Superstar Power Play
I have written before about how the NBA holds an unfair amount of power in comparison to the Players’ Association. Strict tampering rules, the collective bargaining agreement, and the NBA’s monopoly as the premiere professional basketball league give the NBA a technical advantage, and the brevity of the average players’ career along with many players’ immaturity in handling their finances gives the league a financial one.
However, there is one person, with the help of perhaps the most powerful agency in the NBA, who appears to be fighting back, at least for a handful of the league’s superstars. Henry Abbott, founder of TrueHoop, has written extensively about William Wesley, AKA Worldwide Wes. According to power agent David Falk, Wesley is “one of the two or three most powerful people in the sport.” That comes from an article written five years ago, back before in-depth reports (i.e. reports that had teeth) about Wesley mysteriously petered out. One can only assume that he has risen in the ranks since drawing players such as Carmelo Anthony (and La La Vasquez), Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Chris Paul to his friends at Creative Artists Agency.
Some view Wesley as an underhanded negotiator, a guy who for years had no official relationship with players, agents or teams, allowing him to escape NCAA and NBA tampering restrictions and do “favors” for NCAA programs, teams, and agents by developing private “friendships” with burgeoning stars and guiding them to his cohorts. Others, such as Henry Abbott, the one journalist who has actually had an on the record interview with Wesley, believe him to be pure in intention. According to Abbott, Wesley knows that one of the players’ big shortfalls in terms of their earnings is their youth and immaturity, and so Wesley treats them like family, helping them accept the challenge of developing their potential while using his connections to build a team around them that can help them succeed both on and off the court. Family, though, has certain darker connotations. The Tattaglia family, for example.
The Miami Heat, a team with six players represented by CAA, seems to confirm both of these angles. On the one hand, the 2012 playoffs featured a Lebron James who for the first time seemed to escape the self-consciousness and egotism that plagued his early career and play to his maximum potential. Perhaps James has Wesley and the team Wes put around James to thank for this newfound mentality.
Likewise, one could point towards the shady way the team was assembled, with James, Wade and Bosh flirting with other teams for months leading up to and into the free agency period of 2010. Some might call their debutante-esque behavior part of CAA’s power play. The Bulls, Clippers, Heat, Wolves, Nets, Knicks, Thunder, Kings and Wizards all, either by coincidence or through years of planning, arranged to all be at least within arm’s length of the cap space necessary to offer a maximum contract. Rather than harmless flirtation, some might describe Bosh, Wade and James’ dalliances instead as a hostage situation with CAA holding the gun. What wouldn’t a team do for Lebron James? And with rumors swirling that two or three of CAA’s free agent-to-be stars hoped to join up, the temptation had to be huge for teams to coddle CAA in any way they could.
Now that we’ve all lived through “The Decision” and its aftermath, Melodrama, and whatever puns you want to make about Chris Paul’s trade/free agency sagas, what is important to know about CAA and its influence on the League?
1) Four of their five top-paid clients have been traded in the last three years. The only un-traded player is Dwyane Wade, and we all know why he didn’t go anywhere.
2) They have only been involved in representing athletes for six years, making the fact that they are the fourth largest representer of NBA players rather remarkable.
3) They started out as and remain primarily in the business of representing entertainers. These entertainers include people like Drew Barrymore and Robert Downey Jr. along with many ESPN personalities such as Chris Broussard, Michael Wilbon and Jim Rome. They also represent Madison Square Garden. While other agencies represent media figures in addition to athletes, none come close to CAA in their specific concentration of on and off court power players in the NBA.
These are the details that arouse conspiracy theorists.
But in the end this all may not be worth calling a conspiracy. Reality might be the better term as CAA doesn’t need to make demands of the press in order to encourage the kind of stories they desire. The real transactions in sports are built around access. Imagine how much more traffic KnickerBlogger would get if we KnickerBloggers had Carmelo Anthony’s private cell number, or were connected with Amar’e Stoudemire on Skype. Access = information = traffic = money. Ever wonder why Stephen A. Smith, whose career was on the downswing, knew about Lebron, Bosh and Wade’s plans more than a week before any other journalist? Perhaps it’s because he’s made nice with CAA. And he has reaped the benefits with exclusive interviews with the biggest NBA stars. Such a formula, again, is not groundbreaking, but CAA wields more chips than we’ve seen anyone else hold in the NBA and so, as with any corporate interactions, they hold more influence.
Likewise, if you accept the reality that agencies are going to influence the league in a way proportionate to their power, and you know that according to the New York Post, less than one month ago, Jeremy Lin refused to sign with CAA, you start to understand why journalists would look for ways to trash Lin (playing into CAA’s desires, looking to earn more access), and why word might somehow sneak into Dolan’s office that CAA preferred to see Lin go.
