Envisioning the NBA's future in the era of player power

Envisioning the NBA's future in the era of player power

In a league transformed by player movement, with parity perhaps never better in a league expanding globally faster than any other US-based sport, the NBA is at a crossroads; do players and owners double down on longtime assumptions about what’s “good for the league“, drawn from its seven-and-counting decades of experience — or do they turn to a more recent scope to analyze what’s been behind the league’s explosive growth of the last two decades?

While many are wringing their hands about what seems to be as much a success as any near-term outlook a major sport has seen in recent years, I am spending the summer imagining the league leaning into the chaos we witnessed this summer. Below is the second installment in a summer series of articles trying to envision where the league might go with an exceptionally open collective mind. By no means do I expect much — and perhaps even any — of the fictionalized changes below coming about in the next decade or more. But I am also trying to imagine the polemical outcomes we could one day see, just in case this crazy phenomenon we still are pretending is only a glorified leisure activity (never mind business and entertainment conglomerate) continues to blow our minds like it did in the last few weeks.

If the unthinkable becomes commonplace, why not?

It is the year 2027, and three-time All-Star Jaylen Brown is gearing up to negotiate his third contract with the Boston Celtics fresh off of winning his second ring with the team. The first, won with former UConn star Kemba Walker in the twilight of the New York native’s prime alongside then-Celtic teammate Jayson Tatum in Walker’s third year with the team, would be one of the last championships won under the league’s old regime. Just a few years after Banner 18, commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s Player’s Association would negotiate a radically different Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) than any that had come before.

For Brown, who’s had to think long and hard about his role with the Celtics as he approaches the middle of his prime — sports science and rule changes have extended the playing career of an average player to as much as one’s early forties and prime years to the mid-thirties — after the departure of Tatum to the Seattle Supersonics to play under one-time Boston point guard and current Sonics coach Isaiah Thomas, the league’s new, player movement-centric structure has made the Cal product something of an anomaly.

With contracts having been shortened to just three years for any player, rookie or otherwise save for those very special talents able to garner the revamped, four-year auto-declining “Supermax” deals, and the majority of players inking two- and one-year deals, the archaic notion of “team loyalty” has been thrown out the window in favor of constantly changing rosters re-shuffling the contention picture every year. So for Brown to have remained with Boston since being drafted, it’s not just atypical — he’s now the most senior player in the league to still be with the team that drafted him.

Driven by the mistakes of previous CBAs, team owners finally saw the writing on the wall, and embraced the proverbial golden goose of player movement that finally ended the Golden State Warriors — and any team’s — hopes for dynasties, at least based on the early returns from the 2025 agreement.  The changes were massive in scale and structure, with the sea change spurred by player-led, off-court narratives, media events and an improved, NBA-only distribution platform replacement for League Pass as much as they were by league expansion into Mexico City and the formalization of Australia’s NBL, China’s CBA, and the Euroleague as official partners and regional development alternatives for an increasingly global flow of prospects.

Perhaps the biggest change of all, however, was the move to abandon the traditional 82-game structure for a 62-game regular season, where teams play for one of 14 postseason bids, with the final two playoff bids going to the winner and runner-up for the best records over the “second schedule“, as it’s become known.  While owners were concerned about the decreased revenue less gate receipts might bring, they were swayed by the concessions made by the players to not only increase owner’s shares of basketball-related revenue, but by the prospect of not being stuck paying tens of millions of dollars every decade for bad contracts the reduced years available now helped prevent.

The Player’s Union also created an insurance fund to provide lifelong pensions far higher than previous levels to ensure players who have career-ending injuries no longer find themselves destitute later in life, matched dollar-for-dollar by owners excited about the prospect of being able to pivot back to relevance in just a season or two. And the restructuring of the postseason, which now saw the four worst teams in terms of record automatically awarded the top two picks of the NBA Draft (they kept the rest of the process much the same after the flattening of the lottery odds in the previous CBA seemed so successful), wasn’t too far behind it.

The introduction of player relegation, of course, was the primary reason. First attempted in the NBA’s E-League — itself a novel venture combining virtual reality and biometric technology for the closest gaming approximation of live action yet — in 2023, the radical concept of poaching players as a baked-in parity generator was a revolutionary concept in US sport. Modeled on European Soccer relegation in that a team’s record would determine major changes for the club (but in very different ways), teams now steal players by league design from the very best teams. Winning it all is now the first step to a roster shakeup, with the two teams in the NBA Finals both forced to allow the two teams who won the wildcard playoff spots (or the teams behind them who missed the wildcard slots if one or both of the wildcard winners made it to the Finals) each select a player from the last two teams standing.

This was exactly how Boston saw Tatum slip away to the reborn Sonics, after offering the only contract that offers an automatic exemption from relegation, the Supermax, to Carsen Edwards, with the team’s sole protection being used on Brown himself. The Jay-Team now split up, with rumbles former teammate and two-time All-Star Grant Williams considering a move to the Mexico City Nets, the Marietta, Georgia native was seriously considering a move south of the border. The Vancouver Clippers were another enticing option, but their longstanding policy of only offering three-year deals to max players might not be enough for an old-school veteran finally looking to explore other franchises as his best years wore down.

The way we think about the sport — and the interest which surrounds it — has changed immensely in just the last decade alone. Its coverage, rule changes, pace, style, and even fan engagement has seen entire standards rise, fall, and rise again in ways which should have us ready to see change overtake the league even faster and more deeply in the coming years and decades.

But one thing has remained constant, the trend of player empowerment. As more retired players populate front offices as well as ownership groups, and technology and media continue to expand the ways players share their own on- and off-court interests with their fans, some of these ideas — or something like them — may actually come to pass. Some of them are probably bad, and likely entirely of my own making, unlike others (like the proposed in-season tourneys in lieu of longer seasons) imagined by wiser basketball minds more focused on concrete concerns than the futuristic narrative I constructed to keep us busy until training camp.

But if you hate the idea of change, whether the extreme vision I painted above, or any little thing at all — well, I have news for you, friend. When they said only death and taxes are certain, “they” clearly forgot to include change in the NBA, and I have a hunch from down deep in my bones that this summer’s wild movement was just the beginning.

Feature photo – SLAM / Sportslogos.net / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington