James Harden’s days in Philadelphia are unofficially over, as the Sixers star decided on Thursday to option up $35.6 million in his contract for next season on his way to asking for a trade, as the athleteThe report of Shams al-Sha’raniyah was the first to be published.
According to sources directly involved in the situation on both sides, the Los Angeles native wants to play for the Clippers and the Sixers are in the process of discussing what move he actually wants. Harden, according to sources close to him, is deeply upset with the way the Sixers have handled his potential free agency and has made his dissatisfaction clear to the organization.
While he seems likely to land with the Clippers, it remains to be seen if his longtime basketball partner, Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey, will grant this unexpected wish. However, sources say there is strong optimism on Harden’s part that this will actually happen. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are both said to be on board with the idea of Harden possibly joining their core, according to sources.
Even with the frustrations of the playoffs, and the challenge of sharing the limelight with someone as dynamic and dominant as defending champion Joel Embiid, there was a feeling around the league that the chance to fight for their first title again might be enough to bring Harden back. Furthermore, many believed that the hiring of Nick Nurse in late May to replace Doc Rivers as coach would result in Harden being re-signed. But in the end, sources involved say, it was a series of silent Sixers signals sent out in recent weeks that forced Harden to pursue that goal elsewhere again.
When Harden decided to take a massive pay cut nearly a year ago, turning down the player’s $47.4 million option with the Philadelphia 76ers to sign a one-plus-one deal where he would take home $33 million for the 2022-23 campaign, there was a common belief that it was a classic case. from barter. Harden would return some of the money as a way to help the Sixers fill out their roster, thus moving them closer to a title that has eluded the franchise since 1983 and Harden his entire career (circa 2009). And the following season, many assumed the 10-time All-Star and former MVP would be handsomely rewarded with a contract more favorable to his future talent in the Hall of Fame.
If Harden chooses to leave, possibly rejoining the Houston Rockets franchise as Morey brought him to town via trade from Oklahoma City in 2012 and where Harden was widely known to be highly considering a return, that would be one thing. But Morey and the Sixers are sure to make it clear they want him back in a big — and expensive — way this time around. right?
As it turns out, this league-wide prediction was wildly wrong.
Although free agency doesn’t officially start until Friday night, a player of Harden’s caliber would normally expect to have some clarity about the current franchise’s intentions long before that time arrives. But in recent weeks and days, sources say, all indications on Harden’s side have been that the Sixers have forced him to test the market before they make an offer of any kind. An understandable concern for Harden, sources say, was that Philadelphia was preparing to offer him some kind of short-term, team-friendly contract that didn’t come close to reflecting his standing in the league or his current level of play (he averaged a league-leading 21 points, 10.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds in the regular season; 20.3 points, 8.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds in 11 post-season games). Harden, who hired Equity Basketball’s Troy Payne, Mike Silverman and Brandon Greer to work 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’s only going to get worse as free agency approaches.
Sources say the Rockets — with a first-year coach in Emi Odoka, a cadre of young prospects and $64 million in salary cap space — have already opted not to pursue Harden into free agency in recent weeks, thus eliminating another senior. Options. As many had long suspected, when league-wide chatter about Harden’s return to rebuilding the Rockets was getting more and more vociferous by the month, the discrepancy was ultimately deemed inconvenient. There’s still no shortage of love for Harden and his game among Rockets officials, with owner Tillman Fertitta and his son, coordinator Patrick and general manager Rafael Stone chief among that group, but the choice was made to skip another Harden chapter.
Harden had a serious interest in a pre-Bradley Beale deal to the Phoenix Suns as well, with longtime friend Kevin Durant known to endorse a potential reunion. Harden, who moved from Los Angeles to Arizona en route to the NBA and still owns a home in the Phoenix area, considers the area a third home of sorts and was excited about the idea of heading to the Valley of the Sun. But the Sixers never engaged with the Suns about a potential deal, and Beal’s trade to Washington came to light.
Harden was losing ground by the day. Meanwhile, Morey insisted, sources say, that he was choosing not to discuss free agency before league rules allowed it, in large part because of the price the Sixers paid for doing so earlier. And in an ironic twist, his thinking was rooted in the moves Philadelphia was able to make because of Harden’s choice to take a pay cut last season.
Just eight months ago, the NBA announced that the Sixers had engaged in early free agency discussions with PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr. before signing last summer. As a result, they were eliminated in the second round in 2023 and 2024. Of note, the league’s investigation also determined that no wrongdoing was found related to Harden’s choice to pass $15 million in savings to the Sixers.
Logic aside, Morey’s choice to keep Harden and his camp in the dark regarding the Sixers’ plans had to do with Harden’s choice to ask. And as Morey knows perhaps better than anyone, the prospect of keeping Harden against his wishes – as the Rockets and Brooklyn Nets attest – is unpleasant at best and indefensible at worst. A deal with the Clippers may be the only way to salvage this messy situation.
– the athleteKelly Echo contributed to this report.
(Photo by James Harden and Daryl Morey: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
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