Definition: collusion, n. /col·lu·sion/: 1. secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose
I broke up with a friend of mine once… or I should probably describe the situation better as him breaking up with me. Such is the drama you encounter when running an opinionated, sports website.
Long time readers of the Chump will remember a regular contributor named Mr. Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs was an ardent, quite often unapologetic fan of the Boston Celtics. He loved reading and commenting on anything NBA and more specifically Celtic-related. To him, there were the Celtics and little else.
Our spat began years ago when he announced that he didn’t appreciate how the Miami Heat of the early 2010s had assembled their team. Jacobs’ case was that Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and a handful of other players had colluded (the word of the day) to build their championships. It was no coincidence that the Heat’s mini-dynasty came on the heels of Boston’s run with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and, adding insult to injury, included one of those Big Three. Ray Allen’s flight from Boston to Miami led to the demise of his relationship with Kevin Garnett. In a parallel universe, it also led to a bitter break-up between the Chump and Mr. Jacobs.
The reason for the unfriending is I suggested that, like Wade and James, Garnett, Allen and Pierce had also colluded to play with one another. He assured me that was not the case but to this day, you can’t convince me that players don’t conspire to become roster buddies. Wade and James were not the first to do so and they won’t be the last. Regardless of wherein lies the truth, the comments I made about Jacobs’ beloved Celtics upset him and he hasn’t spoken to me since. Similarly, Garnett and Allen are no longer on speaking terms.
This was seven years ago.
For better or for worse, that is what’s different about today’s NBA. Players, especially superstars, do as they please because now more than ever before, they have the power to do so.
How many casual fans do you think can name five NBA owners? Quick, who owns the Milwaukee Bucks? You have no idea, do you? But you know who the Greek Freak is. You have no idea who owns the Oklahoma City Thunder but you sure as hell know who Russell Westbrook and Paul George are. Fans buy LeBron James and Steph Curry jerseys, not Mark Cuban jerseys and Cuban is the most marketable owner of the bunch. Therein lies the rub.
Depending on who you ask, collusion is a serious problem in today’s NBA. Personally, I think the way the league officiates James Harden is far more egregious than players conspiring to play with another but I digress. This is an extremely liberal, professional sports league that more than any other is about the rights of its players. They support causes, allow leniency and even subsidize a whole other league for its female players. The league also understands better than any other that star power dictates ratings.
Long ago, the NBA decided to market its games differently. It was never the Bulls versus the Lakers but rather Michael’s Bulls versus Magic’s Lakers. These players were so culturally popular, you didn’t even need to mention their last names. The NBA succeeded exponentially on these grounds, understanding that the players were far more marketable than the teams they played on. Inevitably, that meant the top tier players could also wield decision-making power about who they wanted on their roster.
The problem that Mr. Jacobs envisioned years ago is that we now have players with all the power leaving their franchises with none. Take for example the Anthony Davis situation in New Orleans. By merely announcing that he wanted to be traded, Davis is dictating the terms of his deal. And he has the leverage to do so. In the process, however, he has not only alienated an entire fan base but also jeopardized the state of a franchise that already fears relocation. Until he’s moved, the Pelicans have little choice but to play the disgruntled Davis who a) doesn’t want to be there and is b) playing in front of fans who no longer want him there. The commissioner has threatened to fine New Orleans if they sit him to the tune of $100,000 a game leaving the franchise in a shit state of affairs. Davis’ value is minimal within his own arena yet it remains sky high in 29 others. Therein lies another rub.
The league has evolved, or devolved depending on how you look at it, from a time where players had no rights at all to where they hold all the cards, especially if they’ve made a mark on the league once their initial contract is up. The irony here is that players successful enough to collude are those who the league deems untouchable. No one feels sorry for the owners; no one ever has. The problem is that the fans are the ones paying the price, especially fans of the teams who can’t retain a superstar.
I am currently reading a book called Cap in Hand. The book traces the history of the rights of professional athletes, starting with Babe Ruth, moving on to the impact of Curt Flood and free agency and into the modern day. The premise of the book, which I will review on this website eventually, is that salary caps are detrimental and that pro sports should let the free market dictate how franchises and leagues rise and fall. I’m not entirely I sure I agree with that premise but that’s a conversation for another day.
What the NBA needs to ask itself is whether players dictating the terms of their own trade is bad for the league. Are ratings up because of the Golden State Warriors? They’re on TV every other night so people must be interested. On the flipside, with LeBron gone, how many times has ESPN or TNT aired the Cavaliers? That answer, my friends, is zero. When LeBron James left Cleveland for the second time, he had his pick of the litter. LeBron was so dominant that it took him leaving the Cavs for the Eastern Conference to become interesting. He could literally have gone to any team that could afford him under the cap. He could even have taken less money, since he has all the money he needs, and played wherever he wanted. Fortunately, greed has never not known its place at the NBA’s bargaining table.
The glass half empty argument on collusion and super teams comes from the embittered fan who finds it unfair that the Warriors have compiled one of the greatest teams in history. They see Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins on this roster as tilting the balance of power so that no other teams can compete. The glass half full NBA fan recognizes these Warriors as a great team that has managed to build itself through draft and free agency, offering an environment where players want to play while running off a slew of championships in the process. That makes them no lesser team in the annals of history. That makes them kings of adaptation.
Old school players are also torn with how the game has evolved. While enjoying the rights afforded today’s players, ten out of ten NBA veterans agree they would rather have beaten Steph Curry than joined him.
I get both sides of the argument. Today’s is a different NBA and everything is cyclical. I enjoy what the Warriors have done, recognizing their greatness. I don’t fault or judge Durant for choosing the soft option. There are no guarantees that the Warriors would have continued to win without him. I put the onus on the league’s general managers to properly construct a viable team. Keep in mind, Golden State wasn’t just lucky. They also pay a hefty luxury tax for keeping the talent they have.
Ultimately, collusion is hard to prove. I’m not even sure the league has defined it, but you can’t convince me that players in any league don’t talk. Do NFL players at Pro Bowls not kid about how nice it would be to play with one another? It’s just a lot harder to juggle fifty-three players on a salary capped roster than it is thirteen. But I ask you, isn’t that still collusion or is it only collusion if a deal actually gets done?
You might not be okay with collusion and its various forms, whether subtle or blatant, but it might just be here to stay until the league decides whether it’s truly a detriment. The league is and always will do what’s in its best interest, as it should as a business. As long as fans keep buying merchandise, you can rest assured that collusion is only a bad word for teams that don’t understand how to properly work the system.