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The free agency power demonstrated by LeBron James in the summer of 2010—orchestrating the creation of the Big 3 in Miami—had never been done before. It turned out to be the forerunner, or influencer, to the power plays made by star players in today’s NBA that some might call “pre-agency.”
In the past two years, the league has seen five superstar players declare their free agency intentions with multiple years left on their contracts: Kyrie Irving with the Cavs, Paul George with the Pacers, Kawhi Leonard with the Spurs, Kristaps Porzingis with the Knicks, and Anthony Davis with the Pelicans. All five declared a desire to take control of their basketball lives by putting their teams on notice that they would like or intended to go play somewhere else as soon as possible.
Fans have often struggled to digest these requests, with teams’ reactions often swift and heavily scrutinized (Knicks fan will never forget where they were on Jan. 31, 2019). The most jarring part of processing the news is simply the fact that the demands or requests come so unexpectedly. Trading a star player should happen when they’re on an expiring contract, and the feeling is clear that they are going to leave, or the team feels the star can no longer help it achieve its ultimate goal. But to have the franchise player declare their intention to leave, with multiple years left on their contract, is like having a ton of bricks dropped on you.
So imagine a world where the Lakers could put $200 million on the table and see if the Pelicans flinch. Rather than go back and forth with trade packages, New Orleans could simply name their price to break their contract with Davis.
Soccer fans are unimpressed by all this hoopla. Superstars declaring their desire to move on from clubs, with two, three, or even four years left on their contract is pretty common. Why, you ask? Because soccer uses a different system for dealing with trades and free agency. And, honestly, the NBA, and other American sports, should look to adopt some of soccer’s best practices.
The “transfer window,” as it’s called in soccer, essentially removes trading as we know it and replaces it with cash-swap deals. FIFA’s rules state that in order to get a player, you pay their team a sum of money equal to their value (in the club’s eyes). Once you’ve agreed on the fee, the club breaks the contract with the player, and the player is free to negotiate with a new team. In just the past two years, two of the biggest superstars in the sport have moved teams, in Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, and countless other stars have swapped jerseys as well.
Manchester United’s superstar midfielder, Paul Pogba, recently created a flurry of headlines when he casually told reporters before an international friendly, “Like I’ve always said, Real Madrid is a dream for anyone, it’s one of the biggest clubs in the world...For now, I’m at Manchester. We don't know what the future holds. I'm at Manchester and I’m happy.” These comments were plastered over the front pages of sports newspapers across Europe because of the potential fee Pogba could go for. Soccer fans get used to these rumors between superstar players and other clubs because transfers happen so frequently (just ask Chelsea supporters about their superstar winger Eden Hazard).
So imagine a world where the Lakers could put $200 million on the table and see if the Pelicans flinch. Rather than go back and forth with trade packages, New Orleans could simply name their price to break their contract with Davis. The market would determine the value of individual players, but with a hypothetical asking price of $200 million. The Pelicans would make back what they’ve paid AD to date and have some profit to boot.
The value for the Pelicans is that they get to decide their own future. Rather than suffer through re-uniting L.A.’s young “stars” in New Orleans, the Pelicans can take the money and spend it on players they want to build around in the future. Gone would be the days where you take another’s team’s mediocre assets in a trade just so that you don’t lose your superstar for nothing.
This would have made sense for the Knicks as well. Porzingis walks into the general manager’s office for five minutes, and the next thing you know, you’ve got to trade him or risk losing him as a restricted free agent. Instead of taking on Dallas’s trade assets, that were highlighted by Dennis Smith Jr., they could have taken straight cash for The Unicorn. Buying Smith could still be in their plans, but they wouldn’t have to buy-out Wesley Matthews or pay DeAndre Jordan to be a highly compensated tutor to Mitchell Robinson. Then, whether they shop around before the deadline or hang onto that money to use with their top five lottery pick, the Knicks can control their roster moving forward.
Of course, a few things would need to be tweaked in the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement in order to implement soccer’s best practices. In order to control the spending that teams would now enjoy, the salary cap would need to be adjusted to limit the total spending of a team in a single season, avoiding all out fire sales to simply buy a new team. In soccer, it takes way too much money to re-haul an entire team in a season, but basketball only has five players that you really need to worry about, so these rules would ensure that teams aren’t blown up after every failing season.
Soccer also designates certain times for these deals (“windows”), so the NBA could simply swap out the trade deadline for a January transfer month, just like soccer uses in most of the world, in addition to the NBA’s highly popular offseason free agent frenzy every July.
This change would free up small market teams, such as New Orleans, to bring in revenue through developing players and then cashing in on them once they want to move on. It also empowers them to spend that cash when they get a new draft prospect in, so that they have a chance to keep them as they enter their prime. The Pelicans are projected to get a lottery pick this year, but tanking for a top 10 pick next year would also benefit them. Once they have two young prospects on their team, they’ll want to start spending that money they received.
Ultimately, in a time where there is little parity in the league, these changes would help restore it. Superstars will inevitably partner up in search for championships, but these changes would allow the small market teams, often left on the wrong side of deals, to control their destiny moving forward. Players won’t lose out because teams aren’t going to put up money if they aren’t willing to negotiate with them, so there won’t be deals made against a player’s will. The devastation to a franchise of having a star player force their way out of town would dramatically drop as teams would be able to get “fair compensation” in return.