In 1988, then-Supersonic Tom Chambers became the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history. Under new rules implemented that same year, players could become unrestricted free agents after playing through two contracts and at least seven years in the NBA.
Chambers met both standards, and soon after the rules were set in place, he signed a five-year deal with the Phoenix Suns, ushering in a new era of player empowerment. Before the introduction of unrestricted free agency, players switched teams exclusively through trades, and they had little to no say as to where they were going to play throughout their careers.
The true introduction of the free agency changed the entire way the NBA worked. No longer did teams have complete control over players, and now they had to ensure that their best players were happy with the team and their contract.
Furthermore, the prospect of an unrestricted free agency meant teams had to plan their future both carefully and extensively. If they mishandled the situation, their star could easily choose to be somewhere else, leaving the team with an uncertain future and nothing in return.
The NBA witnessed one of those moments eight years after Tom Chambers’ monumental decision. The Orlando Magic, who had just made a run to the NBA Finals in 1995, refused to offer the nine-figure contract that Shaquille O’Neal, the unquestioned star of the team, desired. Insulted by the Magic’s efforts to lowball him, O’Neal, only four years and one contract into his NBA career, signed a seven-year, 121 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, teaming up with a young Kobe Bryant. O’Neal was only allowed to become an unrestricted free agent due to changes made by the 1995 CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement).
Three years later, the 1998 CBA reversed those changes and brought back restricted free agency. However, the floodgates had been opened, and over the next 23 years, stars jumped from one team to the next, consequently bringing constant change and league-wide power shifts. As they went along, they continued to find new ways to control their careers and quickly realized that they held more power than ever.
Then in 2011, the NBA world changed forever when superstars LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to join 2006 Finals MVP Dwayne Wade in Miami. In their introductory press conference, James promised Miami fans “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships, but numbers that had not been dreamt of since Michael Jordan’s dominance of the 1990s. After initially disappointing with a Finals loss to the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks, the Heat won back-to-back championships. Slowly but surely, teams dubbed as “superteams” began to form across the league, and a new era of basketball began.
Ironically, it was the organically built Golden State Warriors who exploded onto the scene in 2015, winning a championship against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. But in a move perhaps more shocking than Lebron “taking his talents to South Beach,” 2015 MVP Kevin Durant, hailed as one of the greatest scorers in decades, signed with the Warriors in 2016. From 2016 to 2018, the Warriors carried four All-Stars in Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Durant on their roster. While James had All-Star teammates of his own such as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Warriors were virtually unstoppable with their elite two-way play.
In response to the Warriors’ excellence, many teams tried building superteams of their own, such as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler, the Houston Rockets’ trade for Chris Paul, and the Toronto Raptors’ surprise addition of Kawhi Leonard. However, many of these teams did not work out, and because of the power the players held, they were able to force their way off the team. In four years, Jimmy Butler jumped from Chicago to Minnesota to Philadelphia then to Miami. Then, players were discovering that if they were unhappy with the way the team was performing, structured, or run, they could simply request a trade or express their frustration publicly.
The 2019 offseason is perhaps the greatest existing example of player empowerment. Anthony Davis, who was the star forward for the New Orleans Pelicans, requested a trade and made his preference for the destination to be the Lakers extremely well-known. In his final game with the Pelicans, Davis comically wore a “That’s All Folks” shirt on his way into the stadium. Two months later, he was traded and teamed up with LeBron James on the Lakers.
That very same offseason, all-world talents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed to the Brooklyn Nets. Both stars had their problems with their previous teams. Durant had just torn his Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals, and he had been in several verbal spats with teammate Draymond Green throughout the season. Irving, on the other hand, was supposed to be a part of a Celtics team that favored making the Finals. However, the team was dysfunctional and lacked chemistry, leading Irving to sign with the Nets.
Player empowerment means that you will rarely see a player stay on one team his entire career in Larry Bird fashion. It also means that teams located in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles will benefit while smaller-market teams will always be afraid of losing their best players. While it does create a lopsided league, player empowerment gives fans teams filled with star power and elite talent. There will constantly be change and new contenders, and maybe that means player empowerment is better for the NBA than some would like to admit.