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Will the NBA’s superstar players exert power when it really matters?

In four seasons, teams and the league will likely push back against their freedom

During the last exciting month of the NBA season, we have been hearing a lot about player power. The unanswered question is whether NBA players will exert power when it really matters.

The current league collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2023-24 season, although each side can opt out after the 2022-23 season. When the agreement rolls around, the current crop of rookies (the class led by Zion Williamson) will be completing its fourth NBA season.

In five seasons, players such as Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Anthony Davis will be the veteran sages, being counted on to provide leadership and muscle. And the players are going to need all the muscle and leadership that players can muster.

We are likely at the beginning of a billionaire backlash.

In the last month, we have had wealthy white NBA owners caving in to the demands of young black men to be traded. We have seen these billionaire investors, who otherwise may have little to no contact with young black men, begging this special class of African Americans to come play in their sandboxes.

The Brooklyn Nets all but declared a national holiday when Kevin Durant and Irving agreed to come to the team. The LA Clippers continue to celebrate the signing of Leonard. George, who signed a contract extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer, forced his way out last week to join Leonard in Los Angeles. Davis signed a long-term contract with New Orleans and forced the multibillionaire Benson family not only to trade him but also to trade him to the city and team of his choice, the Los Angeles Lakers.

On June 6, I listened as Portland’s Damian Lillard spoke to reporters about player power and the effectiveness of player-on-player recruiting after he signed a four-year, $196 million extension. Lillard said the balance of power in the NBA has changed “because sometimes the coaches and the front offices, they don’t have as much power as the players.”

In the past, players had been programmed to resent one another, to see each other so thoroughly as foes and adversaries that they could not envision working together. Thanks to the AAU circuit, basketball has become like baseball in the way young players bond.

In baseball, they bond in the minor leagues, around batting cages and on bus rides. In basketball, they now bond as teammates and rivals on the AAU circuit, where their families form bonds.

“The players are so friendly now,” Lillard said, adding that a player like Michael Jordan was far too competitive to recruit. “Jordan probably didn’t go out searching and trying to get guys to come join him. It was, like, they was competing against each other.

“Now it’s, ‘Well, they got three stars on their team, so I know this guy and that guy, I’m going to try to get them to come to my team.’ ” Recruiting, Lillard said, “is more powerful than the pitch meeting. It’s become huge.”

But how will this power manifest when the owners push back? We likely are at the beginning of a backlash by multibillionaire NBA owners — sorry, “investors” — who have become tired of being pushed around by superstar players flexing their muscles under the banner: We are the league.

With the collective bargaining deadline at least four to five seasons away, more questions than answers, but questions demand answers.

What happens when these NBA investors become determined to change the terms and conditions of players getting into and staying in the NBA? When will they seek to close the loophole that allows players to “force their way” out of town?

Thanks to the AAU circuit, basketball has become like baseball in the way young players bond. They now bond as teammates and rivals on the AAU circuit, where their families form bonds.

Will players stand up to multibillionaire “investors” for whom they work? Will players stand shoulder to shoulder when these billionaires say enough is enough and demand, as they have in each negotiation, deep concessions?

In the past, investors have forced players to accept an age minimum and a lower percentage of league revenue. What happens when billionaire investors make the collective decision that they have had enough, that they want to make the NBA great again by putting players back in their places, remind them who is at the source of their wealth?

Will player power kick in when “investors” decide they are through with this dance?

Owners aren’t the only ones who want to see a change.

During a recent interview with Sirius NBA Radio, Lenny Wilkens, who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach, said he wasn’t a fan of players teaming up.

Asked if he thought the trend would continue, Wilkens, clearing speaking from a coach’s perspective, said “I hope not.

“I think the league has to make a judgment, has to step in and do something.”

Wilkens’ generation fought for and won free agency. “But for players to team up and say come play with me, let’s go here, let’s go there–I don’t think the league should allow that.”

He added, “I don’t like to see teams lose guys when they put so much effort into them without having the chance to re-sign the guy.”

A number of years ago, I asked Masai Ujiri the same question. At the time Ujiri, now the Toronto Raptors team president, was an executive with the Denver Nuggets and had engineered a blockbuster trade that sent Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups from Denver to the New York Knicks.

Asked at the time about unchecked player movement, he said, “I don’t think it’s a good thing; it’s not the greatest thing. I think we completely understand when people want change, but you want a good league,” he said.

The NBA is a players’ league, but the teams can determine which players. Will NBA teams put an even higher priority on bringing in talent from outside the United States, drafting and signing players who tend to be hungrier, more grateful, less entitled than the traditional pool of NBA players who come up through the high school, AAU and college pipeline? The influx of players from outside the United States could in the next 10 years drastically change the direction, and possibly the complexion, of the NBA.

In any event, all of this recruiting and player power has accrued collectively to the benefit of the individual teams, the team owners and the NBA. How have the communities from which these players come benefited?

Previous generations of players have fought for and won free agency.

This generation of players has not yet figured out how to become a collective economic force that creates and leaves a footprint. This is what real power looks like.

I have often challenged players to walk through their respective team offices and compare the number of African Americans working in those spaces while the players labor on the courts and on the field. Real power means desegregating the front offices and organizational charts of the players’ individual organizations that are now overwhelmingly white, or at least non-black.

This generation of players has not yet figured out how to become a collective economic force that creates and leaves a footprint. This is what real power looks like.

Forget marching in the streets, joining rallies and kneeling during the national anthem. Why not use this newfound power and influence to make sure their organizations, the institutions that use your services, have a significant black presence?

Power begins at home.

In four seasons, the current foundation of NBA leadership will likely be out of the league: Chris Paul, the National Basketball Players Association president, will be gone. LeBron James could be gone, or, at the very least, he will be a greatly reduced force of nature.

Will the Durants, Leonards and Irvings of the NBA be prepared for a fight?

We can talk in this moment about player power. Will players exert power when it really matters?

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.