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Superstar empowerment is not the same as player empowerment

The league’s biggest stars have more power now, but that doesn’t mean the players as a class are running the league.

Los Angeles Lakers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

The topic of player empowerment has become as prevalent in recent discussions about the NBA as it has been controversial.

One side sees superstars unapologetically exerting their power as a big advancement, while the other laments that teams losing control is actually hurting the league and its fans. In a lot of ways, it’s the central debate of this era in the NBA.

Yet for such an inescapable topic, there seems to be a fundamental mistake in how it’s too often approached. Equating superstars’ empowerment to overall player empowerment clouds the discussion to the point of making it meaningless.

For all the talk about empowerment, the players as a bargaining class have traditionally struggled to wrestle control away from the owners. After getting significant labor wins in the early days of the league mostly in court came a push-back by the league. In the past 30 years we’ve seen the establishment of the one-and-done rule, a rookie scale, a max contract scale, shorter guaranteed contracts, and, most importantly, a redistribution of basketball related income that has gone the owner’s way significantly in an era in which the league is making more money than ever. The notion that players now run the NBA is simply false. There are plenty of mechanisms in place that allow teams to control for how long and on what salaries they want to keep players around.

Under this new reality, we’ve seen only one subclass of player accrue enough power to essentially skirt those mechanisms. Superstars, due to their scarcity and outsize impact on winning, can essentially exert some de facto control of their careers that the vast majority of their colleagues simply don’t have. In an era of gigantic but capped salaries, money isn’t as strong an incentive as it once was for the top players, which means they can now focus on other aspects, such as comfort or power, and head to wherever they’ll get it. From LeBron James to Kawhi Leonard, we’ve seen the biggest names in the league leave money on the table to take the fate of their careers into their own hands.

Some people have maligned these superstars for flexing their muscles, which isn’t completely fair. The way players have engineered their exits from teams has typically been downright messy, which explains the negative response from fans, but ultimately we are talking about people unhappy with their situation looking for a change in the only ways allowed by the rules. Even in the instances in which superstars look for personnel control or elevated status within a franchise, they are only demanding perks that most people with their level of relevance to an institution’s success should look for. Assassinating their characters for trying to exert agency over their careers is unreasonable.

But no one should laud them as labor leaders for it, either. Individual acts of defiance or self-determination can be inspiring to a group, but they are just not and never will be a replacement for strong collective bargaining. Furthermore, we shouldn’t confuse an elite group having choices with empowerment for the entire class of players. Leonard forcing his way out of San Antonio didn’t help anyone but himself. LeBron signing short-term deals to gain personnel input and establishing a powerful agency who can get its clients paid only helps those clients. Klutch Sports is not the ominous presence it’s often accused of being, but it also doesn’t represent all players. The players’ union does.

In fact, the individual actions of these superstars, while understandable, could have an indirect negative impact in overall player empowerment. The negative public perception they have created, fair or not, could give the league an excuse to push for more money and potentially even more control in the next bargaining agreement. It will be virtually impossible for the next CBA to institute rules that can prevent superstars from continuing to exert de facto power, but if the NBA looks for a win in the next negotiations to appease its owners and fans, the ones who will likely suffer will be the same players who have no control over their careers now.

That’s the worst case scenario. Hopefully by the time the current CBA expires, this discussion will have become a thing of the past. The league is in a healthy place, with superstars more spread out now than in recent years and a lot of exciting young talent joining yearly. There are fewer awful owners, and Adam Silver appears to be a more flexible and progressive commissioner than his predecessor. The union has strong leadership now, so we could actually see some changes that actually provide player empowerment without hurting the semblance of competitive balance the NBA has on the horizon. Legalized gambling should provide a windfall that could grease the wheels of the negotiations between the two sides.

The league and union have a lot of work ahead of them if the goal is to actually improve the NBA. All we fans and media can do to help them along the way is to be vigilant about what narratives we choose to believe. Whether we see ourselves as staunch supporters of labor, even when it comes to millionaire athletes, or simply customers who care only about getting the best product possible, we need to realize that any debate about player empowerment versus the well being of the NBA as a whole demands nuance.

Unfortunately, so far the whole discussion has devolved into either seeing superstars as entitled brats threatening the sanctity of the game or labor heroes looking to upend the system when in reality they are neither. The sooner we move on from that false dichotomy, the sooner we could have an actual productive debate on player empowerment.