The state of power in the NBA

By Tom Ziller

Illustrations by Lindsay Mound

Some NBA fans are able to just watch basketball and enjoy the on-court action. Some of us are just as intrigued by everything else happening in and around the game: the drama, the backstory, the struggle for power.

Like a beach, the NBA landscape is constantly changing both on the court and off, with power in both places contested every minute. There are four key power struggles happening right now in the NBA — two to be decided on the court and two revolving around backstage machinations.

For the benefit of both types of NBA fans — those just here for the games and those who love the drama — here’s a status report on where those four power struggles sit going into the 2019-20 season.

Warriors vs. everyone

The Golden State Warriors have been the most dominant team in the NBA for five years, and are the signature franchise of this decade. The Western Conference has been brutal for time immemorial, and the Warriors have won it five straight years, with three championships to show for it. (And the two NBA Finals series they lost were hard-fought with extenuating circumstances.)

But the days of the Warriors being a prohibitive championship favorite are over. Kevin Durant left, Klay Thompon is injured, the veteran vertebrae of the team were casualties of the salary cap, and the future is as uncertain as it has been since in years.

The team is still good — it’s hard to imagine a team with Stephen Curry plus Draymond Green and D’Angelo Russell struggling to win the 45 games or so necessary to make the playoffs, and if Klay is back in time for the playoffs, watch out — but the Warriors aren’t striking fear into everyone from Day 1.

The Clippers strike fear into everyone. The Sixers strike fear into everyone. The Warriors don’t anymore. That’s a huge shift from the NBA we’ve known for a half-decade. Golden State’s new reality creates a power vacuum that those two teams, and perhaps some others, can slip into.

The fact of the Warriors’ exit from that hegemon role without officially being replaced as a solitary power — the Clips come the closest, but Paul George isn’t starting the season healthy — vastly changes the power dynamics in actual league play. As a result, the NBA could be more wide open this season than in any season since 2014-15, when the Warriors climbed from being a nice young team under Mark Jackson to a superpower under Steve Kerr. It’s a good feeling, not having strong premonitions on what’s going to happen when June comes.

The Warriors’ reign as a superpower is probably over. The Warriors’ reign as the NBA superpower is definitely over.

Glamour markets vs. small markets

The 2019 free agency period was pretty wild, and it came out beautifully for the biggest markets in the NBA.

Kawhi Leonard chose Los Angeles. Kevin Durant chose New York (Brooklyn, specifically). Anthony Davis successfully pushed for a trade to Los Angeles. Kyrie Irving picked New York, too (Brooklyn again). George, invited by Kawhi, pushed for a trade to Los Angeles a year after he snubbed LA to remain in small-market Oklahoma City. Kemba Walker ditched small market Charlotte for glamour market Boston.

Definitions of these markets are always fluid. Golden State is No. 14 (close to average) in NBA market size, going by population of metropolitan statistical areas defined by the federal government. Houston and Dallas are much bigger markets, but most observers would be quicker to call Golden State a glamour market than perhaps Houston, and certainly Dallas. Philadelphia is bigger, but hasn’t traditionally been viewed as a glamour market either. (That’s likely changing as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons become stars, provided Sixers’ brass pays up.) Chicago is the No. 3 market in the country, but has often operated as a smaller market.

So again, it’s all fluid. But no matter how you define the markets, it’s hard to argue that this summer wasn’t a massive coup for the big city clubs, particularly the Clippers, Lakers, and Nets: three teams in the two biggest markets in the league.

Who did it cost? The small markets, of course.

Durant and Irving immediately came over from other glamour markets (Golden State and Boston), but began their careers with small markets (Oklahoma City and Cleveland). As they have acquired agency over the course of their careers, they have moved to larger and larger markets, ending up in the biggest one of all.

George began his career in a small market (Indiana), was trade to and re-signed with a smaller market (Oklahoma City), and eventually pushed for a trade to a glamour market (Los Angeles). Kawhi began in a small market (San Antonio), got traded to a larger market (Toronto), and chose a glamour market (Los Angeles) in free agency.

Anthony Davis was drafted into a small market (New Orleans) and forced a trade to a glamour market (Los Angeles). Even LeBron James has migrated to larger markets, ending up in Los Angeles eventually (albeit having gone upside down once from Miami back to Cleveland).

The larger, more glamorous, more wealthy markets are winning, despite the best intentions of the NBA to level the playing field with contract preferences for incumbent teams and a tougher salary cap. What can the league do now?

Franchisees vs. players

In related news, the internecine battle between teams over control over their homegrown stars has opened up a new front in the eternal struggle between franchise owners and players.

The league’s Board of Governors — made up of a representative of each ownership group — was very angry that no one followed the rules of free agency this summer, getting deals done earlier in June and announcing them before free agency even opened. So the team owners took the bold move of … insisting they themselves be policed more vigorously. Now the penalties for tampering are more harsh and the investigatory powers of the NBA league office more robust.

But everyone acknowledged that regulating player-to-player contact is untenable, and it’s essentially accepted that players cannot be charged with or investigated for tampering.

So in their haste to fix a nebulous problem, the team owners gave even more power to superstar players to attempt to shape the NBA how they see fit in text messages and post-game huddles.

If you want evidence that the power dynamic between teams and players is heavily skewed toward the stars, just look at the Lakers’ Davis acquisition — orchestrated by Rich Paul, who serves as Davis’ agent and LeBron’s business partner — and Kawhi’s recruitment of George.

The next front to open up here might be among the players themselves as the superstar power plays aren’t always good news for role players and fringe NBA guys. But there’s little question that superstars like LeBron have raised the ceiling and floor for NBA salaries, and everyone from the average NBA player on down is making a really good living. It’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth. But it’s something to watch as the top stars continue to seize control of the league.

LeBron vs. the next generation

LeBron has unmatched power in the NBA’s superstructure, but what about on the court? The sand is shifting beneath King James’ feet as he continues to get older and rising rivals challenge his dominance.

In fact, LeBron may have very well already lost this power struggle: he hasn’t won an NBA MVP since 2013, he almost missed the All-NBA last season, he fell outside the top-five in MVP voting for the first time since 2005 last season — he didn’t even win a single Player of the Month award last season.

Meanwhile, Curry and Durant continued to combine unprecedented efficiency and volume, James Harden continued his incredible scoring run, Giannis Antetokounmpo realized something close to his full powers, and Kawhi ran the table in a rental year with two-way brilliance.

It’s hard to say that LeBron is the best player in the world with a straight face given the rise of all these other contenders. You can only do it if you believe last season’s Lakers failure was an aberration and that James still has the juice to stand above the rest. How many people really buy that possibility?

Obviously, this season will be definitive on the status of LeBron in Los Angeles, whether it will be remembered as a regrettable denouement of a would-be GOAT or a fourth era of supremacy for James. But part of what has kept LeBron in this conversation has been the churn of the challengers: Durant joining the Warriors’ chorus to the detriment of both his and Curry’s personal achievements, Harden’s battle with Chris Paul and inability to overcome Golden State, Davis’ inability to win games in New Orleans, Kawhi’s odd 2017-18 absence. Giannis is on the prototypical rise to power LeBron experienced a decade ago, but we know from watching others that this classic rise is not without pitfalls. The Bucks’ rude dismissal by the Raptors prove that much.

Who is the best basketball player in the world? Because there’s not one obvious answer to the contrary, some may still say LeBron. Will they still be able to say it by the end of the season, or is that struggle lost for James?