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Players vs. Owners and Free Agency vs. The Fans – The Indecision and Heroes & Villains in the NBA

This is going to be an article purely based in conjecture and emotion. I do not apologise for that.

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My First Jersey

As a relatively new fan, Gordon Hayward was my favourite player on the Jazz. Stockton will be my all-time favourite, but G-Time was the foundation the team was built on for this era. He was understated, underrated, intelligent, unselfish and just a great guy on the court.

I'd been confident that he would return to the Jazz in free agency, I couldn't see any basketball reason to leave. But then he did. I was gutted. I couldn't understand what had just happened. I, along with the rest of Jazz fandom, was up in arms, furious, and I also blamed my rage on 'how he had done it,' leading everyone on, teasing, going at the last possible moment and then the PR debacle that delayed everything by a few hours when the decision had already been made. How could he do that to the Jazz organisation? How could he do that to Lindsey and Quin and his teammates? How could he do it to the fans? There was an honest feeling of betrayal, after all the emotional and physical investment we had put in, watching games and buying jerseys, the work of the training staff to make him the All Star, the face of the franchise, the team that Dennis Lindsey built solely around him. Everything had come crashing down.

Thinking about it more over the past month, I feel a little unreasonable. NBA players are all simply employees of a large company. When was the last time a friend of ours moved jobs? From being headhunted by a bigger corporation, wanting a more prominent role with more responsibility, getting out of the country and moving to the city for more opportunities and lifestyle, simply getting a pay rise or just not liking the people that they're working with. When that friend of ours moved, maybe we discussed with them what their best choice was, maybe we told them they were better off where they were now, but when they did actually move, we told them it was their call, we didn't blame them for leaving, and we didn't bear them any ill will.

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I'd move if they tried to make me wear those jerseys too

But we as basketball fans are more selfish. We have expectations of these employees that we don't have for our friends. We don't take into account any of the external factors that make a difference to them, all we care about is what happens to the product on the court as a consequence.

Take the Kevin Durant move from a season ago. Everybody blasted it. I blasted it. I said I wanted him to go to Washington, his home, to go East, own the team, form a semi-big three and compete with LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals for the next 5 years at least. Competitive balance would have been amazing in the NBA. Everyone else said similar things, some called him a coward for going to Golden State after losing to them, others that he was ring-chasing, still others that he had betrayed Oklahoma and Russell Westbrook.

But from reports, his choice to go to the Warriors was not mainly based on basketball fit. It was culture. A working environment where your peers are of a similar belief system, who are all close off the court as well as having synergy on it. This seems to have been a decision based on relationship rather than differences in the Win-Loss column. Of course, when you’re winning a lot it’s easier to get along and be in a good mood, but there’s no guarantee, just ask Kyrie and the Cavaliers.

So, reassessing the Gordon Hayward decision, when we look at the basketball reasons comparing Utah and Boston, maybe there are minimal differences competitively, maybe Utah is the better fit, perhaps the Celtics suit his game more. Regardless, it doesn’t all come down to basketball. Hayward has been quoted as saying that what swayed him was the "immediate familiarity and comfort" with Coach Stevens. We must remember that this is the man that literally changed Hayward's entire life, plucking him from a life of tennis, video games and engineering and turning him into a national basketball star. I can think of high school teachers that I’ve had that had a real impact on my life, and you can bet that if they talked to me about my future, I’d have a solid think about it before dismissing their thoughts. How much more so when it’s the man who first saw your true potential? I may not like it, I may not agree with his reasoning, but in the end, I can understand why he made the decision that he did.

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Hero or Villain?

The greed of team ownership across the league is quite substantial considering the amount of cash flow in the NBA. It still confuses me how the luxury tax is such a burden for a team willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on a basketball team. Thinking about how much more profitable the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been if they had been willing to pay just a bit extra just a few years ago to be in the hunt for a championship every single year boggles the mind. This is a league that is only profitable because of the media coverage of star players, and teams earn money just by having them present on the roster, not because they as an organisation have earned it.

This is the crux of the narrative of free agency and personnel decisions across the NBA. Team management and ownership have done an amazing job at manipulating the perceptions of fans of the league. No matter what, the organisation is who the fan aligns themselves with. The team is the good guy, and the free agent who leaves is the villain. Kevin Durant has been a pariah for the entire past season because he found something that he wanted more than competitive balance in the NBA and chose to pursue it. But when the front office trades the player that wants to stay for his whole career mid-contract to somewhere he doesn’t want to be, it’s just the team making improvements, and the contract was ‘an asset.’

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A tale of two trades?

