James Harden is giving player empowerment a bad name
But his trade demands are the price of freedom
The Player Empowerment Era is the best thing to happen to pro athletes since Curt Flood pioneered free agency. The NBA’s version started when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh orchestrated a Miami Heat superteam in 2010, resetting an exploitative narrative that claimed owners trading players is good business, but players forcing trades is selfish. Athletes handing out Ls to owners? I’ll take it.
But now, damn, damn, damn James Harden is giving player freedom a bad name.
In case you haven’t been Keeping Up with the Hardashians: The bearded lefty is contractually obligated to play for the Philadelphia 76ers, the team to which he forced a trade from the Brooklyn Nets, the team to which he forced a trade from the Houston Rockets. But who knows what will happen, because now Harden wants to force a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers — which would be his fourth team in three years.
Harden was not expected to play in the 76ers’ season-opener on Thursday in Milwaukee against the Bucks. When he does suit up, perhaps in Philly’s home opener Sunday, will he take the court take the court looking like he just dropped a triple-double cheeseburger? Will he blatantly not try? Those were his strategies in Houston. Will he go down with a hamstring “injury” while thinking, “I’m not built for this”? That’s what he did in Brooklyn.
Harden has the right to leave if that’s what he wants and is able to do. And just because the grass wasn’t greener in Brooklyn and Philly, that doesn’t mean it won’t be soft and cushy in L.A. Owners can make bad trades; players can make bad choices. But the way Harden uses his leverage, and his reasons for using it, revives an old narrative of players as selfish and entitled. That’s all the excuse team owners need to try and claw back player freedoms that took generations to obtain.
Whether he realizes it or not, Harden has a responsibility to the lineage of Black athletes who made his charmed life possible. The history of battles for self-determination fought by those such as Flood, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, Serena and Venus Williams asks today’s superstars to move with integrity and purpose, not self-indulgence.
Like Damian Lillard, who is expected to be on the court in Milwaukee on Thursday night when the Bucks host the Philadelphia 76ers. Lillard forced his way out of the Portland Trail Blazers this offseason. He wasn’t able to reach his preferred destination of Miami, but has a great championship opportunity with forward Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. Instead of calling his general manager a “liar” or dubiously claiming a “personal issue” was keeping him away from the team, Lillard showed up at the practice gym daily. He represented the Player Empowerment Era with respect.
I wish Harden would just be honest and say he wants to dip because 76ers general manager Daryl Morey won’t give him a maximum contract, something like $250 million over five years. (Which would be ludicrous.) In Harden’s mind, apparently, Morey made that promise when Harden took less money to free up cash for role players. But instead of being straight-up, Harden said he wanted to retire as a Sixer but “the front office didn’t have that in their plans. So it’s literally out of my control.”
What’s out of control is Harden’s sense of entitlement. It started in Houston, where Morey was then general manager and the Rockets held up everything from film sessions to airplanes to keep Harden happy. His entitlement grew when he forced a trade to Brooklyn and said on the way out that his Rockets teammates “weren’t good enough.” It got even bigger when Morey, who by then had become general manager in Philly, moved heaven, earth and Simmons to bring Harden to the Sixers.
Harden and center Joel Embiid were supposed to be a championship duo, but Harden disappeared in the playoffs last season as usual, then pushed coach Doc Rivers out the door. Now he’s in his feelings because the team won’t pay a 34-year-old with a questionable work ethic $50 million a season until he’s 39? And because they haven’t found a good trade? It takes a lot to make me root for an Ivy League Wall Street billionaire, but if Sixers owner Josh Harris needs a shoulder to cry on, I’m here.
Other NBA stars have used their power differently.
James and Bosh planned to become free agents at the same time and enlisted their friend Wade in their plan. Much of the resentment they faced came from the precedent of three Black athletes working together to manipulate a system designed to control them.
Forward Anthony Davis took it up a notch. He had more than a year left on his contract in 2019 when his agent, Rich Paul, told the New Orleans Pelicans that Davis wouldn’t re-sign with them, so if they wanted to get anything in return, they should trade him. Paul also told most of the NBA that if they traded for Davis, he wouldn’t re-sign with them, either. The team Davis wanted to re-sign with was the Los Angeles Lakers – where James (another Paul client) just so happened to be playing. It was an unprecedented flex, and it worked – the Lakers won the title in 2020. (Full disclosure: I helped Paul write his memoir, Lucky Me.)
Wait just a cotton-picking minute, the old guard said – James had his agent, who happened to be young, Black and his childhood friend, helping him get players? Yup. Why not? You never questioned the good ol’ boy network before Black folks created their own.
Paul wasn’t done. In 2021, his client Ben Simmons was one year into a four-year max deal with Philadelphia when (as I saw it) Simmons froze up in the playoffs, then got his feelings hurt by how his team reacted. According to Paul, Simmons’ experience led to a mental health situation that rendered Simmons unable to play for those meanies in Philadelphia. Simmons never wore a Sixers uniform again and was finally traded in 2021 – for Harden. One spoiled star, in my opinion, for another.
Everyone deserves freedom; you never know what they might do with it. Harden and Simmons used it to coddle themselves. Davis and Lillard used it to contend for championships.
Basketball players down to college and AAU are experiencing unprecedented freedom of choice in terms of where they play. Some abuse it and avoid accountability and self-awareness. Others use it to get what they deserve, whether that’s more money or better opportunity.
It doesn’t always work out. I doubt it will for Harden. His antics are staining the proud tradition of Black athletic emancipation. But if that is today’s price of freedom, I’ll take it.