clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Paul George’s ‘empowerment’ is anything but

New, comments

Paul George helped the teams that traded him, too.

Paul George flashes a smile at his Clippers introduction press conference.

Three superstars have become intertwined in defining the new era of NBA player empowerment: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Paul George.

LeBron is understandable on this list. He’s rebuilt NBA stardom in his image. His team basically invented the mini-max 14 years ago, then invented the 1+1 contract more recently. He’s been the best player in the world for more than a decade and changes teams in free agency regularly, something that never happened in previous eras. He signed with an agency started and run by a close friend, and that agency — Klutch Sports — has rattled the basketball establishment at multiple levels of the sports. LeBron is absolutely at the centerpiece of the player empowerment movement, even with having never made a single trade request or demand.

Anthony Davis recently had the most notorious trade request since Carmelo Anthony in 2010, and his story is tied up in that of LeBron and Klutch, so he’s also understandable on this list. Davis took the bold step of not just telegraphing that he had no interest in signing a super-max extension a year before hitting free agency, but made a trade request midway through the season with the express purpose of getting moved to a specific team, one that featured Klutch’s godfather LeBron. A bold step, indeed. Davis made everyone mad (including the league office) and ended up having to wait out the season before eventually getting what he wanted.

Then there’s George.

George’s supposed innovation is the deep trade request. He told the Oklahoma City Thunder to move him one year after signing a three-year deal. That’s pretty bold. Like Davis, there was also a target destination: Los Angeles, but this time the Clippers instead of the Lakers.

Unlike New Orleans, the Thunder almost immediately gave in. In fact, no one outside of those directly involved — not even the media — knew George had requested a trade until the trade was already done. Based on the tick-tock reports after the fact, it appears the Thunder went from Boring Summer to We Traded Paul George in less than a week.

The bounty was enormous, and the Thunder followed it up by flipping Russell Westbrook’s gaudy contract for even more assets. The speed and frictonlessness with which Thunder GM Sam Presti remade his team and its path forward was breathtaking. Nothing about it spoke to a grudging bow to player empowerment made in even the slightest resistance. It all looked like something the Thunder wanted to do anyway.

So how exactly did George flex his empowered status again?

This is what sticks out about George’s machinations, both here and in leaving the Indiana Pacers two years ago: they aren’t so much to actions of a player who understands his personal power in a new era, but naive reactions of a player who is easily swayed. Kawhi Leonard (a real player empowerment don) recruited George, who was under contract. George was attracted by the interest after two brutal first-round knockouts in OKC. George expressed his interest in bailing to OKC. OKC extracted a painful price (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a bounty of draft picks) from the Clippers. ‘Twas done.

At any point, the Thunder could have said no, we’re not trading George. Would George have held out, surrendering salary? Of course not. Would he have pouted? Probably not; George has never shown himself to be that sort of person. Would he have put public pressure on the Thunder to trade him two years out from free agency? Maybe. Would there have been actual, real pressure on the Thunder to do it if they didn’t want to? Not really. By staying quiet, George preserved the Thunder’s leverage in the trade negotiations. He did this the way everyone said Anthony Davis should have handled it: discreetly, without creating a circus.

The fact that the Thunder so readily agreed to trade him isn’t a show of how much power George had. It’s evidence that teams retain a great deal of power in this era. The Thunder could have blown up the Clippers’ dreams of landing Leonard by denying them George. They didn’t. The Thunder had its own interests — Presti experienced those first-round routs the same as the players did — and OKC flexed in its own way. There was no evident pressure from George. He didn’t use any tools from the player empowerment playbook to get his way. It’s almost as if George simply communicated to the Thunder that, hey, this isn’t working ... and the Thunder agreed almost immediately and traded both of the team’s stars.

George’s exit from Indiana is even more mundane. He had eyes on Los Angeles (the Lakers, apparently, at the time) and told the Pacers we would not be signing a super-max contract to remain in Indiana were he eligible to receive one as a free agent. There may or may not have a quiet trade request behind the scenes; this is disputed. There was not a public trade request. Still, the Pacers traded George to the Thunder quite quickly. This is a perfectly normal transaction: when it is obvious you will lose a star player in free agency — in this case, because the star told you that would happen — you salvage possession by trading them for as much as possible. The Pacers received Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the deal, who were both on multi-year deals. Indiana is better for that trade.

If anything, George is an old school NBA superstar using the old levers of power to get what he wants, even if “what he wants” seems to change every summer. He’s Melo in 2010 without all the strung-out drama. His agency isn’t twisting league ethics in knots. He isn’t using any particularly original contract terms. He’s not disrupting his teams in midseason. He’s not scheming. He’s just telling his teams what he wants, and they are deciding they want that too. It’s novel in its lack of novelty. George isn’t so much empowered by the era of sports he lives in but empowered by the teams who find ways to use his wanderlust to their long-term benefit.