Tag: Kawhi Leonard

Free agency is a lie that keeps NBA players shackled to teams

Athletes are born free. They need ability to chose where they play in their careers.

By William C. Rhoden

“Take advantage of it. You only come this way once. When it’s gone, it’s gone. You’re not going to be able to come back and play anymore.” — Oscar Robertson’s advice to NBA free agents


Big O Day in the NBA begins on Sunday as NBA free agents make decisions that will change their lives and alter the landscape of the NBA.

The Big O is Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. But Robertson’s most enduring claim to fame is his gift to generations of NBA players: free agency.

Robertson sued the NBA for free agency in 1970 when he was president of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). In 1976, two seasons after Robertson retired, the NBA settled. The result has been a succession of relatively unshackled pro basketball players who have been able to shop their talents on the open market.

History for many young people can seem hazy and irrelevant. But there is a direct line from Robertson to the multimillion-dollar contracts that will be signed by NBA players beginning Sunday.

The intent of his lawsuit was simple: Players wanted to be free to choose when they wanted to play for a different team, when they wanted to be free to shop their services to the highest bidder.

When Robertson filed his lawsuit in 1970, teams kept players in place until the owners were ready to discard them. Today, star players do the discarding.

Will Kawhi Leonard discard the Toronto Raptors? Will Kevin Durantdiscard the Golden State Warriors? Will Kemba Walker discard the Charlotte Hornets? In each case, the conversation is about players exercising a hard-won freedom of choice.

“We’re talking about what is this player going to decide to do for himself,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said. “What is KD going to decide he wants to do? What does Kyrie want to do? I think this is great because we’re speculating about what these men are going to decide, not what some teams have decided.”

She added: “I think it can be somewhat distracting to the player, but I find it absolutely joyful that at the end of the day we’re talking about a player’s exercise of where he wants to spend the next part of his career. I have no complaints about it. I think it’s good for the game. It’s another thing that keeps basketball in the conversation.”

Still, free agency is far from complete. Only a relatively small number of players are free.

This is the next field of battle for NBA players: total and complete freedom of choice.

This means dismantling the current system, especially the draft. The NBA draft is a veritable welfare system for billionaire owners that rewards incompetence in the name of keeping an artificial playing field level.

The arguments against total freedom in the NBA are familiar: Unfettered free agency will be the death of the league. The big markets will get all of the best players.

“Without a draft, I think you’d see the big markets would gain all the players,” NBA TV analyst Billy King told me during a recent interview. King served as president of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets.

If players gain total freedom of choice, King fears that NBA teams would lavish high-profile incoming rookies with all the money at the expense of veterans.

“What would happen is the unproven younger players would be getting all the money and you would squeeze out a lot of the veteran guys,’’ King said. “Teams would say, ‘I’m going to pay Zion Williamson, I’m going to pay RJ Barrett. I’m going to pay all these guys because they’re younger.’ With the cap system, you wouldn’t have money for the older players.”

The reality is that every player cannot go to the Los Angeles Lakers. Every player does not want to go to the New York Knicks, or the Brooklyn Nets, or the Chicago Bulls.

And there are ways to make total freedom work and still make the playing field level, by limiting the amount of money a team can spend. For example, the rookie scale could stay in place, but first-year players would be free to negotiate with any of the 30 teams. A player like Williamson would be free to negotiate with any team, but a team — the Lakers, for example — could not say, “We’ll pay you $50 million a year to play for us.”

If the amount of money teams can spend on talent is equal, everything else comes down to which franchise does the best job of marketing itself and running efficiently.

The larger concept is that players, all players, must be free to negotiate in an open market. Free agency works in every other industry. It can work well in sports.

Athletes are born free. And they already live much of their athletic lives as free agents.

They have choices and make choices: which middle school to attend, which AAU program to play for, which high school to attend. The best of the lot have colleges begging for their services. And even those athletes who do not get offers from their first and second choices can choose between third and fourth.

