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June 30, 2023

What they're saying: What went wrong between James Harden and the Sixers?

Plus what could happen next, and why both parties need to self-reflect.

James Harden picked up his contract option to stay a Sixer... so that the Sixers can trade him out of here. 

It was a strange turn of events late Thursday afternoon, but ultimately confirmed that Harden and the Sixers are indeed heading toward a split. 

It's just a matter of when, which might be complicated because of the league's new collective bargaining agreement. 

Here's what's being said about Harden and the Sixers in the immediate aftermath...

What went wrong?

Sam Amick | The Athletic ($)

Go back a month, a week even, and the general belief was that Harden would either be back for another run with the Sixers or go for the reunion in Houston, with the former seeming increasingly likelier than the latter. 

Maybe part of that was right, technically. He did pick up his contract option, so he is still a Sixer, but only for the purpose of not being a Sixer anymore.

What exactly happened there? 

Some insight from Sam Amick:

As it turned out, that league-wide expectation was wildly wrong.

While free agency doesn’t officially begin until Friday evening, a player of Harden’s caliber could typically expect to have some clarity about the incumbent franchise’s intentions long before that time arrives. But in recent weeks and days, sources say, all indications on Harden’s side pointed to the Sixers forcing him to test the market before they would make an offer of any kind. The understandable concern for Harden, sources say, was that Philadelphia was preparing to offer him the kind of short-term, team-friendly contract that wouldn’t come close to reflecting his stature in the league or the level of his current play (he averaged 21 points, a league-leading 10.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds in the regular season; 20.3 points, 8.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds in 11 postseason games). Harden, who hired Troy Payne, Mike Silverman and Brandon Grier of Equity Basketball to be his agents in February after going more than five years without full-time representation, had no interest in being put in that compromised negotiating position. And it would only grow worse as free agency neared.


Harden was losing leverage by the day. Sources say Morey, meanwhile, insisted that he was choosing not to discuss free agency before it was permitted by league rules, in large part because of the price that the Sixers paid for doing so previously. And in a most ironic twist, his reasoning was rooted in the moves that Philadelphia had been able to make because of Harden’s choice to take a pay cut last offseason. [The Athletic, $]

Ah yes, the tampering investigation...karma's a b****.

What could work

Kevin O'Connor | The Ringer

Now that we're here, the Clippers have emerged as the popular suitor for Harden with New York somewhere in the mix there too. 

The immediate fallout from the option getting picked up with the intention of seeking a trade brought a share of possible scenarios and mock proposals – all ranging on a scale of reasonable to ridiculous. 

But an idea that might really be of interest to Sixers fans is the exchange Kevin O'Connor laid out over at The Ringer. 

With the Clippers getting Harden and P.J. Tucker, the Sixers would receive Terance Mann, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, and first-round picks in 2028 and 2030. 

It would be a return largely made of role players and vets, sure, but then go look at how the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat were built this season.

Then there are those two first-rounders and what all the freed-up cap space might be able to do for the near and far-off future.

Wrote O'Connor:

There are other benefits to trading Harden, too. Gathering picks from the Clippers would help replenish the asset cupboard for potential use in future trades, perhaps as a sweetener for Harris’s expiring deal.

And with my proposed trade structure above, the Sixers would project to have more than $40 million in cap space next summer, when there will be a free agency class that could feature George, Leonard, LeBron James, and tons of other quality players. Who knows? Maybe Philly will be the team that pitches signing LeBron and drafting Bronny James. After all, Embiid and LeBron did just launch a production company together—news that comes months after LeBron drafted Embiid first for the All-Star Game.

For Philly fans, it’s disappointing that it’s come to these types of fantasies, though. The Sixers have won a lot of games since acquiring the Beard. Trading for Harden was a worthy gamble to replace the absent Ben Simmons, but Harden could only occasionally tap into his prime scoring prowess in Philly, and he didn’t offer enough in other categories. [The Ringer]

Which only left the Sixers stuck in the same place: Out in the second round.

What's needed

David Murphy | The Philadelphia Inquirer ($)

A look in the mirror, for Harden and the Sixers both. 

But for the Sixers, as David Murphy writes, they at least have an out and the prospect of something new. 

But for Harden, he's stuck in another rotation of a cycle he created. 

Whether it was who was on the floor with him not being good enough, or the money not being good enough, or a mix of both, this is the third team now that Harden's relationship deteriorated with. 

The Houston Rockets? Nope. 

The Brooklyn Nets? Couldn't get out of there fast enough.

And the Sixers? It just isn't going to work out anymore.

He needs more, again. But is he still the level of player that can get away with asking that one more time?

Wrote Murphy:

Thing is, Harden is no longer a player who warrants “basketball freedom.” He is an elite point guard who can penetrate a defense and pass to any angle on the court and knock down a three-pointer. Occasionally, he can summon a singular scoring performance. He can be a great facilitator on a great team. That’s what his body will allow him to be. That’s who he is.

But ... Harden thinks he is more than that.

That’s what all the signs point to. In hindsight, the deed may have been done on Christmas Day, when the first report emerged of Harden’s interest in returning to Houston. Or maybe it was five months later, after the Sixers swept the Nets to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, when Harden decided the real story was all that he’d sacrificed.

“Sacrifice is a word that I’m going to continue to use for this year,” Harden said, “and see what it gets me.”

It will get him wherever he wants to go next. The Clippers would make some sense. The Knicks would make none. Don’t be surprised if all of this is just a big act that ends with a trade back to the Rockets. [The Inquirer, $]

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