The Harden truth about commitment
It’s been a while now that the money hasn’t seemed to matter in the NBA. The salaries are so enormous, the potential for off-court income so large, that the league’s best players don’t always seem in a particular rush to sign their next contract before they’re good and ready.
And so it is with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time defending MVP. The Milwaukee Bucks have surely prepared the document on the fanciest of paper stocks. On the occasion of Antetokounmpo’s 26th birthday on Sunday, cheeky teammates gifted him with pens in a not-so-subtle suggestion that he could end a coming season’s worth of rampant speculation about his contract status if he simply spilled the relevant ink on the appropriate dotted lines.
But when Antetokounmpo met with the media Wednesday, in his first public utterances since the opening of training camp, the Greek Freak did an awfully good job of deflecting questions about his future, disingenuously insisting he’s leaving such discussions to his agent.
“Right now, I am not focused on (my contract),” said Antetokounmpo. “I am just trying to focus on myself, how I can get better, how I can help my teammates to be better.”
You could take those words any way you choose. For fans in Toronto, who’ve been keeping a keen eye on the situation in Milwaukee given Masai Ujiri’s obvious and long-held interest in bringing Giannis to the Raptors as a free agent next summer, it could have been spun as the best evidence yet that Antetokounmpo plans to test the market, and perhaps the food on the Danforth, next summer. Meanwhile, hopeful sorts in Milwaukee could have parsed other aspects of Antetokounmpo’s Wednesday comments — that bit about how he insisted he’s a “private” person who’d prefer not to discuss such things in public — and deduced that he’s as quietly committed to the Bucks as he’s ever been.
So maybe he’ll sign. Maybe he won’t. But here’s a possibility that has to be scary for the NBA: maybe it doesn’t matter. If we’ve learned anything about the world’s best basketball league over the past few years, it’s that a signature on paper doesn’t seem to mean as much as the daily whims of the superstar player.
If Antetokounmpo eventually signs with Milwaukee, there’ll surely be celebrations among a small-market fan base. But a sober voice in the crowd might remind the faithful that it wasn’t long ago that the Houston Rockets inked James Harden to what was then the largest contract extension in NBA history. And now Harden, with three full seasons remaining on that megadeal, has made himself one of the biggest stories of the run-up to an NBA season, because he appears bent on forcing a trade.
Along with making the NBA’s COVID protocols look laughable, given how Harden showed up for parties in Vegas and Atlanta, maskless, when he was supposed to be quarantining in advance of his late arrival to training camp, it can’t thrill NBA commissioner Adam Silver that he’s treating his contractual obligation like a minor impediment to his wish to change teams.
Never mind that the Rockets have given Harden everything a star player could want, not only maximum-available money but plenty of say-so over everything from head-coaching changes to personnel decisions. Never mind that Houston’s failure to elevate itself from perennial contender to a true championship threat had as much to do with Harden’s limitations as with those of cast that surrounded him. The current state of the league suggests Harden, though he can’t technically choose where he’s dealt, has a better than decent chance of landing in a favourable locale, if not his reportedly preferred destinations of Brooklyn or Philadelphia.
Players who’ve followed a similar template have certainly done OK for themselves. A couple of summers ago Anthony Davis openly forced a trade from New Orleans to the L.A. Lakers — never mind the two seasons including a player option remaining on Davis’s contract. The league made at least a half-hearted attempt to signal its displeasure with the dispiriting sight of a smallmarket cornerstone living off the fruits of his franchiseplayer salary while turning his back on the franchise that gave it to him, fining Davis $50,000 for making a public trade request. Executives and coaches around the league shook their head at the dangerousness of the power-shifting precedent. Steve Kerr, the Golden State coach, called it downright “bad for the league.”
“When you sign on that dotted line, you owe your effort and your play to that team, to that city, to the fans,” Kerr said. “And then (once the contract runs out) it’s completely your right to leave as a free agent. But if you sign the contract, then you should be bound to that contract.”
If it was hard to argue with Kerr’s stake-out of the moral high ground, it’s also hard to argue with this: forcing his way out of New Orleans ultimately set up Davis for a career highwater mark a couple of months ago, when he won an NBA championship alongside LeBron James.
And while Paul George hasn’t been as richly rewarded for his league-shaking decision to demand a trade to the L.A. Clippers with two years remaining on his perfectly good contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder — and while fans of his new team might be the ones with commitment issues given how George, in the wake of a dismal playoff performance, has lately been heard ruminating about retiring a Clipper -— the implications of that move are just as seismic. And here’s one: for all the fuss being made over Giannis and the Bucks, and whether he’ll sign, the five-year supermax is a far flimsier commitment than it’s been made to sound. The Greek Freak, in theory, could take the advantages provided by signing with his incumbent team — an approximate guarantee of $228 million (U.S.) over five years instead of $145 over four years as a free agent next summer — and demand to be traded as soon as a year later.
Some call it player empowerment. It looks a lot like unseemly entitlement. But if the money’s so ridiculous that star players aren’t in a rush to sign mammoth contracts, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised they’re even less inclined to honour them.
Harden, with three full seasons remaining on his contract, is flexing his player empowerment