• Ian Daniels

The Perks of Being a Wall(flower)?


To the chagrin (or delight) of many, the era of player empowerment in the NBA doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Ushered in by LeBron James making his Decision in 2010, player empowerment has often been scrutinized by teams and general managers as “harmful to the league.”[1][2] Since the King took his talents to South Beach, we’ve seen a slew of blockbuster trades go on in the Association that may not have been possible without that enablement.[3] The most recent being Ben Simmons holding out until James Harden’s displeasure with Brooklyn came to a head during this year’s trade deadline.[4]

Unless you’ve been nowhere near a television airing ESPN, you’re probably aware of player’s demanding out of their current city.[5] Most recently, Ben Simmons used his agent, Klutch partner Rich Paul, to express extreme disinterest in returning to the Philadelphia 76ers and a desire to be moved to California.[6] The team had since been fining the 25-year-old All-NBA talent for not showing up to practices and games to the tune of $19 million.[7] At the trade deadline this year, Simmons was finally traded to Brooklyn in the first "All-Star for All-Star" trade since Brooklyn acquired Kevin Durant for D’Angelo Russel.[8]

The situation is well documented. The Sixers were exercising their CBA-given powers to impose penalties on their player who didn't want to be a part of the team, something most objective observers would say makes sense. Simmons signed a contract to play for the 76ers and should have to perform his side of the bargain (the team's side is the $147 million remaining on his contract).[9] But prior to his hold-out working to his advantage, it appeared that Ben Simmons really would have never played another game of basketball for Philadelphia again, not matter how much time passed. Contrast this with fellow Klutch client and Troop 41 muse John Wall.

Wall signed a $171 million Super Max contract with the Washington Wizards in 2017.[10] Since being traded from Washington to Houston, he’s seen some playing time, but as of the 2021-22 season, it looks like the Rockets would prefer to see their young talent on the floor over the veteran guard.[11] The juxtaposition of these two well-paid Klutch clients highlights a possible CBA issue in how teams approach the player empowerment era:

Why can one team financially penalize a player for not wanting to play until he is traded but another team can willingly sit a healthy player until they can find a trade partner?

It’s hard to believe Wall doesn’t want to get back onto the court. He’s missed over two full NBA seasons due to injury over the last five years.[12] Anyone with the talent and drive to make it to the league will have enough love for the game to want to be out there if he’s able. This time, the team isn’t even allowing their player to live up to his end of the contract.

You could point to the more than $90 million left on Wall’s contract as one of the key hang-ups.[13] It’s hard to put together a trade package and get much back for a player making almost $45 million past his athletic prime (unless the Rich Paul clients would like to trade places). But a buyout wouldn’t make much sense, as the Rockets would get nothing out of the “asset” they have in him. Wall also understandably doesn’t want to miss out on the money he's owed.

Should any of that even be Wall’s problem? The Wizards agreed to pay him that contract and the Rockets willingly traded for it. In the era of “player empowerment” it feels an awful lot like teams still wield the majority of the power with little consequence. A double standard begins to take shape when teams are, simultaneously, allowed to fine a healthy max player who wants to sit and sit a healthy max contract player who, likely, wants to play.

The league has made it clear in the past that any sullying of the on-court experience would be met with penalty, but that doesn’t seem to apply in the Rockets’ case.[14] Rich Paul does claim, however, that Wall and the Rockets are invoking an unspecified CBA clause allowing for mutually agreed upon inactivity.[15]

But what happened to teams needing to put themselves in the best position to win? The NBA has shown they’d like to incentivize winning, or at least disincentivize losing, by making the Draft Lottery odds worse for teams in last place.[16] That hasn’t stopped the abysmal Rockets from sitting their best player with under twenty wins through fifty-five games.[17] Commissioner Adam Silver takes no umbrage with this methodology if we take the lack of penalty as acceptance. That said, if the Rockets just chose not to play Wall anyway, would he have much power to do anything about it?

This isn’t to say players don’t have power. The examples above show just how effective players asking out of their current cities can be, but the actual extent of that power looks overblown when a team decides to resist.

Among the many snags the NBA has faced in the past few seasons, none have been quite as bleak as what the next CBA negotiation will look like in 2023-24.[18] With both the players and ownership arguing the other side has too much power, it would come as a surprise if mention of a lockout was completely avoided.

This is not even to mention one of the roots of the problem: the Super Max. There are numerous documented gripes with the payment mechanism, but now that teams are trying to get out from under them, they could be on the negotiation table.[19] On one hand, players are being paid the most far beyond their athletic peak. On the other hand, you can argue that certain players on current Super Maxes, like Steph Curry, are worth more than their contracts based on team contribution. You’d be hard pressed to convince anyone who’s watched basketball since 2015 that Steph Curry isn’t worth more than 35% of his team’s available cap.

