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Why NBA stars are always changing teams now

Player empowerment is at an all-time high, but there are other structural incentives causing all this star movement.

Boston Celtics Introduce Kyrie Irving Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

After Kawhi Leonard was traded for DeMar DeRozan last week, a stunning fact made the rounds. Fully half of the players in the 2017 NBA All-Star game had switched teams in just 18 months. These are the best players in the league, and half of them had changed teams via trade or free agency over the course of two trade deadlines and two offseasons.

Of course, the movement of the 2017 All-Stars began almost immediately: DeMarcus Cousins was essentially traded during the All-Star Game. Some of the All-Stars have switched teams twice.

How the player movement happened is an interesting thread to pull. Is this a case of players taking ownership of their careers and forcing movement through trade demands and free agency, or are teams just being bold about moving stars around?

Here’s a table that tries to explain what led to each 2017 All-Star’s team switch as plainly as possible.

Why the 2017 All-Stars Moved

Player Reason for Team Switch
Player Reason for Team Switch
Kyrie Irving Trade Demand
DeMar DeRozan Another Star's Trade Demand
LeBron James Free Agency
Jimmy Butler Team Rebuild
Isaiah Thomas* Another Star's Trade Demand
Carmelo Anthony Team Rebuild
Paul George Trade Demand
Paul Millsap Free Agency
Kawhi Leonard Trade Demand
DeMarcus Cousins** Team Rebuild
DeAndre Jordan Free Agency
Gordon Hayward Free Agency

* Isaiah Thomas was traded due to another disgruntled star, and then traded because he was oil laying atop his new team’s water, and then left in free agency. Dude’s been around.

** DeMarcus Cousins was traded due to a change in team direction, then left that team in free agency due to an injury and hurt feelings.

Nine of the 12 All-Stars who have moved teams have done so either through free agency (the purest expression of player choice), a trade demand (essentially a threat to be miserable or leave in free agency unless traded), or as a result of another star’s trade demand! This is a full expression of player power.

DeRozan’s fate has been expressed as a critique of the lack of NBA teams’ loyalty, which is fair to a degree. But the reason DeRozan got traded is that a better NBA player, Kawhi, wanted out, and to get stars, you usually need to trade stars. It’s the same reason Isaiah got traded when Kyrie Irving requested a trade. Player empowerment doesn’t happen in a vacuum: it affects other players, often fellow stars, too!

Only three of the stars were moved due to the capricious whims of a team. Even one of those players, Carmelo Anthony, is sort of a weird, special case because he was fairly disgruntled with the Knicks and waived his no-trade clause to head to the Thunder (who are now moving on from him).

The Kings traded Cousins because he would have been eligible for a $200 million contract they were uninterested in offering.

The Bulls traded Jimmy Butler because ... it’s still a little hard to figure this one out, no lie. The core argument is that the Bulls were going to be mediocre and Butler was entering his prime and a couple years from free agency, so why not start fresh? (It was a pretty sober-minded deal in the end. Chicago doesn’t often get credit for honestly assessing itself. It did in that case.)

That all of these stars are driving player movement in the NBA doesn’t mean NBA teams are free from blame, though.

A huge reason disgruntled stars have leverage is because contracts are much shorter these days than they were a decade or two ago. With few exceptions (Russell Westbrook and James Harden come to mind), today’s stars are rarely more than a couple years from potential free agency.

In the 2005 and 2011 collective bargaining agreements, NBA franchise owners pressed to ratchet down the maximum length of player contracts. Teams really used to get themselves in trouble with expensive 7-year contracts to average players who’d have a fluke season and then lard up the salary cap sheet for a half-decade. It was brutal! So the league focused on two real areas to help save teams from themselves: decreasing the length of contracts and creating downward pressure on contracts for veteran role players by making the luxury tax more punitive.

We’ll leave that second half of that for another day, because there’s a ton to unpack. But the shorter contracts really matter! In the 2005 labor deal, the league and players’ union agreed to shorten the max Bird rights contract from seven years to six, and the non-Bird contract max length from six years to five. The 2011 labor deal shrunk each limit an additional year.

This is probably a net gain for teams. It minimizes the pain of Larry Hughes-type deals. The disastrous Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, and Joakim Noah contracts of the 2016 offseason were only four years each. It would have been worse in the old days!

But there’s a negative impact for teams, too: they have control over their stars for less time. If those stars get wanderlust, the threat of them leaving in free agency is closer than it otherwise would have been.

The NBA tries to account for this by allowing verified stars who win MVP or make All-NBA teams to sign to longer extensions. It worked to lock in Harden and Westbrook. But for various reasons, it hasn’t taken on a broader scale.

The other contributing factor here is the example set by LeBron James in 2010 and Kevin Durant in 2016.

Oscar Robertson and other heroes fought tooth and nail to win the rights of free agency decades ago; LeBron used that right to do what he wanted in 2010 and again in 2014 and 2018 regardless of the blowback. It’s interesting that many of the biggest stars of this next generation are following that example instead of the contrasting example set by, say, the biggest stars of the 2000s: Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kobe Bryant. (Of course Duncan almost left the Spurs in 2000, and Kobe used the threat of leaving in 2004 to get Shaq shipped out and the threat of leaving in 2007 to get the Lakers to trade for Pau Gasol.)

LeBron wasn’t the first superstar to treat free agency like true free agency, and there is a legacy of MVP-caliber players pushing for trades — no less a luminary than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in the early 1970s!

But the current paradigm, in which stars feel freedom to control their own futures by leaving as free agents and requesting trades to speed up the process, was influenced by LeBron’s mastery of self-determination.

The impacts of Durant’s 2016 move are still being felt and require further assessment. But I think time will show it too created more implicit freedom among stars to control their own destiny regardless of reaction from the chattering masses. Certainly, Cousins felt no qualms joining a dynastic team to snatch a ring in his prime two years after Durant did it.

Regardless of the specific factors contributing to this new paradigm of renewed player empowerment leading to massive movement of stars, there’s no question that it is star players who are the driving force here. The NBA has always been a stars’ league. That legacy is stronger than ever right now.