This is a Harrison Barnes blog right up until the point LeBron James makes sure it’s not.
It was a very weird scene in Dallas Wednesday night, as Barnes was seemingly playing just a regular old basketball game right up until he was taken out with 3:11 left in the third quarter. News broke soon after that that Barnes was on his way to Sacramento—the exceedingly rare mid-game trade.
Barnes is going to the Kings for Zach Randolph and Justin Jackson, better known as expiring contracts. The move gives back Dallas a chunk of cap flexibility it surrendered in acquiring Kristaps Porzingis last week, while in Barnes the Kings have seriously upgraded both size and shooting at small forward. (Iman Shumpert had been starting there, until he was moved in a separate three-way deal on Wednesday.) Barnes, 26, has a $25 million player option next season, and the Kings reportedly want to sign him long-term.
According to Barnes’s agent, he knew a trade could be in the works but he elected to play. Once the trade was finalized, he watched the rest of the game from the bench. “He’s a better man than me, for sure,” said Dirk Nowitzki. “Everybody else would have bounced. He’s just a generally good dude.”
After the final buzzer, Barnes tossed his jersey to a kid in the stands.
Because the NBA appears to have lost its collective mind in the last week, that was just the start of the drama. Later in the night LeBron, who is stewing over the Pelicans’ reportedly spite-based strategy of refusing to let Anthony Davis be traded to the one team he wants to be traded to, posted this lengthy comment on the Barnes situation to Instagram:
The post was liked by Anthony Davis.
There is an awful lot going on here. Of course teams have the contractual right to trade players, and everyone on both sides agrees that’s a good thing, for the quality of the sport and of the business and of the product and sometimes to the good of the players as well. Also, players have the ability to request trades, and while they can’t force anything, they have a number of pressures at their disposal, up to and including attempting to pick their destinations by making it known where they would or wouldn’t sign. In turn, teams have the ability to ignore those pressures, even if it’s at the peril of making them worse or more dysfunctional or less desirable as a destination. This is just the way things are. Where things get tricky is when we introduce the narrative of loyalty, which was misused for decades to denigrate labor but might be on its way out as a concept—I don’t think very many NBA fans blame Anthony Davis for wanting out of New Orleans, while a whole lot of fans just want the Pelicans to make the damn trade so we can watch one of the league’s best players play meaningful basketball. Do teams owe loyalty to fans? Should fans always be loyal to teams? Do fans and players owe each other anything? These are narratives that are never going to be sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction, and certainly not by today’s trade deadline.
James is a singular messenger for these ideas, because no player has ever been so accused of disloyalty for leaving a team as a free agent. But he’s also functionally been a GM for years now, and he’s got a track record of dozens of former teammates he’s shipped off to the dump in exchange for players he wants to play with. Ask Brandon Ingram about loyalty.
“It’s a business,” James acknowledged in his Instagram post, “and you have to do what you feel what’s best,” but what if what the Pelicans feel is best is to take their chances on the Celtics offering Jayson Tatum even knowing that Davis could be a one-year rental? What’s best for a player is rarely going to be what’s best for his team, or for other teams. The seemingly league-wide disgruntlement is just the push-pull of power struggles in action. And if it’s true what they say about a good compromise leaving everybody unhappy, well, maybe the current system is a good compromise. (Players certainly have more power in the NBA than in any of the other major sports leagues.) Then the real fight, as James says and well knows, becomes over control of the narrative. And that battle can’t be waged anywhere but in public.