Current Affairs

James Harden and the Death of Heliocentrism

Catering to the whims of stars above all else doesn’t work—either in sports or society at large.

Two of the United States’ dumbest obsessions are stardom and statistics, and nobody demonstrates the ultimate emptiness of both quite like James Harden. The 31-year-old basketball player, who just forced his way to the Brooklyn Nets after spending the last eight seasons with the Houston Rockets, is a perennial MVP candidate and a three-time NBA scoring champion. He’s also a living, breathing, endlessly dribbling embodiment of everything that America misunderstands about success. 

In 2019, the basketball analytics writer Seth Partnow wrote an influential article for the Athletic titled “The New NBA Heliocentrism.” The premise was that teams now revolve around their star players to a degree unprecedented in league history. Partnow used a complex series of formulae and some colorful charts to illustrate what was obvious to anyone who’d paid attention to the sport over the past few years: a small handful of star players like Harden were doing the vast majority of the “fun stuff” (i.e., holding the ball and, eventually, shooting it). Meanwhile, their teammates’ job duties had been reduced to a glorified game of fetch. They were expected to jostle with opponents, to hurl their bodies on the hardwood floor, to run in endless circles for the singular purpose of making it easier for Harden and his fellow sungods to score. 

The logic behind the heliocentric NBA is based on the type of “common sense” beloved by mainstream economists and boomer dads. Essentially, if X is good, then increasing the amount of X will lead to ever-increasing amounts of goodness. If a basketball team gets 100 attempts to score during a game, the team will maximize its scoring potential by giving more of those attempts to its most talented player. A team will optimize its offense even further if the star in question sticks to “high value” shots. This term refers to shots close to the basket (which are valuable because they’re the easiest to make), 3-pointers (which are valuable because you get an extra point for making one), and free throws (which are valuable because nobody’s allowed to bother you as you shoot). The heliocentric model of basketball is thus a data-driven one—in the 2020 playoffs, for example, Harden averaged 1.15 points per possession while feasting almost exclusively on high value shots. By comparison, his teammate P.J. Tucker averaged 0.98 points per possession. Letting Harden use all of your team’s possessions would give you one of the best offenses in the league. Letting Tucker do so would give you the worst (by far). 

To be fair, even the fiercest proponents of the heliocentric model wouldn’t recommend letting a team’s best player take all the shots. And following the repeated playoff failures of teams (like Harden’s) that stick to the “nothing but dunks, free throws, and 3s” diet, many data nerds have begrudgingly accepted the importance of “low value” shots during crunch time. Common sense is once again invoked—if you actually let Harden use 100 percent of the possessions, his teammates would probably be quite annoyed (as a Sports Illustrated KIDS book puts it, “nobody wants to play with a ball hog”). And if other teams know you’ll only shoot from a few spots on the floor, they can safely ignore the rest of the court. It’s hard to win basketball games when you’re that predictable, or when four out of five players on your team feel like underappreciated pawns. Plus, sometimes the star will need to rest. You have to ensure that all of their hard work isn’t erased during these brief absences. Start adding up all the qualifications, and suddenly heliocentrism starts looking less like a foolproof blueprint for success and more like a “rule of thumb” that got too big for its britches. 

Harden’s tenure in Houston ended because the tensions inherent to the heliocentric model couldn’t be resolved. It certainly wasn’t because the star wasn’t given enough opportunity to shine. The team’s former general manager, a data-minded MIT grad named Daryl “Dork Elvis” Morey, “spent [years] constantly churning the roster around Harden, searching for the right superstar players to pair with him and the right role players for the supporting cast,” as a 2018 ESPN story put it. Each time Harden decided he wanted to play with a famous friend, the team moved heaven and earth to acquire that player—and to get rid of them once they tired of playing Yoshi to Harden’s Mario. The entire team was designed around catering to Harden’s desires, which mostly involved taking a lot of shots and not playing defense. The numbers said this was Houston’s best chance at reaching the pinnacle of NBA glory. After several of the most remarkable playoff collapses in league history, and Harden’s subsequent proclamation that the team “[couldn’t] be fixed,” it’s fair to wonder if the heliocentric model has been discredited once and for all. The Rockets gave Harden every perk a star could possibly want, and in the end all they managed to do was choke in the biggest moments while pissing off almost everyone else on the team (along with most NBA fans outside of Houston).  

