After months of baseless speculation and “No, there’s no way that we could include Terance Mann!” reports, we’ve finally learned what the Los Angeles Clippers are offering for James Harden.
Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic reported on Oct. 5 that the Clippers offered the Sixers “an unprotected first-round pick, a pick swap and salaries for Harden in July,” but the Sixers have “set a much higher threshold.” Sources told them that the Sixers “have valued fifth-year forward Terance Mann and multiple first-round picks in a potential trade,” an asking price that the Clippers don’t appear inclined to match.
On NBA Countdown ahead of the Sixers’ preseason opener on Sunday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the Clippers are hoping to acquire Harden “sooner than later,” but they “don’t want to raise their offer given they’re the only team that is bidding on him.”
“What the Clippers are trying to do right now is essentially say to Daryl Morey, ‘OK, you don’t believe that our 2028 unprotected first has enough value. They’re going around to other teams and seeing if that ‘28 pick and/or a pick swap gets them maybe multiple picks,” Wojnarowski added.
The Process 2.0 Oklahoma City Thunder stand out as an obvious third party to get involved here. Thanks to Sam Presti’s wheeling and dealing, they now have 15 (!) first-round picks and 20 second-round picks over the next seven drafts, including the Clippers’ unprotected first-rounders in 2024 and 2026. With as many as three first-round picks in each of the next three drafts, the Thunder could look to space those out by flipping two lower-value first-rounders for the Clippers’ unprotected 2028 pick.
It’s unclear whether that would get the Sixers to bite, though. Wojnarowski said “there’s no traction” between the Clippers and Sixers, and they’re “not close to anything.”
If the Clippers believe they’re the only team interested in acquiring Harden, it’s easy to understand their reticence to bid against themselves. What’s less clear is their expected endgame.
Harden pledged to get uncomfortable during the offseason, and Wojnarowski said last week that he wants to make the Sixers “so uncomfortable, ultimately, they don’t think they’ll get the best out of him and make a trade.” He did skip the Sixers’ media day and the first day of training camp last week, but he reported last Wednesday and seemingly has participated ever since.
Harden has yet to play in either of the Sixers’ first two preseason games, though he indicated last week that he will participate in game action.
“I think what they have found out so far is that as long as James Harden believes that the Sixers are working toward, that they’re engaged in finding him a trade, specifically to the Clippers, he’s going to be engaged,” Wojnarowski said. “I think if James Harden loses that hope, that they are not engaged, that they are not serious about trading him, specifically again to L.A., I think that’s when they may have more problems with Harden this season.”
However, Harden’s leverage in that regard is limited to some extent. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted in mid-July, the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement includes a clause that states any player who “withholds playing services for more than 30 days after the start of the last season covered by his contract” can be deemed as not having completed his contract. As a result, the Sixers can prohibit him from signing a contract “with any other professional basketball team” unless they “expressly agree” to allow him to do so.
There’s also language in the NBA’s uniform player contract that requires players to “give his best services” and “not to do anything that is materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests of the team or the league.” Teams may “reasonably impose fines and/or suspensions” for “any violation of team rules” or “any breach of any provision” of the contract, which would seemingly allow the Sixers to punish Harden if he does eventually begin to act out. (Yay, another case that’s likely to end up in arbitration!)
Unless/until the Clippers up their offer for Harden, the Sixers don’t have to trade him. They could send him home if he goes with the tried-and-true methods that he used to force his way out of Houston and Brooklyn. That would allow them to get a clearer look at Tyrese Maxey as the full-time ball-handler and perhaps De’Anthony Melton as a full-time starter, which could help inform some of their offseason decision-making in 2024.
If we’re being brutally honest, the Sixers aren’t likely to win the title this year even with a fully engaged Harden. Even if they Clippers cave and offer Mann, two picks and expiring contracts, that package arguably pushes them further away from short-term contention unless/until they flip it for another star. But while a championship might not be a realistic goal this season, they do have other big questions to answer.
How does Maxey fare as the starting point guard? How does Melton fare as a full-time starter? What does Jaden Springer bring to the table? Could Kelly Oubre Jr. be a long-term piece of the puzzle in Philly? Which of their other free agents might be worth re-signing next offseason?
The Sixers can gain value from this season even if they fall short of a championship. If the Clippers are betting on Harden to make enough of a stink to force the Sixers’ hand in trade talks, they’ll likely test the Sixers’ resolve early in the season before raising their offer. But unless the Sixers feel inclined to keep a mopey Harden around the team, they could just send him home at the first sign of trouble.
Perhaps the Clippers will succeed in flipping their 2028 first-rounder into a package of assets that pushes the Sixers over the finish line. But in all likelihood, nothing that they can get for that pick will convince the Sixers to trade Harden to them unless they increase their offer as well.