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NBA Stars Discover the Limits of the Player Empowerment Era

LeBron James and Kevin Durant earned their seats at the table, but all of their suggestions haven’t exactly gone to plan, leaving both them and their franchises in precarious positions

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A few months ago, Netflix cameras rolled while Kevin Durant sat across from David Letterman and extolled the wonders of cannabis for athletes. “I’m actually high right now,” he quipped. Durant was his usual self: even-keeled, stoned and mostly stone-faced, difficult to read despite how often we hear from him.

One of the only irrefutable insights into Durant is the vague-yet-defining Twitter bio he’s had for over a decade: “I’m me, I do me, and I chill”—whether he’s lighting up a joint or an entire franchise. He left Oklahoma City. He left Golden State after winning two titles. And as Marc Stein put it on his Substack this week, “He really wants that trade to Phoenix or Miami or maybe even Boston or Philadelphia, no matter what it does to his reputation.”

The public has tried to understand Durant’s motives by hanging on his every word, like, and follow. Durant usually responds by trolling or philosophizing, wondering why the question of whether he’s happy holds real estate in everyone else’s head in the first place. The answer is simple: His whims have league-wide implications, and he has many whims.

Durant has taken the lessons of LeBron James, the patron saint of superstar power plays, to a new level. The Lakers and Nets attracted James and Durant by accepting the same bargain: Give superstars a seat at the table in exchange for championships, glory, etc. But with just one title between them and little clarity on what their training camp rosters will look like next month, the Lakers and Nets have become a cautionary tale on the limits of player empowerment. Even James is pulling back the reins. Well-positioned to use his looming free agency to pressure the Lakers to make win-now moves, he instead signed a two-year extension on Wednesday, seemingly letting them off the hook.

Durant, meanwhile, is still pushing and testing his limits. He wants Kyrie. He wants DeAndre Jordan. He wants Steve Nash. Wait, scratch all that. Actually, he wants out. Yet 50 days after requesting a trade, Durant hasn’t gotten his wish, and the latest odds suggest he’ll start the season in Brooklyn.

It takes gusto to walk into a meeting with Nets chairman Joe Tsai and demand a reversal of the exact decisions you asked him to make. As it turns out, Tsai’s got gusto, too.

The stubborn team owner is an NBA archetype that’s been endlessly psychoanalyzed: Their confidence, fueled by their success in another field, can make them delusional, meddlesome participants in the complicated affair of team-building, trusting their whims over their staff’s recommendations.

Sound familiar?

Durant and Irving’s original plan to team up came together at the Olympics, and their time in Brooklyn has all the designs of a business idea dreamed up by friends sitting across from each other brainstorming into the wee hours: both far-fetched and viable, dreamy with little thought put into the potential downsides, powered by the belief that their bond could forge something great. (And Jordan was there too, so even though he doesn’t bring as much to the table, out of fealty to the kinetic energy of the moment, he has to get a cut.)

Ironically, it was Brooklyn’s functionality that drew Irving and Durant there instead of to the Knicks. Before landing Durant, Nets GM Sean Marks took a roster barren of talent or assets, made cagey trades, bolstered the team’s infrastructure, and made the playoffs with castaways and second-round picks. Why, with a seat at this particular table, would KD and Kyrie want to flip it all over?

Control has been a central component of James’s and Durant’s playbooks. In Cleveland, where James likely never trusted governor Dan Gilbert, he consistently signed short-term extensions and made “suggestions” from the podium. In 2015, when the Cavs’ front office expressed concern about trading for J.R. Smith, whose locker room reputation was questionable, James doubled down on the power of his presence: “Get him here and I’ll take care of it,” he said.

It worked and the Cavaliers won a title. So LeBron tried the same maneuver again in Los Angeles. Sure, if the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook, they’d hamstring their depth, defense, and spacing. It didn’t take a basketball savant to realize Westbrook, a historically stubborn and ball-dominant star, might have trouble operating in James’s orbit. But coming off an injury-riddled season, James wanted star reinforcements to ease the grind of the 82-game season. Load management probably shouldn’t figure much into roster-altering decisions for a team with Finals aspirations, but we’re not the ones with the creaky knees. Los Angeles did the deal, forming a new Big Three with James, Westbrook, and Anthony Davis. The trio had “Now, this is going to be fun” vibes from the jump, powered by a belief that any flaw could be masked by the collective power of their superstardom. In reality, it just made them blind to the fatal flaws of their roster construction.

James has also changed his tune on his own ideas. Last summer, he pushed the Lakers to trade for Westbrook over Buddy Hield, the type of sharpshooter he’s thrived playing next to his entire career. Now, he wants them to swap Westbrook for Irving, which could solve one problem while creating another.

I’m not against players leveraging their power. If power is a vacuum, I’d rather they fill it. Hire your personal trainers, turn your team into the proxy of your best friend’s agency, get your trainer and security guard on staff payroll. Seriously, go for it. It’s your world. But sometimes it’s OK to listen when your spacing-deprived team wants to trade for a dead-eye shooter or to understand that your talent alone will not make up for giving a plodding veteran big man real minutes in the modern NBA.

Giving players a say in the roster’s decision-making, at its best, is additive, a partnership that allows genius basketball minds—who can add special insight from their on-the-floor experience—a seat at the table. Think James Harden attracting stars and helping curate role players in Houston, and now taking a pay cut in Philly to do the same; or Steph Curry being part of the pitch meeting that brought Durant to Golden State, where Draymond Green also sits in on scouting meetings.

James, whose original four-year deal in L.A. was longer than any contract he signed in Cleveland, has been more of a partner than a dictator in L.A. The Lakers have not always struck a perfect balance. A few too many Klutch contracts have hindered the Lakers’ cap flexibility. They do have Davis and a title, but they don’t have a roster really capable of competing for a title as of now. Still, LeBron signed an extension that will lock him up until he’s 40, trading the threat of a guillotine and trusting the Lakers with his twilight. According to Stein, the Lakers are willing to trade their 2027 and 2029 picks in a deal that would return them to contender status, and apparently Irving fits into that definition. LeBron hasn’t put down the sword, but he’s not pointing it squarely at the Lakers’ eyes either. Maybe that will make it easier for them to see the landscape.

And if it doesn’t, maybe he could just demand a trade.