When Anthony Davis made it known that he wanted to be traded, New Orleans gave him limited minutes if only to avoid sanctions from the NBA, which warned the team that the league is not amenable to New Orleans benching the All Star player.
I understand the NBA. This is still a professional enterprise and it is important for teams to play their superstars because this is what brings fans to the stadium or in front of the television.
I also understand New Orleans if they would rather play someone else in the four or five spot in place of Anthony Davis. While this is a professional sport where paying audience is an important consideration, the main goal of a basketball team is to win. And it is hard to win with a player, who wants to play for a different team.
I did not presume to know Anthony Davis’ game agenda every time he enters the court during the time New Orleans started the process of shipping him out as much as I will not presume to know James Harden’s personal agenda playing for the Houston Rockets despite making it known he wants out. That this prolific offensive monster hasn’t been the top scorer for Houston in the team’s last five matches could be by design, and I don’t want to color it with intrigue or malice.
The truth is, there is no upside to playing a player who wants out. This is why it remains a real head-scratcher that the league supports this farcical exercise.
If you are a teammate to someone who wants out, you could start second-guessing his every decision. Every time he passes or shoots the ball, you’d wonder if it came with a commitment to winning, or just simply going through the motions of basketball and running out the game clock because he was obligated as per his contract.
Someone else should decide the fate of the team—why should someone who doesn’t want to be part of the team gets to influence the game’s outcome? The paranoia gets worse with every turnover. In the past, you rationalize turnovers as part of the game. Professional basketball players make mistakes. You let it slide, even the most outrageous, mind-numbing blunder (and the Shaqtin’ A Fool YouTube archive is proof NBA players are not invulnerable to this tendency), simply because you know for a fact that this player is committed to winning with the team, and there is no reason to be deliberate in committing errors that would cost the team.
How do you think teammates will process the turnovers made by a teammate who does not like playing with the team anymore? How do you see that one teammate who wants to be in a different jersey even before the regular season began when he is open and asking for the ball? If you are the coach, how do you design offensive plays if the desire to win and competitive spirit of your primary scorer and ball distributor is suspect and no longer reliable? How do you trust someone who does not want to be there with you? And without trust, how real is the prospect of winning for teams waist-deep in this quagmire?
I am not suggesting that Davis or Harden will go out of their way to sabotage the game just to force the team to trade them as soon as possible or sit them out. All I am saying is that this is a dysfunctional relationship. This is bad basketball.
Even without bad intentions, it is hard for dissatisfied or disgruntled players to play their best game for a team they want no part of. The power of commitment is the promise to give it all. This is the core of the many Cinderella stories in team sports. This is why average players and average teams become extraordinary and achieve great things.
But the moment you wanted out, the first thing that is extinguished is your desire to win for the team you want to leave. It is natural and normal. The primary goal you are pursuing is influenced by the state you are in. Motivated players happy in the organization they are in want to win. Demotivated players want to leave.
I remember the James Harden-era Houston Rockets basketball. Many were skeptical about the success of Houston’s 3-and-D, small ball identity. It wasn’t formidable enough to win the Western Conference let alone the NBA, but regardless of all the bad things we can say about that identity of Houston Rockets basketball, one thing I love is watching them play gritty – win or lose. You can see the team feeding off of the energy of James Harden like how soldiers follow their leaders to battle without doubt or apprehension. And you can see how James Harden has embraced his role and responsibilities as Houston’s franchise player.
There is no doubt, only duty. And it is exciting basketball to watch.
Now, we watch the dynamics of James Harden’s relationship with his teammates in a different context and realize how fast the lens we use to look at things changes. We could be right—and if we are right, it is simply because it is hard to accept what is counterintuitive—or we could be wrong and we will never know, because the only way to find out is if players themselves confess their sentiments, and that won’t happen (at least not until there is a documentary about this in the future and players are free to openly talk about it without endangering gainful employment and the threat of sanctions or penalties). Suspicion is purgatory many will suffer.
I hope that one day, the NBA will institute a “freezer” rule wherein coaches have the prerogative to bench players, who publicly admit eagerness to leave, regardless of whether this is acceptable to the fans or not. Let teams win or lose by the hands of players, who still want to play for the team. Let’s give the coaches, players, and the fans the satisfaction that the outcome of the game —won or lost—was not influenced by the quality of work put in by someone who could be playing half-heartedly.