- - Monday, July 8, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

An NBA superstar can drastically change a team’s fortunes all by himself. The same isn’t true of elite players in football and baseball.

Star quarterbacks and pass rushers are on the sideline for nearly half the game. They’re among 22 starters (not counting specialists and special teamers). In baseball, aces’ contributions are limited to roughly three games every two weeks, while sluggers get about four at-bats per contest. They’re among nine starters (10 in the American League).

But top NBA players are just one-fifth of their starting lineups. They have the ability to be on court for 80 percent of the game or more. Their impact is clear, significant and immediate.

In 2003-04, rookie LeBron James led Cleveland in scoring and minutes played – and was second in assists – and the Cavaliers won 35 games after winning just 17 the year before. Last season, Dallas won nine more games than the previous campaign, paced by NBA Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic, who merely led the team in scoring and assists, while ranking second in rebounds and minutes.

We’re accustomed to the outsized power and influence NBA stars wield on the hardwood.



But we’re just getting used to the command they can exert in a front office, essentially wresting their career paths from general managers.

I suppose the paradigm shift is uncomfortable for many fans and observers, especially those who swear by the old-school arrangement where players are team property more than independent mercenaries.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh flipped the script when they joined forces in South Beach. Kevin Durant made short-term commitments with player options fashionable over the past few seasons. Some stars – including Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving – have perfected the art of the trade request.

Sometimes, a player doesn’t have to make a request at all; he can set the wheels in motion by simply telling his team that a long-term contract extension isn’t going to happen.

The NBA’s latest self-made power duo – the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George – are prime examples of the new player-team dynamics. Leonard left nearly $70 million on the table when he turned down San Antonio’s supermax extension and subsequently was traded to Toronto last July. George was intent on declining a $20.7 million player option from Indiana before the Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City in July 2017.

But I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a free agent engineer a blockbuster trade for the team he wants to sign with.

All it took was the market’s premier free agent (Leonard) convincing one of the league’s top stars (George) to request a trade – even though the latter signed a four-year contract last summer. From all indications, the thought of leaving OKC hadn’t entered George’s mind until Leonard planted the seed of returning home.

(Memo: Never let it be said that front-office gurus are neutered as players call their own shots. New Orleans Pelicans exec David Griffin extracted a tremendous package from the Lakers when he traded Davis, and Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti topped that impressive haul in dealing George to the Clippers for two starters and five – FIVE! – first-round picks. When teams like the Los Angeles twosome are desperate, with stars in their eyes, astute GMs can make the transactions worthwhile.)

Critics of self-determination might fret. But the players’ schemes, along with executives’ shrewd roster-building moves in other outposts, have resulted in a slew of legitimate title contenders. Next season promises to be as unpredictable as the past five seasons were certain, with Golden State advancing to the Finals.

The NBA thought it could buy a level of stability through supermax contracts, allowing teams to offer their own players significantly more money than other franchises. But some players informed the league that their desires and freedom of choice aren’t for sale.

They’ll gladly forsake millions of dollars to play with their friends. Or play in their hometown. Or play in a market they always dreamed about.

Even when players prove it’s not all about the money, they’re still subject to backlash. (Hmm.)

“I think you can’t blame a guy for wanting to go home,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse told reporters Saturday after Leonard’s decision. “That’s what he texted me today: ‘I’m going home.’”

But some people question why Leonard would consider leaving Toronto, or how Durant could think about departing Golden State. They lambaste Davis for requesting a trade 18 months prior to free agency and they criticize George for asking out just one year after re-upping.

According to the naysayers, players should express gratitude, not exercise control.

But it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. The current NBA superstars can be thankful and powerful, too.

And they’ve only just begun to flex their muscles.

• Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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