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Eric Walden: The James Harden situation has quickly devolved from mere selfishness to pure recklessness

The Rockets guard has gone beyond the conventional means of making himself a nuisance in order to force a trade. He’s now weaponizing his indifference toward the pandemic.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden, top center, joins the huddle during the fourth quarter of a preseason NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, in Houston. (Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Trade demands have been a part of the NBA since … well, pretty much always.

Viewed through the simple-if-simplistic lens, James Harden isn’t doing anything different now than what Wilt Chamberlain did in Philadelphia, what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did in Milwaukee, what Hakeem Olajuwon did in Houston, what Dwight Howard did in Orlando, what Kobe Bryant did in Los Angeles, what Carmelo Anthony did in Denver (and New York), what Anthony Davis did in New Orleans, et cetera, et cetera.

Then again, what Harden’s doing really isn’t the same at all.

Oh, he’s certainly not the first athlete to make himself a pain in the rear end to get what he wants. He’s hardly the only one so fed up with his situation that he’ll abandon all pretense of professionalism in the simple hope of wearing a front office’s patience thinner than a supermodel.

He is the first one, however, to weaponize a pandemic to achieve his aims.

I recognize “weaponize” is a loaded word here. And I don’t use it lightly. Take a moment and think about what Harden has done.

He skipped the start of training camp to make the point that he was willing to make himself a nuisance — which, again, is nothing unusual in and of itself — but while doing so, he also made it a point to very publicly attend a rapper’s birthday party, ignoring the league’s social distancing protocols and thereby further delaying his entry into team activities as a result of having to isolate and return however many negative COVID-19 tests were required.

Doing that once was bad enough … but doing it twice?

On Dec. 21 — two days before the Rockets’ season opener — Harden made the decision to attend a private, and reportedly very crowded indoor party. He was not wearing a mask there.

In doing so, either Harden knew he’d get caught and put back in the league’s “health and safety protocol” program and have to isolate for several days again and miss the game, or he figured no one would find out and he’d go back to interacting with teammates and coaches and staffers the next day, potentially exposing them to whatever he’d been exposed to at the party.

If it’s the former, well, that’s ridiculously selfish. And if it’s the latter … well, that’s dangerously reckless.

In a way, Harden got lucky — between him being out, one teammate being injured, two teammates testing positive, and four more held out as a result of a group haircut in public, the Rockets’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder wound up being postponed, as they did not have the league-minimum eight players available. As a result, he got a $50,000 fine for violating protocols, but didn’t get the double-whammy of also losing a resulting game check, because, well, the game didn’t actually take place.

Just think about for a second, though: A positive outcome for Harden in this situation was the Rockets having to postpone their season opener. Because he was one of just several players on the same team who couldn’t be bothered to follow some pretty clearly defined rules, to say nothing of simple common sense.

In the aftermath of this situation, some pundits have called for the league to reconsider a “mini-bubble” plan, where teams from the same region would assemble to sequester together and face off against one another, a la many smaller versions of the Orlando bubble. This, they argue, would clear up any ambiguity, not give players chances to make mistakes.

Except that Harden isn’t making “mistakes.” He’s been very deliberate — in ignoring the rules, as well as his teammates’ safety.

And why? Because the Rockets are no longer contenders in his eyes? He’s the one who had them ship off Lou Williams, Pat Beverley and Montrezl Harrell for Chris Paul to take things up a notch. He’s also the one who had the Rockets then ship off Paul for BFF Russell Westbrook when Paul’s intensity grew tiresome. And then, shockingly, Westbrook didn’t work out, either, and was also gone.

Houston constantly made seismic changes to its roster construction to appease Harden, and now, with multiple years left on his contract, he wants out because he doesn’t like the direction of the team? He’s the one who defined that direction. He’s also the one who’s constantly underperformed in the postseason in that stretch, but to admit that would require a level of self-awareness he clearly does not possess.

Still, fine — his level of ignorance is pretty stunning, though hardly unprecedented. Which still doesn’t necessitate or justify this. I’m not even suggesting he suck it up, bide his time, and do something to earn his $41 million-plus salary. No, that would be silly. Rather, there are still ways to make himself a pain, still ways to get his point across, still ways to try and force the Rockets’ hand that don’t require potentially exposing himself and others to COVID-19.

Plenty of prior trade demands over the years have been selfish and thoughtless. None, though, ever managed to approach the rash, vicious potential of this one.

Harden will probably ultimately get what he wants. Hopefully no one else has to pay for it.

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