Big fish in a small pond

Open Season

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There’s a famous scene from the film “Miracle” in which head coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) lectures the United States men’s national ice hockey team that would eventually go on to beat the seemingly invincible USSR, telling them that “… the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back!”

As the NBA finally tips off for another season, the one game that will truly signal the start of a new year will be when the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday evening. To be clear — it has absolutely nothing to do with the teams involved.

Everyone is going to tune in to watch a familiar face in a brand new uniform.

When LeBron James finally strolls out onto the floor in a Lakers jersey, a new era will commence, not just because it changes the balance of power in the league. What’s more significant? For perhaps the first time, it will feel as if a single player is bigger than one of the league’s most renowned franchises.

With all apologies to Herb Brooks, it seems that the name on the back is actually more important than the one on the front — at least in the NBA.

Players have grown increasingly more powerful in the league ever since “The Decision,” when LeBron changed teams for the first time, leaving Cleveland in free agency to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. More importantly, it sent a message to players that they could be the masters of their own destiny and that it was they, not franchises, that really held the power.

As this wisdom has gradually seeped its way into the psyche of top NBA talent, players have leveraged their value to put themselves in the best possible situations. Whether that means leaving OKC to join the Warriors with the power of free agency à la Kevin Durant or utilizing the mere possibility of leaving OKC to land yourself a contract extension worth $205 million like Russell Westbrook, it’s clear that the players are the ones controlling the chessboard.

Franchises have responded by making themselves as player-friendly as possible. Teams have been willing to sacrifice entire seasons in order to create the necessary cap space to sign one or two big-name free agents.

But when franchises refuse to cater to their top talent, things can get ugly, very quickly.

Once Kyrie Irving found out that the Cavaliers discussed trading him (and sensed that LeBron wouldn’t be in Cleveland in the long term), he demanded a trade of his own that eventually sent him to Boston in exchange for a broken down Isaiah Thomas and other pieces, leaving the Cavs worse for wear and Kyrie in the perfect environment for his career.

The Jimmy Butler saga in Minnesota has provided a cautionary tale for any franchise that somehow upsets its star player. Butler, who demanded but was not granted a trade during the offseason, reportedly lashed out at the team in practice last week, leading a squad of third stringers to a win over Timberwolves starters while exclaiming to general manager Scott Layden, “You f—— need me, Scott! You can’t win without me!”

In effect, Butler has killed locker room morale, fractured the confidence of the starting lineup and destroyed any leverage the Timberwolves could have in negotiations with trade partners.

Franchises will look at what’s happened in Minnesota as an example of the risk an organization takes when it refuses to adhere to player demands. But even the strongest organizations haven’t been able to safeguard themselves from the player empowerment movement.

Kawhi Leonard refused to play for the San Antonio Spurs last season despite being medically cleared by team doctors, instead opting to stay away from the team until he was eventually dealt to the Toronto Raptors. If the legendary Gregg Popovich and a $220 million super max aren’t enough to entice a player to stay, then there’s no hope for anyone else.

In many respects, the NBA is turning into an American version of European soccer in which players can force their ways off teams with simple pouting. Contracts are regarded as mere suggestions rather than binding commitments, as the Wall Street Journal covered in this piece.

This isn’t to say any of this is a bad thing — it’s simply a new reality that we’re all going to have to get used to. If anything, the NBA rumor mill has become just as compelling as the actual product on the floor, and players have practically become television characters who fans are willing to follow from team to team.

Star players aren’t dumb. They know that most of them have more followers on Twitter than the actual teams they play on or are more recognizable than their team logo.

They’ve used this knowledge as a tool to force franchises to accommodate their demands whether they like it or not. It’s undeniable that in a sport in which one player can change the entire trajectory of a franchise, they hold tremendous amounts of leverage.

It’s a players world, and the rest of the league is just living in it.

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].