But then the pro leagues create an artificial barrier, a restraint of trade, with a draft that robs players of their freedom.

The fascinating aspect of the NBA draft is that the league has managed to turn this restrictive system into a celebration, not unlike Christmas Eve. I often imagine the antebellum South and the largest plantations holding a draft to choose corn-shucking teams. It’s not the same, but it is quite the same.

Players begin their professional careers being told where they will work and how long they will stay there before they can make a decision about where they want to live and raise a family.

Dismantling the draft will take time because so many have been brainwashed about its usefulness — indeed, its necessity. Parents, players, an entire community embrace the draft as a liberating holiday, when it really is not.

“It’s remarkable because the draft is so presumed to be a part of the way sports operates that there’s an assumption that it’s a perfectly legitimate and necessary evil,” Roberts told me recently. “That’s why I say, I don’t think it’s changing anytime soon because it’s so ingrained in the psyche of fans and players and future players.”

And that is why the freedom revolt will be brought about by players not yet indoctrinated.

“Are the rookies strong enough as a class to say, ‘We don’t want to do it?’ I don’t know,” Roberts said, referring to players refusing to participate in the draft. “Will the players’ association do another Oscar Robertson or Spencer Haywood and find a kid that’s willing to say, ‘I’m not going, I don’t want to be drafted,’ and then challenge the system? It takes someone willing to make a sacrifice. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

I do.

There are athletes-turned-revolutionaries in every generation.

Who could have anticipated Paul Robeson? Who could have predicted Muhammad Ali? Who could have guessed that Wilma Rudolph would return from a triumphant Rome Olympic Games and force her hometown of Clarksdale, Tennessee, to hold its first integrated parade and banquet?

Who would have predicted that star outfielder Curt Flood would face down Major League Baseball by refusing to be traded? Who would have guessed that a pair of sprinters from San Jose State would sprint their way into immortality on the victory stand at the Mexico City Games in 1968?

Who could have predicted Colin Kaepernick?

For all the look of relative calm between players and the league, a battle for freedom is brewing.

At least two generations of NBA players have never been near a labor war.

“Some of them don’t think there’s a fight,” Roberts said.

They’ll soon learn.

In sports and out, freedom is not free. Never was, never will be.

The hate the Golden State Warriors received for signing DeMarcus Cousins

By Marc J. Spears                 July 26, 2018

OAKLAND, California — The NBA’s wild offseason has included DeMarcus Cousins going to the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard forcing his way off the San Antonio Spurs, DeMar DeRozan being traded by his beloved Toronto Raptors and Carmelo Anthony soon becoming a free agent. No summer news was hotter, however, than LeBron James’ decision to depart the four-time reigning Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers to join the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers.

James went from being an NBA Finals rival to a Pacific Division rival whom the reigning NBA champion Warriors will play at least four times next season. Warriors forward Kevin Durant told The Undefeated that he “loved” his fellow superstar’s decision to start over in Los Angeles.

“I thought it was the perfect decision, the perfect move,” Durant said during an Alaska Airlines-sponsored event at Oakland International Airport. “He did everything you’re supposed to do in Cleveland, the perfect next step for him. He’s kind of breaking down the barriers of what an NBA superstar is supposed to be. You feel like you’re supposed to just play it out in one spot. I think he did a good job of giving you different chapters. And it’s going to make his book more interesting when it’s done.”

The Warriors defeated James and the Cavaliers in three of the last four Finals. Now James is joining a Lakers team that includes fellow newcomers Rajon Rondo, ex-Warriors center JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley along with returners Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Lakers have not been to the playoffs since 2013.

Durant recently visited with James in Los Angeles, where the discussion seemed to be more about life than basketball.

“Just life. Excited about what lies ahead for him, for us as men more so than basketball players. Just breaking bread and showing love,” Durant said.

