I think I better leave right now, before our seed falls any deeper: How James Harden and Vince Carter gave up on their franchises

Over the last few years, high-profile NBA players have been requesting trades left, right and centre. It is not a new phenomenon, however: Kobe Bryant, arguably the most iconic player to don the purple and gold of the LA Lakers, requested a trade to Chicago back in 2007. This trade never materialised, of course, but if we go even further back, another famous Laker may have never even landed in LA had he not requested a trade; a certain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who requested a trade to either the Lakers or the Knicks in 1974.

It is an interesting dilemma. The only real options an NBA player has if they are mid-contract and no longer want to play for their team would be to retire, meaning they would not be able to play anymore, or to request a trade. Asking for a trade is not problematic in itself, as teams have no obligation to fulfil player requests. However, the actions of stars if they are denied a move can become far more controversial, as we saw with Vince Carter back in 2004.

For the first twenty games of the 2004-05 NBA season, Vince Carter deliberately underperformed for the Toronto Raptors– he even admitted in a nationally televised interview that he ‘stopped trying’ for Toronto– averaging less than sixteen points a game on terrible efficiency. The result? Toronto was forced into making a quick trade with the New Jersey Nets, receiving a miserly return for such a high calibre player. Alonzo Mourning, the supposed centrepiece of the trade, forced his way out to Miami, having never played a game for the Raptors. The other pieces, Aaron Williams and Eric Williams, were average at best, and the first-round picks received amounted to nothing.

For many of you, this may sound familiar. In November 2020, James Harden was reported as demanding a trade, then reported to training camp late, out of shape. However, his first performance back as a Rocket was excellent, as he put up 44 points and tied a career-high 17 assists. This form was short-lived though, as it soon became clear that Houston had no intention to be rushed into moving their star asset, who still had several years left on his contract, understandably willing to wait to get the best trade package available.

For Harden, this was insufficient. His performance levels on the court dropped, averaging under 20 points per game in the 5 games up until he was traded, but it was his performance off the court that forced the Rockets’ hand. Harden publicly criticised his team in a post-game interview, stating that they were incapable of competing this season and he was promptly moved to the Brooklyn Nets.

His below-average performance did not seem to affect the Rockets’ haul for him too much, though, as in a four-team deal they ended up with Victor Oladipo, some other low-impact players, and a total of seven draft picks from the Nets, with three being unprotected and four as pick-swaps.

The picks will likely be late in the draft due to the sheer talent assembled on the Nets, with a big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden easily being one of the most talented ever, although any of the three could end up leaving after their contracts are up, so it is hard to say the exact value of them. Oladipo is a non-factor, really – he had an excellent season on the Pacers in 2017 but has not been the same since and his contract is also expiring.

The Rockets seem poised to tank for the season, but actually are not doing too badly: as of the 31st of January, they have won five straight games, sitting at the 9th seed. The combination of John Wall and Oladipo is working, it seems, and the breakout of Christian Wood is a sight to see.

Were the situations that Vince Carter and James Harden were in similar? It is hard to say. Carter’s Raptors team was never at the level of Harden’s Rockets, with Harden leading multiple 50+ win teams, once winning 65 games in a regular season. However, Harden is also simply a superior player to Carter, crushing him statistically, as well as having more post-season success and accolades. Carter was understandably frustrated in Toronto, but he was still immature.

Harden, on the other hand, was given whatever he wanted in Houston. Houston traded Chris Paul for Westbrook, an odd move for sure, as although Westbrook was more reliable in terms of being on the court and healthy, Westbrook’s ability to play winning basketball was questionable, and their post-season together ended in disappointment.

Who should face larger criticism for their actions? Harden certainly gave more to Houston than Carter was ever able to give to Toronto, but the Rockets front office made Harden into a superstar, giving him the keys to the franchise, something a young Carter never received in the same vein from the Raptors. Or should both be free from criticism, as despite upsetting their loyal fans, pursuing success at all costs is ultimately part of the remit of being an elite sportsman? It is certainly an interesting debate.

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Jack Oxford

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March 2021
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