FOX Sports NBA Analyst
If you’re wondering why you’re holding a seven-game winning streak a report surfaced – on Christmas Day, no less! — That Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden is ready to return to Houston to play last-place for the Rockets, you’re not alone.
Scouts and GMs are also looking for an answer. Because it doesn’t make sense that Harden would actually return to Houston. Obviously not for the ’76. Not even for the reconstruction rockets. And certainly not for Harden, having taken a reduced salary this season so the Sixers can re-bolster their roster for a championship run.
“I’ve been telling Daryl (Morey, the Sixers’ president of basketball operations) to step up the roster, sign who we have to sign and give me what’s left,” Harden told Yahoo last summer. “That’s how much I want to win. I want to fight for a championship. That’s all that matters to me at this stage. I’m willing to take less to enable us to achieve that.”
To be clear, Harden has not completely dismissed the report. He denied knowing where it came from and said he was “very excited” to be in Philadelphia.
And that may be the tell, for unless he refutes it outright, the threat that he might leave it lives on in the minds of those who should hear it. The two possibilities of who that might be reflect exactly how Byzantine business in the NBA can be.
“The conventional reason would be that Harden wants to create leverage to get what he wants to re-sign with Philadelphia,” said an Eastern Conference GM. “The unconventional reason would be that Daryl needs to leverage his owners to get James what he has already promised him.”
For those who weren’t at the starting line last summer, Harden canceled the last year of his previous contract, which would have netted him $47.4 million for signing a two-year deal, with another player option that would see him earn $33 million this season brings in US dollars. That alone raised questions about whether he did so with the understanding that the Sixers would compensate him in a later deal for the $14 million he sacrificed, which could be viewed as the Sixers circumventing the salary cap. When a similar arrangement between forward Joe Smith and the Minnesota Timberwolves was discovered in 1999, it cost the team four consecutive first-round picks and a $3.5 million fine.
Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale said at the time: “There are eight to 10 teams that do this all the time. They’re just good at it. We are bad.”
[As LeBron turns 38, his historic brilliance is being wasted by the Lakers]
But if there is already an agreement between Harden and Morey, why the need to pressurize by threatening to leave? Now that the 76ers aren’t doing quite as well as expected with the re-signing of Harden and the addition of forward PJ Tucker to a three-year, $33 million deal, the 76ers may have some concerns about exactly how much they want in the 33- year-old injury-plagued guard who has already missed nearly half his games this season.
The question is: who has these second thoughts? None of the scouts or GMs I spoke to believe anything has changed between Morey and Harden, whose close bond was forged in Houston when Morey was in charge of the Rockets. Morey acquired Harden, then a sixth man, from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012 and helped him become an eight-time All-Star, three-time scoring champion, league MVP and one of the league’s 75 Greatest Players of All Time.
“The affection is real,” said the Eastern Conference GM.
When Morey left to join the Sixers, Harden demanded to be traded shortly thereafter. He ended up straying for 80 games in split two seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, but they were eventually reunited at last season’s trade deadline in the deal that sent Ben Simmons to Brooklyn. And it wasn’t for lack of trying, league sources say, that Morey couldn’t get him straight from Houston to Philadelphia.
But there’s no indication that the friendly relationship Harden has with Morey extends to Josh Harris, the Sixers’ primary owner. Harris might want to keep Harden, but not with the kind of contract Morey promised Harden to get him to agree to take less this season.
“It’s a crazy theory,” admitted the Eastern Conference GM, “but it would make sense.
For their part, the Rockets are open to adding some seasoned leaders to their exceedingly young roster — Eric Gordon and Boban Marjanovic are the only Rockets with more than three years of experience — and have ample room to sign a high-priced free agent. But would Harden be the kind of veteran a team would seek to mentor younger players?
“Uh, no,” the Eastern Conference GM said, laughing.
And do the Rockets have enough talent that Harden can reasonably expect to be in contention for a title? Again, the consensus among several scouts and GMs was no. Only if, an Eastern Conference scout said, the Rockets would land Victor Wembanyana in the upcoming draft.
“But a lot of chips would have to fall in exactly the right places,” said the scout. “And that still doesn’t explain the timing of the report coming out now.”
As crazy as it may be, no other manager or scout could come up with a better explanation. “Strange on both sides,” said one manager. “Crazy,” said another. “Very strange,” said a scout. “It makes no sense.”
At least not yet.
PALACE INTRIGUES IN ATLANTA: The announcement that Atlanta Hawks team president Travis Schlenk would return to an advisory role earlier this season caught the rest of the league as unprepared as the Harden news. The only certainty is that no one believes that Schlenk abruptly decided he wanted a lifestyle change.
A league source said the move was inspired by the bad relationship between Schlenk and both all-star point guard Trae Young and the team’s director of basketball operations Nick Ressler, son of Hawks principal Tony Ressler .
Nick Ressler, Young, and Schlenk’s successor, GM Landry Fields, are close and committed to building around Young, league sources say. The move to acquire DeJounte Murray from the San Antonio Spurs last summer was planned by them, not Schlenk, according to these sources.
Another move that hasn’t been reported, a league source says, is that director of scouting Stephen Giles has also been sidelined, and Grant Liffman — a scout hired last summer and Fields’ college roommate — has been promoted, although the exact details of his new role were not known.
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Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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