It will certainly be a major challenge for James and the Lakers to win an NBA title — or the Pacific Division, for that matter — because of the rich-getting-richer Warriors. The Warriors added a fifth All-Star to their team with the surprise free-agent signing of Cousins.

Durant is not surprised at the hate coming the Warriors’ way for landing Cousins.

“It was expected. Nobody likes a great thing. Greatness is rare, it’s different, and people don’t like different, so I get it. But I think for DeMarcus I liked his approach, our approach to it, coming in, wanting it just to be about basketball, once you look at it that way, it works out perfectly,” Durant said.

COURTESY OF ALASKA AIRLINES

Kevin Durant arrived in Las Vegas on July 25 for USA Basketball’s minicamp in an Alaska Airlines plane with two AAU boys’ and two AAU girls’ basketball teams from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. A Durant decal with his arms outstretched was on the side of the Boeing 737-900ER jet.

The Warriors earned the most surprising headline of free agency when Cousins decided to accept a one-year, $5.3 million midlevel contract. The 6-foot-10, 265-pounder averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists for the New Orleans Pelicans last season. The four-time NBA All-Star, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon on Jan. 26, told The Undefeated that he had no significant offers on the table during the first day of free agency on July 1. He called Warriors general manager Bob Myers on July 2 to tell him he would be willing to sign for the midlevel exception. Durant said he was shocked when Myers called to make him aware of the possibility of Cousins coming.

“I was like, ‘No way,’ ” Durant said. “Then I went to the movies throughout the day and I got like three or four calls in the movies I had to ignore, and when I got out it said it was finalized, and I FaceTimed DeMarcus and called Bob and was so excited because I knew how important this time was for DeMarcus to find a team, find somebody that was gonna help him kind of get through this injury first then play his best basketball, so I think it’s gonna be perfect for both spots, for him and for us.”

The Warriors have five 2018 NBA All-Stars in Cousins, Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Because of Cousins’ recovery, it is uncertain when he will play for the Warriors next season, and it could take time for him to jell with the team. Durant said adding Cousins gives the Warriors a “different team” in a positive way offensively.

“It gives us somebody that can score in the low post, that can demand a double-team and you can’t switch on him,” Durant said. “That gives us a different look. I feel like a lot of teams felt like they could switch their smalls onto our bigs, but you can’t do that with DeMarcus.

“But we’re not used to playing that way either. We’re playing with a scoring big [man] down low. So it’s going to be an adjustment, but I’m looking forward to it. Should be fun, should be a new injection of energy for us.”

So how do the Warriors make it work offensively with Cousins?

“Throw him the ball when he’s got a mismatch, throw me the ball when I’ve got a mismatch. If Klay’s open for a 3, pass it. Steph in the pick-and-roll, do your thing. Draymond play defense. … We’ll figure it out,” Durant said.

Durant re-signed with the Warriors for a two-year deal paying $61.5 million, with the second year a player option. The $5 million in savings from Durant’s deal offsets the $5.3 million midlevel tax that Golden State elected to use to sign Cousins. The nine-time All-Star averaged 26.4 points last season and earned his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP award.

Durant described his short-term contract with the Warriors as “the right thing to do for me.”

This wild NBA offseason included the Spurs trading disgruntled 2014 Finals MVP Leonard and guard Danny Green to the Raptors for DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a first-round draft pick. DeRozan publicly expressed his displeasure to ESPN’s Chris Haynes about the Raptors trading him without a verbal heads-up.

Durant was not surprised by the trade.

“Nothing in the NBA shocks me when it comes to business,” Durant said. “I’m excited that Kawhi was able to do what he wanted to do. I know DeMar was a little upset about the move, but I think in the long run it’s going to be great for basketball for both those guys. Kawhi getting the opportunity to control his own team from the small forward position, wanting to do the stuff that he wants to do in his last few years in San Antonio, he gets to showcase that in Toronto. And I think DeMar is going to work great with Coach Pop [Gregg Popovich] and just bring out the best in him. So it worked out well for both sides, I thought.”

