Enes Kanter Freedom believes his political activism has propelled the NBA to exclude him. Could the 29-year-old center, who last season averaged 11 points and 11 rebounds per game, have a viable case for collusion?
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize why I got little playing time and was released,” Freedom told The New York Times last week. “But it does take people with a conscience to speak out and say it’s not right.”
Freedom’s 2021-22 season has been the worst of his 11-year NBA career. After signing a one-year, $2.7 million contract with the Boston Celtics last August, the former Oklahoma City Thunder star expected to join Robert Williams and Al Horford in a big man rotation. Instead, coach Ime Udoka kept Freedom on the bench.
In tweets, Freedom suggested his sparse playing time reflected punishment for outspokenness on human rights abuses in China and for calling out Phil Knight, Michael Jordan and LeBron James over Nike’s ties to China. Freedom also described Chinese president Xi Jinping as a “brutal dictator.” Chinese video streaming platform Tencent—which has eschewed airing Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers games due to Daryl Morey retweeting a pro-democracy message about Hong Kong in 2019—stopped broadcasting Celtics games.
Udoka rejected Freedom’s insinuation, saying that “playing time reasoning is strictly based on basketball.” He added that Kanter’s lack of defensive prowess was a major factor.
On Feb. 10, the Celtics traded Freedom as part of a multiplayer deal with the Rockets. The Rockets waived Freedom four days later. He hasn’t hooked on with another team.
As a sports topic, collusion has been in the news due to suspicions of the NFL shunning Colin Kaepernick who, like Freedom, has attracted notice for his political expression. In a grievance, the former San Francisco 49ers QB alleged that NFL owners conspired to exclude him after he kneeled during the national anthem. Kaepernick’s grievance was resolved in a settlement, though not before he defeated the NFL on summary judgment (meaning he possessed enough evidence to convince a neutral arbitrator that he had raised a genuine issue of material fact).
Collusion involves an agreement between two or more teams, or at least one team and the league, to deprive a player of a collectively bargained right. Article XIV of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement contains an extensive anti-collusion policy. It forbids “employees or agents” of an NBA team from forming “any contracts, combinations or conspiracies, express or implied with the NBA or any other NBA team, their employees or agents” to (among many other forbidden acts) “not offer a player contract to any free agent.”
Collusion claims don’t go to court and aren’t heard in public by juries. They are instead governed by a private grievance process overseen by an arbitrator.
Freedom (or the NBPA) could pursue a grievance within 90 days of the date when Kanter knew, or reasonably should have known, he had a claim. Failure to act within that period would time bar a potential grievance.
Freedom would bear the heavy burden of demonstrating collusion by a “clear preponderance of the evidence.” This burden is significantly higher than the one used in civil trials, which require a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., more likely than not), though lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden for a criminal conviction. The arbitrator can order discovery, which could entail the sharing of emails and the taking of depositions of NBA owners and league officials.
Evidence is the most formidable hurdle in proving collusion. The athlete must show there was an agreement or understanding among multiple parties. Even if Freedom could conclusively establish that different sets of teams didn’t want him for business or public relations reasons, that wouldn’t prove collusion unless the teams had collaborated.
Likewise, NBA teams apparently reaching the same conclusion—they don’t want Freedom—proves a circumstance but doesn’t prove collusion. Freedom would need to show a coordinated effort to keep him out. Barry Bonds lost a collusion grievance against Major League Baseball in part because an arbitrator found mere circumstantial evidence insufficient.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has dismissed any suggestion of collusion as meritless. In an interview with the Times, Silver said he spoke with Freedom and “made it absolutely clear to him that it was completely within his right to speak out on issues that he was passionate about.” It’s also unclear how a plot to exclude Freedom would silence him. Irrespective of NBA employment, Freedom has a sizable following on social media and has been interviewed about political matters on major TV programs.
Still, Freedom’s absence from the NBA is surprising given his productive career and the high number of missed games by rotation players this season due to injuries and COVID protocols. Freedom provides tremendous offensive value by securing extra possessions for his team. He’s finished top five in the NBA in offensive rebounds four different times, including last season. Only Steven Adams has had a bigger impact than Freedom on his team’s ability to secure rebounds when he was on the floor over the past five seasons, according to regularized adjusted rebounding rate via NBA Shot Charts. Freedom is also an efficient post scorer, scoring 1.03 points per possession in 2020-21, which ranked 11th among 30 players who posted up more than 100 times.
However, statistics suggest Freedom’s reputation as a poor defender is deserved. Teams facing Freedom have scored more points per possession with him in the game than with him on the bench for each of the past nine seasons, per Cleaning the Glass.
Freedom’s mediocre leaping ability makes him a subpar rim protector. Last season, 42 players defended at least 250 shots at the rim, and the 65.3% that opponents converted against Freedom was the seventh-highest mark, extending a trend that dates back to 2018.
All-in-one metrics view Freedom’s production as that of a typical backup center. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, which incorporates plus-minus and tracking data, pegs Kanter’s net impact on his team’s performance per 100 possessions at +0.3 over the past five seasons. That’s far above the -2.75 that FiveThirtyEight considers to be “replacement level player” value. Similarly, 5-year RAPM and multi-year LEBRON agree that Freedom likely doesn’t hurt his teams on the whole, rating him at +0.93 and +0.02, respectively.
Several other centers of similar age with inferior overall impact metrics still have roster spots in the NBA. That said, it is not unheard of for big men in their late 20s who struggle defensively to suddenly find themselves out of the league. Just ask Kenneth Faried or Ryan Anderson.
Freedom wouldn’t be the first NBA player to claim financial injury on account of alleged collusion.
Retired NBA player Craig Hodges recently asserted that he was “blackballed” from the NBA in the early 1990s due his outspoken views on social policy. Hodges claims that a handwritten letter he delivered to then-President George H.W. Bush about race was perceived as embarrassing the league, which in turn, he says, sparked “collusion.”
Decades ago, several rookies claimed collusion, though not on account of exclusion. In the pre-rookie wage scale era, some rookies charged their drafting teams had lowballed them at the behest of the league.
Suspicions of NBA collusion have occasionally surfaced in unique scenarios. In 2009, the NBA took the unusual step of reminding teams they could sign former Portland Trailblazers forward Darius Miles. At the time, the Trailblazers threatened to sue any team that signed the former lottery pick. The Trailblazers had received salary cap relief after Miles’ knee injuries were classified as career-ending, but the relief would have been jeopardized if Miles resumed his NBA career. The NBA put the Trailblazers in their place.
The following year, in the aftermath of the Miami Heat assembling a super roster with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, some wondered if NBA players were colluding.
Freedom’s former team, the Celtics, have excelled in his absence, vaulting to first place in the Eastern Conference. But the C’s are now need of a center, with Williams suffering a meniscus tear in his left knee on Sunday. Will the team call Freedom? Chances are, he’ll have something to say about it, one way or another.