The Dark Side of NBA Player Empowerment

Image: Nic Antaya/Getty Images.

One of the best things to happen in the NBA the past couple of years has been players taking greater ownership of their careers on and off the court, engaging in the kind of player empowerment that we haven’t seen in decades.

For too long, players cashed those multi-generational wealth-sized checks which not only bought their services as a player, but also their silence on issues such as roster building that teams would prefer them to stay quiet about, anyway.

But this year more than ever, we saw player empowerment in the NBA when it comes to building a team, go horribly wrong even for some of the greatest to ever play the game.

In Los Angeles, we saw LeBron James put his imprint on shaping a Lakers roster that on paper, looked really good…if this was 2017 and not 2022.

All the red flags that were thrown up before the team was fully formed, that they were too old, not talented enough and lacked depth—came to fruition.

Not only did the Lakers fail to live up to the hype of being a title contender, but they didn’t even qualify for the playoffs or the play-in tournament.

The Brooklyn Nets’ player empowerment power moves, led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, brought together the kind of offensive triumvirate that seemed destined to win multiple titles.

Instead, the Big Three of Durant, Irving and James Harden was broken up at the trade deadline in February when Harden was shipped out to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons who did not play a single game all season.

The remaining 1-2 punch of Durant and Irving didn’t just lose their first-round playoff series to Boston.

The Celtics won the best-of-seven series 4-0, the first time either player was swept out of the playoffs.

It was the kind of series defeat that leaves a couple of scarlet letters (“EF” for empowerment failure) on the resumes of the future Hall of Famers, especially when you throw in the fact that they hand-picked the head coach Steve Nash who had no prior head coaching experience.

Losing to the Celtics had even more irony to it, considering Boston’s first-year head coach Ime Udoka was an assistant on the Nets coaching staff under Nashlast season.

And the two players who did the most damage to Brooklyn for Boston in the series, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, were players Boston drafted after acquiring those specific draft picks from a previous deal with Brooklyn.

There were several mitigating factors that came into play for both the Lakers and Nets to struggle; the kind of issues that most teams in some fashion have to deal with such as player underachievement, inexperience at key positions, injuries and of course, health and safety protocol concerns.

But championship contenders build a roster that provides a little bit of cushion to absorb some of those unexpected setbacks, and still be relatively competitive.

The Lakers didn’t do that.

Neither did the Nets.

And the end result is what we saw this season: two teams that never came close to meeting the lofty expectations that their player-empowered builders had been seeking.

Empowerment when it is done well, at its core involves embracing the need to be uncomfortable.

But in both the Lakers and Nets situations, that was actually the last thing either side wanted to do.

James, Durant and Irving all wanted to surround themselves with as many players (and in the case of Durant and Irving, a coach in Nash) to make them feel comfortable and to a lesser extent, are symbolic reminders of how much empowered they are right now.

The sad part is that all three men have won championships before. And they know better than most, there has to be a level of comfort with being uncomfortable, to win at the highest levels.

By angling to make their own selves more comfortable by being surrounded with an unquestioned acceptance void of accountability, they’re going to fail to grow into being the absolute best for both their own personal growth and that of those around them.

This new age of NBA player empowerment has been successful in achieving part of its intended goal which is to shine a brighter spotlight on the power and influence of athletes to bring about change.

But there is a dark side to it, a side we have seen emerge from the shadows of the past to where players now wield significantly more influence in not only how the game is played, but who’s playing it.

And as we saw in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, that’s not always a good thing.

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