Despite this, players getting paid so handsomely is still subject to criticism. Even still, teams are able to enforce the rules that put them in the best position to win, or in this case, to not. All of this in mind, we can expect this Klutch Klient Saga to be one of the many topics of discussion in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement Negotiation for the NBA.

[1] Sam Quinn, 'The Decision' revisited: How LeBron James used free agency to empower players to control their own narratives, CBS Sports (June 28, 2020), https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/the-decision-revisited-how-lebron-james-used-free-agency-to-empower-players-to-control-their-own/ [2] Rob Goldberg, NBA GM on Player Empowerment: 'Worst Thing That Ever Happened' in Pro Sports, Bleacher Report (June 1, 2021), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10004460-nba-gm-on-player-empowerment-worst-thing-that-ever-happened-in-pro-sports [3] Sekou Smith, Top 10 NBA trades of the decade: 2010-2019, NBA.com (December 27, 2019), https://www.nba.com/news/top-10-nba-trades-decade-2010s [4] Zach Dupont, REPORT: Ben Simmons Has Accumulated $19 Million in Fines This Season (February 2, 2022), https://www.slamonline.com/nba/report-ben-simmons-has-accumulated-19-million-in-fines-this-season/ [5] Dante Camilli, The Ben Simmons Saga: A Guidepost for the Next CBA, Villanova Sports Law Blog (October 26, 2021), https://www.vlssportslawblog.com/post/the-ben-simmons-saga-a-guidepost-for-the-next-cba [6] Joey Linn, Report: Ben Simmons Prefers Trade to California, Sports Illustrated (August 21, 2021), https://www.si.com/nba/clippers/news/report-ben-simmons-prefers-trade-to-california [7] Zach Dupont, REPORT: Ben Simmons Has Accumulated $19 Million in Fines This Season (February 2, 2022), https://www.slamonline.com/nba/report-ben-simmons-has-accumulated-19-million-in-fines-this-season/ [8] Yaron Weitzman, JAMES HARDEN-BEN SIMMONS TRADE: INSIDE STORY BEHIND THE DEAL (February 11, 2022), https://www.foxsports.com/stories/nba/james-harden-ben-simmons-trade-inside-story-behind-the-deal [9] Madeline Coleman, Report: 76ers Withholding $8.25M Paycheck As Ben Simmons's Holdout Continues, Sports Illustrated (October 1, 2021), https://www.si.com/nba/2021/10/01/ben-simmons-trade-76ers-withholding-paycheck [10] NBA.com Staff, Washington Wizards announce contract extension for John Wall, NBA.com (July 26, 2017), https://www.nba.com/news/washington-wizards-announce-contract-extension-john-wall [11] Dan Feldman, Report: John Wall increasingly likely to sit entire season, NBC Sports (November 11, 2021), https://nba.nbcsports.com/2021/11/11/report-john-wall-increasingly-likely-to-sit-entire-season/ [12] Basketball Reference, John Wall Career Statistics, (n.d.), https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/w/walljo01.html [13] Spotrac, John Wall Contract, (n.d.), https://www.spotrac.com/nba/houston-rockets/john-wall-6882/ [14] ESPN News Services, NBA fines San Antonio Spurs $25,000 for violating resting rules, ESPN.com (April 18, 2021), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/31283853/nba-fines-san-antonio-spurs-25000-violating-resting-rules [15] Shams Charania, Ben Simmons feels 76ers want to force him to play; team responds: Exclusive, The Athletic (November 11, 2021), https://theathletic.com/news/ben-simmons-feels-76ers-want-to-force-him-to-play-team-responds-exclusive/Z33rajI00nWY/ [16] NBA Official Release, NBA Board of Governors approves changes to draft lottery system, NBA.com (September 28, 2017), https://www.nba.com/news/nba-board-governors-approves-changes-draft-lottery-system [17] NBA.com, NBA 2021-22 Regular Season Standings, https://www.nba.com/standings [18] Sam Amico, NBA commissioner Silver suspects 'difficult negotiations' with union await, Sports Illustrated (October 1, 2020), https://www.si.com/nba/cavaliers/nba-amico/commissioner-silver-difficult-negotiations [19] Andrew Sharp, The Ongoing Failure of the NBA's 'Supermax' Era, Sports Illustrated (March 19, 2019), https://www.si.com/nba/2019/03/19/nba-supermax-contracts-failure-kevin-durant-klay-thompson-bradley-beal-kemba-walker