Ben Simmons and the myth of player empowerment

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Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

While it may seem that Simmons is taking control of his future, don’t forget the other half of the trade equation.

This is a story about Jarrett Allen.

It is a story about Caris LeVert and Julius Randle, Daunte Exum and Taurean Prince.

It’s a story about the as yet unnamed players that the Sixers will end up with once they trade Ben Simmons.

It is, in short, a story about ‘player empowerment’—from the other side of the fence.

The May 13, 2021 issue of The New Yorker featured a rather star-struck profile of Rich Paul, who the author, Isaac Chotiner, says has been at the forefront of player empowerment, which he defines as, “the additional clout that athletes—usually superstars—wield as they change teams more frequently and develop fan bases distinct from those in the cities they represent.”

The argument for ‘player empowerment,’ again, according to Chotiner, is that “for too long, teams have had too much control over the careers of athletes, almost all of whom can be traded on a whim, and that players should have some say in where they work and live.”

On the face of it, all of this seems to have the ring of truth to it. We have, over the past few years, seen plenty of players force trades to other teams. In fact, we’re in the middle of another drama with another Rich Paul client, Ben Simmons.

The problem is that none of it is true—at least not in the way that it seems to be.

Yes, it is true that a player like Ben Simmons can demand that the Sixers trade him, but it is a mistake to think that this is something new. Any student of basketball history understands that Simmons is not the first player to force his way out of Philadelphia. In 1967, Wilt Chamberlain came back from a west coast trip and told the Sixers he wasn’t going to play for them anymore. He added that if the team didn’t trade him to a west coast team, he would jump ship to the ABA and play for the Los Angeles Stars.

In that sense, ‘player empowerment’ has been around for decades.

Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

It is likewise incorrect to assume that players are wresting control away from team owners and general managers.

The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement is, superficially, a means by which players earn the highest average salaries in professional sports. But at its core, it is the principle means by which owners are all but guaranteed that their investment in an NBA franchise is a profitable one. NBA owners did not lock out players twice in order to ensure that players receive high salaries. They locked out players to cap and control their own costs.

All teams, rich and poor, big market and small, popular and unpopular, are bound by the terms of the CBA, and at the heart of the CBA is the salary cap.

Under the terms of the salary cap, in most circumstances where a superstar player is traded, that player’s salary must be matched, approximately, by the salaries of players on the other side of the trade, and here is where the myth of ‘player empowerment’ runs aground.

When a superstar demands a trade, yes, his current GM is put in an awkward spot—but the resolution to that awkward spot does not come at any expense to either the star’s current team or the team that he’s being traded to.

The resolution to a trade demand is almost always the simultaneous trade of players who have no say in the trade, and who, often times, have no desire to be traded to a team that is likely going to be much worse than the team they’re currently on.

Now in what sense is this trade ‘empowering’ for the players on the other end of it?

‘Player empowerment’ is basically an Orwellian term. It is manifestly not empowering to the players that are on the other side of these trades. In fact, ‘player empowerment’ recalls another Orwell book, Animal Farm. In Animal Farm, the oppressed animals on a rural British farm revolt, only to exchange harsh treatment by people for harsh treatment by pigs. To the extent that ‘player empowerment’ becomes the de facto way in which we speak of players demanding trades, we are essentially papering over the fact that the average NBA player still has little to no control over his career when he’s under contract. The only difference is that now, instead of being traded due to the whims of an owner or a GM, he might be traded due to the whims of one of his fellow players.

Cap rules have become so ingrained in our conversation about the league that we often reduce role players to their contract values. Instead of so-and-so being a ‘serviceable big,’ he’s a ‘movable contract.’ It’s hardly ‘empowering’ when fans routinely refer to a huge swath of the league strictly in terms of their value as a ‘trade chip’ that can be used to acquire a star.

The salary cap also limits ‘player empowerment’ when it comes to free agent signings.

While it’s true that ‘super teams’ typically saddle their owners with huge luxury tax bills, it is also true that the CBA has pretty strict rules governing the ability to sign max contract players. No matter how much money an owner is willing to spend on luxury taxes, a player cannot simply choose to play for a particular team as a free agent. That team needs to have enough space under the salary cap to sign the free agent.

And the process of ‘clearing cap space’ typically involves trading players. Here, the mobility of a star player does not come at the expense of the traditional power structure of general managers and owners, it comes at the expense of other players who once again have no say in where they are going.

Because ‘player empowerment’ works this way, it can’t ‘trickle down’ to other players. The class of NBA players who exert a measure of control over their own destiny will always be small, and on the other side of those stars who dictate terms there will be any number of players that go overlooked and for whom nothing has changed.