When LeBron James humiliated Dan Gilbert on national television eight years ago, NBA owners were livid. Unused to power being yanked from them in a sucker punch, NBA owners were willing to cancel the 2011 season to protest. It was their version of taking a knee, willing as they were to shutter the league and thrust into financial stress the support personnel that needed the NBA to make a living. But rich men weren’t empathic to the working class providers. Their entire goal was to find a way to prevent what happened to them in the summer of 2010 when the NBA’s marquis player held the league hostage and then on national television changed the fortunes of one of their own.
Before the lockout of 2011, the reorganized Miami Heat lost in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. LeBron James was called The Frozen One after his performance. He was neither hero nor savior. The billionaire owner class was smug and rejoiceful at his failure. If 40% of white Americans thought Dr. King got what he deserved on April 4, 1968, than more than 80% of NBA owners thought LeBron James deserved being the center of blame for the Heat loss. James had made their life more difficult by taking his career into his own hands and bypassing the usual chain of command.
Sports badly wants to be another version of the military. The do-what-you-are-told mantra of the armed services is idolized because it draws a line between the powerful and powerless and creates a service class. Creativity and individuality isn’t a military value, conformity is. Sports recklessly uses war metaphors to self-describe, the constant reference to warriors and kill the enemy and be a solider. It creates a false perception. The NBA isn’t the military. It is a league of young men with a skill who are paid handsomely and when their contracts are up they can change jobs. It is a league of elite talent; that talent plays by a different set of rules.
NBA owners fight player movement as if it is a frigid tide waiting to drown them. Owners were smart enough to know what LeBron James did to them. He, the poor kid from Akron, Ohio, set a precedent, despite the loss in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. James was willing to leave the team that drafted him, his hometown team that depended on his likeness, presence, talent and exceptionalism. Without his participation or signature, LeBron was a cottage industry. Downtown Cleveland needed him and in his absence there was a huge empty space. But of the financial depression felt by the city, LeBron James just didn’t care.
Leaving a team that drafted you isn’t unique. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar left Milwuakee because he wanted to be in Los Angeles, but he did it after winning the Bucks a title. LeBron had been to the Eastern Conference Finals and that’s all. When he left Cleveland- and this was the real salt in the wound- he left the organization of Dan Gilbert with crumbs. That was something the owners wanted to prevent forevermore. Another top-5 player would never control them, their purse strings, their organization, again.
If you want hypocrisy you don’t have to go much further than the owners of NBA teams. They enabled a known racist like Donald Sterling, welcoming and adoring him, and had he not been verbally reckless he would still own the Clippers without much protest. I don’ t put much stock in the virtue of NBA owners. They complain about player movement when a star like Kevin Durant spends time in one city and then says he has had enough. But then they turn around and trade players at their convenience. Victor Oladipo was traded in 2016 and 2017. Derrick Rose was traded in 2016 and 2018. Then the Jazz waived Rose. The Thunder traded James Harden, as ridiculous as that seems now. Isaiah Thomas has been traded three times.
The 76ers top-5 lottery pick Jahlil Okafor was traded after the 76ers wouldn’t play him. Same with former 76er lottery pick Nerlens Noel. The Lakers traded their lottery pick, D’Angelo Russell, after slamming him as he left the building. For every Kevin Durant or LaMarcus Aldridge or even Paul George, there are dozens of players teams trade without consulting them first. Players just take it in stride.
NBA owners are never going to be able to force players to stay if they don’t want to. That would be something akin to professional slavery. Owners can sweeten contracts and lengthen contracts and erect billboards and try to manipulate based on greed and try to shame players with the fanbase and backstab them too, but if a player wants to go, if trust is broken or he simply just wants out, there is nothing anyone can do.
Which brings us to who is not in the 2018 playoffs. Kawhi Leonard was never suppposed to be that guy. The player who put himself over team. He was too self-effacing to be the kind of player who brought an organization to a Faustian bargain moment. Many years ago, Tim Duncan had a meniscus injury in the playoffs and didn’t play. Many outsiders felt Duncan should have gutted it out so the Spurs could win their series against the Suns. It also happened to be a contract year and Popovich encouraged Duncan to do what he thought best for him. Of course, the Spurs lost the series but Popvich won. He stood on the side of his player and it paid dividends. Duncan rejected Grant Hill and the Orlando Magic and re-signed in San Antonio.
But this unholy ground is where the Spurs have never been. It is more the territory of the Knicks and Lakers, a behind the scenes passive-aggressive war of the roses. But the Spurs, the best run organizaton in the NBA, 21 straight years in the playoffs, have their superstar- the third best NBA player- in a funk.
Kawhi Leonard has every right to be unhappy or to have feelings that are making him act in a way no one expected. This is not about him but about ownership, the billionaires and multi-millionaires who think all they have to do is luck in and get that special iconic player. Then they are set for a decade. But let’s look at the West All-Stars who are in the playoffs. Who is with the team that drafted them?
Steph, Klay, Draymond. Yes. Kevin Durant, no. None of the Rockets. The backbone of the Blazers, Damian Lillard, yes. Not LaMarcus Aldridge or Pau Gasol but Tony Parker. Russell Westbrook but not Paul George or Carmelo Anthony. Anthony Davis but not Jrue Holiday. Karl-Anthony Towns but not Jimmy Butler.
The All-Stars we’ll see in the playoffs for the Western Conference, all except for Draymond Green and Tony Parker and Jimmy Butler and Jrue Holiday, were all lottery picks.
Kawhi Leonard was not a lottery pick. He was drafted 15th by the Pacers. The Spurs were smitten. It’s easy to blame the Pacers but they had Paul George and needed a defensive point guard. George Hill fit. Scouts were mixed on Kawhi. They expected his defense and rebounding but weren’t sure about his ability to carry a team offensively. He exceeded expectations. He was the exception, so much so, he was MVP of the 2014 Finals and carried the Spurs to a title.
Four years later, he isn’t in the playoffs and his future with San Antonio is murky. He may turn down an excess of $200 million if he is obstinate about wanting a quick exit. The Spurs would trade him then and he’d be a free agent in 2019 or if things tilted the right way, he’d sign an extension with the team who has his rights. All of it seems a ridiculous set of circumstances, too melodramatic for the steady Spurs. Things like this- a public divorce, irreconciliable differences- just don’t happen to them.
The bigger lesson for NBA owners is that if it is happening to San Antonio, it can happen to any owner. Early in the season, Damian Lillard had to have a heart to heart with Paul Allen about the direction of the Blazers. Allen admitted fear. He thought Lillard wanted a trade. He didn’t. Lillard needed clarification on where the Blazers were going. After that meeting, the Blazers took off. A happy superstar can take a team to unparalleled heights.
And an unhappy superstar creates an earthquake. It will be ground zero in San Antonio come July 1st. It seems blasphemous to say this, much less think it, but disaster may be looming.