FOX Sports NBA Writer
On Thursday, James Harden told the Philadelphia 76ers that he would forego free agency and instead exercise the $35.6 million player option from his contract for the 2023-2024 season. But he didn’t do this because he wanted to stay in Philadelphia. He told the Sixers that he wanted to be traded, according to a source familiar with the events.
Why he was asked from Philadelphia is unclear. For more than two years, Harden’s stated motives have been a contradictory mess.
First, he forced the Rockets to trade him midway through the 2020–2021 season. Then, on the day a deal was struck with the Brooklyn Nets, he told the team’s top decision-makers, “I’ll be in touch with you guys,” according to several people familiar with the conversation. He only asked for it, he said, because he felt the team “needed a fresh start.” He was right. The Rockets’ title window had closed, but that was largely because he’d forced them into a series of shady deals, most notably a Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade. It does not matter. He wanted the Nets and the Nets wanted him.
Less than a year later, history repeated itself. Harden grew increasingly frustrated with life in Brooklyn: not being the focus of offense, Steve Nash’s coaching, the way Kevin Durant held the organizational power Harden once held in Houston, Kyrie Irving missing games because he refused to be vaccinated. He started loitering, pushing for another trade – this time with the Sixers in his sights. It didn’t matter that a year earlier, Harden after being asked by Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta on the morning of the trade deadline which of the two teams he preferred, the Nets had said.
Harden encountered similar problems in Philadelphia. Once again, he wasn’t the center of everything.
“I get into a situation where everything was centered on Joel, everything was Joel, Joel, Joel,” Harden said of his freshman year with the Sixers during a lengthy interview with FOX Sports in October. “What I understand is that they’ve been playing like that all year and that’s why I’ve tried to adapt. It was never like, ‘Here, you’re James Harden, so we want you to run the show.’ That’s the kind of role I played.
To return to the team, he had taken a $15 million pay cut, turned down his $47.3 million option, and instead signed a two-year, $68 million contract with the second year being a player option. He did this, he had said, so the Sixers could strengthen their roster; That extra spot was used to sign PJ Tucker. It seemed that Harden actually prioritized victory.
But you could tell he was having trouble with what that meant. In May, after defeating the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, Harden shared with reporters his approach to the season. “I told myself this year that it’s just that I have a great willingness to make sacrifices. Whether it’s for the money or my role, just let it all go and make sacrifices — and then see what it brings me,” he said.
According to friends, Harden had spent the year contemplating a reunion in Houston. He didn’t dupe the Sixers by qualifying for one team while laying the groundwork to play for another. But the attraction Houston had on him—where his family lives and where he feels most comfortable—was hard to ignore.
But the Rockets seem to have cooled off the idea. They have the cap — nearly $61 million this offseason, the highest in the NBA — but in recent months their executives have been making it clear to people across the league that they don’t like the idea of Harden returning are convinced . They also told agents this offseason that they have no intention of offering deals longer than two seasons.
James Harden settles on his $35.6M deal, Clippers and Knicks join trade talks | SPEAK
In the absence of a mega deal from Houston, Harden had no offer to press against the Sixers. There are no other contenders out there, no Cap-ranked team that both wants and is wanted by Harden. That’s probably why we came to a trade request. If there’s no one bidding against the Sixers, there’s no need for them to make a strong offer.
Meanwhile, Harden likely believed he could pit the Sixers and Rockets against each other and end up landing a four-year, $200 million deal. At one point, he worried about the Sixers. According to several sources, he had only told them his intentions at the end of May. And even after they fired head coach Doc Rivers — with whom Harden had clashed — the Sixers front office still feared Harden would walk away.
In August he will be 34 years old. He is entering the last phase of his career. He’s still great, but not as great as he used to be. There’s nothing wrong with that, but is Harden ready to accept this new reality? Or more precisely: What does he want from his last years in the NBA? Is it a title and a chance to solidify his historic position? is it money Is it because he can play the style he wants? Something else?
The Los Angeles Clippers are at the top of Harden’s list. They also contacted the Sixers this week about a possible Harden trade, according to multiple league sources. You can see why they would approach Harden. You are in LA. He could play alongside two stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Nets too, of course. And from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and now to Joel Embiid, you could put together an all-star team just with the superstars that Harden ditched.
“It just doesn’t work out,” Harden said in this interview last year. “It’s part of the business. You know, Dwight, we had our years – it didn’t work out. CP, we had our years – it didn’t work out. Russ, we had our years and didn’t work out.” “It doesn’t work out. Victory heals everything. So if we win, everything will be fine.”
Meanwhile, to use a bad cliché, the ball is in the Sixers’ hands. From the Ben Simmons saga, we know that Daryl Morey, the Sixers’ basketball boss, won’t just make any deal, he likes to wait for the right deal to come along. Based on Morey’s history, we can assume that getting a few draft picks and salarymen like Norman Powell and Marcus Morris from the Clippers won’t be enough — at least not until Morey has a separate contract for another star (Zach LaVine maybe? ) ready to go.
We know the playbook. Morey will insist, both publicly and privately, that he has no problem keeping Harden for the season. (Though it’s worth noting that for complicated salary cap reasons, the Clippers would benefit if a deal were finalized before July 1.)
Whatever happens, Harden’s contract with the Sixers cannot be renewed. By this time next year he will be a free agent and have the freedom to sign wherever he chooses. Maybe things are going well for him in LA or wherever his next stop is. But history says otherwise.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Trial in Professional Sports History.”.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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