Tan: The NBA’s pre-agency problem

Jan. 31, 2019, 12:01 p.m.

The 2018-19 NBA season, as has been the case since the beginning of the Golden State Warriors’ tyrannical reign over basketball, has been overall lackluster and uninteresting as the Warriors begin to round into form after supercharging their roster with a Demarcus-Cousins-sized battery to add a little Boogie to their splash. Once again, the regular season feels less like a compelling slate of match-ups gradually revealing the quality of each team and more like a preamble to the inevitable desecration of the league by Golden State’s Voltron of a roster.

Yet, low and behold, 10 days before the trade deadline, the single-browed monolith that is Anthony Davis has expressed his desire to be shipped out of the bayou, sending tremors throughout the NBA landscape and reigniting what little hope fans have of someone, anyone, stopping the Warriors from getting their fourth infinity stone, er, I mean championship, in the past five years. The trade request itself came as a surprise to nobody as winning has been hard in the Big Easy since Davis was drafted first overall in 2012. It is then the timing of such an announcement that has major implications for the power dynamics of the league and reinforces what has been a long-standing problem for the NBA in the 21st century.

By requesting a trade now instead of waiting until after the February 7 deadline, Davis is essentially saying that he would prefer to be a Los Angeles Laker. The two main players for the Brow’s services appear to be Boston and LA, but because of an obscure rule called the Rose Rule, which stipulates that a team cannot have two players under a certain type of rookie-designated extension on the same team, the Celtics cannot trade for Davis before the deadline without including Kyrie Irving in any offer. Thus, Boston is effectively out of contention for Davis until they resign Irving to a new deal, giving the Lakers a clear window of opportunity to strike a deal without getting into a bidding war with their top competitor.

Do some more digging, and it becomes even clearer that Davis and his party are angling for a scene-change to Los Angeles. Over the summer, Davis signed a new deal with Klutch Sports under Rich Paul, who happens to be the agent of, you guessed it, Lebron James. Not only that, but earlier in the season, Lebron James came out and publicly announced that he would love to play with Davis if given the opportunity. Surely there hasn’t been any collusion between the Lakers, Lebron and Rich Paul to get the 25-year-old superstar to LA, right? The New Orleans Pelicans surely seem to think so.

In an official statement released by the organization on Monday, the Pelicans’ front office said: “Relative to specific talks of the trade, we will do this on our terms and our timeline, one that makes the most sense for our team. And it will not be dictated by those outside of our organization. We have also requested the league to strictly enforce the tampering rules associated with this transaction.”

What comes across in this statement quite apparently, besides the obvious dysfunction of the franchise, is the Pelicans’ indignation about what they perceive as unfair treatment by the league, favoring the Lakers. While these grievances are futile or at best relatively inconsequential — Davis received a $50,000 fine on Tuesday; he makes $310,000 per game — this is not an unfamiliar story in the NBA. “Lakers accused of tampering with player on smaller market New Orleans team” — haven’t we seen this before? Recall Chris Paul nearly joining the Lakers from the New Orleans Hornets in 2011 before then-commissioner David Stern nixed the trade in the “interest of the league.”

The difference this time is that Adam Silver is unlikely to impede a potential transaction between the teams, even if LA and Lebron’s team bullies New Orleans into doing so, because Silver is a players’ commissioner, primarily concerned with the interests of individual players, including mobility and financial security. Also, such a deal would be in the best interest of the league competitively, as a team led by unanimous best-player-in-the-world King James and another top-five player in Davis could possibly give the NBA its answer to the Megazord Warriors.

However, this isn’t really a Lakers problem. Although the Lakers are the prime example of this phenomenon, what this really boils down to is big-market teams dominating the NBA landscape, not only in free agency but in a new period experienced by many superstars aptly named “pre-agency.” Pre-agency describes the period in which a star player expresses his intentions not to resign with their current team with a year or two left on his contract and forces the organization’s hand at trading him early rather than letting him go for nothing. Recent examples of this pattern include Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard.

Yes, the fact that these players demand a trade doesn’t necessarily mean that the incumbent team has to cooperate. In fact, we see that in the case of the four players mentioned above, not a single one of them ended up in the location or one of the locations they so desired. Nonetheless, the agency that star players have now to request a trade early and compel teams to get rid of them for less than market value is setting a dangerous precedent. Stars around the league will see that they can force their way out of undesirable situations and this puts small-market teams in a real bind. If they do find a generational talent or even just a star, they only have a few years to get it together and make a legitimate playoff run to convince said player to stay.

In a league where players already make unfathomable amounts of money through mega-contracts, shoe deals and other endorsements, players have begun to focus more on their legacies and less on financial considerations; stars are more willing than ever to sacrifice dollars for championships. The super team has been the predominant theme of the 21st century in basketball, but these teams only appear in major markets. Think about the Shaq-Kobe early 2000s Lakers. Or the original 2008 Big Three Boston Celtics. Or the “Not one, not two, not three, etc.” Big Three Miami Heat. And now the Thanos, destroyer of all worlds, Golden State Warriors.

Based on current rules and policies, the NBA is severely hamstringing its small-market teams which make up a majority of the league. For a few years now, there has been growing resentment in these front offices, and soon they may reach their tipping point. The NBA must institute some measure to level the playing field or face another century of Golden State-like desolation in a wasteland of not-good-enough NBA teams.


Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu

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