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Why James Harden’s typical trade-request playbook likely won’t work with the Sixers

James Harden successfully forced his way off the Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets, but the third time might not be a charm in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia 76ers Open Scrimmage Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

With trade talks between the Sixers and Los Angeles Clippers at a standstill, James Harden has missed the past two days of practice because of what the Sixers are calling a “personal matter.” Based on the reporting from just about every major NBA insider, that “personal matter” is another way of saying that he’s holding out because he wants to be traded.

“This is an escalation in tactics,” ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne said Wednesday on NBA Today. “This is, ‘I am not happy,’ and this is, as somebody close to him told me, this is only the beginning of what he plans to do here.”

Although Harden told reporters last week that his plan was “to play basketball, yes, for sure,” this about-face should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched him in recent years. After requesting a trade from the Houston Rockets in the fall of 2020, Harden showed up late to training camp, tried hard for roughly three games and then began mailing it in until the Rockets relented and traded him to the Brooklyn Nets. When he grew tired of the Nets roughly one year later, he again began loafing his way through games until they traded him to the Sixers.

Harden seems like he’s about to follow the same playbook in Philadelphia. There’s just one problem: It isn’t nearly as likely to work this time around.

For one, the Sixers don’t need Harden like the Rockets and Nets did. When he requested a trade from the Rockets, he was fresh off back-to-back-to-back scoring titles and was the clear franchise centerpiece. Trading him effectively meant embracing a rebuild, which is exactly what they did when they shipped him to Brooklyn.

Harden initially seemed happy to join forces with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Nets, who offered him a three-year, $161 million extension prior to the 2021-22 season. He declined to sign it at the time, as he instead wanted to wait until the 2022 offseason, when he would become eligible for a four-year, $227 million extension. However, Irving was in and out of the lineup all year because he refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and Durant suffered an MCL sprain in early January, leaving Harden to carry the team in their absences. He quickly grew tired of that and requested a trade.

Harden had a $47.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season that he could have declined to become a free agent. Rather than risk losing him for nothing that summer, the Nets shipped him to the Sixers for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two future first-round picks. One year later, they’d trade both Irving and Durant, too.

The Sixers are in a similar boat with Harden that the Nets were in. After picking up his $35.6 million player option this summer, Harden is now guaranteed to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Because he’s finishing out a two-year deal, he is ineligible to sign an extension with either the Sixers or any team that trades for him.

Harden told reporters last week that he didn’t think his relationship with Sixers president Daryl Morey could be repaired. Unless the Sixers are open to parting ways with Morey within the next nine months, it’s hard to imagine Harden staying in Philadelphia beyond next June at the latest. However, they currently have two significant financial advantages that no other team can offer.

For one, Morey has already begun telegraphing his plan to preserve salary-cap space next summer before signing Tyrese Maxey to an extension. Regardless of whether the Sixers plan to add a third star via trade or free agency, Morey said they’ll be in a “unique situation” since they’ll be “the only team with a top player that a player can join.” Even if the Sixers lose Harden for nothing in free agency, it might not be a death blow to their title hopes if they replace him with a star free agent such as Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Klay Thompson or O.G. Anunoby.

The Sixers also currently have Harden’s Bird rights, which enables them to re-sign him even if they’re over the salary cap. They know he’s desperate to force a deal by the Feb. 8 trade deadline because no other contender can afford to sign him outright in free agency next summer. If the Sixers keep him all year, his free-agent options will be far more limited.

Because of that, Harden may try to go scorched earth on the Sixers to force their hand. But they have minimal incentive to cave before the trade deadline. If he begins acting out, they can fine and/or suspend him for conduct detrimental to the team. If he withholds his services for more than 30 days, a clause in the new collective bargaining agreement allows them to prohibit him from becoming a free agent altogether.

In the meantime, the Sixers can use the early portion of the season to test Maxey’s limits as a full-time ball-handler and playmaker. Seeing how he fares in that role will inform which archetype they should be targeting as his long-term backcourt partner. They’ll also have to figure out their bench rotation after swapping out Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton for Patrick Beverley, Kelly Oubre Jr., Danny Green and Mo Bamba in free agency, all the while adjusting to a new head coach in Nick Nurse.

Realistically, no matter what happens with Harden this season, the Sixers are unlikely to be in the top tier of championship contenders. The new-look Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics seem to be a clear tier above them in the East, and the defending champion Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors all loom as tough tests in the West. Unless/until Embiid’s patience with the Harden drama begins wearing thin, the Sixers are well within their right to take their time and refuse to cave until the Clippers stop being unserious.

If Harden wants to come back to the team and play ball—if only to stave off a nearly $400,000 fine for every game he misses—the Sixers would likely be thrilled. If not, they’ve made it clear that they have a plan in place with the remaining personnel they have.

Either way, whatever shenanigans Harden has planned isn’t likely to force Morey’s hand. If anything, they might only further cool his already chilly trade market. After all, who wouldn’t want to shell out a ton of assets for a 34-year-old who wants a big-money, long-term contract and is now threatening to quit on his third team in the last four years?

At least Harden is living up to his promise to be professional. After calling Morey a liar this summer, it’d be a real shame if he backtracked on his word, too.

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