“I Needed To Be Around Guys That I Know Want To Win” | James Harden Takes Shot At Kyrie Irving; What’s The Fallout From Player Empowerment?

We are still dealing with the aftermath of last week’s blockbuster trade between the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers involving James Harden and Ben Simmons, and likely will be for quite some time. Both players addressed the media today as members of their new teams and a few interesting things were said. But what does it all mean?

Speaking to the media on Tuesday as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, James Harden said he needed to be around guys that want to win.

“I needed to be around guys that I know want to win and are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

The “do whatever it takes” line was an obvious shot at the Nets’ Kyrie Irving who refuses to take the COVID-19 vaccine in accordance with NYC mandates, reducing him to a part-time player.

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Harden forced his way off the Houston Rockets to the Nets in January of 2021 under the rationale of wanting to win. Now, after just 13 months, he’s forced his way onto another team under the same ostensible motivation.

Do the 2022 76ers have a better chance of winning than the 2021 Nets? The Nets didn’t win the title last season, but were the overwhelming betting favorite according to Las Vegas oddsmakers. They spent the majority of the season with at least a 15 percent chance to win the title, according to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model.

The 76ers are +700 to win the title this season after the blockbuster trade. Behind the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and the Nets. They have a 10 percent chance according to the FiveThirtyEight model. That’s less than the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, Suns and Bucks.

Vegas and FiveThirtyEight are not definitive, but they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand either.

Is this really about “winning” for Harden? Or is it about something else?

Harden was asked the significance of players having the power to move on from situations they don’t like. He said, “we can control our own destiny.”

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He’s right in a way. NBA superstars have the power to change the landscape of an entire franchise by arriving or leaving. They alter the culture, impact roster decisions and affect title odds.

That’s type of power is impressive. But if a superstar truly wants to control his destiny then he needs to be responsible with that power.

Right now the entire NBA system is broken and needs to be fixed for the overall improvement of the game. This isn’t a plea to take away player power. Players should have a tremendous amount of power and control over their careers. They are the reason fans tune in, buy tickets, and merchandise.

But what Harden has done over the last 13 months, and what Simmons did, can’t be allowed to continue. If we care about the long term health of the game.

If every franchise is concerned about the next player on a four- or five-year deal opting out after one, and that’s all we in the media are forced to create content around, that’s a problem. When do the actual games matter?

Contract lengths used to be longer, and players wanted shorter deals to have more control. Owners agreed but were allowed to offer supermax deals on these shorter contracts to entice players to stay.

But if a player signs a four-year deal and can force a trade after one, what are we doing? That doesn’t mean a player should just accept poor management by his franchise because he’s under contract.

Just as a player is expected to give maximum effort to help the team win games, the team should also be expected to give the maximum effort at putting the best team together. It’s a two-way street.

The current collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the players is set to expire at the end of the 2023-24 season. The league’s 30 owners have been paying very close attention to this era of player empowerment, and they’re not happy.

Every time the balance of power shifts from owners to players, the owners try and wrest it back. We’ve had three prolonged lockouts as a result of the league and players failing to come to terms on revenue sharing and rules for how to govern the sport. 1995, 1998-1999 and 2011.

We could be headed for another one unless the owners and players really think about how they want this league to be governed going forward. Yes, the revenue split will always be the starting point.

But they should be exploring all possibilities. Abolishing the draft, two-year mandatory contract lengths with a plus-one dual opt clause, shortening the regular season, a hard salary cap with a floor. Players can maintain their power and agency, and teams have the flexibility to change course on roster construction.

Players should have the power to control their destiny, but the league needs to control its own as well.

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