In the NBA one of the major stories of the last year has been a player by the name of Kawhi Leonard who plays for the San Antonio Spurs. He has an injured quadriceps, which became apparent in a playoff game at the end of the last season where he landed on another players leg. He has played 9 games this season. It is weird for a guy to play only 9 games when recovering from a quadriceps injury, as it is not a broken leg or an effed knee. Because it’s weird, it has become a big story, his teammates have openly questioned why he is not back with the team, his coach suggested he was coming back soon but then quickly rescinded that. Whilst the Spurs have been playing in the playoffs, Kawhi continues to rehab in New York under the supervision of the Players Association. Traditionally an injured guy would be with the team cheering them on from the bench, like Steph Curry at the Warriors. So whats going on here?
The normal stuff
A lot of the things happening here are standard for professional athletes in a team setting. Injuries are complicated and there is a long history of team doctors favoring the outcome best for the team’s short term interest over the player’s long term interest. Encouraging players to play through pain, making injuries potentially worse. This is a constant. With players having more money, there is a great amount of them that have their own doctors, and get their own independent medical advice. The public stories like Tom Brady and his own health guru who has had a complicated relationship with the teams staff., are representative of a common trend. LeBron has a trainer that is allowed to be around, just not in team spaces, so he does his pre-game work in corridors. Kawhi trusts his own doctors, or Players Association doctors more than San Antonio team doctors. This makes a fair bit of sense. It’s a bit weird, but it is not wildly uncommon. It’s a symbol of players being more empowered and understanding that the team will not always look out for their best interests.
The other rumour bubbling below the surface appears to be an increasingly common one in NBA circles. Murmurings about a player who is one of the top players in the league (sometimes players are inflated in their own views, but not in this case) wanting more public profile are becoming increasingly common. LeBron went of Oprah and said he wanted to be a global icon, and everyone laughed (and said he wasn’t focused enough on basketball). The reality is that he is a global icon, and that other players notice that. Personal brand is a big deal. The bigger that is, the more cash you can command. It goes hand in hand with being good – or at least it can. The exceptions to this rule are rare, but it is more common for a player that is good to have a poor personal brand. Think a previous Spur – Tim Duncan. He was not a national figure in any context other than basketball. You never saw him on late night TV or in national commercials. It is widely understood that it was his choice. People thought Kawhi was making the same choice. But the rumblings are that he isn’t. And if he starts thinking about personal brand, he will start thinking about how best to cultivate that. He is with the Jordan brand, which is super cool, but they are not going to hype him to be his own brand. The brand is already named after someone else. He is in San Antonio, where the team culture is against individual brands and players putting themselves out there. It’s also not a huge city. There are a few more things but you get the idea. Metaphor.
Less normal stuff and future trends
The Kawhi situation is representative of more. There are other trends here that have been gradually showing themselves. While it is not rare for players to have their own medical staff and second opinions, in the Kawhi situation it is rare for him to be rehabbing completely outside of the teams facilities, and be completely disconnected from the team. This is so extreme that players are opening calling him out. His own teammates. This is more rare and demonstrates a rare situation. But the broader trend here is he devaluation of the team. And even though it sucks, because sports is becoming more like the rest of the world, it makes sense. For a long time owners have used “the team” as a way to keep players in the same place, playing for less money. Not just owners, coaches, fans, everyone. The skew of a player who wants more money, or more freedom or more global recognition has always been that they are selfish, and letting their team down. Even in this scenario there is the usual pieces about how Kawhi is being selfish, and should be with the team supporting them. Whilst it is nice and sounds true, it is actually another cover for the idea that the player should priorities the team over themselves. The society we live in, in every other context does not work like this. People leave workplaces all the time because it’s the wrong place for them, or the culture is wrong, or something else doesn’t feel right. It makes sense.
The other thing that has changed is the perception of team actions, and players realising the collective power they have to change this. Largely empowered by LeBron James, players are more likely to hold teams hostage and make decisions that are best for them. This is decried by old school analysts, fans and especially old school players. They used to hate their opponents and shudder at the idea of joining up with them. But in reality, that was a construct and made no sense. Why arbitrarily hate another team? It is just a made up team which you have no history with. There is no required loyalty to a city or to a franchise. That is why in the NBA offseason the Isaiah Thomas trade was such a change in mindset for the players within the league. Here was a guy who killed it for Boston all year, played through his hip injury in the playoffs at the detriment of his own body, only to be traded by Boston for a better player. As a result, his new team (Cleveland) wanted him to prove he was worth paying a big contract. Isaiah knew this and rushed back from the hip injury, only to be underdone and blamed for the teams poor play. He was then traded again to Los Angeles. His $120 million contract is more likely to be $20 million now. That is a lot of money. The loyalty shown by Boston was 0. They treated it like a business decision, as they often do. Why should players be any different? Kawhi is just treating his injury like a business decision.
For Kawhi, in the new world, he can’t trust the team he works for and the culture they are trying to create. Sure it’s the Spurs, but there is no reason for Kawhi care about all that nice stuff. Is winning really the ultimate goal worth sacrificing agency and money for? Probably not. And in this season, the chance of beating Golden State of Houston is low. And even so, there are better places to win than San Antonio. So he has a sore quad, and the team isn’t quite good enough to win this year. He doesn’t trust their trainers, and he doesn’t trust himself not to get sucked into their loyalty pitch – after all he is a human, just like Isaiah Thomas, going up against a corporate machine, with fans that love him because he happened to put on the colours of silver and black. He also is one of the best players in the league and has a small shoe deal and no national commercials. It’s a combination of things. But there is no denying that part of that combination is new.
The players have the same playbook as the teams.