Column: NBA player empowerment has gone too far

Zack Goodrow, Editor-in-Chief

For many NBA fans, one of the most exciting periods in the season has come and gone: the NBA trade deadline. For weeks before the deadline, analysts and fans debated and discussed rumors about which players and draft picks would be moved. 

After James Harden informally forced the Brooklyn Nets to trade him to the Philadelphia 76ers in the biggest move of the season, fans have been discussing whether player empowerment has gone too far. 

The age of the “superteam” started in 2009 when the Boston Celtics assembled a star-studded roster by trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to complement All-Star Paul Pierce. In the following years, stars like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and James Harden (again) have used their star status to demand trades to desirable teams and team up with other stars in free agency. 

Overall, the player empowerment movement in the NBA has been positive for players. Those who want out of a bad situation should have the ability to ask for a trade and play on a contending team. Fans don’t seem to mind, either; for most labor-related issues, they tend to side with players having the right to choose where they want to play.

However, this trade deadline has shown that this has gone too far. Harden yet again demanded a trade and got his way – just like last season with the Houston Rockets. Whether it’s due to the injury-riddled roster, Irving’s refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine or the fact that Harden doesn’t want to play with Durant and Irving is unknown. All that matters is that Harden was again unhappy and gave up on his team. 

This isn’t the first time Harden hasn’t gelled with co-stars. He’s gotten frustrated with past All-Star teammates Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, John Wall and Dwight Howard. Because of the star status and power high-level NBA players carry, Harden once again got what he wanted in another trade. 

The irony of this trade is that it involved another disgruntled star – the 76ers’ Ben Simmons. Simmons has sat out the entire season so far due to alleged mental health troubles after a rough playoff series loss to the Atlanta Hawks. After being criticized by fans, coach Doc Rivers and teammate Joel Embiid, Simmons refused to play for the 76ers and sacrificed millions of dollars to get out of Philadelphia and play for a new team.  

Harden and Simmons aren’t the only examples of issues with player empowerment and the NBA as a whole. Due to the implementation of the Play-In Tournament, several NBA teams on the outskirts of playoff contention are considering themselves buyers. Because of this, big trades are happening more and more often. Even the Sacramento Kings – historically one of the worst franchises in the league – traded away three starters, including one of their youngest and most productive prospects, Tyrese Haliburton, for All-Star Domantas Sabonis. 

With top-25 players readily available to be traded for, the NBA’s trade system has become a colossal mess. With draft protections and first round picks being thrown around like Mardi Gras beads, any NBA fan is subjected to headaches trying to figure out what picks belong to which teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder have enough draft picks over the next few years to place two entire teams on the court – 37 total picks with 19 of them being first-rounders. 

The regular season doesn’t even matter anymore in the NBA. Consistently, nationally-televised games aren’t advertised as much as they have been in the past. A primetime matchup against the Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t even include the teams’ full starting line-ups. It’s just Harden with his “co-star” Bruce Brown as they take on Westbrook and some G-league level players. These aren’t games that will preview potential playoff matchups. Instead, these games just check off dates on a bloated 82-game schedule. 

As the regular season winds down, the inevitable “rest” games will soon commence. Of course, there are injuries when playing basketball and legitimate issues force players to sit out games, but there’s no way to tell anymore if players are hurt or are just saving their energy for playoff games. Star players resting for a week or longer hurts any fan watching on TV or paying hundreds of dollars to see a game in person. It’s acceptable for star athletes to take breaks, but the frequency and duration of these breaks is becoming problematic. 

Player empowerment has become an issue in the NBA. I, however, do appreciate the Los Angeles Lakers’ stance at this year’s trade deadline. The Lakers are not performing well, and LeBron James clearly wanted some moves to be made. Contrary to what many fans expected, Lakers management didn’t make any substantial trades after trading virtually all of their draft capital and assets for Westbrook this past summer. The Lakers are telling their players to improve their play on the court and that they can’t count on the front office to bail them out this time. 

If Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard demanded a trade, it would be justified. They play for rebuilding or “retooling” teams with dysfunctional front offices and no clear paths to actual championship contention. But due to the scrutiny some stars receive after demanding a trade, Lillard and Beal may be hesitant to ask out. 

Players like Harden have taken player empowerment too far and have turned the NBA into a carnival for star players. He never even gave the Nets a chance, as the Durant, Harden and Irving trio only played 16 total games together. It’s disappointing to fans and bad for the NBA to see this trend get more popular.

At least Harden is happy for the time being. We’ll have to see which team he plays for next as his inevitable frustrations will surely come up before the end of next season.