NBA Stars Have More Power Than Ever, But How Well Are They Using It?

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As the dust settled in the wake of the Russell Westbrook trade late last week, it became clear that among several factors compelling Houston to act, James Harden’s preferences were likely high on the list. Harden is a perennial MVP candidate, he’s the star who guarantees the Rockets will be relevant every season, and he’s also the star who allegedly had problems with Chris Paul. In May, after Game 6 and the end of this year’s Rockets-Warriors series, Paul left the arena almost immediately. Harden met with reporters and told them that he knew exactly what the Rockets needed to do this summer.

Last week, while plenty of outsiders wondered about the fit between Harden and Westbrook, ESPN reported that Harden called Daryl Morey on the day of the trade and told him not to worry. In the end, Houston made the deal.

Teams doing what superstars want has been a theme of the NBA summer. In Los Angeles, the Lakers and Clippers traded a combined eight first-round picks and four pick swaps in the 2020s, not to mention former lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram. The teams agreed to those deals because a) LeBron James wanted to finish his career next to Anthony Davis and the Lakers couldn’t afford to miss on that opportunity, and b) Kawhi Leonard wanted to sign with the Clippers but refused to commit to them without another superstar already in place.

Nobody needs me to be the 10,000th NBA writer to point out that today’s stars have more leverage than ever and aren’t afraid to use it. What became interesting this summer, though, is how amazingly transparent it all became. Would-be title contenders weren’t simply asked to cater to stars, but to mortgage long-term flexibility and make decisions that would be considered irresponsible in almost any other context. The Clippers were the most extreme example; they traded a star lottery pick (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), a playoff-caliber starter (Danilo Gallinari), two pick swaps, and five first-round picks for Paul George, a 29-year-old who is currently recovering from surgery to both his shoulders.

If the George deal happened this coming February, it would have been considered one of the most incredible overpays in NBA history. In July, the terms of the Clippers deal were met with league-wide shrugs. “You’re not getting one player,” a rival executive told SI of the Clippers’ rationale. “You’re getting both. If you don’t do it? The guy you really wanted, he goes to… Well, I actually don’t think he’d go to the Lakers. But there’s a chance he goes to the Lakers. If you do it, you’re getting both those guys. You have two really good two-way players on your team. They can guard the s–t out of the ball and they can score it. They’re top five, top 10 players. I would start my team with those two and figure it out. Your odds are so much better now to win [a title]. It doesn’t matter if you messed up the future in 2025.”

That’s all very true. But grading the Clippers deal on that curve assumes that Kawhi’s trade-for-him-or-I-walk demand is a fixed element in the equation. If Kawhi wanted to be a Clipper, why are we so certain that it was a good idea for him to leverage his new team into a

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