Sports

How NBA Superstars Are Getting What They Want

Welcome to the age of passive-aggression.

Harden driving with the basketball on Simmons
Competitors swapping jerseys who shared a strategy to do it. (Harden and Simmons on Feb. 6, 2021 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.) Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

LeBron James’ 2010 move from Cleveland to Miami changed the NBA in deep and enduring ways. Franchises and fans now expect the league’s superstars to steer themselves to the teams they want to play for and the cities they want to play in. The Decision, though, gave us all the wrong idea about what the “player empowerment era” would look like. More than a decade later, it’s far more common for NBA players to engineer moves without waiting for free agency. They’ve also become adept at getting what they want without saying what they want. Welcome to the age of passive-aggression, now starring James Harden and Ben Simmons.

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It was a little more than a year ago that the Brooklyn Nets acquired Harden from the Houston Rockets, forming the best offensive trio in league history with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Now, that threesome has been dissolved having played just 16 games together, thanks to injuries to Harden and Durant and Irving’s passion for doing his own scientific research. On Thursday, the Nets sent Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers for Simmons, two other players, and two first-round picks—the payoff to weeks of conflicting, anonymously sourced reports.

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The last of those reports got published just hours before the Nets and Sixers consummated Thursday’s deal. Harden wanted to go to Philly, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, but “has resisted making that formal request out of fear of the public backlash that would come with asking out of a second franchise in consecutive seasons.”

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This is the 2020s version of “taking my talents to South Beach,” a statement that winds its way from passivity (“has resisted making that formal request”) to aggression (“asking out of a second franchise in consecutive seasons”) without the use of first-person pronouns, and with a brief pause along the way to acknowledge the haters (“out of fear of the public backlash”). The cherry on top of this “sources say” soufflé: an Instagram like from noted social media savant Kevin Durant.

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Harden’s resistance to sharing his feelings openly isn’t entirely about conflict avoidance and image management. NBA rules forbid players and their representatives from demanding trades publicly. In 2019, Anthony Davis got fined $50,000 when his agent, Rich Paul, told the world that Davis wanted an exit from New Orleans. For Davis, that was just a speed bump: He did get out, and has since won a championship alongside James with the Los Angeles Lakers. As Harden and Simmons just proved again, when a star player wants to leave, he typically gets his way. And passive-aggression is often the most efficient route.

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When Harden decided to eject himself from Houston—a reasonable decision, given the sorry state of that franchise in 2020—he embarked on a sight-seeing tour of the United States. First, he went to Atlanta for Lil Baby’s birthday party. He then went clubbing in Las Vegas, all the while ignoring the NBA’s COVID testing and self-quarantine rules. Harden’s public explanation: “I was just training.”

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When the Rockets started playing games, it became clear that Harden’s training regimen had not involved any kind of exercise.

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Harden’s conspicuous lack of effort accelerated his departure from Houston. By conscientiously objecting to on-court movement, he made the team uncomfortable enough that it had to unload him. When the Nets visited Sacramento earlier this month, the master was up to his old tricks.

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Given that everyone on the Nets stinks right now—they’ve lost nine games in a row—Harden’s individual lethargy was less noticeable this time around. Plus, he was at least more available than Durant and Irving … that is, until he missed four games in a row with what the team called “hamstring tightness.”

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Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Ben Simmons continued not to suit up for the Sixers, as the war of nonwords between the former No. 1 overall pick and the team dragged on.

Simmons’ own passive-aggressive journey began after last season’s playoffs, in which his poor play helped tank Philly’s chances. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, in the months that followed:

[Simmons] didn’t reply when [76ers coach Doc] Rivers texted and called him several times over the summer asking to see him. But in hindsight, Simmons feels Rivers and the Sixers could’ve done more, like show up at a well-known gym in the San Fernando Valley where he was training.

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Simmons, who initially said he wouldn’t attend Sixers training camp, did eventually show up, but got kicked out of practice for refusing to participate. (Reports that he practiced with a phone in his pocket turned out to be incorrect.) He never played for the team this season, citing his mental health, a stance he maintained despite getting fined millions of dollars. “We don’t give a fuck about the money,” an unnamed “source close to Simmons” told Shelburne. “That’s not what this is. It’s hard for people to understand. But if you believe in what you’re doing and that this is not the right situation for you, and you’re trying to get to a better place, the money doesn’t matter.”

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This week’s trade, which not so long ago seemed like a ludicrous sports radio fantasy, now feels like an inevitability. This was the only possible solution for two players “trying to get to a better place” without exactly trying, and two franchises looking to maximize their chances to win a championship. In a basketball sense, both teams are now arguably better off, with the Sixers getting a perimeter star to pair with Joel Embiid and the Nets acquiring a defensive stopper to go along with their offensive weapons. Plus, both workplaces will likely be happier, at least for the next few days.

One of the typical virtues of passive-aggressive behavior is the potential for deniability: The less you do, the less you have to explain. That doesn’t really apply in the NBA, where behind-the-scenes maneuvering captivates fans just as much as who wins the Finals. That means there’s no such thing as private workplace behavior. And besides, Harden’s and Simmons’ machinations have been about as subtle as a 3-year-old trying to whisper.

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If Wojnarowski’s reporting was accurate, Harden was right to fear public backlash—a backlash that Simmons has felt acutely, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, for the past six months. In the end, both players got what they wanted, at some cost to their professional reputations. But as LeBron James and Kevin Durant can tell you, a certain segment of fans will hate you no matter what your approach to swapping jerseys. But what KD couldn’t do, during Thursday night’s All-Star draft, was acknowledge that James Harden exists. And what LeBron couldn’t do was keep a straight face.

Passive-aggression: It’s the cause of and solution to all of the NBA’s problems.

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