Durant arrived to Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon via an Alaska Airlines plane with two AAU boys’ basketball teams and two AAU girls’ basketball teams from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Durant, an Alaska Airlines spokesman, surprised the L.A. kids by taking a flight with them to Oakland International Airport, where he surprised the Bay Area kids during the layover. A Durant decal with his arms outstretched was on the side of the Boeing 737-900ER jet.

The four AAU teams sported Durant’s new signature KD 11 shoe and his Nike gear while they were headed to Las Vegas to play in the Bigfoot Hoops Las Vegas Classic. Durant also played in the tournament during his youth. Durant will be taking part in USA Basketball’s minicamp on Thursday and Friday in Las Vegas, although Warriors teammates Curry and Green are not expected to attend.

Durant hoped the experience would “spark something and inspire” the teenage basketball players. His advice was to play the game for the love of it and if you are dedicated, focused and honest with yourself, the accolades will come.

“It’s surreal with everything that is going on. It’s something I can’t even script. To have all this stuff here that impacts so many up-and-coming basketball players is inspiring to me. It’s pretty cool that I get to do this. I never would take it for granted,” Durant said.

NBA players are getting a wake-up call about the business side

By William C. Rhodes.   July 23, 2018

We’ve written a great deal during the last couple of years about the empowerment of professional athletes, especially black athletes. Many are speaking out on issues, joining movements and using their considerable platforms to call attention to issues they feel are important.

But one thing many young athletes, and many old ones, lose track of is that professional athletes are employees. Unlike their fellow workers, professional athletes can be traded, dispatched from one part of the country to another without much consideration given to how trades affect the player’s equilibrium, family life or causes.

Many of the college players drafted last month into the NBA, for example, will not finish their careers with the teams that drafted them.

No matter how popular or even how talented they are, pro players are checkers and chess pieces to be moved around in a way that helps the franchise, not the player, reach its goal.

While most players say they know this, I’m always astounded by the reaction of veteran players when they are traded or released by a team for whom they have toiled for several seasons.

Two seasons ago, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, after completing an emotionally taxing season, expressed hurt and anger when he was traded from Boston to Cleveland.

Last week Kawhi Leonard, after weeks of lobbying for a trade, was shuttled from San Antonio to Toronto in exchange for Raptors star DeMar DeRozan. Each case involved muscle-flexing by the respective organizations that did what was best for the team, not necessarily for the player. In fact, the trades were executed with complete disregard for each player’s wishes.

Leonard made it clear that he wanted to be traded to Los Angeles. He wanted to go home. Maybe San Antonio, out of respect for all Leonard had done for the team and its community, could have accommodated the star’s wishes.

Instead, the organization sent Leonard out of the country, as far north as it could. If Mars were an option, they might have sent Leonard there. The Spurs’ message was clear: We don’t care where you’d rather be. You’ll go where we want you to go.

DeRozan’s case is a bit different, and while it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who will make $27.7 million a season, DeRozan is a sympathetic figure who is emblematic of the business of basketball. He did not see this coming and wanted to stay in Toronto.

DeRozan and Cleveland’s Kevin Love bravely recorded moving PSAs about suffering from depression. When he spoke to reporters last week, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri sang DeRozan’s praises. Ujiri also conceded that he may have misled DeRozan weeks ago in a conversation during the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League when the two discussed what the team would need from DeRozan going forward. The inference being that DeRozan would be on the team.

Thomas tweeted: “Just learn from my story. Loyalty is just a word in this game SMH.”

Perhaps it was because of all the pushback the organization received from NBA players, and from DeRozan himself. One player said Ujiri had stabbed DeRozan in the back.

Thomas tweeted: “Just learn from my story. Loyalty is just a word in this game SMH.”

