NBA stars discover the limits of the era of player empowerment


A few months ago, the Netflix cameras rolled as Kevin Durant sat across from David Letterman touting the wonders of cannabis for athletes. “I’m actually stoned right now,” he joked. Durant was his usual self: even-keeled, stoned and mostly stone-faced, hard to read despite how often we hear about him.

One of Durant’s only irrefutable insights is the vague but defining Biography Twitter he’s had for more than a decade, “I’m me, I’m doing, and I’m chilling” — whether he’s lighting up a joint or an entire franchise. He left Oklahoma City. He left Golden State after winning two titles. And as Marc Stein said on his Substack this week, “He really wants that trade in Phoenix or Miami or maybe even Boston or Philadelphia, whatever that does to his reputation.”


Audiences tried to figure out Durant’s motives by hanging on to his every word, like and following. Durant usually responds by dawdling or philosophizing, wondering why the question of whether he’s happy keeps real estate on everyone’s mind in the first place. The answer is simple: his quirks have league-wide implications, and he has many quirks.

Durant took the lessons of LeBron James, the patron saint of would-be superstars, to a new level. The Lakers and Nets lured James and Durant by agreeing to the same deal: giving superstars a seat at the table in exchange for championships, glory, etc. But with only one title between them and little clarity on what their training camp rosters will look like. months, the Lakers and Nets have become a cautionary tale about the limits of player empowerment. Even James takes the reins off. Well positioned to use his looming free agency to pressure the Lakers into making winning moves now, he instead signed a two-year extension on Wednesday, seemingly letting them off the hook.

Durant, meanwhile, continues to push and test his limits. He wants Kyrie. He wants DeAndre Jordan. He wants Steve Nash. Wait, scratch all that. In fact, he wants out. Still, 50 days after asking for a trade, Durant hasn’t gotten his wish, and the latest odds suggest he’ll start the season in Brooklyn.

It takes enthusiasm to walk into a meeting with Nets President Joe Tsai and demand a reversal of the exact decisions you asked him to make. It turns out that Tsai has enthusiasm too.

The stubborn team owner is an NBA archetype who has been endlessly psychoanalyzed: his confidence, fueled by his success in another area, can make them delirious and prying participants in the complicated business of building a team, trusting his whims rather than the recommendations of his staff.

Sound familiar?

Durant and Irving’s original plan to team up came to fruition at the Olympics, and their time in Brooklyn has every conception of a business idea dreamed up by friends sitting across from each other on a train. to think until dawn: both wacky and viable, daydreamers with little thought about potential downsides, fueled by the belief that their bond could forge something great. (And Jordan was there too, so even if he doesn’t bring as much to the table, out of loyalty to the kinetic energy of the moment, he needs to get a cut.)

Ironically, it was the Brooklyn feature that drew Irving and Durant there instead of the Knicks. Before landing Durant, Nets general manager Sean Marks took a slate of barren talent or assets, made cautious trades, beefed up the team’s infrastructure and made the playoffs with castaways and second-round picks. Why, with a seat at this particular table, would KD and Kyrie want to turn it all over?

Control has been central to James and Durant’s playbooks. In Cleveland, where James likely never trusted Gov. Dan Gilbert, he consistently signed short-term extensions and made “suggestions” from the podium. In 2015, when the Cavs front office became concerned about the trade of JR Smith, whose reputation in the locker room was questionable, James doubled on the power of his presence: “Bring him here and I’ll take care of him,” he said.

It worked and the Cavaliers won a title. So LeBron tried the same maneuver again in Los Angeles. Of course, if the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook, they would hamper their depth, defense and spacing. It didn’t take a basketball geek to realize that Westbrook, a historically stubborn and ball-dominant star, might struggle to function in James’ orbit. But after an injury-riddled season, James wanted star reinforcements to help grind out the 82-game season. Load management probably shouldn’t play a big role in roster modification decisions for a team with Finals aspirations, but we’re not the ones with creaky knees. Los Angeles closed the deal, forming a new Big Three with James, Westbrook and Anthony Davis. The trio had “Now it’s gonna be fun” vibes from the jump, fueled by the belief that any flaws could be masked by the collective power of their superstar. In reality, it simply blinded them to fatal flaws in their roster construction.

James also changed his tone on his own ideas. Last summer, he pushed the Lakers to trade for Westbrook over Buddy Hield, the type of marksman he’s thrived with throughout his career. Now he wants them to trade Westbrook for Irving, which could solve one problem while creating another.

I’m not against players leveraging their power. If power is a void, I prefer that they fill it. Hire your personal trainers, turn your team into your best friend’s agency agent, get your coach and security officer on staff payroll. Seriously, go for it. It’s your world. But sometimes it’s okay to listen when your spaceless private team wants to trade for a dead-eye shooter or to understand that your talent alone won’t make up for giving a hard-working veteran big man some real minutes in the modern NBA.

Giving players a say in roster decision-making, at its best, is Additive, a partnership that empowers genius basketball minds — who can add special insight to their on-court experience — to have a place at the table. Think of James Harden bringing in stars and helping organize actors in Houston, and now taking a pay cut in Philly to do the same; or Steph Curry being part of the pitch meeting that brought Durant to Golden State, where Draymond Green also attends scouting meetings.

James, whose initial four-year contract in Los Angeles was longer than any contract he signed in Cleveland, has been more of a partner than a dictator in Los Angeles. The Lakers don’t have still found a perfect balance. A few too many Klutch contracts hampered the Lakers’ cap flexibility. They have Davis and a title, but they don’t have a really capable roster to compete for a title yet. Still, LeBron signed an extension that will lock him in until he turns 40, trading the threat of a guillotine and trusting the Lakers with his twilight. Stein says Lakers ready to trade 2027 and 2029 picks in deal that would come backturn them into competitor status, and apparently Irving fits that definition. LeBron didn’t put the sword down, but neither did he point it directly at the Lakers’ eyes. This may allow them to see the landscape more easily.

And if not, maybe he could just demand a trade.