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James Harden Is Pushing Player Empowerment to Its Limits

The former MVP is very publicly declaring that he wants out of Houston, even though he had a hand in every major decision to make the Rockets what they are today

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If there was ever a doubt as to who holds the power in James Harden’s ongoing stalemate with the Rockets, it was trampled into the floor of a Las Vegas nightclub. Houston’s franchise player reportedly requested a trade to a team that would allow him to contend for a championship in the upcoming season, and then underlined that request by making the Rockets sweat. As training camp began, Harden hit up parties in Vegas and Atlanta, leaving teammates and newly hired head coach Stephen Silas to answer for his absence.

“I would just say I want him here, and I want him to be a big part of what we’re doing,” Silas told reporters on the first day of camp. Eric Gordon deflected questions about Harden while P.J. Tucker sidestepped them entirely. John Wall, in his honeymoon days with a new franchise after a yearslong rehab process from a serious injury, had to spend his time vouching for a superstar teammate who didn’t show. After days of sparse, noncommittal messaging to his team, Harden finally arrived at the Toyota Center on Tuesday at his leisure, mocking not only the Rockets but any pretense of coronavirus safety. The league office required that players quarantine themselves before and at the start of camp, as to best prevent the spread of a virus that has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide. Harden, as evidenced by social media, couldn’t even be bothered to wear a mask as he broadened the definition of “essential activities.”

That part of Harden’s latest field trip was actively dangerous and—short of him fully sanitizing the club, testing everyone in attendance, and deputizing Lil Baby as the Rockets’ league-mandated travel safety officer—completely indefensible. Everything else is within the authority that superstar players have created for themselves. NBA franchises are governed by preferential treatment. LeBron James has privileges that Talen Horton-Tucker does not. Kevin Durant enjoys a level of influence that Chris Chiozza never will. That’s the game, and in the matter-of-fact way of the sport, it’s deserved. The league office may have something to say about Harden’s last dance before training camp, but the Rockets will welcome Harden back without question and without punishment because he has a greater impact on winning than any other member of the organization. It’s Harden who wants something, but it’s the Rockets who are desperate.

Player empowerment as we know it is largely drawn from the way a superstar exploits that imbalance to their benefit—most often by making it a vehicle to a team of their choosing. The threat of a star leaving in free agency remains a powerful motivating force, able to compel a franchise into deals it would otherwise be loath to make. Had Harden wanted the power to really squeeze the Rockets when the time came, he could have signed shorter contracts with options attached, as LeBron did. Instead Harden opted for the warm blanket of a longer deal, stacking extension on extension until he was committed through 2022 and hurtling toward $300 million in career earnings.

Perhaps Harden felt he didn’t need to rely on a contract for clout when the Rockets gave it freely. Houston has treated Harden as a primary stakeholder since his arrival eight years ago as a matter of organizational philosophy. The front office may have done the scouting and worked out the pick protections, but Harden had an active role in steering the team toward and through its many iterations. The former MVP was never a bystander. Harden had a voice in bringing Dwight Howard to the Rockets and, particularly, in the team moving on. He helped to arrange for Chris Paul’s arrival and ultimately pushed for his exit, only to essentially repeat the pattern with Russell Westbrook. How Harden wanted to play became the way Houston wanted to play. The goal was not only to keep one of the best players in the league content, but to give him a sense of ownership of his situation. As former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey once explained: “If you’re part of everything, you’re more willing to put your ass on the line.”

Harden’s trade request, when taken in context, is an attempt to extricate himself from a situation he designed. This isn’t in line with Jimmy Butler blowing up a Timberwolves practice and making a break for it after his contract negotiations with the team went awry; Butler was only a visitor in Minneapolis, a part of that franchise for all of 17 months. Even Anthony Davis, a long-term franchise player who gamed his way out of New Orleans, didn’t have the same opportunity to shape policy that Harden has. It wasn’t Davis’s call to trade for Tyreke Evans or give Omer Asik $58 million. What mistakes Davis made largely came on a more personal scale.

Within the league’s current practices, it’s well within Harden’s rights to attempt to incite a trade and steer its outcome. A Hall of Fame player wants to contend but can’t. That want is entirely reasonable. But what, if anything, does a modern, empowered superstar owe to a team they helped build? If the answer is nothing at all, the league as a whole suffers for it. Essential role players like Tucker become pawns in a game that is beyond them, yet another way in which player empowerment (a misnomer from the start) prioritizes superstars at the expense of everyone else. Harden is a part of the NBA’s ruling class. Becoming more of a mercenary doesn’t change that, just as it doesn’t change the fallout he would leave behind.

Considering the long-standing relationship between team and star, a little patience seems like a fair compromise. There’s quite a thick, bolded line between Harden asking for a trade and turning to more dramatic means to get what he wants. Hopefully his decision to report to camp suggests he won’t be holding out, allowing the Rockets the opportunity to actually explore the market for the player they made a partner. No matter its outcome, every one of these player empowerment test cases comes at the risk of a dangerous, escalating precedent. Harden is only one year into a four-year contract—three if he were to decline his $47 million option. If Harden succeeds in rushing Houston into a trade without even the imminent threat of free agency at his disposal, it’s only a matter of time before another superstar pushes further and faster, until the empowerment of a few select players ceases to be a market dynamic and becomes a threat to the sport itself.

Many NBA locker rooms are already flooded with tensions and resentments. Who’s getting shots? Who’s getting paid? Further consolidation of power—and the freedom for a superstar to bolt at will, no matter their contract situation—could strain the team concept beyond its limits, rendering even the best teams as loose collections of players. It’s one thing for a star to have a place atop the hierarchy of a team, and another entirely for the star to exist outside that hierarchy on a plane to themselves. Who is calling the shots in the NBA is clear to anyone paying attention. Holding power, however, should never be confused for an exemption from consequence.