Franchise player holds power in NBA

The power of the franchise player is the reigning NBA reality. But is it good for the league?

Originally Published: February 6, 2004
By Tom Tolbert | Special to ESPN.com

In the NBA, it's clear that the star player runs the show. The power of the franchise player is the reigning NBA reality. But is this phenomenon good for the league? Well, good or not, it's just the way it is.

This was evident in the New Jersey's recent firing of Byron Scott. In his two seasons as head coach, all Scott did was guide the Nets to two straight NBA Finals. But when Scott's relationship with superstar point guard Jason Kidd soured, who did the Nets send packing? It wasn't Kidd (who has a long-term, megamillion-dollar contract).

It's tough when a coach and player don't have that trust. And it's much easier economically to get rid of a coach. Superstars are harder to trade. But beyond that, special players are harder to find than good coaches.

TOLBERT'S TOP 5 LIST
NBA's Most Powerful Franchise Players
1. Shaquille O'Neal | Los Angeles Lakers
It would be interesting if a power struggle developed between Shaq and Phil Jackson. Jackson is the one coach in today's game who would have a good chance of surviving a rift with a superstar (something about those six NBA championship rings). But even so, I think Shaq probably still has more sway. I don't think it'll ever come to this, but if it did, I think Shaq would stay.

2. Kevin Garnett | Minnesota Timberwolves
Garnett's work ethic and team-first attitude are outstanding. He's a great franchise player because he isn't selfish -- he's all about the team. He's also coachable, and some stars are hard to coach.

3. Tim Duncan | San Antonio Spurs
Duncan is the dream superstar because of what he does on and off the court. Duncan is in tune with the pulse of the team and and in tune with coach Gregg Popovich. Duncan makes Popovich's job easier, both by his stellar play and by giving his teammates a kick in the butt when they need it. That's a great situation as a coach. That's the kind of superstar you love to have on your team.

4. LeBron James | Cleveland Cavaliers
In a year or so, LeBron will be the type of player the coach will have to get along with -- because LeBron ain't going anywhere.

5. Jason Kidd | New Jersey Nets
Other superstars could make this list, but Kidd gets the nod ... after all, he just got a coach fired (Byron Scott) who took the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals. So for the sake of this list, Kidd earns some bonus points.

As a former NBA player -- role player, to be specific -- I can tell you that, for the most part, players will have players' backs. Rarely will you see players breaking ranks and saying in public that a player is wrong and a coach is right.

As a player, you just want to win. And because coaches are more plentiful than superstars, if the coach's dismissal means your team has a better chance to win, most players will support the decision. It's all about the pull, and a franchise player has it.

Generally, an owner will side with his franchise player when there's a squabble with the coach. Unless the coach continues to win, it'll be tough for him -- and usually that doesn't happen if the star player is disgruntled, because the embattled coach has a tough time getting the best effort from his superstar and therefore from the team.

What it comes down to is this: If you're not winning, the owner must make a choice. If your superstar isn't happy with the coach, then 99 percent of the time the coach is the one who becomes expendable.

In recent memory the only owner who has sided with the coach was when Chris Cohan took over as owner of the Golden State Warriors and sided with coach Don Nelson in his squabble with Chris Webber -- and traded Webber in 1994. As we know now, Webber has become a cornerstone of the Sacramento Kings' success.

Nelson was fired in less than a year, so Cohan lost them both. And the Warriors haven't made the playoffs since Webber was traded (nine years and counting).

For an example of the positive power of the franchise player, look no further than Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan is the dream superstar (see box above).

By the way, there's a significant difference between the power of the franchise player from sport to sport. In football, each team uses 22 players (on offense and defense) plus special teams, so it's harder for one player to hold so much power. Bill Parcells can take a team like the Dallas Cowboys and turn them around in a single season because there are more interchangeable parts. Even in baseball, there are nine players (plus the bullpen and designated hitter).

In basketball, with only five on the court, the superstar has a much greater impact on each game. At any moment, the star can dramatically affect a game. He doesn't have to wait nearly as much for the ball or play to come to him (or with his turn at bat). So it makes sense that the franchise player in the NBA also holds more sway in the team's decision-making.

Tom Tolbert, who played in the NBA for seven seasons, is an NBA analyst for ESPN.

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