The Clippers' mega-moves overnight for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George exposed the “superstar players have taken over the league” narrative.
Kawhi Leonard signing with the Los Angeles Clippers on the condition that the team trade for Paul George is the latest example of what some complain is “superstar players have taken over the league and the league is worse off as a result.”
I disagree for five reasons.
First, this characterization is factually wrong. The NBA’s economic system is the result of collective bargaining between league officials and governors on one side, and players and the National Basketball Players’ Association on the other.
All of the key stakeholders—not just players—are responsible for the economic system in which Leonard, George, the Clippers, the Toronto Raptors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder have operated in recent weeks. Stated differently, neither the league nor the players unilaterally imposed any of the rules relevant to Leonard and George joining the Clippers. Each side gave up, and each side got, as part of the give-and-take of labor-management bargaining that has occurred over the last decade.
Second, while the prevailing view is that the superstars are the main beneficiaries of the NBA’s economic rules, the league and franchise governors benefit considerably from this same system. Between collectively-bargained cost controls and lucrative broadcasting deals, franchise values have soared over the last decade—with those who possess equity in the franchises mainly enjoying that gain.
Along those lines, consider these four collectively-bargained measures: (1) franchises essentially evenly split basketball-related income (BRI) with players, who in previous CBAs received no less than 57% of BRI; (2) a rookie wage scale that artificially suppresses the salaries of new players; (3) a salary cap that, unlike in a salary cap-free league like Major League Baseball, prevents individual teams from spending as much they’d like; and (4) maximum salary levels that patently deny superstars of their true market value. If the superstars called all the shots, these types of rules wouldn’t exist. But because superstars, like other players, are in a union that negotiates rules, they must accept a set of rules that is borne through bargaining.
Further, the “superstars call the shots” narrative misses the role of trades. The same economic system that led Leonard and George to the Clippers is the system that led both players to be traded to teams—the Raptors and Thunder, respectively—that initially each was ambivalent about. If the superstars had total control, they would be able to block unwanted trades. This amplifies the point that players don’t call all the shots and that the league and franchises enjoy tremendous power over players.
Third, Thunder general manager Sam Presti didn’t “have to” trade George to the Clippers. George was under contract to the Thunder for three more seasons. His only leverage to force a trade would have been to hold out and not get paid. While under some degree of practical duress, the Thunder made the trade for basketball reasons, including the chance to acquire four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick and two pick swaps in addition to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. The Thunder also calculated the impact on their franchise if George had instead signed with the Lakers or Raptors. The larger point is that the Thunder made the trade, not George.
Fourth, some players are simply willing to forgo tens of millions of guaranteed dollars to form super teams. That’s not necessarily a system defect. The CBA incentivizes players to remain with their franchises by enabling the franchise to offer a 5-year contract instead of a 4-year contract and higher annual raises than other franchises’ max offers (8% instead of 5%). Leonard clearly was less interested in maximizing his earnings than in playing in a preferred environment—as a teammate of George and in front of family in his hometown of Los Angeles. As ESPN’s Bobby Marks tweeted last night, Leonard could have signed with the Spurs last year for $221 million or with the Raptors this year for $190 million. Instead, he signed with the Clippers for $141 million.
Is it Adam Silver’s fault, or the fault of the system, that Leonard didn’t prioritize maximizing his salary and instead placed significant value in non-monetary goals?
Put yourself in Leonard’s size 14 New Balance sneakers for a moment. According to Basketball Reference, Leonard has earned $84.5 million over his eight seasons in the NBA. He’s earned many additional millions through endorsement deals (opportunities for which, by the way, are probably enhanced by Leonard playing in a large media market like LA). And he’s about to be guaranteed another $141 million from the Clippers. Leonard’s in a position where he likely has more money than anyone would ever need. Within that context, maximizing his salary is understandably not his top goal.
Fifth, it’s not clear the NBA is any less competitive than in previous generations. Long before the current era with players being perceived as dealmakers, the NBA featured a small group of dominant teams that competed for a title every year. Likewise, as is the case today, there were teams that tended to lose season after season, despite securing top lottery picks.
Take the 1990s. One team, the Chicago Bulls, won six out of the 10 championships, while the Houston Rockets won two of the remaining four. Or take the 1980s. The Lakers and Celtics combined to win eight of the 10 championships. Speaking of the Celtics, they won every championship between 1959 and 1966, which was long before the advent of free agency.
