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The NBA Is a Cold World for Non-superstars

As elite players dictate their situations more and more, even an All-NBA player like DeMar DeRozan isn’t safe from becoming expendable

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DeMar DeRozan is upset.

Fittingly, the four-time All-Star made his way to Drake’s house on the night he was traded from the Raptors to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. “Me and him sat and talked for a couple of hours. Not even on some hoops stuff,” DeRozan told Chris Haynes in an interview for ESPN on Tuesday night. “Just to hear the words that come from him being the person he is in this world, especially in Toronto. What I meant to this city. It was what I needed.”

As the league’s popularity surges, NBA players seem to have more power than ever. Well, not all players. Superstars—the cream of the crop—are managing to force their way out of unwanted situations more and more. But stars—the players a cut below the very best—are still at the mercy of their teams’ whims. It’s how DeRozan, an All-NBA selection the past two seasons, ends up feeling betrayed by the team that drafted him.

Though every NBA roster carries at least 13 players, the league is increasingly being shaped by only a handful of superstars. Teams know that these players matter most, and are willing to do anything to get them—even getting rid of their own beloved stars. DeRozan and Isaiah Thomas are perfect examples of this tough reality. They are not just cautionary tales, but also looper-like versions of each other. Thomas has been overlooked, traded, and like he put it in his own recent interview with ESPN, “F’d over,” various times in his career, most recently by the Celtics. It took DeRozan nine years in the league to experience this side of the business. He did everything right—including expanding his game to fit the Raptors’ adjusted offensive approach—but he wasn’t a superstar. It wasn’t enough.

”I gave everything I had to that team. Every single day and night, whatever was asked from me to make us better,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t treated—what I sacrificed for nine years—with the respect that I thought I deserved.”

What does a player “deserve”? It’s a question that’s being debated not just in the NBA, but in other sports like the NFL, where contracts are shorter and come with a lot less guaranteed money. Most NFL players can lose their status in an instant, given that very few non-QB players are irreplaceable. Even onetime MVP candidates like running backs Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray have been cut in their early 30s, and All-Pro wideout Dez Bryant is currently having a tough time finding a job. A similar class system forms in the NBA, with the elite players at the top and everyone else underneath them.

The NBA’s upper class has made greater efforts to utilize the leverage their station provides them since LeBron James’s move to Miami. James, for instance, signed short-term deals in Cleveland to ensure that owner Dan Gilbert would stick to his word of building a contender. And then, another four years later, he picked up and moved to Los Angeles. In the past decade, James has turned into a roving franchise himself, able to set up a contender wherever he chooses.

But players’ power has an unpalatable side effect on their peers: It limits the agency of other, non-superstar players. It’s how DeRozan becomes trade fodder months after leading his franchise to its best regular season. And it’s how Thomas, after capturing the hearts of Boston fans and risking his health, gets traded months after playing through serious injury and the death of his sister. Thomas and DeRozan were moved out in favor of Kyrie Irving and Leonard, who aren’t just top-level superstars, but were both upset with their respective situations. They wanted out and got out. All players like DeRozan could do was speak out after the fact.

“Everybody know I’m the most low-maintenance person in the world,” DeRozan told ESPN. “Just let me know, so I can prepare myself for whatever my next chapter is, and I didn’t get that.”

Though Kawhi’s situation feels like a once-in-a-blue-moon scenario given how long and thorny it became, it won’t be long before another player exerts his superstar power. There’s a precedent now, a blueprint any disgruntled star can follow—should he have the clout to do so. But it may come at the expense of players caught in between superstar and role player. Recent CBA negotiations have stopped short of abolishing the max contract, with the league and the players union choosing instead to distribute the money that would surely go to the likes of LeBron and others to the rest of the non-superstar players. But when it comes to choosing where to play, the superstars are more often than not the only ones who get a say.