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Davis trade shows how much power players hold in today’s free agency

The shift has been years in the making since the days of Oscar Robertson

Thanks in large part to team president Masai Ujiri and superstar player Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors will hold a parade on Monday to celebrate the franchise’s first NBA title and the first NBA title won outside the continental United States.

Ujiri and Leonard represent an evolving power dynamic in the NBA: unprecedented muscle-flexing by players in a league that is nearly 80 percent black and respect for that power by front offices and ownership.

After a long and nasty tug-of-war, Leonard forced the San Antonio Spurs to trade him; Anthony Davis forced his way out of New Orleans and was traded on June 15 to the Los Angeles Lakers in a blockbuster deal orchestrated by agent Rich Paul.

Paul represents Davis and the Lakers’ LeBron James.

Regardless of which franchises hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the future, the reality is that NBA players are winning.

Before he ruptured his Achilles tendon last week in Toronto, free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant held the NBA world by a string with a multitude of choices and options. Even with Durant’s injury and diagnoses of missing next season, teams may still be lining up as suitors for his services.

The power of free agency is on full display.

“It’s a players’ league now, and players get to dictate their future,” NBA veteran Baron Davis told me last week in Oakland, California. Davis played 17 NBA seasons and hit free agency twice, once using it to leave Golden State, the second time to sign with the New York Knicks.

Mostly, Davis was traded.

“The players have actually figured out that it’s more about their well-being, and that’s allowing the league to evolve and change,” Davis said. “You’re going to see a lot more parity and you’re going to see guys leaving to different cities, gaining power and reclaiming power.”

After Monday’s parade in Toronto, the stress begins.

The Raptors’ front office, the city of Toronto and perhaps the entire country will hold their breath to see whether Leonard will stay in Toronto or exercise his rights in free agency.

In either case, the pendulum has swung in favor of NBA players, and it has been a long time coming.

With each successive year, beginning in 1954 when Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy decided that the players needed to form a union, player power has increasingly flexed its muscle: Oscar Robertson sued the NBA for free agency; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced his way out of Milwaukee and into a trade with the Lakers.

Anthony Davis made clear in midseason that he no longer wanted to be in New Orleans. Years ago, Davis would’ve been banished and punished because players were the sole property of the team. In his biography about Cousy, The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and What Matters in the End, author Gary Pomerantz relates the story of then-rookie Gene Shue telling Philadelphia Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb that he was shorted $10 in his pay.

“You sure?” Gottlieb asked. He handed over the $10 and, a few weeks later, traded Shue to the Knicks.

The tide has shifted to a large degree; star players such as Davis can dictate terms more than ever. In addition, if Davis does not like the way the Lakers do business, after next season he will be free to explore other options in free agency.

Free agency has forced teams to step up their game. “At this point it’s not about the players,” Davis said. “It’s about upper management: who is smart enough to know how to put together the right roster at the right time and build the right thing. The pressure now is on coaches, ownership and management and not so much the players, because it’s a players’ league.”

The confluence of social media and free agency has empowered players to tell their truths, or at least give their perspectives about an organization.

“Before they could treat you, they could trade you, they could talk to you crazy, they could create the narrative that they needed to create in order to decrease or increase your value, but the players never really had the power in their hands,” Davis said. “Players had no power in their hands to articulate their own storyline. Now, if I am not wanted here, I can say exactly what is wrong with the team or what was wrong with my situation. I can tell my side of it, and that may increase my value and decrease the value of the team.”

Let’s not get it twisted: Billionaire owners still write the checks, build the arenas, forge partnerships with media conglomerates and create benefits that accrue to the benefit of the players. The majority of players still get traded at the front office’s whim.

But organizations, because of free agents, have been forced to recognize that players build their franchises.

“Players are much more aggressive and making clear how they feel about certain teams,” said Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. “Free agency does put the onus on the team to work on upping their game. Want good players? Want good players to stay? Then make it attractive. Have good, decent practice facilities. Have great trainers, good doctors. Be mindful of travel. All those things make a difference in the quality of the player’s life and, frankly, in the success of the teams overall.”

This is a new day, as it should be.

Too often, athletes are treated differently from the rest of the working population. They are criticized, as Davis and Leonard were, when they want to leave the city in which they play.

