Today’s NBA is nothing like the league of old.
It now revolves around the players, who form a bright nucleus of star-power that is different from other professional leagues.
Players’ personalities often take center stage, which is why the Instagram account “LeagueFits,” a page dedicated to players’ gameday outfits, has amassed almost 700,000 followers.
It’s also why a short clip from a postgame interview can go viral, and why a friendly interaction between two players from different teams can spark trade talks for weeks.
The league’s ethos also translates to a unique relationship between players and teams, providing players with more autonomy regarding their career trajectories when compared to other leagues.
Although NBA players sign contracts, just like all other professional athletes, there is a sense of leniency that does not exist in other leagues. It feels as if contracts are less binding; even when a player is on their team’s salary cap book for an upcoming season, their star-power allows them to turn on a franchise at a moment’s notice.
After signing a four-year, $137 million contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018, Paul George decided that playing for the Clippers would be better for his career, and so he forced a trade to Los Angeles in July 2019. To make matters worse for Thunder fans, July 6 had just recently been named “Paul George Day” by the mayor of Oklahoma City, David Holt.
Something similar happened this year when James Harden, unhappy with his situation as a Houston Rocket, forced a trade to the Brooklyn Nets. After being recorded in a number of different clubs, clearly violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols, Harden was a no show for training camp.
When he played in his first preseason game he looked lethargic and out of shape. This was the demeanor of someone who was unhappy, seeking greener pastures. For Harden, this took the form of a reunion with his old teammate, Kevin Durant, on a burgeoning superteam in Brooklyn.
Though quite a few notable players have used their star-power in this landscape-altering fashion, there are others who, even in the face of adversity, have remained on the teams they were drafted to.
Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Giannis Antetokounmpo all immediately come to mind. All of these players have not left their first teams for an easier chance at a title, though all of their names have been thrown around in trade talks at some point throughout their careers.
This season has been a particularly hard challenge for Curry and Beal, both of whom are playing for struggling teams trying to make the playoffs.
Beal, the topic of many trade talks before the March trade deadline, constantly reiterated his desire to stay in Washington. Given the previous superstars who’ve proclaimed such loyalties and later departed, Beal’s words didn’t hold much weight. However, after the deadline, Beal remains committed to the Wizards.
Curry, a three-time champion and the only unanimous MVP winner in league history, has little left to prove. However, he’s on a middling Warriors team that hopes to make the playoffs by means of the newly implemented play-in game. Curry is eligible for a new contract with the Warriors next summer, or he could choose to join another team in free agency.
Though both players are not in ideal situations, there have been no trade requests or any complaints to the media.
And yet the allure of going to another team in a more prime position to win a championship remains. So why do they stay? Is it just a matter of differing values? Is loyalty more important than chasing championships? Maybe the answer is more personal: both Beal and Curry have families, and uprooting their children from their lives at home may be a part of the explanation.
Whatever the case may be, there is something to be said for these superstars who stay the course, instead of requesting a trade to more winning teams.
That doesn’t mean that there is anything inherently wrong with wanting to try something different. Finding happiness in a hypercompetitive world, with the additional pressures from the media and fans, must be difficult.
I understand why players leave teams to find better situations elsewhere. I also understand leaving a small market team for a big city. Athletes have personal brands, and bettering their situations to improve these is the way to cash in on their extraordinary talents.
That being said, the players who remain loyal to their teams, and by extension, their teams’ fanbases, deserve to be commended.
There is something appealing about homegrown talent finding enough rhythm to compete for championships, as opposed to many of the cobbled-together products that dominate the league today.
I empathize with athletes who leave imperfect situations to find better ones. Such transactions are also exciting and generate fan engagement.
Ultimately, though, the few loyal NBA stars may be more ideal for the long-term health of the league.