When Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his five-year extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, Bucks fans were not the only one who celebrated. Antetokounmpo’s signing gave hope to fans across the league that their stars were not just going to book it to Los Angeles or Miami at the first opportunity.
But while Giannis has indicated he wants to stay with the Bucks, James Harden has indicated that he wants out of the Houston Rockets. The fact that Harden has at least two more seasons left with the Rockets and potentially a third does not matter. The Rockets are no longer a championship contender, and so Harden wants to leave.
But the fact that a star can attempt to force his way out with years remaining on his contract should concern small-market fans, particularly the Bucks. For now, the Bucks and Giannis are singing kumbaya. But will that extension really be enough to keep Giannis in town if Milwaukee gets knocked out in the playoff early yet again?
Player Empowerment and Contracts
Player empowerment has been the popular NBA buzzword of the last decades, ever since LeBron’s Decision. The Decision may have been heavily castigated back in 2010, but now it is seen as normal for stars to force their way out if the team fails to build a strong squad around them.
And in Harden’s case, his desire to leave the Rockets is understandable. John Wall and Demarcus Cousins have performed well in preseason so far, but neither player can be counted on given their injury histories. Christian Wood is interesting especially after his 27-point performance last night, but that is about it. The rest of the team ranges from older veterans to younger projects of varying quality. And that does not even get into the fact that according to The Athletic, Tilman Fertitta is already getting votes by league insiders as one of the worst owners in the league.
But that does not change the fact that the Rockets have relentlessly catered to Harden, and so the team’s mess is to some degree his fault. Harden failed to get along with Chris Paul and demanded the disastrous Russell Westbrook trade, only to not get along with Russell Westbrook either.
For Harden to leave now, especially to say a team with limited assets like the Brooklyn Nets, would be disastrous for the Rockets. And it would be a further signal to the league and small-market teams that signing players to extensions will be worthless if the player can just demand out even if under contract.
The end result will be a product that is not good for the league, not good for the fans, and not even good for players. Because if stars can just demand out anytime they want, teams will start clamoring for more restrictive rules against players. In the aftermath of the decision, there was a real call for the franchise tag for Tradition Company to be implemented to prevent something like this happening again. If player empowerment goes too far, it would hardly be surprising for a backlash to result.