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How NBA superstars became a second boss to their teammates

The term “player empowerment” is a misnomer when discussing the current NBA paradigm. We are not really in an era of player empowerment; we are in an era of superstar empowerment. The fates of teams don’t really rely on the whims of but a couple dozen of the top players in the league. Kevin Love’s trade request this season didn’t stop the clocks in Cleveland and disrupt teams or players’ lives. But Anthony Davis’s trade request last year sure did.

This did not go unnoticed, that Davis’s empowerment came at the cost of stability and normalcy for a half-dozen non-star Lakers players and the entire Pelicans roster. This paints player empowerment in a different light: Players can’t do whatever they feel is best for their career, only superstars can, whatever the costs those decisions have on other, lesser players.

Trade requests, free agency decisions made for reasons other than money, machinations to get your teammates traded: this is mostly the province of big-name stars. The victims of all of these actions are teams, yes, but also all the non-star players caught in the crossfire.

We are in the era of superstar empowerment, and the NBA’s middle-class player base is now subject not to the whims of their teams’ general managers but also to the whims of their resident superstar.

That’s the curse of superstar empowerment for most NBA players: there’s just another boss in town.

But we have to acknowledge the reason why superstars are so powerful: the individual maximum salary.

Superstars can change the entire league in free agency not just because they are excellent players, but because (thanks to the NBA’s salary rules developed over the last 22 years) they are cost-controlled on the high end. A player like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo will always be worth more than what any team can pay him. This is what truly creates value: having a top-five player that costs no more than 35 percent of the salary cap in Year 1 of a contract is an enormous asset.

Imagine there were no individual max, and someone like Davis were in line to pick up a contract starting at $50 million this summer. Would the Lakers, surmising they could offer more than any other team due to their large local broadcast deal and high gate revenue, have spent all that energy and caused all that turmoil trying to trade for him a year ago? Maybe. But if they could pay more than other teams, perhaps the threat of losing him to another suitor who was capped at the same salary level as the Lakers wouldn’t have been so panic-inducing.

Another way to look at it: the Nets won a huge sweepstakes by landing Durant at a full max contract, even though he isn’t in line to play this season due to injury. Now what if there were no individual max and Brooklyn was bidding against other teams on the dollar level, and teams were throwing out $75 million a year for the two-time Finals MVP? Is it still a sweepstakes at that point, given you’d still have the salary cap?

If LeBron cost $90 million a year, would he have all this power?

So in some ways, the individual max has strengthened superstar empowerment. Because their salary is capped, their contracts have more value. The higher-value contracts give them greater sway over front offices. That sway can be used to get what they want. LeBron’s sway over the Lakers can have them pursue AD in the middle of a season. Kawhi’s sway can push the Clippers to trade a truckload of assets for Paul George. Durant’s sway can convince the Nets to give DeAndre Jordan $10 million a year.

So if the individual max strengthens superstar empowerment, and if superstar empowerment is generally bad for most NBA players, in this light the individual max looks like a detriment not just to the superstars whose earnings it limits but to all NBA players who are now subjected to the whims of their more talented brethren.

But of course the individual max is not bad for most NBA players. The individual max is what allows most player salaries to be so high! Because LeBron can only make $40 million and not $90 million, and because AD can make only $35 million and not $50 million, all of the other Lakers get much bigger salaries. The institution of the max contract two decades ago spurred massive growth in median salaries in the league with the mid-level exception and other little ways to allow teams to spend money. The individual max financially built up the middle class of the NBA, and then eventually built up the decision power of the capped-out superstars.

Only recently has the NBA tried to unwind some of that power by giving incumbent teams certain advantages in retaining stars, thus removing some incentive for the stars to flex their power. The real way to unwind it is to allow teams to pay stars their actual value. That will not be happening anytime soon, so this is the paradigm that the players — star or not — are stuck with.

Non-stars get millions more dollars than they would have otherwise. Superstars get the ability to shape teams in their image through leverage. Fair or not, this is how it is.

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