Compare and contrast the reactions to Ricky Rubio and Kyrie Irving this past offseason. Rubio had signed a contract for 4 years with Minnesota, and was traded without warning to the Utah Jazz. He is forced to uproot his entire life from where he has called home to come to a place he does not necessarily want to be, and yet we do not hear the public complain about his treatment. This is simply the norm of the NBA, owners, managers and teams determine the fate of each and every player, and that’s how it is. Yet when Kyrie voices displeasure with his team and his wish to be elsewhere in private, where it is then leaked, he is deemed disloyal, egotistic and out of line because he is under contract. It’s an interesting dichotomy that we allow to exist.

Generally, the players in the NBA only have control over their future for a few weeks of their entire careers. Mere weeks where their opinion truly matters. I don’t think that we have the right to attack them for using that power to do what it was designed for.

This lack of control comes from the very start of players’ careers. Players do not get to determine what team they go to, and their only way of influencing it, through workouts and interviews, can only damage their draft position and starting salary by putting off higher picks so they can go to the team with the lower pick. For the vast majority of players this is not an option. So, players land in places they do not want to be, but must remain to increase their flexibility for the future. Teams effectively have control of a player for the first seven years of their career. Their rookie contract of four years, and then restricted free agency, where even if the player wishes to go elsewhere, they can be tied back to their team, generally for three more years. This is the time when a player has the least power, as their level of play on the court does not generally give them the courage to risk unrestricted free agency early.

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Gosh, I hope we say he's underpaid in ten years

Also, especially on rookie contracts, players are grossly underpaid for their production. It is no secret that third and fourth year rookie contract players provide teams with the most bang for their buck. Generally, this also applies to players on their second contracts, though that is changing as players get younger and teams start to bid more based on potential rather than current production. In the end, after seven years, teams have received a lot of value from their draft picks, and this leads me to the important conclusion. Free agents owe their teams nothing. Teams received more than they paid for with these players and, just as Gail Miller and the Utah Jazz were, should be grateful for the high return on their meagre investment.

When we look at Gordon Hayward, we should remember that, for his eight years in the league, he never chose to be in Utah, and that we should not have expected any love or loyalty from him. He was drafted by the Jazz and forced to come back in restricted free agency. He was an underpaid employee of a corporation he may not have wanted to be in but produced work of a high quality so that he could be targeted by a company that he wished to be at. He used his potential to maximise his options for when he did finally have the choice and he exercised that right when he had it. It is unfair to say that we were betrayed by him. He chose what was best for him in his situation, and determined that by however he ranked his priorities. That should always be fair. Whether that decision is best or not can only be seen in hindsight, and through his filter on life. It is not for me, the fan, or for the team that I support to determine.

The role of agents in a player’s decision-making changes how we perceive the player as well. We base a lot of our evaluation of a player on how much they demand to be paid and our idea of their actual worth, as well as whether they give their team discounts or not. Agents make that evaluation just a bit more complex. Since they run on a commission, agents want their clients to make the maximum amount possible, and what a players’ wishes are and what their agents’ idea is can muddy the waters.

It is fun to make judgements though, and it’s easier to see things through the lens of a dichotomy, where what is for me is good, and what is against me is evil. That’s part of being a sports fan. So, when the indecision occurred, and the blog post came up, it was easy to blame Gordon. But what actually occurred? It’s hard to tell. I am inclined to think that it was a public relations move gone wrong. When you hear unwelcome news, you would much prefer to hear it from the source themselves, but when things go awry, I guess it’s hard to know what to do. I feel that a lot of Gordon’s blog is ghost written, and his agent likely made the call to lie and delay the inevitable rather than be straight forward. I think Gordon most likely tried his best to do the right thing. But he doesn’t owe anything to any of us. We didn’t make him who he is. Neither did the Jazz. That’s on him. He has a responsibility to himself and to his family first. That should always be right.

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Wait, he doesn't only wear a jersey?

Looking at NBA players as what they are, employees of a large company out to gain a profit, it becomes a lot easier to empathise with them. Yes, they are reimbursed handsomely for their trouble and for their skill, but at the cost of a lot of their freedom. Maybe I’m out of line, but I can no longer see the players as the enemy. I feel that everyone is trying to be the best that they can be, and our perception of them is skewed through multiple different sources, including the organisation, agents and the media. So who are the heroes in the NBA? Who are the villains? What do you feel about the Indecision a month and a half on? Feel free to disagree with me, but I’m always going to wish Gordon Hayward the best. He may not be my favourite player any longer, but I’m not going to hate him for leaving. I cannot judge him for unknown actions and thought processes I do not know or understand. Yes, it sucks for the Utah Jazz, but it’s fair for him. And that's his prerogative.

All comments are the opinion of the commenter and not necessarily that of SLC Dunk or SB Nation.