The most-discussed topic since the season ended, as is true every off-season and will be until the end of time, is trade possibilities. You can’t go a day without seeing at least one or two fanposts on prospective moves and we dabble in them on the main page, on the radio, and in the podcast as well. I swear sometimes 75% of my e-mails are some version of “How about this trade?” It literally never ends.
But this season a new harmonic strain has been swelling. Buried among the fanposts and in comments we’ve started to see people espouse the virtue of loyalty to our players. Should we be so quick to move them? Is it callous to barter them as if they were property?
We should start by drawing a sharp distinction: there’s a big difference between loyalty to players as fans and loyalty to players as a General Manager or organization. The former, I think, needs little explanation or discussion. If you’re anything like me once a guy becomes a Blazer he has a special place in your heart forever, no matter where he goes. As an example I got to talk to Byron Irvin in the stands at the first Summer League I attended. I was completely thrilled. That was a Blazer! I am always a little sad to see any player traded. If I ran the world they would all retire in our uniform and the roster would expand as much as necessary to accommodate all the Blazers of playable age. Having not loved anyone else besides the Blazers I don’t know if this is peculiar to Portland or if it’s shared by fans of every team, but I doubt that anyone would have any objections to calling this kind of loyalty a decent and basically harmless thing.
How much of that loyalty can the team itself afford to have towards its players, however? Do the same rules apply there? In a purely sentimental sense, perhaps. I can’t imagine any General Manager being completely indifferent to a player he has brought in. I suspect Kevin Pritchard has human feelings just like all the rest of us. He probably gets butterflies in his stomach every time he has to make a phone call telling a player he’s been released or traded. Nevertheless, that humanity cannot get in the way of doing your job. And a job like this one leaves little room to act upon sentimental attachments.
The first, and in some ways only, loyalty of a General Manager has to be to winning…or at least to fielding a team with the best chance to win. At first glance this seems cold and mercenary. But in reality loyalty to fielding the best team possible equates nearly exactly to loyalty to one's players. Breaking that first loyalty also breaks faith with the players.
The goal of any NBA player is to succeed. Since this is a team sport, that involves team success along with the individual. The basic measuring stick for any team is wins and losses. Ergo, once the contract is signed, players do their job in order to win ballgames.
Now let’s say there’s a team official who is operating with a sense of sentimental, personal loyalty to the players. Let’s say the team has a chance to make a trade that will improve its chances of winning but the official decides not to because of his attachment to the team he’s got. Though he retains the same players and in that sense is loyal, in reality he has just sold them all out. They are there to win. He has made that more difficult. Perhaps he has robbed them of a step towards the ultimate prize. In any case he has just told them that their agenda isn’t that important, that other things come first, such as personal likes and dislikes. As soon as they get that message the team is going to fracture and probably underperform. The team you were loyal to isn’t really a team anymore, as you’ve taken away the thing that unites them.
In a weird way, then, in order to be loyal to 11 players you must be willing to trade the 12th when necessary. If you refuse to do that you have been disloyal to all 12, including the one you kept.
Notice that I have been careful in my choice of words here, describing the necessary outlook as willing to trade rather than always trading. Most of us lived through the Bob Whitsitt era during which players were seemingly no different than their equivalents on Topps cards. This did not foster any sense of chemistry or pride in the uniform and the team eventually paid for it. It is certainly possible to break down a team by trading too much or too often. This does not materially affect the point above, however. As GM’s dedication must be to the overarching team goal first, then the players to the extent that they propel the team towards that goal.
In that light, I’d like to put forward some basic assertions that hold true in almost all cases. Call it “Dave’s Amateur Guide to Being a GM”. It might be interesting to compare and contrast these to our instinctive fan sentiment.
1. Nobody is guaranteed a lifetime contract. Just because you sign for “x” number of years with a team does not mean the team is obligated to retain you for that number of years. Players sign the contract to receive compensation for their services. As long as the compensation is forthcoming the contract is completed, no matter where that compensation comes from.
1a. A team is not in any way obligated to re-sign a player who has just completed a contract with that team, even if the contract was long-term. If the cost, either outright or opportunity, is higher than the player’s value to the team then the team has an obligation to let that player go.
1b. Just because a player wants to play for (or remain on) a team doesn’t mean that player should play for (or remain on) that team.
1c. Similarly...liking a player and signing or retaining that player are two different things.
1d. There may be certain players whose names are so associated with a team that their value goes beyond what they can contribute on the court. This usually happens when a now-aging player has captained the team through multiple title runs and/or championships. In these rare cases personal and community loyalty may legitimately win out over talent considerations, mostly because losing that player would rip the heart out of the team. However a GM should not necessarily be condemned outright just because he chooses not to re-sign such a player. This is an option, not a mandate. (That said, in my heart I still wish we had kept
2. No player is guaranteed a specific role on a team. Positions and minutes must be earned. A pre-contract assertion (that a player will be starting, for instance) does not invalidate this rule if the player cannot play well enough to justify the responsibility after the contract has been signed. Benching a player is not in any way a violation of them or their contract. It should be expected among all players that if they can’t earn the role they can’t keep it.
2a. This may cause a coach or GM to make decisions that are optimal for the team as a whole but not optimal for certain individual players. This does not mean the coach is wrong.
3. Fan opinion should have no impact on the moves a team makes or doesn’t make. Fans are devoted, passionate, and often insightful, but they are not professionals and often have little idea how things really work on the court or in the office. As soon as people who are paid to know start trying to please people who don’t know the ship will go adrift.
3a. The obvious exception to this rule, followed by nearly every organization, is the Superstar Exemption. Sometimes you will have a player so talented, popular, and associated with your team that trading him becomes near impossible for fear of widespread mutiny. (Think LeBron James and the like.) The good news is the player you’re stick with is pretty good. It’s entirely possible that he’s a better player than you are a General Manager anyway. If you can’t get along the prudent move may be to find a General Manager who can.
3b. A less obvious exception is the “Jailblazer” Clause. If a player’s off-court behavior is so egregious as to cause concern in the central core of your fan base (not fringe folks alone) a trade may become necessary. This is true even if the player is talented and even if the standards of your community are not universal around the league. At the point off-court problems become on-court (and in court) distractions--diverting time, energy, and attention from the task at hand--it’s time to move on.
There you go. If you can still manage some loyalty after that feel free to squeeze it in.
If nothing else this little exercise shows us that it’s probably much more fun being a fan than being the General Manager. You get to fall in love with more parts of you and without reservation.
If forgot anything feel free to add below, along with the usual comments, of course.