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July 18, 2023

Daryl Morey discusses James Harden trade, Sixers' offseason plan in new interview

What exactly do the Sixers have planned the rest of this offseason?

Will the Sixers try to move James Harden to a place where he'll be happier, or could we see the bearded guard return to Philadelphia for yet another strange season in Sixers history? The answer could be a mix of both, with Daryl Morey reinforcing the team's stance during a new interview — they'll move Harden in the right deal, but only the right deal.

Speaking to Anthony Gargano on 97.5 The Fanatic on Tuesday, Morey didn't avoid the fact that Harden would prefer a trade right now, but laid out pretty clear terms for what they want back if they were to deal Harden.

"Right now, unfortunately, he does prefer to be somewhere else," Morey told Gargano. "I do have a long relationship with him, and I am attempting to honor that. But the reality is if we do look at a trade, it will be for one of two things. It's either going to be for a player who helps us be right there like we were last year. Up 3-2 on one of the best teams in the East, the Celtics. Obviously, we didn’t get it done, but James was a big part of why we got it to 3-2. Or we are going to do something where we get enough draft picks or things like that in a deal, such that we can then turn those into a player who can be a running mate with Joel."

"If we don’t get either a very good player or something we can turn into a very good player, then we're just not going to do it. If James were to turn his mind around, we would all be thrilled. You've heard Joel's comments about that. But at this moment he prefers to be traded, and we are attempting to honor that.”

Morey's public comments match what we reported here at PhillyVoice on Monday, and the feasibility of a star return for Harden is limited by multiple factors, namely Harden's current trade value and the other stars available to be had. Damian Lillard is the big fish on the block right now, but it is widely believed he will eventually end up in Miami, with most teams unwilling to take the gamble on trading for Lillard because of that. Pascal Siakam has been floated in the rumor mill, but it's not clear how he fits in Philly or if the Raptors would trade him at a price that makes sense. There aren't a lot of actively available players who can make a big-time impact right now, which helps explain why the Harden situation isn't moving quicker.

Philadelphia's president of basketball operations made sure to note that while any trade (Harden or otherwise) has to keep track of long-term repercussions, they don't have unlimited runway to simply punt on this year and ask Embiid to effectively have a gap year in his prime. 

"We need to make sure that Joel Embiid, who is one of the best players on Earth, has a top running mate. That could be Maxey taking a leap forward this year, Coach Nurse I know is very excited about his conversations with Joel and how he's going to use them. I still can't believe how he keeps getting better, and I think Coach Nurse is very excited to continue to do that. But we know we need more talent, whether that's James returning or what we turn James into. And I would just say to the fans, obviously things right now aren't looking perfect...but at the end of the day, try not to focus too much on the roster in July." 

This is one area where we can say I agree with the messaging — nothing really matters until around late September when players report for training camp. Harden and his representation can posture, Morey and the front office can posture, and opposing front offices can say they're not giving up anything of value for Harden, but all that counts is the roster composition when they are actually playing basketball games. This was always unlikely to be a splashy free agency period for Philadelphia, doubly so once Harden looked for the exit door.

On the subject of long-term repercussions, though, much of Philadelphia's offseason has been centered around the fact that the 2024 offseason is a big one. With Tobias Harris' contract coming off of the books and Harden now likely to depart in one form or another, the Sixers are about to open a massive chunk of cap space next summer. Whether that has real meaning/value is something we'll only learn in the future, but it is driving some of their short-term decision-making, like their choice not to extend Maxey for the time being.

Morey told Gargano on Tuesday that he believes the NBA's new CBA will create some pressure in a way that could benefit the Sixers down the road.

"All the depth we lost, if we had done something to bring them back, it would have hurt our ability to compete down the road. So what we're attempting to do is have the best team possible this year, but also have the ability that, if we get into a next-season situation, to be a very unique team with the most cap room of a team that's as good as us. The new CBA really kicks in next year. The new CBA next year is going to put massive constraints downward on salaries in the league. So us being the only team with a top player that a player can join is going to put us in a very unique situation. So I wouldn't call it a two-year plan. It's just more, we're trying to win this season coming up, but we have to keep an eye on how we're going to compete moving forward as well.

It's fair to point out here that using the phrase "as good as us" is doing a lot of heavy lifting for Morey here. If they were to convince Harden to come back and go full throttle next season, yes, perhaps the Sixers could make the argument that they can have their cake and eat it too. But by Morey's own admission, Harden is not there yet, and so this fence-straddling scenario relies on getting a good, if not great return for Harden while getting leaps forward from players like Tyrese Maxey. Not impossible, mind you, but certainly tougher than Morey is making it sound here.

The difficulty of that task explains a piece of Embiid's position this offseason. The big man has been open about the fact that he'd like Harden to return, in large part because they're likely to get worse this season if/when they move him. Keeping Embiid content in the short-term while setting up for a genuine contention possibility down the road is Morey's No. 1 job this offseason. Embiid's recent comments about winning a title wherever he can are a not-so-subtle reminder that this ship could sink before anyone is prepared with a life raft.

While Morey downplayed the severity of Embiid's comments on Tuesday, noting they're a reflection of business in the NBA, he did give one small hint as to what he might want if they could have anything or anyone to pair with the big man.

"I think an elite, on-ball who can play both on-ball and off-ball wing, is really the perfect complement. I think Doc and Joel really unlocked a new spot on the floor in that free-throw line extended, the middle of the floor was hard to double. This year coming up, I think Nick and Joel are going to unlock some more areas, whether that be in the paint out to the free-throw line. One of Nick's big preaches is to make us less predictable, make us more versatile."

In other words, the sort of player who every team in the modern NBA wants and few are willing to trade. So don't get your hopes up that they'll be walking through the doors of the Wells Fargo Center in the short-term.

All told, Morey's appearance reiterated a lot of what we already knew about the team's position, and leaves us all with about two months to see what he can cook up before things get rolling. Until then, there will be dozens of trade rumors to hold you over, so buckle up. You can listen to the full interview with Morey below:

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