Niyo: Player-driven NBA sets a new course — and fast

John Niyo
The Detroit News
LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis will be teaming up in Los Angeles after Davis requested to be traded out of New Orleans.

They say power corrupts. But it also corrects, occasionally.

And now that the dust has settled after a seismic start to the NBA’s free agency period, maybe that’s what we’re seeing.

With one dynasty dismantled, and another denied, the NBA landscape looks decidedly different. Maybe not here in Detroit, where the terrain hasn’t changed all that dramatically. But elsewhere, something resembling parity has begun to take shape.

And for those still bothered by the fact the players are the ones calling the shots in this league, they’ll have to acknowledge that, at least.

Heck, even some of the owners are. The more progressive-minded ones, that is. Like the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban, who was asked about all the stars realigning — seemingly overnight — while in Las Vegas for the NBA’s Summer League last week.

“In terms of the movement, I think it’s great for the NBA,” Cuban told SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Now instead of having one ‘super team’ that everybody’s trying to beat, we’ve got a bunch of super teams. And even those super teams only have two superstars. None of ’em really have three, that I’ve been able to count.”

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He’s right, of course. By my count, there’s 8-10 teams that can say they’ve got a legitimate shot at winning a title next season. You can debate some of those — Boston? Portland? Utah? — but it certainly beats what we’ve seen for most of the last 20 years, when it was less than a handful.

And while there’s something to be said for an entire league chasing a single standard-bearer — the TV ratings often say it loudest — there’s this “parity of opportunity” that NBA commissioner Adam Silver keeps talking about.

His league isn’t there yet, obviously. It probably will take another round of collective bargaining and a new labor deal — that can’t happen until 2023 at the earliest — to get any closer to that goal. (And while they’re at it, they’d better flip the calendar and stage the draft after free agency, the way the NFL does.)

'Talent drives everything'

But in the meantime, this is the reality they’re all living. A fast-changing, ever-shifting hoops hierarchy where the players have “leverage” and “economic power of their own,” as Silver puts it, and the league — thanks in part to Kawhi Leonard's independent streak — now is ruled by dynamic duos.

A decade ago the Celtics’ Big Three — Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — started a trend by winning it all in 2008. Then came LeBron James’ “decision” to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, where the Heat made four straight NBA Finals and won two. Eventually, it was Golden State’s turn, and the Warriors extended their own dominant run by adding Kevin Durant and becoming the Hamptons Five, a seemingly unbeatable bunch until this spring, when Durant got hurt and the Toronto Raptors wrestled away the crown.

Leonard played an outsized role in that Finals coup, less than a year after forcing his way out of San Antonio. And then he kept everyone guessing in free agency this summer, ultimately spurning the Lakers and King James — not to mention all of Canada — to sign with the Clippers. But only after insisting that Paul George join him in a package deal. And only then for a short time, perhaps, as Leonard did what comes naturally now in the NBA, agreeing to a three-year deal that includes an off-ramp after Year 2.

And that’s the new deal now, with stars signing shorter-term contracts with player options — they're chasing things other than money, it seems — or even opting to force their way out with trade demands when necessary, as Anthony Davis did in New Orleans and George did in Oklahoma City.

After winning the title in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard, left, signed with the Clippers and recruited Paul George to join him in L.A.

“But this is the NBA and this is how it works,” said Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who’d tried in vain to keep Leonard in Toronto. “You can’t go hide under the table and cry.”

Easier for him to say, fresh off a championship parade. And, yes, Silver is speaking for many of his owners when he uses the word “disheartening” to describe players making the trade calls themselves. But again, Cuban’s speaking frankly about all of that when he notes, “The NBA for a long, long time — certainly before I got involved — has been a talent-driven league.”

And the truth is, it’s thriving today because of that, not in spite of it. Maybe that makes life tougher for front-office executives, whose best-laid plans better include a Plan B or even a Plan E or F now. But it also keeps them accountable, which is something we don't see often enough in some of the other major U.S. pro leagues. 

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“If you look at the NFL, it’s about the NFL," Cuban added. “You couldn’t recognize more than three of 53 players on any NFL team. The NHL, it’s hard to recognize (players). Major League Baseball, the same thing. The one league where the talent drives everything is the NBA. So when you’re the star of the show — and rightfully players are — you’re gonna have a lot more power. And I don’t have a problem with that.

“It just creates more pressure on ownership and management to put together an organization. But that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We expect the players to go out there and bust their (expletive) to be prepared mentally and physically and emotionally and deal with the stress and the pounding. Well, on the flip side, we’ve got to do our jobs as well. We can’t just expect we write you a check, you just show up. It’s real world. We’ve gotta keep ’em happy, too.”

'Careful what you ask for'

Indeed, Cuban knows the clock already is ticking on a talented young core that hasn't played a minute together yet in Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic, which is why the Mavericks went hard after Kemba Walker and Al Horford, among others, in free agency this summer. Same goes for Brooklyn now, having bet big on Durant and Kyrie Irving. And it's true for all these teams celebrating July triumphs on the transaction wire. 

Now, there are some valid concerns here, not least of which is what this game of musical chairs does to fan loyalty. It's hard to be fully invested when the players — and especially the best ones — keep changing uniforms.

It's not just that six of the top 15 players in the league — based on last season’s All-NBA voting — changed teams this offseason, either. It’s that four of them landed in Los Angeles or New York, while the other two ended up in Houston and Boston. So while the pool of title contenders has grown, franchises in smaller- or non-traditional markets still can’t feel great about the direction things are headed. Even if one of them is the reigning champ.

That, too, is a point Cuban was making last week, however, talking about the unintended consequences about some of the collective bargaining changes made over the years. As he put it, “You’ve got to be careful what you ask for sometimes.”

The “supermax” contract provisions were supposed to help the small- and mid-market teams hang on to star players, but they’ve proven to be irrelevant in some cases — Davis in New Orleans or Walker in Charlotte — and they’ve simply backfired in others. Take John Wall’s massive contract in Washington, for example, or Russell Westbrook’s deal that Oklahoma City just offloaded to Houston.

Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the next big test when he’s eligible for a supermax deal in Milwaukee next summer. But he's also poised to be part of another blockbuster free-agent bonanza in 2021, so time will tell.

And that's the bottom line here, really. As players assert their influence, there's no time sit back and wonder if it's all for the best, or even what it all means. In today's NBA, if you get caught standing around — on the court, or off it — you're going to get beat.

Star power

Here are the favorites to win the NBA championship next season, according to, and the top players on each team:

►L.A. Clippers (7-2): Kawhi Leonard and Paul George

►Milwaukee (11-2): Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton

►L.A. Lakers (6-1): LeBron James and Anthony Davis

►Houston (9-1): James Harden and Russell Westbrook

►Philadelphia (10-1): Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

Twitter: @JohnNiyo