On the other hand, players hear what they want to hear, and DeRozan may not have seen, or may not have wanted to see, the writing on the wall. What was peculiar about Ujiri’s news conference is that he apologized to DeRozan. In all my years of covering these sort of player wakes, when team officials explain why they traded a player, I cannot recall a GM apologizing to a player.

“It’s one of the tough things in this business,” Ujiri said. “We want to win, and I have to do everything to get us to a championship level, but there’s also the human side of this business. That’s the part I really struggle with the most. That’s what’s most difficult.”

Ujiri added: “I’m a loyal person. You build relationships in this business over the years. You have relationships with players and people, and the human part doesn’t make it easy at all.”

I know Ujiri to be a good human being. Unfortunately, the business he’s in, the business of pro basketball, is not first and foremost about being a good person when winning and your job are on the line.

Ujiri added: “I’m a loyal person. You build relationships in this business over the years. You have relationships with players and people, and the human part doesn’t make it easy at all.”

As he said: “I understand sports, and sports is about winning. I have a mandate to win, and that’s what I want to do is to win a championship, put the Toronto Raptors in a position to win.”

Toronto had gone as far as it could go with the team it had constructed, and team officials decided they could not go further unless a major change was made. Leonard is the change, but to make the change they had to sacrifice DeRozan.

“We’ve given a chance to this team. We tried to build it as much as we can,” Ujiri said. “We got to this level where this opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it.”

Although he plays a different sport, New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis understands why players react so emotionally to being traded, even when they know that’s what they signed up for. Davis was drafted by the New York Jets in 2012, signed with Cleveland in 2016 and then was sent back to the Jets in 2017.

“Most guys have always been loyal to the team they played for,” he said during a phone interview. “In high school, you represent whatever school you go to; whatever side of the city you’re on, you represent that. In college, it’s all about representing your college. When you get to the professional league, its different. Teams do what they feel they need to do for the next five years to make the team better. If a guy’s never been traded before, it comes as a shock.”

On the other hand, being traded is what you make of it and, more importantly, whether you choose to look at it as a positive or a negative.

Larry Nance learned that he had been traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Cleveland Cavaliers when he reported to the Suns’ arena on Feb. 25, 1988. Born in Anderson, South Carolina, Nance spent his first 6½ seasons with Phoenix before being traded to Cleveland, where he played for another 6½ seasons.

Being traded for the first time can do a number on a player’s psyche. “First of all, coming from South Carolina, I thought the only way you get traded is that they don’t want you or you’re doing something bad or something like that,” said Nance.

As Nance got older in the league he realized, in his case, he was in fact added value. “I got traded because I was a good player,” he said, referring specifically to the 1988 trade from Phoenix to Cleveland. “They decided to go in a different direction, so they used me to get some pieces to make their team better.”

When his son Larry Nance Jr. was traded from the Lakers to Cleveland in last midseason, Nance told him to look at the glass as being half full. “I warned him about all this stuff and that it doesn’t always mean that it’s something negative if you get traded. A lot of people think that,” Nance said. “It’s all a matter of how you look at things.”

Basketball is a game and a multibillion-dollar industry where the only things that really matter are the top line, the bottom line and fan satisfaction.

“I warned him about all this stuff and that it doesn’t always mean that it’s something negative if you get traded. A lot of people think that, “Nance said. “It’s all a matter of how you look at things.”

Some players learn this lesson later in their careers, while others find out immediately. Last month, the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Villanova’s Mikal Bridges. Great story: Hometown kid gets drafted by his hometown team. In addition, Bridges’ mother works for the 76ers’ vice president of human resources.

The bubble burst within minutes when the 76ers announced that they had traded Bridges to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith and a future draft pick. Bridges was initially crushed, but in the long term he should be flattered: The Suns wanted him badly, and that trumped the excitement of a great story.

That is the business of basketball.

A handful of players may have the ability to call their own shots.

The reality is that the vast majority are merely employees on leashes — gilded leashes, but leashes all the same.

They were all reminded last week that whenever it makes business sense, those leashes will be jerked.