Sixers Facing Frightening James Harden Realization

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) shoots against Boston Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon, right, during the first half of Game 1 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Monday, May 1, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

For the second time in three seasons, the Sixers have an unhappy point guard awaiting a trade. Just one year after taking a team-friendly deal with the expectation and hopes he would ink a long-term deal this summer, James Harden opted into his player option and requested a trade from the Sixers after just 102 total games played for Philadelphia.

This potential standoff is much different than when Ben Simmons forced the Sixers’ hand two years ago. Even with all his downfalls, ones that have become even more clear since Simmons was traded, the former number-one overall pick was just 25 years old with three All-Star appearances and two All-Defensive team honors under his belt. Even coming off the disastrous postseason meltdown against the Atlanta Hawks, there were teams out there who could squint their eyes and believe Simmons needed a change of scenery and situation to bring out his best.

This is far from the case with James Harden.

James Harden’s Outlook

There has been plenty of discussion about what James Harden wants at this stage in his career. Whether it be contending for a championship, pairing with superstar teammates, or playing with what he perceives as basketball freedom- it is difficult to fully interpret Harden’s priorities.

The three-time scoring champion may never fully set the record straight, but it is not as complex of an issue as many seem to believe. James Harden, like many professional athletes, wants to get paid.

With him likely having one more chance to ink a lucrative long-term deal, this security was what Harden was expecting. Signing your name on the dotted line for max value is a greater commitment than any lip service a General Manager can provide from a player’s perspective- especially one for whom a max contract was a certainty for most of his career.

Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) reacts after scoring past Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown (7) during overtime of Game 4 in an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

To be fair to Harden, you can make a real case for why he deserves it. The former MVP averaged 21.0 points and 6.1 rebounds throughout the regular season while leading the NBA with 10.7 assists per game. Harden also knocked down 38.5% of his three-point attempts this season which is his best rate since the 2011-12 season when he played with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden’s ability as a playmaker has further unlocked Joel Embiid as a scorer and was a driving force for Embiid’s back-to-back scoring titles and being crowned MVP this season. The former Rockets superstar also tied his playoff career-high in Game 1 against the Celtics this year by pouring in 45 points and leading the Sixers to a win without Embiid on the court. He also scored 42 points in Game 4 of the series and was vital to that victory as well.

But for all these things to be true and there still being an unwillingness to commit to James Harden long-term is also telling. The highs are high with James Harden but the lows may be even lower.

James Harden’s Market

While Harden’s camp is pointing toward his desire to join a contender that didn’t have the necessary cap space to make an offer, such as the Los Angeles Clippers, as the driving force for opting in it also is telling of his market. Sam Amick of The Athletic reported that Harden was “extremely upset” by the lack of contact from the Sixers ahead of his looming player option.

This may be true, but there also is no world in which Harden and his camp sat on their hands in blind faith of the Sixers without at least checking their other options. To rub salt in the wound, the Houston Rockets handed Fred VanVleet a 3-year contract with $128.5 million guaranteed. Following a season of rumors connecting Harden to a Houston return, this felt as if it was the money meant for Harden. Handing the deal to someone else showed the Rockets either preferred VanVleet or that there was never any interest in the reunion and it was only a leverage play.

FILE -Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) calls to teammates during the first half of Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Boston. James Harden might have side-eyed questions, much like he did in a playful reaction to a question in his Houston days, about his future with the Philadelphia 76ers. Will Harden return to the 76ers for a third season? (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

This was further proven following the signing when it was revealed that Ime Udoka did not want Harden in Houston. The franchise is at an interesting spot as they have now collected the bulk of their young core and are beginning to look to contend. The ball-dominant nature of Harden’s style of play was always a strange fit based on the Rockets’ young pieces, but it should still feel like a slap in the face to Harden that the offer he desired or expected never materialized. 

Beyond Houston, there were some slight whispers of some interest in a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns, but the rumor mill was strangely quiet. With no long-term contract on the table, it made sense for Harden to opt into his $35.6 million player option. There was no route for him to collect more guaranteed money, it extends his ability to look for a new team and does Daryl Morey and the Sixers a favor by at least ensuring they will get something in return if Harden is deadset on leaving. 

But if there was no market for Harden in free agency, that will not change now that teams must give up talent to get the aging 10-time All-Star. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that the Clippers have been reluctant to offer Terance Mann, picks, and potentially even Norman Powell in a deal for Harden. While the pipedreams of a Paul George and Kawhi Leonard increased hope for a moment, this low bar of options to receive in return does not bode well for Harden or the Sixers’ future.

Sixers Outlook

Daryl Morey is no stranger to stranger to awkward face-offs with disgruntled stars and proved this in his handling of the Ben Simmons situation. While this is a much different situation, it should not come as a surprise if Morey sticks to his principle of refusing to ‘lose a trade’ regardless of the circumstances or the baggage that comes with the player. This could especially be the case considering Morey may very well be the person who holds Harden in the highest light of anyone in the NBA, especially at this stage in his career.

Philadelphia 76ers’ Daryl Morey speaks during a news conference at the team’s NBA basketball practice facility, Friday, May 13, 2022, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

With photos circulating of Harden with Embiid and some other Sixers teammates seeming to hint at no hard feelings, it is unclear how serious the point guard is about leaving. This is the same guy who has forced his way out of Houston and Brooklyn with his lack of on-court energy and effort used as a vehicle to make the trade occur. While Harden should take the recent read of the market as a sign of why this would not be wise, it is still true that disgruntled stars almost always end up getting what they wish in today’s NBA.

However, Morey is right to hold strong considering how limited the Sixers are in their future options. Embiid is set to turn 30 years old this year and the championship window is dependent on his health and future. Unless Tyrese Maxey can take another massive stride forward and grow into a #2 option on a championship contender at the age of 22, it is Morey’s responsibility to find another option outside of Harden for him to make a deal.

There is a fair argument to be constructed that the Sixers cannot win a championship with Harden as the second option. Harden has played the 5th-most playoff games without a championship of any player in NBA history and will climb to 3rd next season if he makes it to the second round this year. He has far from a flawless postseason reputation and the Sixers were bounced from the conference semifinals with Harden last season for the fifth time in the past six seasons.

But there are also no clear-cut options of how the Sixers can improve their chances outside of Harden. When he is playing his best he is a near perfect match for what Embiid and the rest of the roster needs. Even considering his inconsistencies it is tough to find a better-fitting player of a similar caliber to Harden especially without the Sixers holding much leverage.

The championship odds of the Sixers feel to be dwindling and their options of how to change that feel even more bleak. How things play out from here is mostly dependent on where Harden’s mindset is. The Sixers have reported their hopes to rebuild the relationship, likely because of their understanding of the circumstances. If Harden is open to this it would likely be the best-case scenario for all parties, but if that door has already been shut in Harden’s mind the Sixers are not in a good place. 

It may not be the big splash that Sixers fans hope for or the type of move that increases buzz heading into the season. But for all parties, it may be best to put egos aside, rebuild the relationship, and run it back for one more season. The grass is not always greener on the other side and handing the reigns to Nick Nurse, making some moves around the margins, and hoping this is enough to grow a championship may just be the franchise’s best option at this point in time.

AP Photo/Charles Krupa