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NBA Team Owners Are Struggling with Player Empowerment
The Story Behind Lebron James and now James Harden
After not showing up to any of the 76ers practices since the start of the season, James Harden was finally traded to the LA Clippers last week. Well the term ‘traded’ is a nice way to say it given that Harden wasn’t up for any negotiations. Today we’re looking at how player empowerment has changed the way NBA players view the game.
The James Harden Show
It’s been 2 weeks since the start of the 23-24 NBA season, and it’s already starting to look like an interesting year. We’ve all witnessed the hype around the No.1 pick Victor Wembanyama, blockbuster trades for Damian Lillard and Kristaps Porzingis, and of course, Jimmy Butler’s interesting choice of style. However, nothing has made NBA fans frown the most than James Harden’s reaction towards the 76ers organization.
Ever since the preseason games, James Harden hasn’t shown up to the 76ers practice facilities or in any of the team meeting sessions. In fact, he was spotted in Houston while the 76ers were busy preparing for their first game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 76ers would eventually lose to the Bucks in the absence of Harden
The drama began in the off-season when Harden picked up his hefty $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season. His decision seemed strategic, aimed at leveraging a trade, predicated on the expectation of receiving a long-term max contract offer that never worked out. Harden's discontent has been on going ever since, but he continued to participate in training camp and practices, without appearing in any preseason and regular season games—until finally being traded to the LA Clippers.
Harden openly criticized Daryl Morey, President of the Philadelphia 76ers, at a promotional event in China, calling him a "liar" and declaring his unwillingness to be part of an organization under Morey's management. These harsh words came after revelations that Morey had failed to secure a trade for Harden, stating that the franchise wouldn't deal him unless it benefited their championship aspirations.
Many NBA have ever since criticized Harden’s attitude, showing a lack of professionalism towards the sport and the organization. However, James Harden isn’t the only one who has been difficult to manage as a GM.
The Rise of the ‘Player Empowerment’ Era
Player empowerment, while not an official policy or rule, refers to the increasing ability and frequency of players to exert control over their careers, particularly where and with whom they play. This shift towards greater autonomy can be seen as a natural evolution of the player’s roles and rights within the league, as well as their status as global icons.
LeBron James of the LA Lakers has been central to this movement. His decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 to form a super team with the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was a watershed moment. James exercised his right as a free agent to choose his destination, a move that was both celebrated for its assertion of player agency and critiqued for its perceived betrayal of hometown loyalty.
Fun Fact: Lebron James would eventually return to Cleveland in 2014 to win a championship before leaving again to the Lakers
The "Decision," as it was called, set a precedent. It showed that a player of James's caliber could leverage his talent and marketability not just for financial gain but also to shape the direction of his career and, by extension, the league.
This newfound player power has had significant ripple effects across the NBA. High-profile players like Anthony Davis and Paul George have maneuvered their way to preferred destinations, shaking up the league's balance and prompting a reevaluation of the relationships between players, franchises, and fans.
The creation of "super teams," through both free agency and player-requested trades, has led to a concentration of talent in certain teams and markets. Some argue this has diminished the competitiveness of the league and the viability of smaller-market teams.
This empowerment has fueled a debate on the nature of team loyalty and the sanctity of contracts. Critics contend that player empowerment undermines team dynamics and the traditional build-through-the-draft philosophy, which rewarded careful scouting and player development.
On the other side of the debate, proponents of player empowerment point out the discrepancy in player choices when teams have long traded players with little regard for their wishes. They also argue that player empowerment has been a force for good, allowing athletes to exert influence over more than just the game, using their platforms to advocate for social and political change. Something that the NCAA has also been trying to promote.
From a financial standpoint, the league has tried to institute measures to balance the scales, like salary caps and supermax contracts to incentivize players to stay with their teams. Nevertheless, the biggest stars are still often underpaid relative to the immense value they bring in terms of revenue, branding, and on-court performance.
This simply shows how a player like Dirk Nowitzky was dedicated to his team despite cutting down on his contract.
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