In July, just a few months ago, Blake Griffin was the master of his fate. He was a free agent who could choose where to play basketball and, at the age of 33, hopefully somewhere where he could finish his career.
Chris Paul was leaving the Clippers, so Lob City had come to an end, though it had been over for a few years before in practice even with the cast still together. And while DeAndre Jordan was still on the team, Griffin was the face of the franchise the Clippers wanted and at least needed at the moment if they wanted to remain competitive and attract other big free agents.
The Clippers presented Griffin with the idea of him being a lifer and he chose to stay. But, in the end, all the promises and fake-jersey retirement was a bunch of razzmatazz. The cliche that usually goes to justify the coldness of the corporations involved is the game is a business and now Griffin is headed from sunny Los Angeles to play for the Detroit Pistons.
Detroit was a team he had no interest in playing for, but because he didn’t have a no-trade clause, he also had no agency in the trade process. Griffin reportedly fought more for his fifth-year option, possibly instead of a no-trade clause. Rachel Nichols of ESPN thinks this will change in the future for superstar free agents.
The Clippers gave Blake Griffin a crazy-elaborate free agent pitch, even mock-retiring his jersey to the rafters...six months later he's shipped off to Detroit, a team he'd never have even taken a meeting with. Expect every big free agent this summer to demand a no-trade clause.— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) January 30, 2018
To qualify for a no-trade clause a player must have played eight years in the NBA and four with their current team, so not every player can demand this. But even if a player is eligible, the player’s suitors can simply refuse to include the clause in order to leave them the freedom to change their mind on the commitment. But the reason players should be adamant about the clause is clear.
If the cliche that the NBA is a business is to continue to be held up, when everything that we do within the game is to the contrary — after all, the Clippers didn’t woo Griffin with simple contract talk but rather emotionally, speaking to him about connections and legacy — then the players should use the options available to them to make sure that they are as empowered as they can possibly be.
It’s not an issue of money but of freedom. From the start, the draft, the player’s destiny is determined by the greater machine. The reward for a life of overcoming obstacles and being a great college player is to be drafted by the worst teams in the league, which are usually lacking in both the on-court talent and a stable organizational structure. The professional career then becomes one of trying to shine in the abyss, one that players like Devin Booker and Anthony Davis are living out. If players are lucky, they can end up with smart organizations who managed to game the asset business, like Jayson Tatum and the Celtics. But the point remains that the player is without choice as soon as he enters the league. A top draft pick likely has to prop up a bad organization for years before having the choice of where and for what team he wants to play for.
LeBron James has reigned in some control in the form of taking one-year deals and having a no-trade clause and it’s the ideal situation for any great player. The one-year deal is risky in that any shock injury or bad year in production can limit one’s economic future. However, the thinking behind both the one-year deals and no-trade clause is a simple counter to the inhumane business of trades: if teams and the greater machine of the NBA can move players at will and without much notice, then when the player has the option, they should be able to have a say on whether they want to move and where exactly they want to go. The person playing should be able to either make the team honor their contract with him or decide what type of future he will have.
When teams are able to decide for the player, there is no incentive to make sure the player goes into a good, or better, situation. Teams are loyal to what is best for them first and foremost — even when they say they have the player’s best interests at heart.
Griffin had no interest in Detroit and would have probably loved it more if the Clippers traded him to a contender. If he couldn’t spend the last years of his career in the city he loves, then he could at least spend it chasing a ring. With no agency in the trade, in the form of a no-trade clause, he now has to play out his last years on a team he didn’t want to be on, doing little of consequence in the greater playoff picture.
As players see more and more examples of loyal colleagues traded or dumped unceremoniously, as the actual labor of the league starts to realize the game truly is a business without loyalty or compassion, they’re going to start to demand more power of self-determination. One of the few ways they can gain agency right now is through that no-trade clause, though it requires lots of service to be eligible for it. Even with that, it’s ridiculous for players to waive or concede to not having it going forward. Teams will have no choice but to grant it when every great free agent makes it a requirement to any agreement. It’s going to be either that or the chance of going from Los Angeles to Detroit in the middle of winter.