Iguodala In the Driver's Seat
In a world where stars dominate the sport of basketball; where every team has some dynamic combination of players; where big names run the game, who would think a 36-year-old role player could have power over a front office?
In the summer of 2019, a vital piece of the Golden State Warriors championship success moved to a young, up-and-coming team. No, not Kevin Durant, but 3-time champion, 17-year NBA vet, and NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. Considering this resume I just described, you'd think the Warriors must've gotten a haul back, right? Not. At. All. The full details of the trade were then 35-year-old Iguodala and a Warriors first round pick for a traded players exception and Julian Washburn.
Now, you may be wondering what a traded players exception is or who the hell Julian Washburn is. Two great questions. Traded players exceptions are awarded to teams in financially imbalanced trades as a means of both making the trade work and alleviating cap room and giving financial flexibility to the team receiving them. Clearly, there is some value there. Julian Washburn, on the other hand? Not so much. At the time of this trade he had played in 18 NBA games with a career high 8 points against, surprise-surprise, the Warriors. He never logged a single minute with the Warriors, either in-game or even in training camp and now finds himself on the Delaware Blue Coats of the G-League. This move was, from the Warriors point of view, purely a financial decision- to the extent that they traded a first round pick just to dump Iguodala's $17 million salary for, well, cap space.
Washburn wasn't the only player not to log a single minute for his new team, even in training camp, however. Iguodala made it eminently clear almost immediately that he had no interest in playing for the Grizzlies; it was contender or bust. He handled the manner in what has been referred to as a "respectful and polite" way and due to his good manners and league-wide respect, managed to spend a whopping seven months with the team while still receiving his entire contract. He ended up being traded just before the trade deadline, on February 5th, to the heat in exchange for a package centered around Justice Winslow. Don't think he left without any noise being made, though; in the days preceding the trade, some of his much younger (we're talking over a decade) teammates spoke their mind on his hiatus.
Three-year Grizzlies vet Brooks was met with support from other young teammates on twitter, such as Ja Morant and DeAnthony Melton, who each retweeted the above post with an emoticon of affirmation. This led to a small feud between Morant and Curry, and while I would love to divulge into NBA gossip, the power dynamic implications here are far too strong to ignore.
How on earth was a rotational player (despite being an NBA legend) able to bully a team into paying him $17 million to not play for the majority of a season, purely because he didn't consider them good enough. No matter how bad a team is or how great of a reputation a player has, I'd think it'd be a slap to the face for that player to suggest he was too good for an organization, even if he's polite as can be. But in response to his request to just not play, practice, check into training camp, or even associate with the team in any way, shape, or form, Grizzlies management simply said they would try to trade him, but only for the right price- which now they've evidently found.
But again, how have we found the league in a state where a player, especially a role player in the waning phase of his career, has this much negotiating power over a team he just joined? To find the answer to this question we must explore the evolving relationships between players and front offices over the past several years- not just in basketball, but in sports as a whole.
The most prominent recent example is LeBron James who has had a major role in decision making for both the Cavaliers and Lakers, even if that role is played up a bit by media speculation. Back when he was on the Cavaliers, there was a turbulent streak of unpredictable acquisitions made at often rapid paces. For example, LeBron did not get along well with coach David Blatt, and soon after their disputes became public, Blatt was replaced by James' friend Tyronn Lue, who became notorious for playing second fiddle to James when it came to in-game decisions. Later on in this stint with Cleveland, right at the trade deadline the Cavaliers cleaned house, trading away over half the team, another set of moves James was said to have pushed the envelope for. In the 2018-19 season, playing for the Lakers, James made public comments about his aspirations to team up with Anthony Davis, which then led to weeks of never-ending trade rumors surrounding trade packages for the Pelicans big-man, which naturally led to rumors swirling around almost everyone on LA's roster. Finally the trade was made and Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram all found themselves on new teams. The status quo for any team lead by LeBron over the past several years has been clear: what he says, goes.
Basketball is not the only stage in which players are flipping the script in their power dynamic with management, though. Soccer players such as Neymar, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and others are notorious for pushing certain moves, whether it be transfer bids to acquire new players or pushing teammates or staff members off the team. This has redefined the power dynamic in soccer, but not quite as much as some players might think. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, grew frustrated on the LA Galaxy and requested a transfer away, while also expressing that the team and potentially MLS as a whole would suffer greatly from losing him. He went so far as claiming he "was LA." This might sound eerily familiar if you follow American football, as Antonio Brown tried to force his way out of the Raiders and onto a contender, after an uncountable amount of antics that pissed Jon Gruden and co. off just enough to get rid of the wide receiver. Unlike Ibra and Iguodala, however, Brown's antics did not get him far as he spiraled out of control after an extremely short stint with the New England Patriots.
This is all to say that the power dynamic in sports, especially the NBA, is switching, and while it isn't doing so as fast as Antonio Brown might like, it is certainly at an alarming rate. We're moving past the days of preferences and input of stars to an era where front offices are so eager to appease stars (looking at you, LeBron) that the practically grant them managerial powers. Now we find ourselves in a conundrum in which aged role players like Iguodala can bully a team into letting them receive their full salary without logging in a single minute or even donning a uniform. But the thing is, what can management really do? When a player is so respected and so valuable, either as a trade asset or for their performance, teams can't stand to unsettle them or muck anything up. If LeBron is on your time you have to do everything you can to build that team to his liking. Build that throne just to the King's liking. But as we head down this slippery slope the question stands: at what point do front offices put their foots down? Where is the line drawn?