James Harden and Damian Lillard

The Summer of Nothing: why Lillard and Harden haven’t been moved and more on ‘Player Empowerment’

Damian Lillard and James Harden are two different kinds of NBA superstars. One has spent their career as a loyal face of the franchise. The other is James Harden. For all of Lillard’s tantalizing talent at getting buckets, his career is better known in NBA fan circles in the context of not running from the grind and staying with a team that he really had no business being on.

James Harden is an MVP and a player who revolutionized scoring in the Association. But off the court, he’s pushed his way out of two teams in the past handful of years. In his defense, the Houston Rockets were declining, and the Brooklyn Nets had a– how should I phrase this– a culture problem? All this is to say that though Lillard and Harden are two different types of team players, at this time, they find themselves in similar situations, demanding a trade elsewhere. 

Lillard requested a trade on July 1st. Harden requested a trade a few days before, on June 29th. Neither has been traded yet, to most of our surprise. Because in the current NBA landscape, superstars have a lot of power. When they want something, they usually get it. Every year it seems like some star player asks out of their situation and that there is no way they’ll get traded, and then they do.

I’m old enough to remember Kevin Durant leaving the juggernaut Golden State Warriors to do his own thing in Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving. Only that didn’t work out so they got James Harden, which didn’t work out so they got Ben Simmons, which didn’t work out so Durant asked that everyone be fired, which didn’t work out and now Kevin Durant is playing basketball in Arizona. Ben Simmons was somehow moved for James Harden. Jimmy Butler demanded a trade from the Timberwolves and then again from the Sixers. It happens all the time. When stars want to leave, they get to. So why do these situations seem different? Lillard has basically hinted at getting out of Portland for years, and Harden is Harden. When the trades were requested, we all figured they’d be completed in weeks. Now we’re about to roll into the 2023 season with nothing happening. Why?

Each player’s situation is different. For Lillard, there are some factors working against him. The Trailblazers are in a great position, with or without Damian Lillard. They might have gotten the best player in the draft (sorry, Wemby) in Scoot Henderson, who looked like a perennial league all-star in his single summer league game. But more than his play on the court, which will be excellent, Scoot is a culture setter and natural-born leader.

Whether Dame is on the team or not might make no difference, Portland is Scoot’s team now. In fact, this blogger thinks that the Blazers should go all in on Scoot and give him the keys to the team. Of course, this will be made much easier without the presence of Dame looming over his head. But, it isn’t that simple. 

Somehow the NBA’s most forgotten team finds itself with an abundance of riches. Meaning that if they play their cards right, they can set themselves up for serious contention for the next decade.

The Scoot aspect makes trading a player of Dame’s caliber for pennies a stupid idea. Dame is still an All-NBA caliber player, there aren’t 15 guys in the league better than him, which means any team would immediately get better with him. However, there’s only a select number of teams that would trade for a player his age, and those are all teams that believe they can win a ring. So Joe Cronin has a centerpiece in Scoot Henderson to work with, a pair of solid young players in Sharpe and Simons, and a conceivable path to acquire valuable assets by way of trading Damian Lillard.

But Cronin can’t and shouldn’t get desperate and trade Dame just because he wants to. No, Cronin needs to wait for the right pieces. The Miami Heat have been linked to Dame since the NBA season ended, and it’s been reported that Dame only wants to play in South Beach, but the issue is that the Heat don’t have much to offer Portland.

Why would they trade Dame for someone they don’t really need, like Tyler Herro? Why acquire a bunch of late-round picks from Miami? A star of Lillard’s quality needs to be traded for a similar talent, or at least a handful of quality players. None of which the Miami Heat have, so Dame might need to stay off Miami’s Zillow page, for now. It just makes too much sense to keep Dame until you get the pieces back you want. This isn’t what Dame or even the Blazers want, but it’s the reality of the situation.

Unfortunately for Dame, the Blazers don’t owe him anything. They don’t have to trade him! Why not wait until something beneficial flourishes? Waiting until in-season can work because that’s when teams will get bolder in trying to go all-in for the season. 

Finally, a big issue hurting Dame in his journey to be traded is, well, Damian Lillard. He’s 33, his play and talent will soon erode, and there are only a handful of teams that can take a chance on trading for a player who might fall off a cliff production-wise in 3 years. Basically, a team that trades for Dame sees its championship window as right now and that the trade signals championship or bust. Another personal factor working against Dame is that he’s a real hooper. Damian Lillard likes many things, including rapping, the grind, and starring in Modelo commercials, but Damian Lillard loves basketball. In fact, he specifically loves playing and competing in basketball. He knows this. The Blazers know this. So any idea of some Ben Simmons-like sit-out is off the table. If Damian Lillard is on your basketball team, he will go out on that court and try to kill the opposition. It’s in his DNA.