There is no hard evidence, but a few things make the Knicks’ behavior in free agency appear shady. The first is their refusal to tender anything more than Lin’s $1.24 million qualifying offer, excusing such a choice with a (reasonable at the time) claim that they would match any offer. The second is their seemingly immediate decision to pursue other guards. Felton seemed confident he was joining New York as early as July 4th and Kidd officially signed one day later. Why pay two point guards $20 million when you’re “sure” you’ll sign a third for $25 million?
The answer seems to be that the Knicks never intended to sign Lin, choosing instead to play to the interests of Creative Artists Agency.
Now comes the part where your interests will decide where you stand. CAA has a brief but impressive track record of aiding in the assembly of championship level teams for their superstars. The reason why doesn’t even have to be selfless. Their goal is to build an international brand for their players, the type of recognition-level that will leave those stars with sponsorship income like Jordan, whose name still sells $200 sneakers nine years after he retired and fourteen after his last championship. On the one hand, this seems like a “most people win” situation. The fans get to watch juggernaut teams battle for titles, and the players and league both benefit from the increased coverage of the league. Lastly, with the guidance of Wesley, the players get guidance without an agenda, which might help them grow into mature adults (instead of narcissists like Dwight Howard).
In the big picture, that seems like a fair deal, but then there’s the smaller picture: the game itself. What is it about games that makes us hold them so close to us, to scream at televisions, to write 2,000 word articles? My feeling has always been that it’s about the rules. There is the cliché, “It’s complicated.” That “it”? It stands for life. Life is rife with complicated decisions, choices whose implications are a mystery to us when we make them and often remain so long afterwards. A game, however, is simple. Your goal is to use the rules as a guide to win. In basketball, that means scoring more points, and scoring more points is always good. That fact that rules simplify the difference good and bad, in my opinion, is a critical piece of what makes people hold games so close to themselves.
The problem is, CAA isn’t playing by the rules. It’s making things complicated. Now, you may be thinking “but free agency is different from the game.” Well, for many fans, such as myself and the millions of fantasy sport players out there, and the millions of fans who plug trades into ESPN’s trade machine when they are feeling hopeless about their team, the process of building a team is as much a game as the game itself. It’s a huge part of the thrill, the thing that keeps fans’ chins up when they are stuck rooting for teams like last year’s Bobcats… or the Knicks from 2002-2010.
What happens if CAA continues to grow more powerful – and likely will as the more they earn for their players, the more players will be drawn to them – is that player movement becomes a sham. The entire process of building a team gets moved from a matter of working the cap and drafting wisely – playing by the rules – to a series of underhanded deals that only a tiny handful of people are privy to.
This all leaves me feeling very conflicted. On the one hand, it feels right for an organization with real muscle to be working on behalf of the players, but on the other, I feel disenchanted. I wish that this power struggle could have been resolved at the negotiating table, that the team-building element of the game is something more than a fantasy.
What leaves me most conflicted, however, is the thought that CAA and Wesley have played the Knicks. After all, every time someone succeeds in making a power play, someone else gets played. Yes, the Cavs and Raptors were the obvious losers in 2010, but what rewards, exactly, have the Knicks reaped by acquiring Anthony, playing nice with Eddy Curry and keeping ties with Isiah Thomas (whose major draft flub was selecting Balkman and Collins, both CAA clients)? With the team Walsh constructed, we were headed for a first round exit, and these last two years have looked the same. Perhaps this year will be better, but will it be thanks to CAA? The only deal I can think of that could be considered a clear winner is J.R. Smith’s frugal contract – not exactly a mind boggling benefit considering the sacrifices.
No, in my opinion, the jig should have been up for CAA and its relationship with New York as soon as Lebron James and company went to Miami. CAA played its biggest chips right there, and as soon as that happened, the Knicks should have given up on the CAA dream. Walsh, in fact, seemed intent on doing this, signing Stoudemire (not a CAA client), waiving Curry, and playing hardball in negotiations for Carmelo Anthony. If CAA’s desires for Anthony (or, indeed, Anthony’s own desires) was to be on a contender, why wouldn’t he join the Knicks as a free agent, just as the Heat’s stars did? James and Bosh’s coyness about their future seemed tailored to keep their teams from trading them, allowing them to jump to Miami without bankrupting them of assets. Why wouldn’t Anthony play things the same way?
I certainly can’t answer these questions, but they cast doubt on Abbott’s lovey-dovey storyline. Maybe we’ve learned a little something though: that it’s conceivable that Dolan really did do all this for money, that those sponsorship deals CAA negotiates for him are worth more to MSG than Lin. Then again, perhaps we’ve come full circle and all this hullabaloo is really just a result of a stupid and arrogant owner who cannot conceive of the fact that anyone would dare take advantage of him.
Without access, however, none of us will ever know for sure.
In addition to writing for Knickerblogger, Max teaches English at Tallahassee Community College and writes short stories. He recently finished a feature screenplay, and he is working right now to raise the funds to film it. You can check it out on Kickstarter.