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Free at last: Why it’s good for basketball when NBA stars demand trades

The best players want to win, whether they’re pros or playing pickup

Basketball players have never been so free.

Kristaps Porzingis is just the latest NBA star to snap his fingers and reappear in another city. Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard all forced owners to trade them out of town. Anthony Davis got next. LeBron James has gamed free agency to go where and when he pleases. Even a disgruntled role player like J.R. Smith was able to push his way out of Cleveland — and he’s still getting paid while sitting at home, waiting for the trade to happen.

In the college game, 40 percent of Division I players transfer by their sophomore year, about a 50 percent increase over the last decade. Nowadays, some guys don’t even wait for the end of the season — they bounce midsemester and go straight to a new campus. On Final Four contender Nevada, the top seven scorers are from other colleges — and that’s not counting the two transfers sitting out because they arrived a few weeks ago.

High school transfer numbers are hard to count, but thousands of players each year evade rules designed to discourage switching schools for athletic reasons. On the AAU level, kids change jerseys like President Donald Trump swaps out chiefs of staff.

No wonder we got bros in different area codes. They’ve been on the move since middle school.

The ’90s old head in me feels like we lost something with all this movement. It seems connected to the desire for instant gratification, shortening attention spans and a tendency to avoid facing facts by creating virtual realities. Adversity builds character, right? Players skip town when they lose out on minutes or shots or ‘chips, but like Teddy Pendergrass said in ’77: “Everywhere you go, there you are.”

As we hoopers say, ball is life. Marriage in America is on the decline. Divorce rates ain’t pretty. But ball is big business too. When you consider the historically exploitative framework of basketball economics, the rise in player movement starts to make more sense.

If New Orleans can’t or won’t put Davis in position to compete for a championship, why should he waste the prime of his career there? Grown men should be treated as grown men. On a business level, players are negotiating against owners, most of whom were titans of industry before they bought their franchises. Now that players have figured out how to outsmart some of America’s richest men, it feels like they’re beating these coldblooded boardroom killers at the game above the game.

I’ll root for players over owners every time. (Well, maybe with a couple of exceptions.) Owners and general managers should be punished for incompetence, or even just miscalculation, by losing top talent. This is the NBA version of what happens in European soccer when teams at the bottom of the standings get relegated to a lower level. That’s where the New York Knicks and Pelicans are headed after bungling their relationships with Porzingis and Davis.

If New Orleans can’t or won’t put Davis in position to compete for a championship, why should he waste the prime of his career there?

In college, coaches have been transferring for years, seeking better opportunities with little pushback. And with the NCAA’s continued refusal to share its billions with athletes, it’s hard to blame a young man who wants to employ the rules to his advantage. In high school, students are allowed to move to the science, music or theater program of their choice. Basketball should be no different, especially when a potential college scholarship is at stake.

Let’s not forget that as recently as 1976, NBA players were bound to their teams for life, or until owners kicked them to the curb. That system was ended by the great Oscar Robertson, who sued the NBA to give players their freedom.

Now we have reached the logical endpoint of that arc. I’ve heard some porch-to-lawn hollers about the game being ruined or Michael Jordan never would have teamed up with another star — as if Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were, like, E’Twaun Moore and Julius Randle.

Today’s unprecedented player movement is exactly what Robertson fought for. In a 2017 interview with The Undefeated, Robertson connected this era to the freest essence of basketball, the pickup game, in which players choose the best teammates they can find. Pickup warriors are quick to snatch up a highflier from the team that just lost. They’ll pass up next and sit out a game to run with a squad that can hold the court all day.

“What do you do?” said the Big O. “You look around and you get guys who can play basketball.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.