Harden has no leverage, and seemingly no plan

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 03: James Harden and Lil Baby attend Lil Baby's Ice Ball on December 3, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.(Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage)
James Harden attended Lil Baby's birthday bash on Dec. 3 in Atlanta. (Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage)

James Harden is effectively practicing social distancing protocols from the Houston Rockets, leaving his coach and teammates to answer for his truancy.

It doesn’t seem like he’s exercising the same discipline elsewhere, being recorded at well-attended events and parties thrown by folks who, at the very least, aren’t exercising social discretion.

It’s clear what he’s doing, something nearly confirmed as much on social media by his mother, Monja Willis, who also serves as his agent.

“He is doing what is best for his career. Please pay attention and understand,” Willis said in response to a fan criticizing Harden’s behavior on Instagram. “He has worked hard every time he suited up for his job, giving 210 percent. He ask[ed] for a chance to get a ring, that’s it. Anyone in their right mind in this bus[iness] would want that.”

Not showing up at a place where he’s scheduled to make over $40 million in each of the next three years, though, is too much to ask.

Will pressing to join Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving work?

Never mind the pandemic and all the hoops the NBA is going through to put on this ambitious enterprise.

Never mind the inherent responsibility NBA superstars have to grow the game, to make it a better league than the one they entered.

Nope, just something as simple as professional courtesy on the front end, or discretion on the back end as a new front office and new head coach have to deal with the carnage of a fractured relationship between a star player and a franchise.

He hasn’t shown up to Rockets camp as the preseason will begin at the end of this week, and the real games to follow in the next two weeks.

Harden wants to join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, and his actions illustrate nothing more than that.

The Rockets are hoping Harden comes to his senses, looks around at the new roster to see John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins along with the other familiar faces and changes his mind.

Then again, some poor saps from Houston are hoping Beyonce Knowles and Kelly Rowland will come back to rekindle some old high-school puppy love, too.

Trying to force a trade isn’t new, especially in this day of player empowerment. But there has to be a recognition of what’s been done to accommodate the star leading to this point, as well as the practicality of leverage Harden doesn’t possess.

There’s a line between empowerment and insubordination, and Harden currently has a first-year coach like Stephen Silas taking the public bullets, gritting his teeth and sounding like a stepfather waiting on a rebellious child to come home. That sounds more like insubordination than empowerment.

If going out and partying with Lil Baby, potentially putting himself at risk for a deadly virus that can damage organs, gets him the desired result, so be it.

Harden doesn’t have leverage of LeBron, Anthony Davis

More power to him in what appears to be a final power play, after nudging the likes of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook out of town because none of them could play nice.

But the Rockets don’t have to bow down this time. Three years is an eternity in today’s NBA, especially at max prices.

There’s no power without leverage, hence where Harden either miscalculated these latest public stunts or didn’t factor it in.

Say what you will about Rich Paul, and plenty already have. When it came to Anthony Davis’ impending free agency, it looked like a fait accompli he would wind up a Laker. Paul, though, made himself the bad guy as opposed to Davis, with the public statement his client wanted out of New Orleans before his contract expired. Davis said little, played on and perhaps, played up the notion of being the naive pawn in a bigger game to prevent mass criticism.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 08: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors is guarded by James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 08, 2019 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
It's unclear if James Harden can engineer a move to join Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

It was ugly, and messy, but the devilish details didn’t matter once many saw the manifestation of the vision: Davis with LeBron James, celebrating a title.

Those pesky wrinkles in the middle, hurt feelings, tarnished seasons and temporarily stained reputations got lost in the wash.

If that was ugly, this is messy, as the kids like to say.

Harden, though, hasn’t approached this with sophistication or foresight, perhaps only leaning into the player empowerment tone of the day. But that day was birthed by players who spent a few years too long for organizations that didn’t prioritize winning, or didn’t supplement it with competence.

Kevin Garnett gave the best of his body to the Minnesota Timberwolves before finally getting out after 12 seasons, a one-way ticket to Boston. Charles Barkley never made the conference finals as a headliner and MVP runner-up in Philadelphia, getting shipped to Phoenix after nine years in what could’ve been two years too late.

In a sense, that paved the way for James and Durant and the like to exercise agency and take the hits in the immediate aftermath for sake of freedom and winning. But James and Durant kept the pressure on the respective organizations by signing shorter deals, wielding the ultimate leverage.

Only recently has James cashed in those chips, with an extension for a Lakers franchise that bends to his will and has been rewarded.

It’s hard to argue the Rockets didn’t do plenty for Harden, acquiring players who wouldn’t get in his way or need the ball — and we know what happened to the ones who couldn’t get with the program.

New Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash can barely begin his program, being asked to address “the elephant in the room” following the revelation Harden didn’t make it into the Rockets’ camp.

“I guess we let the elephant be,” Nash said, the only answer he could give.

Harden is more than entitled to want out of Houston, and to try it a different way elsewhere. Perhaps the Rockets should’ve tried building a champion a different way as opposed to hoping Harden would elevate his game in the playoffs where he often didn’t.

But he could certainly make life easier on all involved by showing up and being professional because truth be told, it’s likely the Rockets don’t want a disgruntled employee around while trying to build something new and sustainable.

If a dream without a plan is just a wish, then empowerment without leverage is foolish.

And nobody likes playing the fool.

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