In the aftermath of Anthony Davis’ bold and somewhat bizarre trade request, as fans who chafe at LeBron James throwing his power around reacted with distaste, a thread of the conversation turned toward Klutch Sports’ propriety and the emerging heel turn of increasingly empowered star players.
With all apologies for singling him out, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons has been at the vanguard of this topic. In a February podcast with Ryen Russillo, Simmons suggested stars like LeBron and Davis — both represented by Klutch Sports founder and longtime James friend Rich Paul — had taken player power too far. In Simmons’ mind, they were no longer using it to escape unfair situations, but to seek their own desires to the detriment of the broader ecosystem. Basically, he implied that these stars who have gained power through their own flexes were misusing that power. Simmons said that player power “is going too far.”
This misunderstands the nature of power and why people seek it.
LeBron and Paul didn’t start this generational fight for player power to benefit the NBA or simply to damage unfair systems. They fight these fights explicitly to improve their situations and the situations of fellow star players.
When LeBron became the first superstar to actively pursue a rookie extension shorter than the maximum allowable term in 2006, starting a trend that immediately came in vogue and continues today, that wasn’t about acquiring power for the good of the league. It was about acquiring power for the good of LeBron.
When LeBron left the Cavaliers in 2010 to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to go on a championship binge, that wasn’t about acquiring power to right the wrongs of the NBA. It was to get LeBron some rings and blaze a path for future LeBrons to do whatever the hell they wanted, regardless of what the NBA ecosystem thought should be done.
Player empowerment is just that: it is the empowerment of players to create their own priorities, their own destinies, their own ecosystem, their own thoughts of what should be done.
What Klutch is doing by having its greatest young star (Davis) make a trade request 18 months before his contract is up with the express purpose of teaming up said young star with Klutch’s patriarch (LeBron) is probably not good for the NBA. Why should that matter to Klutch, to LeBron, to Davis? It’s good for Davis, LeBron, and Klutch if it works. (It did not … yet.)
Tanking is not good for the NBA, but teams are doing it right now because they have the power to do so (stealthily) and it is in their interest. The Pelicans holding onto Davis for the summer sweepstakes and then trying to play him as little as possible — essentially hiding one of the top five players in the NBA — is not good for the NBA, but New Orleans is doing it right now because the franchise has the power to do so and it is in the team’s interest.
This is how power traditionally works in the NBA: teams have all the power, and they use it to their benefit, damn the consequences to the broader ecosystem. Very occasionally, the teams mutually agree to change the power structure as a result of the consequences. Draft lottery reform is an example of this — and you see how long that took and how relatively watered down the reform ended up being.
Now, superstar players have opened a wing in the league’s power structure. Klutch is pushing the boundaries of what power is attainable.
Some of its power plays work. Tristan Thompson is on a massive contract. Eric Bledsoe got both a huge contract when he wanted it and a new team when he (sort of) requested it. LeBron essentially invented the mini-max and the one-year-plus-a-player-option contract, and both have been used to empower LeBron and other players. (Interestingly, Kevin Durant’s use of the 1+1 in Golden State seems to be the source of his early-season beef with new Klutch client Draymond Green.)
Some of Klutch’s plays do not work, Davis’ gambit being the obvious example (so far). But it was not foolish of Davis and Klutch to try it.
If Davis no longer wants to be in New Orleans and has no intention of signing the super-max contract extension this summer, and if it is within his power to try to get out sooner rather than later, what does he owe to anyone to wait? The Pelicans had the power to tell him no, and they did, even if that damaged the NBA in the short term (by taking a superstar essentially out of action) as much as Davis’ ploy might have in the long term (by encouraging future early trade requests).
This is what power is.
Perhaps in the past, player empowerment perfectly aligned with morality. Curt Flood, Spencer Haywood, and Oscar Robertson are legends for fighting for their own agency and winning.
But power doesn’t have to be wielded for good. Power can be entirely selfish. NBA teams do it every day. Now, players are starting to feel more comfortable doing the same, even outside of free agency.
That’s what player power means. You don’t have to like it, but you should get comfortable with Klutch pushing the boundaries of what player power truly means.