Player empowerment is all the rage in the NBA. The phenomenon first began in 2010 when LeBron James orchestrated a super team in Miami with fellow free agents Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Since then, we’ve seen similar alliances coalesce in Brooklyn and Golden State with Anthony Davis and James Harden both forcing trades to their respective teams.
There’s been no looking back since LeBron’s “Decision” with agents like Rich Paul (who represents James, Davis, Ben Simmons, John Wall, Draymond Green and Lonzo Ball, among other high-profile clients) fighting tooth and nail for players, often at the expense of smaller-market teams like New Orleans and Cleveland, who have long had trouble retaining their homegrown talent. “The NBA has a problem, which is it’s got some bad real estate,” opined Bomani Jones of ESPN, alluding to the Milwaukees and Oklahoma Cities of the world. “They put a lot of teams in places that young black men don’t necessarily want to live.”
In a recent profile for the New Yorker, Paul describes a “black tax,” noting that factors like education disparity, financial literacy and dependents automatically put black players at a disadvantage. “Now I become the breadwinner, which makes me the decision-maker,” said Paul, speaking through the lens of a player navigating the league’s financial landscape. “I am looking at the household, I am looking at every decision that has to be made, and I have to do this all with a focus on the money. I also have to look the part, which means I have to have the biggest car, I have to have the biggest house, I have to have the fanciest everything.”
While many see the trend toward player empowerment as a positive development, putting power back in the hands of athletes after decades of predominantly white owners controlling the narrative, others feel differently, lamenting players’ seeming lack of loyalty and the disruption caused by malcontents like Harden, who burned every bridge on his way out of Houston. “Player empowerment is a catchall for the fact that the league has done a terrible job of empowering teams,” said an anonymous NBA GM, expressing his frustration to Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker. “The players have all of the leverage in every situation. I think it’s the worst thing that ever happened to professional sports on all levels.”
Though most would agree Harden’s methods were unprofessional, shamelessly flouting COVID protocols by partying in Vegas and elsewhere (not to mention his poor conditioning and lethargic on-court performance), there’s no denying the effectiveness in his approach, causing such an unrelenting mess that Houston had no other choice but to trade him to his desired Brooklyn. The optics of Davis’ departure from New Orleans, essentially telling the Pelicans to kick rocks in anticipation of his inevitable trade to Los Angeles, ruffled feathers in much the same way. While David Falk—best known for representing Michael Jordan—concedes the Harden situation was a “debacle,” the longtime sports agent would argue the movement toward player empowerment was long overdue. “They bring in the fans. They bring in jersey sales. They bring in the revenue.”
It’s a thorny subject and certainly an inconvenience to the league’s billionaire owners who are used to getting what they want with little in the way of opposition, but players need a voice and Paul is giving them that platform. “We’re going from us feeling like, when you come in a room, if you see more black people in the room, you’re in the wrong room. No, you’re in the right room,” said Paul. “That mentality years ago, we have to change that.”