Thursday, February 22 2024

Player empowerment was allegedly dead, with the pendulum swinging all the way back to teams — the way sports was “intended” to function.

The Damian Lillard saga was only a reprieve, perhaps not even a fair one considering him being the good soldier while James Harden heads to his fourth team in 22 months, the Los Angeles Clippers acquiring him for a package of players and draft capital.

It could feel a bit smarmy considering Harden’s reputation, zooming out to see a Hall of Fame player executing exit strategies left and right, getting his money and his desired destination. Harden felt betrayed by management, or more specifically Daryl Morey, dropping his name in overseas promos that felt part-wrestler, part-rapper.

It probably didn’t feel good for the traditionalists who’ve long believed NBA players have lost their collective minds and needed to be taught a lesson by the forces above. And in some cases, it began to feel messy.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” comes to mind, but the messiness outweighs the actual evidence of player empowerment. Of course, with the amount of stars in the NBA, it’ll feel like everyone has pulled a trade request from their pockets, but plenty of players have been moved against their will and to undesired destinations.

Rudy Gobert is a generational defensive player, sure to go to the Hall of Fame — moved to Minnesota. The Donovan Mitchell-Utah Jazz marriage ran its course and he wanted the Knickshe plays in Cleveland. Let Chris Paul tell it, he had no clue wouldn’t be a Phoenix Sun until finding out on a flight for his book release he would be sent to Washington, and then Golden State later. Jrue Holiday is a champion and openly spoke about putting down roots in Milwaukee when he was done playing.

The man was traded the very next day, and it’s largely accepted as the game being the game. The Anthony Davis situation from a few years ago in New Orleans was a small-market team’s worst nightmare — a homegrown-like player bolting for the big city and shiny toys of Los Angeles. But those instances are fewer and farther between than we think, they’re just louder and more notable.

Now, Harden is a master at this. In the micro, each situation is understandable. His situation in Houston had run its course and they were going to rebuild, so getting sent to Brooklyn was an easy solution for all.

At the height of the Kyrie Irving jab/no jab circus, Harden had enough and checked out of Brooklyn — which didn’t seem illogical given how the Nets’ experiment imploded before taking off the ground.

Luckily, he had a safe haven in Morey and the 76ers, and Morey apparently believed there was no way Harden would ever leave him — until apparently, Morey lied to Harden.

About what? No one can say for certain, but reasonable minds can deduce Harden was expecting a max deal after taking a pay cut to allow the 76ers to fortify their roster via free agency.

The wink-wink notion is against the NBA rules, but if there’s no actual paper trail all that’s left are assumptions and innuendo. A player believes he was misled or flat-out deceived, and thus wanted out.

All of those things make sense on their face, but the macro looks ugly and Harden won’t win a public relations battle. But neither will Morey, and if this were supposedly the indication things were finally going back to the other extreme, it failed miserably.

How much discomfort can one tolerate? From the fans to the players in the locker room and coaching staff, that’s the question front offices and team ownership groups have to answer. And considering 76ers ownership was a driving force behind this deal, as sources told Yahoo Sports, it stands to believe it had seen enough.

The 76ers needed to get on with their season without this hanging over their heads. As much as players like to say it isn’t a distraction, it does seep into their minds at times — yet another advantage players have in this not-so-imaginary battle between themselves and management.

Apr 17, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden before game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY SportsApr 17, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden before game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden has been masterful in applying pressure and discomfort when it suits him. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

Again, Harden is a master at being comfortable watching everyone be uncomfortable, and if need be, applying his own pressure to ensure matters get a little uneasy.

Winning the battle is important for some, but oftentimes it comes at the expense of those remaining, the Joel Embiids of the world. And even if team ownership wasn’t keen on maxing out Harden, it doesn’t mean the overall team product deserved to suffer in the meantime.

And with the way the new collective bargaining agreement is set up, very much incentivizing players to stay with their own team as opposed to hitting free agency, the trade demand will be the new version of free agency.

Unless there’s a cap spike, i.e. 2016 — enabling Kevin Durant to go to Golden State and for the franchise to absorb his salary, it makes financial sense for players to sign where they are, and figure out the rest later.

Players will want their cut of the money, and as long as a “max salary” is in place, that’s what they’ll go for, and the NBPA wouldn’t advise them to accept a dollar less than their worth. So if that means asking for trades to get their Bird Rights clock started as soon as possible, it’ll happen.

The Lillard odyssey was singular because he was under contract for so many more years and is at an older age. With contracts being shorter and the league encouraging player movement to an extent, there will be some frayed relationships between players and teams. It could be argued that it’s better for the league to have more brand continuity between player and franchise and not have so many marquee players sporting different jerseys, but that dream is long gone, or at the very least deferred until we find out how the next generation of players conducts themselves.

But with this one, that cat’s long out of the bag.

And while it does leave a bad taste with some franchises, they also know the next trade demand could leave them as a beneficiary as opposed to a jilted lover.

Source: Yahoo Sports


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