Speaking of Ben Simmons, I’m sorry to mention him twice now; the Sixers find themselves in a situation similar to the one they were in a couple of years ago. James Harden wants out. He’s done with Philadelphia, no matter how many pictures came out of him hanging with Sixers personnel at Michael Rubin’s white party. But now it seems like a trade isn’t happening. Or at least isn’t happening yet.

The Sixers have ended any trade talks involving Harden and plan for him to be at camp in a couple of months. And even though Harden and Sixers GM Daryl Morrey have a history, Morrey is a professional who is more than willing to wait on the right deal to get done before shooting a star out of town. This will be important in how the team handles Harden because they have to keep a big issue on their team happy.

They have the reigning MVP in Joel Embiid and know that he needs all the help he can get if the team wants to do the impossible and move past the second round. And they also know that they won’t possibly get a player for Harden who is as good as Harden. So both Harden and the Sixers are in a precarious position. A situation that just got much more chaotic on Harden’s trip to China. Harden, as it seems, is very unhappy with Morey, saying to children: “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said during an Adidas media event in China. “Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”

But Harden is not a typical NBA player, he’s comfortable doing what he needs to do in a stalemate, which now includes speaking out against Daryl Morey. In Houston, for example, and because I love thinking about the James Harden Circus of Hoops, it was the perplexing fat suit, a tour around Las Vegas nightclubs, and a birthday celebration with Lil Baby instead of camp. When Harden wants out, he gets his wish and no team has been able to convince him to stay. Sorry, Philly, but Harden’s China revelations look like you’re not gonna get him to stay either.

Of course, it’s worth noting that this James Harden trade demand situation is different from his previous ones because he might have a legitimate reason. It’s been reported that the Sixers and Morey fucked with Harden’s money. NBA circles believe that Harden took a team-friendly deal last year to help the Sixers sign players like PJ Tucker because there was some under-the-table understanding that they’d make it right this year.

Because Harden opted in and asked for a trade it’s obvious that the Sixers decided against making it right. And who can blame them? We all watched him against Boston. Yet, you can’t blame Harden either, at the end of the day, playing basketball isn’t a luxury that players have to be grateful for, it’s a business, players need to go and get everything they’re worth because we know that the owners and the team’s will bleed them dry if given the chance. 

But while these two situations are different in motive for Lillard and Harden, they both have an interesting common ground in player empowerment. And more specifically, how much power players have. The Sixers came out and said they were not trading Harden as a move to win the power struggle, but Harden was immediately able to get it back with his public rant against Morey. When Dame first requested out, his agent was literally telling teams that are not located in South Florida to stay away, because they’d get an unhappy player.

This move was so egregious that the league had to put out a statement against Lillard’s team because of it. It’s no secret that the NBA hierarchy, the owners, and the commissioner, hate player empowerment. Adam Silver can say that he isn’t a fan of player empowerment because it negatively affects small market teams and because players should fulfill their contracts all he wants but we know it’s because the owners are tyrants who don’t like losing their power. This is the biggest issue facing the league, and one the Suits have been trying to extinguish for years. Teams can trade players whenever they want and teams can not fulfill contracts and that’s all part of the Game, but let a player try to get a little power and all Hell breaks loose. 

To recap we’re talking about two stars who want to get traded who haven’t yet, but what this is really about is the league’s desire to take power away from them, to show them that things don’t run through them the way they think they do. Normally when stars want out they get their wish pretty quickly, which is why this summer’s offseason requires more investigation. What does this say about player empowerment? 

It could mean nothing and three months from now Dame is in Miami and Harden is in LA but the pushback against giving in the player immediately is noteworthy. When KD officially wanted out of Brooklyn, he was traded in seconds, and Kyrie too. Players who we think can’t possibly get traded are traded all the time. It’s how the league works, but it’s not how the league wants to work. In reality, this will be a long waste of time for both the player and the organization, there will be a lot of smoke but by the trade deadline Dame and Harden will be in different organizations.

The NBA can try all it wants to disrupt this. Hell, it may even work some of the time, but player empowerment is real and here to stay. Players are what makes the game worth watching (duh!) and owners need a reality check of their own, that they don’t control the talent, and that they better get used to it. 

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Walsh was born and raised in New York, but now calls the Mile High City home. He writes about basketball, both the play on the court and the reality tv-esque off the court drama that surrounds the league. Follow him on Twitter for dumb tweets: @_Dannboii.