A clever defender of heliocentrism might argue that Harden’s failure in Houston is not an indictment of the model itself, but rather the excesses to which it was taken in this specific case. It’s easy to paint Harden as a uniquely selfish and reckless star. His penchant for egregious flops (pretending to be injured) and whining to referees has made him one of the most disliked players in recent memory. Even in a league where superstars are chummier than ever, many of Harden’s fellow A-listers think he’s kind of an ass. The fact that he skipped training to party (maskless!) at strip clubs around the country seems to support the idea that Harden is Just a Bad Apple™. 

Heliocentrism can go too far, to be sure. But in more sober and responsible hands—say, like those of LeBron James—the model can still be the most efficient way to achieve success. Right?

Heliocentrism and Musk-Worship: Two Symptoms of the Same Disease

It’s no coincidence that defenses of NBA heliocentrism sound an awful lot like defenses of contemporary capitalism and its rockstar CEOs. Data nerds can find numbers to show that capitalism is the most efficient way to reduce extreme poverty, improve gender equality, or even protect the environment. If you complain that this obviously doesn’t reflect reality, the nerds insist the model is sound—it’s just that the execution sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. When Elizabeth Warren said that “capitalism without rules is theft,” the implication was that, yes, it’s bad that employers steal billions of dollars from workers each year—but if those employers were simply more honorable, the power structures of the modern economy would be fine. When sex pest Joe Biden claimed to support an end to the “era of shareholder capitalism,” the catch was even more obvious. “We must reward work as much as we rewarded wealth,” said Biden, expressing an idea as impossible as it was insincere. The average full-time Amazon warehouse worker makes just over $31,000 a year. Jeff Bezos makes nearly $150,000 per minute. There’s no way to reward the former “as much” as the latter without significantly reducing the latter’s rewards. Clearly this would require changing the fundamental premise on which the current socioeconomic system operates. 

However, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult to get someone to accept a truth when their salary depends on rejecting it. In the political world, no amount of evidence seems capable of persuading capitalism’s defenders that the world’s problems can’t be solved by the right means-tested tax credits. Elon Musk can make $15 billion in a single day, while a seething pool of investors pushes Tesla’s stock market valuation so high it would take the company 1,600 years to sell enough exploding cars to pay up—and yet somehow, respectable shapers of public opinion like Forbes chief content officer Randall Lane can insist that “Greater Capitalism” would put an end to such absurdity. In case you were wondering, “Greater Capitalism” is functionally indistinguishable from the current version except for a slight uptick in elite benevolence. The same power structures can remain in place as long as the people at the top aren’t jerks about it. As Lane puts it, “treating employees well doesn’t mean a conflict with business necessities. It just means giving them proper respect.” 

What exactly does “proper respect” mean, though? Like Anselm’s definition of God, it can only be described in the negative. “Proper respect” is not more money. It is not better healthcare or working hours. It is not more control over workplace conditions. “Proper respect” is a vibe, more or less, that can be conjured by the occasional pizza party or a pat on the back. The boss who needs more ideas for how to convey “proper respect” will find a vast industry of consultants ready to advise him, for a fee.

It’s much simpler in the NBA. There, proper respect translates directly into a chance to compete for the title. The league has long been notorious for its “ringz culture”—the notion that only winning a championship can validate a player’s career. Even decades of sustained excellence can’t compensate for the failure to win a ring. You can break historic records like Karl Malone, win multiple MVPs like Steve Nash, or change the entire culture of the sport like Allen Iverson. But if you don’t have a title to your name, you’re doomed to spend the rest of your life being viewed as a disappointment. A real baller is expected to sacrifice anything (salary, stats, pride, proximity to family and friends, etc.) for the mere shot at a ‘ship.

