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Spheres of influence

Counting down 10 players who knew how to get their way

Posted: Tuesday October 26, 2004 5:31PM; Updated: Tuesday October 26, 2004 5:31PM
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The NBA may have a salary cap, but there's no power cap. That helps explain why star players in the NBA today are drawn to power and influence like Eddy Curry to a glazed donut, and accumulating it in ever-increasing amounts.

This trend can be seen in any number of ways -- their inclusion in important personnel decisions, their ability to make or break a coach, and the increasing use of the implied threat to depart in free agency. With the league's growth upping the financial stakes, the ability of the star player to exert power over those who are theoretically higher up on the organization chart only has grown.

Witness 2004, the NBA's summer of discontent, when no fewer than six star players -- Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Baron Davis, Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic -- demanded trades. Only two have seen their demands met, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if a few of the others can put themselves in new situations before long.

Fortunately, these stars have had some great role models to learn from. To celebrate the rise of the star player as the newest member of every NBA team's front office, here's my unofficial list of 10 of the most powerful players in league history:

10. Lenny Wilkens -- Lenny became a player coach with the 1969-70 Sonics, one of the last of a dying breed. Unlike most player-coaches, he wasn't some salty dog playing out he string -- he was still an All-Star. Thus, he was frequently in the position of going into the huddle to design plays for himself. A typical player of this generation would get himself 83 shots a game in those circumstances, but laid-back Lenny lacked the Machiavellian streak that later generations would perfect, so he can't rank higher than 10th. In fact,  he wasn't powerful enough to stop Seattle from trading him three years later to Cleveland -- the NBA's Siberia at the time.

9. Dave DeBuscherre -- He was a player-coach at 24. Yes, 24. Obviously, he was good at team politics from the get-go, and one supposes he had to be to go 79-143 before the Pistons finally decided to replace him and get a full-time coach. From there, he fulfilled Vince Carter's wildest fantasy by getting traded to New York, instantly became a key player (but not the player) on a contender and winning two championships. Ironically, DeBuscherre never coached again, but had a front-office job waiting for him as soon as he retired.

8. Magic Johnson -- He engineered perhaps the most famous palace coup in basketball history when he orchestrated the firing of a coach --  Paul Westhead -- who had already led the team to a championship, and inserted Pat Riley in his place. Of course, Magic won four more titles with Riley at the helm, which has spared him a lot of grief in the history books. For his part, Westhead did all he could to prove Johnson right in subsequent years, becoming convinced that 184-176 games were the wave of the future and preparing his teams accordingly. Magic also gets honorable mention because he supposedly was in on the Michael Jordan freeze-out in the '85 All-Star Game, although how he could freeze a guy who was playing for the other team is beyond me.

7. Isiah Thomas -- Even with Chuck Daly coaching and prominent teammates like Joe Dumars and the Worm, Dennis Rodman, Zeke had two signature moments that illustrated how much more pull he had than his mates. The first and most famous was his orchestrating the freeze-out of a young Jordan in the '85 All-Star game. But the second was more indicative of his power -- Thomas pulled the strings that led to the midseason trade of Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre in '89. They were near-identical talents, except for one difference -- Aguirre was Thomas' childhood friend from Chicago, where they would share lofty dreams like, "Someday, I'll be a big star in the NBA," and "When I get older, I'm going to show this world how a minor league basketball operation is supposed to be run." It was one of the league's first-ever "just to please the star" trades, as the Pistons were gunning for their first title and taking a huge gamble by swapping a productive starter.

6. Bill Russell -- Russell ranks this low only because it was inconceivable that he could get Red Auerbach fired. Other than that, anything was fair game, especially when Russell became player-coach in his final two seasons -- a position he ended up with, in part, because he wouldn't play for anybody except Red, and Red was retiring. Other guys have been player-coaches, of course, but a player-coach with enough rings for two Olympics carries a lot more gravitas. Players of his generation didn't wield the kind of leverage they have today, but until Magic and Larry Bird came along, nobody cast anywhere near the shadow over his team that Russell did.

Jason Kidd, Byron Scott
Scott may have been the coach, but Kidd was the one calling the shots.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

5. Anfernee Hardaway -- Hardaway was compared to Magic Johnson when he came out of college, but this wasn't what Orlando had in mind. Much like a young Magic did to Westhead, Hardaway organized the firing of his coach (Brian Hill) with the Magic in 1996-97. He even went touchy-feely and used the consensus technique to get Hill booted, getting all his teammates in on the ground floor of his proposal. Unfortunately, Hardaway saw Hill replaced with Richie Adubato -- the basketball equivalent of trading in your El Camino for a Ford Festiva. Chuck Daly, who had dealt with Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman Detroit, came in a year later, but a nonplussed Penny expertly submarined him, too. Finally, the karma gods were forced to seek retribution on his knees.

4. Oscar Robertson --- The head of the players' union from 1965-74, Robertson's power was different from that of the other players. He was basically basketball's Curt Flood, getting rid of basketball's reserve clause and paving the way for the tricked-out Escalades that even the lowliest injured-list hanger-on is cruising around town in today. In a, um, "coincidence", he couldn't get a coaching or front office job after he retired, despite the fact every other superstar, star, and quasi-star of the last three decades who showed even the slightest twinge of interest in management was almost immediately recruited into some team's front office.

3. Jason Kidd -- The runaway winner of the "Who, me?" award for '03, Kidd displayed a politician's p.r. skills in his back-channel efforts to get Byron Scott whacked. He expertly maintained plausible deniability while simultaneously undermining the guy at every turn. You half-expected to catch him at his locker watching tapes of Karl Rove. Some would argue Kidd should rank below Hardaway since it took him half a year of maneuvering before he produced a corpse. However, that ignores the fact that Kidd also cajoled the Nets into several idiotic personnel moves at the same time, the centerpiece of which was the $22 million the already poverty-stricken team dumped in Alonzo Mourning's retirement fund. Also, Kidd gets massive bonus points for starting off his career by doing the Scott routine on Lou Campanelli at Cal, which is doubly amazing because college is the one time in a player's career when he gets to choose the coach he will play for.

2. Kobe Bryant -- What he pulled off this summer can't be underestimated. Bryant showed his versatility by deftly sticking two daggers in two different backs at the same time, all while he was preoccupied with defending himself in a sexual assault trial. Those weren't just any two backs, either -- he carved up the spine of the greatest coach of all time and the best player of his generation. Somehow, Bryant got tight enough with owner Jerry Buss to run them both out of town, even though he wasn't under contract at the time. For added kicks, he also convinced the Clippers he was signing with them and got them to trade away three players and the rights to Emeka Okafor in order to get him, making Elgin Baylor look like the nerd who got stood up by the hot chick on prom night. One can only imagine what Bryant could have accomplished if he hadn't been distracted by the trial, but if I was Lamar Odom or Rudy T., I'd be wearing a Kevlar backpack around Staples Center.

1. Michael Jordan -- He wielded considerable power as a Bull, but that was nothing compared to his might when he returned in 2001. As a Washington Wizard, Jordan was the first player-GM in modern NBA history, and if the results are any indication, he'll probably be the last. Forget wagging the dog, he was the dog. Jordan installed a puppet as head coach -- incredibly, one whom he'd already given the Kidd treatment a decade earlier -- and immediately began running the team to suit his ego.

This went beyond personnel -- he was instructing coach/lackey Doug Collins to use players that suited his now-plodding game and belittling anyone and everyone who didn't fit in (as well as most of those that did). Within the organization, all those antics made him about as popular as scurvy, yet the Wizards put up with the absolute monarchy for two full seasons because His Royal Airness was still basking in public adulation and selling out the arena every night. It's difficult to imagine one player having so much control over a team again, but based on recent trends I shudder to think that the next Jordan-Wizards disaster may be lurking just around the corner.