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Opinion: Now Is The Winter Of The NBA Players' Discontent


Thursday is the NBA's trade deadline, and there are a lot of great players who could be moved to a different team. Quite a few of them, actually, are demanding to be traded to another team. Sports commentator Mike Pesca says he can't remember a time of more widespread discontent among the NBA's elite. And Mike has some thoughts on how we got here.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Lakers have offered an improved Anthony Davis package.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Blazers acquired Rodney Hood in exchange for sauce Castillo, Wade Baldwin...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Should the Sixers at least think about moving Jimmy Butler?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: And in other NBA unhappiness news, Anthony Davis demands a trade out of New Orleans, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is unhappy with the Lakers, Kristaps Porzingis dealt by the Knicks, who he had grown weary of, Kyrie Irving wants out of Boston, and, oh yeah, Thon Maker, who plays for the team with the NBA's best record, the Milwaukee Bucks, wants out. NBA players get paid an average of $7 million a year and get to wear shorts to work. What's the problem, guys?

Thirty-one years ago, before there was free agency actually, players could be traded or cut. That was it. Things are absolutely better for players now. They're richer and have more freedom. That's the free part of free agency. But I believe the agency part is harder to deal with on a psychological level.


LEBRON JAMES: And this fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach.

PESCA: In 2010, LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and created a super team with the Miami Heat. In less than a decade since, other groups of players have tried to do the same thing, meaning a great player now also has to be a great general manager, mixing and matching or sometimes demanding and wheedling to find a better situation for himself. A player in 1985 might just put his head down and grind it out for an uncaring owner.

But now when a player has ownership over his own career, he has no one to blame but himself. It seems un-American to argue for the old dictatorial system, and I'm not doing that. I'm just noting that the first flush of openness, as when a government topples or, say, when the Berlin Wall came down, eventually leads to habituation. Freedom stops feeling like freedom and just starts feeling like life. And the agency in free agency stops meaning the opportunity to choose and starts meeting the burden of choice.

Aside from psychology, common to all humans, there is something specific to the NBA that is causing such mass discontent. Pat Riley, famed NBA player, coach and executive, once said, in the NBA, there is winning and there is misery. By winning, he meant championships, and in the NBA these days, it seems only the Golden State Warriors can do that. It is true that every year only one team wins, but in past seasons, several teams at least thought they could win. And sometimes, especially if LeBron James was on the team, they were right.

But this year, the perception of hopelessness casts a pall on every player who is not on the Warriors. What's the point, they ask. The only chance is to orchestrate for myself a better situation, to create my own group of superstars and only then might I find contentment to go along with my average of $7 million and casual workplace attire.


GREENE: We hope sports commentator Mike Pesca keeps finding contentment right here. We would never trade him away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.