Were those more competitive eras? Perhaps it’s not so much about the system as it is about the teams and players that make smart decisions within the system.
But the NBA could still improve the system, especially the tampering problem
One recurring challenge for the NBA is the enforceability of its anti-tampering rule. The rule is expressed in two versions, one of which is found in Articles 35 of the league constitution and the other in Article 35A. The rule applies to coaches, general managers, governors and players—yes, players—but not agents, since they are licensed by the NBPA and are not employed by either the league or a team. The rule prohibits any attempt to entice, induce or persuade a person who is under contract with another team to join a team that would benefit from the tampering.
As I detailed earlier this week, a number of NBA franchises blatantly disregarded free agency timing rules prior to June 30. They did so by contacting and negotiating with players and their representatives before agreed-upon start times. The teams, in other words, tampered. It does not appear that any will be sanctioned by fines or forfeiture of draft picks, nor will their free-agent signings be voided.
Tampering also appears to have played a role in the Clippers’ successful recruitment of Leonard and George. In May, the NBA fined the Clippers $50,000 after Rivers joined Magic Johnson, Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon in an ESPN panel discussion on the NBA finals. Rivers, who years ago was a commentator for Turner Sports and ABC Sports, spoke effusively about Leonard. Rivers went so far as to say, “Kawhi is the most like Jordan we've seen."
The NBA objected to Rivers, an executive on a team that hoped to sign Leonard away from the Raptors, flatteringly comparing Leonard to the greatest basketball player of all-time. It’s not clear if the remark played a factor in Leonard’s decision, but media reports indicate that Leonard was at least partly moved to sign with the Clippers due to a desire to play for Rivers. If that desire was enhanced by Rivers comparing Leonard to Jordan, Steve Ballmer—who is reportedly worth north of $50 billion—would surely regard the $50,000 fine as a wise investment.
It also appears that Leonard committed tampering in his quest to form a two-superstar team with George. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard and George met in Los Angeles earlier this week. Leonard then made it clear to the Clippers that he would only sign if the Clippers acquired George from the Thunder.
Given this sequence of events, it’s implausible to believe that Leonard and George didn’t discuss the possibility of the two playing for the Clippers and how to make that happen. If Leonard induced George, who was under contract to the Thunder, to join him on the Clippers, Leonard would have tampered.
The same would be true if LeBron James had urged Anthony Davis to force the New Orleans Pelicans to trade him to the Lakers, but not if Rich Paul—who as an agent is licensed by the NBPA, not the NBA—urged Davis, one of his clients, to join James, another of Paul’s clients, in Los Angeles.
The NBA has never publicly punished a player for tampering and has seldom taken steps to enforce the anti-tampering rule. Players openly recruit one another during the All-Star game and post photos of each other in different uniforms on Instagram. In 1999, the league at least contemplated punishing a player for tampering. Then-NBA commissioner David Stern publicly reprimanded Chicago Bulls center Will Perdue for comments about the possibility of Tim Duncan leaving the Spurs for the Bulls.
While in theory it may make sense for the NBA to enforce the anti-tampering rule on players, in practice it would be very hard to execute. Would the NBA “police” player-to-player communications? Of course not, as doing so would raise serious privacy concerns and pragmatic issues. Still, the league may want to “send a message” by making an example of a team or a player who brazenly violates the anti-tampering rule. It is within the league’s authority to void a contract if it was the result of tampering. The league can also forfeit a tampering team’s draft picks and convey them to the team or teams victimized by tampering.
As to more structural changes to prevent “super teams,” they would need to be collectively bargained with the NBPA. The current CBA runs through the 2023-24 season (with a mutual opt-out clause after the 2022-23 season). If players are willing to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars to join a preferred team, it’s not immediately clear how a free agent rule would prevent that from occurring. Perhaps the monetary gulf between what a team can offer its own player and what another team could offer might be widened—but that would only make a difference if the money was so meaningful that it changed decisions. The league could also explore limiting the number of all-stars on a team or some other measure along those lines. No matter what is discussed, the NBPA would have to agree.
And that goes back to the point at the top: neither the league nor the players call the shots. By virtue of a collective bargaining relationship, they call them together.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.