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WHEN DRAMA KINGS FORCE A TRADE, IT’S NOT HEALTHY FOR THE NBA
James Harden and Ben Simmons demanded new destinations, but both are quitters, not a good look for a star-empowered league that should realize the Superteam concept no longer is working
When in doubt, pout. If you don’t fit, quit. Such is the feeble modus operandi of disgruntled NBA superstars, empowered in past offseasons by the restless mobility of LeBron James and Kevin Durant and, now, without shame, coldly extorting their teams during a regular season.
Trade me or my hamstring will keep hurting, James Harden said.
Trade me or I’ll stay at my therapist’s office, Ben Simmons said.
So they were dealt for each other, one quitter for another, in an only-in-2022 transaction that reflects poorly on both players. It’s especially spineless in the case of Harden, who now has demanded his way out of two franchises in 13 months and could make it three if his new pick-and-roll dalliance with big man Joel Embiid — who’s playing at an MVP level in his career prime — doesn’t result in a Finals appearance in Philadelphia. But it’s also an indictment of Simmons, who gave up on basketball life because … why, again? Oh, he passed up a wide-open dunk in a playoff game, was appropriately criticized by all, then chose to mope, sit out for months and blow $20 million in fines until he finally was shipped away, getting his way in a deadline-day trade to Brooklyn.
That assumes he’s ready to play basketball. Unfathomable and bizarre as it sounds, the Nets shipped away an all-time scorer in Harden without knowing when or if Simmons will be emotionally able to perform. One source close to the 25-year-old guard told ESPN that his mindset is “a work in progress,’’ while agent Rich Paul said, “We’ve got work to do to get him back to play, but it’s a great step in the right direction.’’ If he keeps sitting, would the league office be forced to rescind the trade? No question is too absurd — such as whether Durant, who reportedly has spoken to Simmons, is feeling like a karma victim after leaving behind championships with Golden State to win his own in a New York borough with kooky Kyrie Irving.
“I’m just happy we got guys who want to be part of this. … I think everybody got what they wanted,’’ Durant said, before taking a final dig at Harden when, as a captain in the All-Star Game draft, he passed on him seven times to much laughter from James and the TNT studio panel.
This is business as usual in the NBA, where a willingness to entitle players with pre-agency — an escape hatch before free agency — has backfired on commissioner Adam Silver. Once a supposed contender falls short of expectations, the weaksauce trigger is an exit strategy. Thus ends, in one swoop, the Nets’ celebrated-turned-abysmal Big Three era and the 76ers’ original concept of The Process. Think about the money spent by fans on tickets and jerseys, the time and energy wasted on hype and tripe. That quickly, those “dreams’’ can be blown up by whiners with nine-figure contracts who’d rather flee than face the pressure.
It’s another reminder that the Superteam concept, introduced a dozen years ago by James in Miami, can’t work when egos aren’t in sync and talents aren’t connective. In the same week the Brooklyn experiment crashed, LeBron’s bright idea to acquire Russell Westbrook reduced him to a harsh reality: He won’t be contending for another title with the Lakers and likely won’t finish his career in Los Angeles. Why would James ever have thought a ball-dominant, triple-double machine such as Westbrook could function as the third wheel on a team with James and Anthony Davis? Why didn’t he let the front office pursue DeMar DeRozan or complete a deal with Sacramento for Buddy Hield? “Almost feels like it’s a fog, just fog in the air,’’ James said after the Lakers fell to 26-30 and ninth in the Western Conference — and before they failed to make a move at the deadline.
There’s a reason the Milwaukee Bucks are NBA champions and have a chance to repeat. They AREN’T a Superteam, instead forming supportive pieces around megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nor are the Phoenix Suns a Superteam as much as a partnership between Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Not are the Warriors a Superteam since Durant’s departure, as much as a stage for Steph Curry while Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins sing along.
So can we stop the Superteam craze? Odds are better of the Bucks repeating in the Eastern Conference than Durant, Irving and Simmons playing alongside each other enough to build championship chemistry. Or Embiid and Harden, two moody S.O.B.s, staying out of each other’s grills.
In no way are these trade-me disruptions healthy for the league, for sports, for the American way. What kind of lesson does it send to a young person — if you don’t like something in life, kick and scream and bail out — in what already are challenging times for fresh generations? Harden grew tired of repeated playoff failures in Houston, in part thanks to his own erratic performances, so he demanded a deal in January of last year. The Nets came calling, believing he’d mesh deliciously with Durant and Irving when anyone of sane mind knew this megalomaniacal triumvirate was doomed from the start. The Big Three inevitably were self-sabotaged by a barrage of circumstances — injuries to all three, a New York City vaccine mandate that reduced anti-vaxxer Irving to a part-time player, and Harden’s aversion to All Things Kyrie, including his burning of sage in the locker room.
And to think, for their fruitless year or so with Harden, the Nets traded four first-round draft picks, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. Those two are among the mainstays of a rising Cleveland team that should make playoff noise in an up-for-grabs East. Imagine if the Cavaliers oust the Nets or Sixers. And, in two years, they welcome LeBron and son Bronny for one last homecoming title crack. Hey, aren’t we in anything-is-possible mode?
So off Harden goes to his meanest city yet, Philly, where fans will have no mercy if he dominates the ball and doesn’t feed Embiid. The hope is that Sixers basketball boss Daryl Morey, who ran the Houston operation during Harden’s finest seasons, will ease the transition to Embiid. Morey was fleeced by Nets general manager Sean Marks, also relinquishing Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks. The Sixers kept two young assets in Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and still have Tobias Harris and Danny Green, and they all must help in May. Can’t you just see the sweat dripping off Embiid’s brow, and Harden’s familiar look of anguish, if the Sixers struggle in the playoffs?
The angst could be deeper in Brooklyn. Durant is hurt yet again. Even if New York City lifts its vaccine mandate, Irving is vulnerable to injury, illness and almost every imaginable calamity. Simmons hasn’t played a game this season and hasn’t been at practice since a hiccup in October, retreating to therapy while his agent did his talking. Compassion is our ongoing approach toward athletes dealing with “mental health’’ issues, but Simmons’ doldrums resulted, at least in part, from a cause-and-effect episode: When asked after last spring’s elimination game if Simmons was a championship point guard, coach Doc Rivers demurred. “I don’t know that question or the answer to that right now,” he shot back. If Simmons’ feelings were hurt by a response that doesn’t rise to the level of an insult, imagine what awaits him if he lets down Durant and Irving.
For now, Durant is staying positive. “I'm excited for our team. We have to figure it out and figure out what works for us,’’ he said. “Playoffs are right around the corner so we got to fast-track it to get used to each other, but I'm excited."
Said Marks, in a statement: “The decision to trade James was a difficult one. However, after recent discussions with him and his representatives, we felt this move would be best for all involved, as it better positions us to achieve our goals this season and in the years ahead.” Translated: Harden leveraged his way out, as Simmons did.
If success was based on social media traffic and talk-show buzz, the NBA would be crushing all other sports leagues in magnitude. But unless the objective has changed, something is wrong when the masses care more about drama kings and their soap operas than who wins the title.
When your ego has a bruise, cruise.
That’s life in the National Babysitting Association.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.