What Paul George Just Did Was Freedom. And It Was Dangerous.

“Do you think a system that gives a backup quarterback a million dollars is fair?” Frank Rothman, NFL Attorney.

“Do you think a system that gives a player money instead of his freedom to choose is unfair?” Freeman McNeil, NFL running back.

A day after Paul George put contract law into a blender and shook it up, the consequences of George’s defection has deeper ramifications than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s despair. Because this has happened to the Thunder twice in three years, catastrophe by star, the familiarity breeds contempt.

Kevin Durant and Paul George are nowhere near the same kind of athlete, star, personality, but will be intertwined because they both found a way to escape the team in Oklahoma. One left by way of walking into a new ecosystem and the other left by begging OKC to get him out. In both cases, they dismantled a franchise that operates within small market economics and twice had to watch their team burn up.

George is the most egregious case because, by all accounts, even with friction, he was committed to OKC until Kawhi Leonard called. George had two more years on his contract before it became a player option. He fast tracked everything and put NBA owners on notice. Elite players determine their geography; not you. Owners are just along for the ride. Don’t be fooled by aesthetics. Wherever there is a feast, you better believe famine is coming. Tim Duncan isn’t here anymore.

Paul George asked Sam Presti to trade him to the Clippers and Presti acquiesced. It wasn’t revolutionary as much as it was the tail wagging the dog. One year earlier, Presti’s risk paid off when he traded for Paul George and gave up Victor Oladipo. George had bad injury luck and he may have been the MVP of the league in 2019. But, alas timing is everything. The effervescence of last July and that lit party that Russell Westbrook put on was a cautionary tale a year later because things change.

Things change.

Employees not in the NBA have the luxury of changing jobs whenever they see fit. A friend had a good job and then an employer came calling on LinkedIn and a month later he was across the country even though he signed a contract. The contract had several loopholes where both parties could, if need be, agree to terms beneficial to the other.

What is the least understood aspect of the NBA is that players are not traded but contracts are. If ever the Thunder were tired of Paul George, they would trade him without his permission. But when George decides to leap at a once in a lifetime opportunity, he then asserts himself.

Who controls the NBA, and more importantly, is freedom negotiated within the CBA fine print?

A NBA owner invests in capital. Because he owns the “team” there is the assumption that he owns the “player.” And in the majority of cases there is merit to that, financial ownership via a contract. But contracts are negotiated pieces of paper that can be abridged. What Paul George just did was set a precedent that is dangerous for NBA owners. Any player under contract can go to ownership to demand a trade because Player X wants to play with them. Most NBA owners will go along because that is how the league handles their business. An unhappy player is an infectious virus in a small locker room. The player, if victorious, gets what he wants. The NBA owner’s business model is all of a sudden in shreds.

In this private billionaires club, there are competing interests. Ownership vs. freedom. When is a contract not a contract? When can it be disregarded because a player like Kawhi Leonard wants to play with Paul George?

Leonard didn’t respect the contract entered into by George and the Thunder. He wanted George and he got him. It’s a dangerous slippery slope the NBA has entered into where contracts suddenly lose all meaning.

And yet, players have the right to want to be somewhere else, they have earned that right after years of service. Paul George was drafted in 2010. He has been in the league long enough and had the misfortune of a gruesome injury that he came back from. Does that enhance his right to selfishly set fire to the Thunder because he is romanced by Kawhi Leonard? Does he owe loyalty to the Thunder who gave him a max contract?

How you answer that reveals what you think sports really is. Is it a collection of individual players with elite talent who are assembled into teams and help franchises win? Or, is sports a cadre of teams that compete with one another, assisted by dynamic players. It is the macro or micro argument. Yes Paul George can leave. He has the talent. No, he has to play out his contract. He signed it.

NBA players are sophisticated enough to out maneuver NBA owners who haven’t yet caught on to their intelligence and savvy. Reports indicate that the  Lakers were  a smokescreen so Leonard and George could meet uninterrupted without anyone knowing. Owners haven’t caught on to strategic on the court, strategic off the court. The Warriors spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what Kevin Durant wanted. That was a waste of time. It’s not about want or desire. It’s more prescient to understand how a player thinks, how he maneuvers, what is his gamesmanship, how is he a deal maker.

Kawhi Leonard is quiet. He used stealth to grab Paul George. He tricked the Lakers and Raptors who were enamored with their own self and didn’t give his war strategy much of a thought until they got got.

In the aftermath of the George bombshell, what the NBA has to be leery of is the Paul George behavior becoming the new normal, then contracts don’t matter and it is a land of anarchists blowing things up just to have their way, and to be in a better situation because they were asked.