The obvious question—one that the basketball media tends to avoid as assiduously as the political media avoids confronting the failures of capitalism—is why? Who decided the raison d’etre of an NBA player is to have a championship on their resume? Did millions of people individually arrive at that conclusion by observing some natural truth, or was the idea drilled into their heads by a media built to churn out stories that benefit its corporate backers? On a personal level, it would seem obvious that having legions of fans and millions of dollars would be more desirable than a piece of jewelry and some memories. It’s not as if the mere possession of a ring determines one’s future prospects. In fact, the only players more widely derided than those without rings are those who do have rings they “didn’t deserve,” like the legendary bust Adam Morrison. Meanwhile, ringless ex-stars like Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Chris Webber have gone on to lucrative broadcasting gigs and endorsement deals. Still, the heliocentric NBA—propped up by owners who can make billions off big-name stars and lauded by a cadre of notoriously fawning sportswriters—tells the vast majority of players they should accept their second-class citizenship in exchange for the warm fuzzy glow of “being a champion.” What tends to go unsaid is that the sacrifice is rarely worth it.

Both capitalist America and the heliocentric NBA are based on lies that have grown increasingly untenable in recent years. Ironically, “the data” show the assumptions that underpin both have been proven to be false. 50 years of trickle-down economics has not produced a rising tide that lifts all boats, as exhaustive research from the London School of Economics has shown. Maximizing the ball dominance of stars like Harden has not led to more championships for their teams (on the NBA’s all-time list of highest usage rates in a season, none of the top 20 players won a title). The sample size is big enough. These “data-driven” ideologies have failed.

The Myth of Star Power

Just as the death drive of capitalism has accelerated in recent years, so too has the NBA’s lurch into heliocentrism. In both cases, the most puzzling aspect is how fervently people have refused to acknowledge the obvious.

The birth of the NBA’s heliocentric age can be traced to 2010, when LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with fellow superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. The three players’ massive salaries consumed almost the entire Heat budget, but most observers viewed that as a fair trade—such a starry triumvirate would render the rest of the roster largely superfluous. Were the Heat top-heavy? Sure. But the level of pure talent couldn’t be matched by anyone else in the league, and the prospect of riding the stars’ coattails to a title would attract seasoned veterans willing to accept minimum salaries. 

Then a funny thing happened. Almost from the moment James set foot in South Beach, there arose a chant: he needs more help. It turned out that collecting a handful of stars wasn’t the sure-fire path to success that many had thought. As the years went by and the Heat’s Big Three began to slip, the refrain grew louder. He needs more help! This was quite a conundrum, since the stars’ presence ensured there wasn’t enough money or playing time to attract the young players who would’ve provided that help. When James eventually jumped ship and returned to Cleveland—with so much leverage over the franchise he was able to pick his teammates and coaches—the song was the same. He needs more help! It wasn’t long before James’ penchant for short-term decision-making and paternalistic treatment of his teammates depleted Cleveland’s resources as well, and he decamped for the Los Angeles Lakers. Once he arrived in Hollywood, the cycle repeated itself once again. The King, as always, needed more help

Even for the brightest star in the NBA, under the most optimal conditions imaginable, a heliocentric approach has never really worked. James is a far superior player to Harden, and many consider him the greatest of all time. Yet whenever James has won a title, it’s never been thanks to his (or his fellow stars’) efforts alone. Whether it was Mike Miller draining seven 3-pointers for the Heat in the 2012 Finals or Rajon Rondo energizing the Lakers in the 2020 Finals, unheralded teammates have always been essential for James’ teams to succeed. It may be true that it’s hard to win a championship without a superstar—or two, or three—but it’s flat-out impossible to win without significant contributions from others. 

Likewise, despite the fetishization of individual “innovators” and “job creators” like Bezos or Musk, it’s become increasingly clear that a successful society is not determined by how many stars it boasts. The stock market has never been higher, and neither have our rates of depression and despair. Nearly 800 Americans now boast net worths exceeding $1,000,000,000, while over 50 million go hungry. Who can say, with a straight face, that the tradeoffs have been worth it? 

It’s always been a lie that great success comes from catering to the whims of “geniuses.” Capitalism didn’t invent the iPhone or save ordinary people from fear and destitution. Heliocentrism hasn’t delivered a single NBA title or made the game more enjoyable to play and watch. It’s time to acknowledge the obvious, and try something new. 

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