The Anthony Davis saga has me confused. On the one hand, I’m mad that he requested a trade. I don’t want him to go to the Lakers, I don’t want LeBron to manipulate the whole league, I don’t want the Pelicans to have to give up their best player in franchise history and I don’t want AD to give up on the Pelicans. On the other, it’s about damn time. Since the year after they drafted him, the Pels have consistently made short-sighted, risky moves that lowered the ceiling and didn’t even make them that good in the present. They have given no indication to anyone that they will build a championship-caliber team around Davis and Jrue Holiday (who, by the way, is the biggest victim here). Should Davis waste his prime hoping that they get lucky and stumble into a Western Conference Finals appearance? No, he shouldn’t. Davis is the product of a new era of player control and player movement, an era that is changing how teams build their rosters and how fans think about their teams. This new age of player movement is killing league parity and — here’s the fun part — can also explain the political polarization of our country. Let’s begin.
By requesting a trade, AD follows a long line of stars who would rather join an already-good team than stick it out with their crappy team. Recent examples include LeBron, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, KD, LeBron, Melo, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and LeBron, among others. Good for these players for exerting ownership over their careers. As salaries get higher and contracts get shorter, teams have less wiggle room with which to play. They need their stars to be happy and committed, or they need to get rid of them quick if they aren’t. From the players’ perspective, this change is good. They get to play on better teams that will boost their profile, giving them benefits in terms of brand (i.e. more money) and legacy. Who wouldn’t want to play on a great team? However, the result of these changes has been a loss of parity among NBA teams.
Now that stars hop around to link up with one another, the NBA has become top-heavy. In the Eastern Conference, four teams share, in my estimation, 11 stars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez (just kidding, love him though), Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford (ish, just give me this one). The rest of the East? Maybe 10 combined. Oladipo is injured, there’s Blake Griffin, Nikola Vucevic made an all-star team, Kemba is pretty good, Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine (nah)… yeah it’s hard. The top four teams in the East have more talent than the rest of the conference combined. The West has more teams with stars, but it isn’t much better. And the West itself has way more stars than the East, representing this star inequality on a macro level.
With stars concentrated heavily among few teams, most teams don’t have a shot at making real noise in the playoffs. Whether they like it or not, the best thing they can do is tank for a high draft pick and hope to find their own star. They are basically playing in a different league, one that has opposite goals. When two differently-leagued teams play, it often gets ugly.
The stars aren’t necessarily doing anything wrong; if anything, the owners and league administration should be blamed for creating a structure that encourage stars to join one another. However, in the short-term the players are the only ones that can fix the problem. By consolidating their power, they diminish the integrity of the league. They polarize.
As a professor once told me, the Deep South begins a mile and a half outside of every city. It was a good line. One of the big political issues we face today is that we segregate by political affiliation. There are red states and blue states; red areas and blue areas. Cities are liberal and everywhere else is conservative. How did this separation occur? I’m no social scientist, but I’d hazard a guess that people like to be around like-minded others. As one place gains a reputation for being liberal, more liberals want to go there. It creates a positive feedback loop. The same type of people consolidate. If you grow up in a Rust Belt state and go to college (a feature that correlates with liberal ideology), you probably will end up wanting to move to a big city after you graduate. As a result, you get a big city, or maybe a state, like California, filled with liberals. Meanwhile, the old town, or state, is left empty. Why is our country so divided? Our echo chambers aren’t just technological. They are physical; we construct them when we decide where we want to live. It’s as if the big cities and the surrounding areas are in two different countries.
While trying to begin the arduous process of figuring out which presidential candidate I want to support, I took the “I Side With 2020” quiz online. One of the questions gave me pause: Should the electoral college be abolished? My instinctual response said yes. One person, one vote. Why let old rules from horse-and-carriage days let someone get elected who isn’t the most popular candidate? But then I looked through some of the responses. One offered that the electoral college should stay; otherwise, candidates would only campaign in big cities. It would be far easier to go to cities and spend a few days filled with highly populated events than to traverse the suburbs. Seems like Democrats would hold a significant advantage. That doesn’t really seem fair.
It’s hard to make a system that encourages candidates to speak — literally and figuratively — to all Americans without privileging some votes over others. That’s a big problem. It’s a problem created by self-fashioned homogeneity. Just as the NBA would be more exciting and competitive if stars dispersed themselves evenly across teams, our country would be healthier and stronger if liberals dispersed themselves evenly across geography, or if cities were more welcoming to conservatives, or some other alternative that results in a more balanced population. You get the point.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu