Michele Roberts wants to stop chatter about player power being a problem
‘There’s just a perception that owners have rights and players don’t’
NEW YORK — Much has been made about Kawhi Leonard and Paul George power-brokering their way to the LA Clippers, Anthony Davis getting his wish with a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joining forces with the Brooklyn Nets.
NBA superstars possessing and exercising this kind of power has made many people in the basketball world uncomfortable. There have been several reports stating concern from NBA owners about star players working behind the scenes to play together.
But what about the flip side? After signing a long-term deal with the Houston Rockets in 2018, Chris Paul was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder this past offseason in the Russell Westbrook trade.
With NBA training camps opening later this month, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”
“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …
“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”
In the case of Paul, the nine-time All-Star had previously been granted his wish to be traded to the Rockets from the Clippers in 2017. Paul signed a four-year, $160 million contract with the Rockets in the summer of 2018. But after Paul didn’t see eye to eye with Rockets star James Harden this past season, Houston traded him to the rebuilding Thunder on July 16. Instead of competing for a title with Houston, Paul is now expected to begin this season as the Thunder’s starting point guard.
“No one has said a word about what happens when the team precipitously trades a man, especially a family man, and the consequences that that has on him,” said Roberts, who recently visited with Paul, the president of the players’ union, in New York City. “We spend so much time criticizing a player’s decision to move but no time wondering or thinking is anything contoured about a team’s decision to move a player.
“Now, I don’t think either one of them is evil. If a team has the right to trade you, then that’s the way it works. Similarly, if a player has the right to leave, that’s the way it works too. If the team doesn’t want to trade the player, it doesn’t.”
While Paul is the latest example, Roberts is well-aware that other notable NBA players in recent years have also been cast off.
Blake Griffin was dealt from the Clippers to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 29, 2018, just months after signing a five-year, $173 million contract with the team. The Boston Celtics traded All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Aug. 30, 2017, after he played through multiple injuries and the death of his sister, for All-Star guard Kyrie Irving. Thomas, now with the Washington Wizards, was deeply hurt by the trade, partly because he believed the Celtics would re-sign him to a long-term deal. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, re-signed veteran starting center Nene to a five-year, $67 million deal on Dec. 14, 2011, and traded him to the Wizards three months later.
“There’s just a perception that owners have rights and players don’t,” Roberts said. “I mean it’s unfortunate that we tend to, on some levels, continue to view players as property as opposed to people. And so, you allow for a certain flexibility as you exercise your property rights that somehow appear to be more compelling than a player’s individual freedom.
“And I can’t figure it out except that there is still this perception that you are property, the team is property and I can manage my property any way I want. If you think that property rights are significant, then they must think you have to believe that individual liberty is significant, but not as significant? So, in my view, more significant. I don’t know why, and it could be because there’s some issues involving race and class and a number of things, but I don’t know that I know why it is. I just know that it is.”
So, is there a happy medium for players and owners?
“As far as giving the player notice, I think we’ve done probably as much as we can because there’s certain things that have to happen,” Roberts said. “Teams want to maintain some competitive advantage. And the league, of course, wants to keep all trade discussions to a minimum; if not, they could not exist during certain periods of time. So there’s some structural issues that have to be acknowledged.
“What I think has to happen is we have to somehow stop the chatter that I think is growing in intensity about the problem of player movement. I don’t see it as a problem any more than I would see a lawyer deciding to work in another firm as a problem. I thought that that was something we were supposed to be able to do in this country. And as long as if you comply with the rules, then I mean if a player says, ‘Look, you asked me a question. No, I don’t want to play for New Orleans anymore. I don’t like the management for me. Is it working? I don’t like the direction of the team.’ ”
Roberts says she personally loves the big offseason moves by star players and is very excited about the upcoming NBA season.
“I don’t know why people aren’t excited about this new season,” Roberts said. “The East is now more interesting than it has been. Certainly, California is more interesting than everything has been. You’ve got some of the finest players in the league playing there.
“What are we complaining about? I can’t wait for the season to start.”