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December 08, 2020

James Harden reportedly 'open' to Sixers trade as he remains absent from Rockets camp

Rockets star James Harden has indicated he is open to a trade to the Sixers, according to a new report from Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon of ESPN. With Harden in the midst of an apparent holdout in Houston, it's a big development that could tip the scales ever so slightly in Philadelphia's favor.

While Harden reportedly had the Brooklyn Nets and former teammate Kevin Durant at the top of his shortlist of destinations, Woj and MacMahon said Tuesday that the lack of traction in talks between Houston and Brooklyn altered the star guard's position.

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James Harden indicated to the Houston Rockets before the beginning of training camp that he would be open to a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers or possibly other contenders, sources told ESPN. 

Harden, the perennial MVP candidate who is holding out of training camp, previously requested to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets to form a super team with former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. 

After it was clear there was no traction in talks with the Nets, Harden expressed to the Rockets that he would be agreeable if a trade with the 76ers materialized, sources said. Harden also indicated that there could be other teams that fit his criteria for a preferred destination, a source said.  [ESPN]

Woj and MacMahon also report that the Rockets and Sixers have had "no substantive talks about a potential Harden deal." That isn't super surprising at this point — the Sixers have said publicly and privately they are not willing to part with either of Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid, the two biggest chips they have to offer in a deal for a disgruntled star.

This recent development gets added to a suddenly extensive list of rumors connecting Harden and Philadelphia. With former Rockets executive and Harden ally Daryl Morey now running the Sixers, they're a natural pairing in the rumor mill. But there is some smoke to this fire, with former Harden teammates hinting that Harden would be interested in the Sixers as far back as mid-November. Even friend of the franchise Meek Mill has added to the fervor, posting a photo on Instagram with Harden shortly after the Harden/Sixers rumors broke Tuesday.

Harden is in a different universe from anyone on Philadelphia's roster, now or in recent history, a perennial MVP candidate that is an elite offense all by himself. He has been in the top-three in MVP voting in four consecutive seasons, evolving into one of the most prolific offensive players the league has ever seen. Philadelphia basketball fans have never seen an offensive perimeter engine like Harden suit up for their basketball team. 

The crazy thing about Harden is that it's more likely his gifts are undersold than oversold. After coming up as a shooting guard and hybrid sixth man in Oklahoma City, Harden eventually took over primary playmaking in Houston, peaking with a season where he averaged 11.2 assists per game as a true point guard in 2016-17. That led the entire league, and Harden managed to complement that with 29.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, getting to the free-throw line almost 11 times a night. There are few players in the league who can truly do it all offensively, and he is one of them.

Harden does not come without warts. His regular-season production has been out of this world, but he is as well known for repeated playoff failures and a refusal to adapt his style in big moments as he is for his MVP play from October to mid-April. The numbers have not led to team success, and an uncompromising style (on top of defensive apathy at times) has led many to wonder whether he has what it takes to lead a title-winner.

At 31, Harden still likely has a few years left of elite production before he slows down, and oh by the way, his set of skills would pretty much erase the perimeter creation problems the Sixers have currently. And his age/status, while a concern for the long-term, is actually helpful for a tricky dynamic in Philadelphia — he would be the undisputed top dog, clearing up any confusion over whose team it is and who would have the ball when it matters.

The question has always been what it would cost to pry him away. The return package they're seeking, according to the ESPN duo is, "a young franchise cornerstone and a bundle of first-round picks and/or talented players on rookie contracts." With due respect to Tobias Harris, he doesn't exactly qualify for the "young franchise cornerstone" label. 

Jrue Holiday, a nice player who will help the Milwaukee Bucks this season, just got traded for what is effectively five first-round picks. If there's no traction in talks between the Nets and Rockets, getting Harden for Harris and the full picks & young players package seems like a non-starter for Houston. Even if the Sixers added on almost all of their young, cheap talent — Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and recent draftee Tyrese Maxey — the Sixers would appear to be missing the main piece to get a deal done unless their stance changes on moving one of the core duo.

The other complicating factor for Philadelphia is the willingness for Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta to greenlight a deal with Morey, just months removed from his Houston departure. Reactions from around the league have varied. Multiple league sources have indicated to PhillyVoice that they believe Fertitta would not agree to deal Harden to Philadelphia specifically, with another suggesting the Sixers would have to pony up what would essentially be an extra "tax" to convince the Rockets to reunite Morey and Harden in another city. Teams are ultimately self-interested and will attempt to make whatever deal best helps their franchise, but you should never underestimate the stubbornness of a billionaire.

Around these parts, I have operated under the belief that exchanging Simmons for Harden is the only way Philadelphia will be able to pry him away from Houston. Harden's refusal to show up for camp to date, however, does change the conversation a bit. 

New head coach Stephen Silas has had to answer for Harden's absence in recent days, with Silas mostly stepping around questions and asserting that Harden will have to answer for the absence himself. Meanwhile, Harden has been spotted out and about on social media, partying in Atlanta nightclubs with rapper Lil Baby. The Houston star doesn't appear to care about executing a clean break up with his current team, and the longer this drags on, the more toxic the situation becomes for the Rockets. 

Treatment of stars matters for all teams in the current NBA, but appeasing them matters a bit more than average for Houston, a franchise that has historically relied a decent amount on free agency to sustain winning (the draw of no state tax in Texas being a major selling point). If it hasn't become clear over the past few years, star players and their agents have significant power in today's NBA, and teams are reluctant to cross them even when it comes at their expense in the short-term.

Whether they eventually come to an agreement or never speak on the phone again, this rumor will be alive until the very moment a Harden trade is completed. Fire up your trade machines.

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