The Whims of James Harden and Other Superstars Might Just Break the NBA

One may have noted a shortage of pearls lately. That may be due to the sheer volume clutched over trades involving NBA stars with long-term contracts. The recent blockbuster sending unhappy James Harden from the Brooklyn Nets to the Philadelphia 76ers for disenchanted Ben Simmons has many buzzing in and around the league.

The doomsayers have a valid point, though. Simmons demanding a trade with four years remaining on a five-year contract was unprecedented. And that brings up the downside of something happening for the first time — once people find the door, they’re going to go through it.

Commissioner Adam Silver brought up his concerns regarding the issue during All-Star Weekend. While he didn’t offer any solutions, the commish made one very salient point in his talking points.

It behooves the league and its players to ensure the practice doesn’t get out of hand if it hasn’t already.

With one professional league, leverage is hard to find

The NBA exercised significant control over players’ destiny for much of its history because it was the only game in town. After the fledgling Basketball Association of America swallowed up the more-established National Basketball League in 1949, the only competitors the NBA had for the top basketball talent in the nation came from industrial leagues that were amateur in name only.

That changed in 1961 with the American Basketball League (h/t New York Times). Young players like Dick Barnett and Jerry Lucas took the money and ran to the ABL. Veterans like Hall of Famer Bill Sharman also threw in with the upstart circuit. But it died before it could finish its second season and the status quo returned.

But in 1967, the American Basketball Association raised the price of playing poker … um, basketball … significantly. Scoring champion Rick Barry jumped to the new league, and other players followed. Rookies had leverage to pit NBA teams against ABA clubs in negotiations.

Salaries skyrocketed, and players were delighted. The NBA eventually bankrupted the ABA. The Oscar Robertson lawsuit opened the floodgates to unrestricted free agency in the interim.

Since 1988, players can choose their destiny when their contracts expire.

That doesn’t mean players don’t have seller’s remorse. Situations change. Players like James Harden or Ben Simmons decide they want out. But they are signed to gigantic contracts with years remaining on them. What do they do?

James Harden and Ben Simmons forced their way out

James Harden pushed his way out of Brooklyn while Ben Simmons engaged in a standoff with the 76ers. The teams traded problems but left the NBA with a larger one.
James Harden pushed his way out of Brooklyn while Ben Simmons engaged in a standoff with the 76ers. The teams traded problems but left the NBA with a larger one. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

In Brooklyn, James Harden unleashed a furious DGAF attack against the franchise until the Nets decided he had to go. Ben Simmons lost more than $20 million while withholding his services from the 76ers. The franchise swapped problems.

According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN, Silver wants to work with the players to find a solution because it’s a problem that impacts both sides.

“I don’t have something specific in mind that can prevent a situation like this,” Silver said. “But I think we and the players have a collective common interest in ensuring that contracts are honored.”

Harden and Simmons are not the first players to force their way off teams. In the early days of the NBA, Hall of Famer Bob Cousy declared he wouldn’t sign with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Before the Chicago Stags folded, the NBA finagled a deal to send his rights to the folding club. The Boston Celtics wound up acquiring him in the subsequent dispersal draft.

Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, and others got the trades they sought.

But according to Howard Beck of SI.com, nine star-caliber players pushed their way out of cities in the last five years. Paul George did it twice in 2017 and again in 2019. Harden asked someone to hold his beer and forced two trades in 13 months. The Simmons maneuver one year into a supermax extension opens a new can of worms.

Silver is correct in his assessment of a potential solution. The players must be part of it.

Between agents with agendas and social media, secrets never stay secret

The Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia illustrated the power of an agent to make the world move to his music. Rich Paul orchestrated the media brilliantly, feeding trusted media sources to push his client’s agenda.

But teams aren’t blameless. The notoriously tight-lipped Brooklyn front office sprung more leaks than a pasta strainer in its attempts to keep James Harden’s market value afloat.

Trades happen and are often vital to teams planning to make a run at a championship or those wishing to offload veterans to affect a rebuild. Slapping too many restrictions on trades is counterproductive.

But perhaps the players’ union, which certifies the agencies that represent the players, could tie the registration of agents to some a basic code of conduct. Meanwhile, the league can take similar steps to muzzle executives and owners.

The desired outcome is to prevent trade negotiations from happening via the media. While it was a different era, Abdul-Jabbar never went public with his trade request to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1975. The story got out, but not for several months, and after player and organization agreed to pursue a deal.

James Harden’s breakups with the Nets and Houston Rockets were nasty and very public. So, too, was the Ben Simmons-76ers divorce. The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association must act before getting to the next player with four years left on an enormous five-year pact attempts to plot an exit strategy publicly.

Ultimately, Silver is right. It is a bad look for the NBA. Free agency and trade rumors already dominate the games on the court. Plugging the leaks from both sides seems logical to start fixing the problem.

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