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Why Trade Demands Are Good for the NBA

Trading players like commodities remind sports fans that professional leagues are different from any other business.

In case there was any doubt about who runs the NBA after the protracted lockout and all of its fraught power struggles, DeMarcus Cousins kindly cleared it up for us last week.

Cousins, a talented but flawed big man for the lowly Sacramento Kings, either did or did not demand a trade sometime around New Year’s. Head coach Paul Westphal thought he did, anyway, so he ordered his best player to stay home while the team traveled to a game in New Orleans. Within four days, Westphal had been fired and Cousins was back in the starting lineup.

It’s still unclear whether Cousins actually demanded a trade—he denies it, teammates say they heard it. But that’s not really the point anyway. The key takeaway is that in any dispute between team officials and players, the players are going to win. And that’s very good news for the NBA.

The lockout was a battle for control. The team owners wanted to cut athletes' share of stagnating revenues and restrict who they could play for. When the two sides finally settled, it was because the players gave in. That raised the terrifying possibility of NBA owners having even more control over the men they employ—you know, the people who actually play basketball.

Trade demands have always been part of sports, and they've caused particular friction in the NBA. Trading players like commodities remind sports fans that professional leagues are different from any other business, which allow employees to make their own decisions about where to work. In sports, it’s up to the owner, which raises uncomfortable analogies to plantations and colonialism.

When athletes demand trades, they are seizing control the only way they can (short of waiting out the end of a contract that may last several more years). They can’t wrest all decision-making authority from the owner, but issuing public demands can be the best bad choice when a situation has deteriorated to dysfunction.

A trade demand is tricky to pull off: Casual viewers’ first assumptions are that the player is a petulant brat. Carmelo Anthony got exactly what he wanted when he insisted the Nuggets traded him to the Knicks last February, but his image took a huge hit. Though Chris Paul never publicly demanded a trade, it was common knowledge that he was looking to escape New Orleans, and the scrum that resulted from David Stern’s decision to veto a deal that would have sent Paul to the Lakers threatened to undo the fragile compromise between the players and the league.

But why is it so abhorrent that NBA players would have some say in where they play? After all, employees of almost every other type of company in the world can come and go as they please—if you hate your job and someone else wants to hire you, feel free to walk. It’s impossible to extend an identical system to a sports franchise, where long-term contracts are the norm, but it does mean fans should lose the shocked look when their favorite players want to go elsewhere.

Even as the Cousins drama plays out, at least two other prominent players are embroiled in delicate trade negotiations with their teams. Perennial all-star Dwight Howard has been open about demanding a trade from the Magic, though he doesn’t believe it will happen and is continuing to start for Orlando in the interim. Meanwhile, Steve Nash, a guaranteed Hall of Famer who is confronting the possibility of finishing his career without a championship ring, is playing teacher’s pet, refusing to ask for a trade from the Suns.

It’s an imperfect system—obviously the vast majority of players can’t be part of the best few teams—which is why the power to demand a trade must be earned. If Cousins did in fact insist on a deal that would get him out of Sacramento, his mistake was assuming he has the credibility to play where he wants. Instead, he stays on a bad team with a new coach. Even that, though, makes pretty clear that the NBA remains the players’ league, despite David Stern’s best efforts. Thank goodness.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user USACEpublicaffairs

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