playing field failed– baseball has a luxury tax, but no hard cap– but not before it wiped out hundreds of baseball games, coaxed Selig into calling Al Gore a [m’fer] during an arbitration session, and canceled the 1994 World Series. 

Having negotiated without a generational figure like MLB Union President Marvin Miller, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement is more restrictive and less player friendly. Players are assigned maximum salaries and the size of those contracts are larger if a player re-signs with their previous team instead of leaving for greener pastures in free agency. Teams are strictly banned from tampering with players under contract, attempting to jostle them into demanding trades or some such other chicanery. Teams are forced to operate under a flexible salary cap, one that allows you to re-sign current players but has strict rules about bringing in outside talent.

All of these rules, instituted and maintained by ownership in place of a wild-west free market that would almost certainly pay players tens of millions more dollars over the course of their contracts, serve two main purposes. It makes it so every market in the league, not just the large markets that print money and offer prestige for everyone who plays for them. Second, it protects owners, general managers and teams from themselves, keeping them from paying a lot of players who can fall off or to major injury at any time. 

The league would like you to believe that the former is their priority in making these rules. But it seems awfully convenient that creating an environment where everyone can compete always seems to create an economy that depresses player pay and autonomy. 

At a recent press conference, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called the recent rash of trade requests “disheartening” and said the league needed to do something to address them. He alluded to the feeling among some owners that the league’s tampering rules, which are supposed to keep teams from recruiting or pressuring players who aren’t current free agents, are being violated, telling reporters that he believes that the NBA “…should not have rules that are not strictly enforced.”

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To the best of any outside observer’s knowledge, Leonard and James did not violate any rules when they made it known that they wanted to squad down with George and Davis. Tampering rules apply to teams, not players. Silver’s comments suggest that the league will try to prove that larger market teams are involved with these moves in some way. In the short term, they will seek to figure out if there is active collusion at work here and not just players and agents operating in their own interest.

But what if they can’t find anything? Then what? How far will owners go to put the kibosh on the player-power era? Will they began to regulate player-to-player interactions, to create a new set of tampering rules that will apply not just to front offices, but to the players themselves? Will the league try to go even further in building an economic system that tries to keep players in small markets?

In For the Good of the Game, Selig laments the public and the media accusing him and the owners of greed in their pursuit of tighter salary restrictions. He was trying to do what’s best for the game, for competitive balance and for small markets’ ability to compete.

The fact of the matter is that any controls that owners seem to find themselves proposing for ‘keeping small markets competitive’ also… restrict the agency and thin out the pocketbooks of players. This could make trouble in the NBA’s next round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations in 2024, even though the NBA is profitable and popular. Players simply won’t, and shouldn’t, accept terms that will result in them having less money or putting themselves at risk for fines if they make some idle mention about teaming up with someone currently playing on a different team. 

Small market owners’ anxiety about remaining competitive in a league where big stars have been putting monumental efforts into getting to larger markets will persist. The question that should be addressed over this next round of CBA talks, if ownership is really looking to address this problem in earnest, is if they can somehow mitigate the advantages big markets have without, well, paying all their players less money. If they’re signaling that they will be willing to do that, I suspect things will be fine. 

Ownership has generally been in a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mode, constantly seeking to kill two birds with one stone. “Addressing small market concerns” can very easily become a shield to promote the agenda of gutting player salaries and making their employees subject to their whims. It has been before and it will be again.