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Carmelo Anthony trade latest in star players showing their muscle

LeBron James paved the way for athletes to exercise options in controlling their destinies

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The muscle pose, long a trademark of bodybuilders, has been embraced, adopted and taken over by the NBA superstar, who flexes more than ever before.

Their power is intimidating and formidable and it’s being exercised to dictate control in almost every facet of their career, especially with regard to where they play. The latest evidence is Carmelo Anthony being traded to Oklahoma City, which means Melo’s seven-year career in New York began and ended on his terms.

Back in the winter of 2010 he essentially held the Denver Nuggets hostage. His contract had a few months remaining and the Nuggets were rightly nervous. They potentially risked losing him for little or nothing the next summer during free agency and Melo therefore had the hammer. He wanted to be traded to New York, and engaged both the Knicks and the Brooklyn-bound Nets in an auction while the Nuggets stood by.

Ultimately the Knicks won out, and damaged themselves in the process. Rather than wait until summer when they could’ve had Melo without surrendering compensation — the Knicks were his preferred team — they bought his bluff and traded assets for him. By doing that, Melo remained eligible for a max contract, which he received; waiting until free agency would’ve cost him money. Indeed, he became rich, but the Knicks never won a championship with him.

And then Saturday, Melo — who owned a no-trade clause in his contract — essentially hand-picked his next destination, Oklahoma City, where Paul George and Russell Westbrook await to relieve Melo of the burden of carrying a team by himself.

Players holding power isn’t exactly new, but it’s more widespread than ever, especially at the top, where franchise players have more clout than owners in some cases. Just this summer, power plays were conducted that changed the landscape of the league as the 2017-18 season beckons.

Chris Paul, on the verge of free agency, leveraged his way from the Clippers and to the Rockets and James Harden.

George, a year from free agency, put the Pacers in a bind and they panicked and traded him to OKC, getting pennies on the dollar; lots of teams feared George being a one-year rental before he signs with the hometown Lakers next summer.

Andre Iguodala, an aging yet valuable reserve player for a two-time champ, forced the Warriors to give him a guaranteed three-year deal instead of two when he flirted with the rival Rockets.

Kyrie Irving forced his way out of Cleveland after a closed-door meeting with ownership, and without consulting LeBron James.

Also, there’s this: OKC put a max contract offer on Westbrook’s desk this summer and he has yet to sign it. Since Westbrook can’t get more money from OKC or any other team, why the hesitation? Well, it could be he wants to keep his options open in case he’s willing to take less money and play elsewhere next season.

These incidents are an extension of LeBron leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat six years ago, and forming a super team. In this particular case, LeBron left money on the table. But that money is more than made up in endorsements, where LeBron cashes checks well into the millions, more than he earns from his playing salary.

When Westbrook signed a multi-million-dollar endorsement deal this summer with Jordan Brand to be the company’s primary athlete, the OKC money, suddenly, became secondary. It gave Westbrook the option of signing elsewhere next summer and not suffering tremendously from a financial standpoint, if he so chooses.

Last summer, Kevin Durant left OKC for the Warriors and this summer re-signed for less than his market value, in terms of years and money. He could do so because of endorsement money, and also because of the fringe benefits of playing in the Bay Area. Durant now has direct access to some of the wealthiest businessmen in the world — the Silicon Valley execs who dominate the front row at Warriors home games. With the Warriors also slated to move into San Francisco in a few years, and Durant still in his prime, any money he sacrificed in the move from OKC can be recovered, and then some.

Harden didn’t even threaten to leave the Rockets, and never came close to free agency, and the Rockets re-did his deal twice in two years. Clearly, the Rockets wanted to stay ahead of the game with a player who’ll earn eight figures over the life of his sneaker contract.

Players aren’t waiting until the end of their contracts to flex muscle; in some cases, they’re doing so with a year remaining on their deal. That’s partly why the Kings shipped DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans last spring, rather than give him a leverage hammer. The longer they held onto him and the closer he got to free agency, the more they stood to lose in terms of trade.

The Celtics clearly didn’t want to pay Isaiah Thomas a max contract in 2018 when he becomes a free agent; why else would they trade him to Cleveland a year in advance for a marginal upgrade at point guard, and surrender the coveted Brooklyn No. 1 pick in the process? Partly because Irving’s deal has two more years, and it buys time.

The NBA has long been considered a player’s league and it’s exceptionally true now. Their visibility along with their commercial clout gives them an advantage. But mostly, they’re valuable because one superstar can be the difference between winning big and losing.

In that sense, the biggest power play perhaps in NBA history might be around the corner.

LeBron James is a free agent next summer, and this decision could be seismic.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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