Expansion of powers
Superstars increasingly trying hands as team decision-makers
Posted: Tuesday October 26, 2004 5:10PM; Updated: Thursday October 28, 2004 5:22PM
Doug Smith, an NBA reporter for the Toronto Star, was having dinner with a friend last month when his cell phone rang. "Hi Doug," the voice on the other end said. "It's Vince Carter." Carter told Smith he no longer wanted to be a member of the Raptors. He was tired of losing. His patience had run out. "I want to be traded," Carter said. "It's time to move on."
By picking up his phone and calling Smith instead of rookie GM Rob Babcock, Carter did more than send a message to Toronto management. He also sent a reminder to the NBA. Namely, that superstar players still believe they call the shots. And why not? From Jason Kidd's backroom dealings with the Nets to Kobe Bryant's machinations in Laker Land, the NBA has seen several dramatic examples of superstar power plays in recent years.
"It's not a new thing. Star players have always made demands," said one GM, who wished to remain anonymous. "The difference now is the contracts. The money is so big. It makes it much more difficult [to say no]." And since star players generate massive revenue for their teams and the league, many would argue they have every right to demand a say in their working conditions.
Often it proves beneficial. Magic Johnson might have engineered the firing of Paul Westhead in 1981, but the Lakers went on to win four NBA titles under Pat Riley.
While not everyone is Magic Johnson, try telling that to the increasing number of players who believe they share his power, a development that has forced front offices across the league to confront an expanding spectrum of demands. From requesting trades (see related story) to ousting coaches, these players are wielding clout in more areas than ever. Whereas they once might have limited demands to off-court perks like fancier hotels and team charters, star players now seek to be consulted on personnel matters. In the process, teams often are forced to make long-term decisions that can tie up the salary cap long after the player has left the scene.
Last year, in an effort to appease then free agent Kidd, the Nets signed Alonzo Mourning to a guaranteed $23 million contract -- even though Mourning hadn't played in a year because of a kidney disease. Sure enough, Zo went down a month into the season, and New Jersey was forced to eat the rest of his uninsurable contract. Kidd's maneuverings, which are also widely believed to include the ousting of then coach Byron Scott, seem like small potatoes compared to Bryant's offseason power grab in L.A.
In an effort to re-sign Bryant, a free agent, the Lakers basically broke up the core of a mini-dynasty that had won three NBA titles in four years. While Kobe denies he had anything to do with the departures of coach Phil Jackson and teammate Shaquille O'Neal, most observers believe it was an attempt by the Lakers to make their young star happy and convince him to re-sign.
"That's just the way it is [for superstars]," another GM said. "You want to take care of them. To some extent you even coddle them. You show favoritism toward them in terms of team rules. You give them a little more leeway. You seek their input in decision-making. There is generally a double standard for them. It's unfortunate perhaps, but it's reality."
Long-time executives point to several factors for the rise in power plays by today's stars:
With many NBA superstars now earning upwards of $10 million per year, it's easy to see how their influence would increase. Owners want to protect their investments; they can't afford to have a $100-million player sulking on the bench. The players know this and use it to their utmost advantage. As one former longtime GM noted, "You don't see too many minimum-salary guys demanding trades."
With competition in their field rising, player reps have become more aggressive in making demands and more sophisticated in how they use their other clients as leverage to broker deals or achieve goals. At the same time, many of the younger agents don't have the benefit of long-term relationships with GMs and executives, making them more willing -- and likely -- to use the media to press their demands.
3) Impatient youth
Many NBA superstars enter the league as coddled teenagers, and they are used to getting their way. They might not be as willing as players of past generations to wait for management to surround them with talent or meet other demands. With less experience and patience, today's players seem more inclined to lash out through the media.
4) Hey, it works
The old saying "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" certainly applies in the NBA. When confronted with a star player who makes demands, many GMs capitulate. Bulls forward Eddie Robinson might get a buyout of his $14-million contract because he doesn't get along with coach Scott Skiles. Tracy McGrady and Shaq were rewarded for their trade demands by being shipped to winning organizations.
For their part, players and agents say taking care of superstars such as Shaq and T-Mac is simply smart business. Nobody wins if players are in a bad situation. And it isn't as if certain players have carte blanche, argue the agents. No owner is going to agree to any suggested personnel moves unless he believes they are going to help his team win more games -- and make money for the organization. "We're really only talking about a handful of players [who get their way]," said agent Bill Duffy. "And these are guys who put people in the seats."
Most GMs say they understand the need for superstars to have a voice in how teams are managed, but, they add, too few players see the responsibility as a two-way street. Those players who demand to sit out practice or skip p.r. appearances, for example, show a lack of respect in the eyes of many GMs for the game and the importance of team chemistry.
Player personnel chiefs also contend that today's stars tend to be more thin-skinned and quicker to respond to perceived slights than those of the past. They say the notion of being "disrespected" has been twisted to include even basic team rights, such as the ability to discuss trades. "When the slightest little thing goes wrong now -- like if you offer anything less than max dollars or if a player's name comes up in a trade rumor on the Internet -- then suddenly it's a case of disrespect [on the team's part]," one GM lamented. "Players who have been cornerstone players always have been in a position to speak out if they're not happy. But now it's just very much in vogue, this notion of disrespect. There's got to be equal respect on both sides."
Some GMs point out that no matter how intelligent a particular player or agent might be, he doesn't always have enough information to make a good long-term decision. Even Michael Jordan couldn't call all the shots correctly in Chicago. While he feuded with then GM Jerry Krause over personnel, from not signing Walter Davis to trading away his buddy Charles Oakley, Krause managed to focus on the spare parts Jordan needed to win six NBA titles in eight years.
Compared to Jordan's early years in Chicago, Carter has had a much easier time. Three years ago the Raptors signed Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams to long-term, big-money contracts in an effort to entice Carter to re-sign as a free agent. Given that it tied up the Raptors' salary cap for years, some around the NBA find it ironic now that Carter wants to leave because his supporting cast isn't good enough.
"Vince says he needs better players to make it a better team," one Western Conference scout said. "But here's what I'd say to him: We're paying you for that. It's your job to make Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall better players." Then again, Toronto fans shouldn't be too upset with Carter. While he hasn't backed off his trade request, he is still in a Raptors uniform. He even has drawn cheers (mixed with the predictable boos) at his team's games. Folks in Canada, after all, have always been able to appreciate a good power play.
Marty Burns covers pro basketball for SI.com.