The underlying idea is that athletes, especially black athletes, should be grateful for being paid to play a game.

“​I think part of it is this notion that you should be grateful that you’re being paid to play a game,” Roberts said. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Nobody says that about actors and actresses: You should be grateful that you’re being paid to pretend to be somebody. Or a musician: You should be grateful that you’re being paid to play a violin or play a piano.

“Everyone agrees that these are gifts, but for some reason, the gift of athleticism is treated differently than the gift of painting or music or acting.

“There’s absolutely no explanation for that.”

In 2016, Kevin Durant arguably became the face of player choice and empowerment when he left Oklahoma City and joined the Golden State Warriors. He was criticized, and still is, for leaving. James was harshly criticized for leaving Cleveland for Miami and again for leaving Cleveland a second time, this time for Los Angeles.

“I’ve never stopped being offended by people who claim that a player’s decision not to stay with the team, but to instead go someplace else, is outrageous,” Roberts said.

”When I hear people say, ‘Oh, these players, they’re running the league,’ I just want to strangle them and say, ‘In your own personal life, you would be outraged if someone told you that you couldn’t work at a certain place or you had to work at a certain place.’ ”

“Free agency ain’t free right now for our players. There’s not complete independence of movement. It’s totally better than it was when the reserve clause was in effect, but it’s still not freedom of movement.” — Michele Roberts

In any event, for all the progress players have made since 1954, there are enough restrictions and conditions placed on players to restrict movement.

“Free agency ain’t free right now for our players,” Roberts said. “There’s not complete independence of movement. It’s totally better than it was when the reserve clause was in effect, but it’s still not freedom of movement.”

Even the draft is counter to the freedom that most workers routinely enjoy.

“The notion that a player or anybody, that any human being, especially an American, would be told, ‘This is where you have to work and you can’t move from that space, nor can anyone entice you from moving to another space,’ was always a bizarre circumstance to me,” she said.

“The notion that you’d start out your professional life being told where you were going to work, being obligated to stay at that place for any number of years, then having to wait until a certain number of years have passed before you can make decisions about where you wanted to live and raise your children and all that is outrageous. But this is the system that we operate under. It can only be altered via the collective bargaining, and until that happens, then these are the rules that we have to comply with.”

There has been talk about someday ending the draft as we know it and allowing players to negotiate in a truly free market. There has been no hue and cry among players to launch that initiative. For Roberts, the imperative is keeping pressure on organizations via free agency to respect the reality that players make the league.

“I think the better way to deal with it is to continue to force the discussion about the quality of the team,” Roberts said. “If they’ve realized, and I think they have, that you can’t keep an Anthony Davis, for example, in New Orleans by saying, ‘OK, you’re going to miss out on all this money if you go to the Kings.’ Guys have been willing to say, ‘I’ll sacrifice that 10, 20, 30 million dollars. I don’t want to play for you.’ ”

Free agency has forced teams to do a level of soul-searching that once was unheard-of. “Teams are asking themselves, ‘What are we doing wrong that guys don’t want to play for us? What is Oklahoma City doing right such that they got a Paul George?’ ”

Increasingly, player choices are being influenced less by geography and more by the competency of an organization’s front office.

“Before, teams were the gatekeepers and cardholders of a player’s future and destiny. Now, the players have that power. It’s an incredible situation.” — Baron Davis

“It’s not a question of L.A. or New York,” Roberts said. “Guys are making decisions based on the quality of the organization. If the teams are competing for players, they can’t simply say, ‘OK, well, I’ll just have a bad team.’

“They can, but they shouldn’t be able to say, ‘I’ll just have a bad team and I’ll be able to get the No. 1 draft pick.’ You should have to compete like every other in this group to get the best talent. The bottom line is, NBA teams should not be able to get a pass on making themselves competitive and attractive. If they do that, then they’ll get good players. If they don’t do that, then they shouldn’t get good players.”

Toronto waits on Leonard, Boston waits on Kyrie Irving, New Orleans mourns the loss of Davis, Los Angeles anticipates a new dynasty.

This is player power, and it’s only increasing. The next step is unity and acting in concert.

“Before, teams were the gatekeepers and cardholders of a player’s future and destiny,” Davis said. “Now, the players have that power. It’s an incredible situation.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.