The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics escalated their ongoing arms race over the past week by acquiring Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday, respectively. Teams that missed out on both could now turn their attention to disgruntled Sixers guard James Harden, who requested a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers this summer after picking up his $35.6 million player option.
But unless something drastic changes, the Sixers don’t seem inclined to resolve his trade request anytime soon.
“We’ll either move James for a player of a caliber who helps our championship contention or for draft picks and things like that, that will allow us to, in short order, go get a player like that,” team president Daryl Morey said at media day. “Short of that, it will continue as long as it takes.”
Harden skipped media day and the first day of training camp in Fort Collins, Colorado, on Tuesday. But ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden is “expected to arrive in Colorado as soon as later Tuesday to join the franchise for training camp.”
That doesn’t mean he’s doing so with good intentions. Wojnarowski told ESPN’s Malika Andrews that Harden “wants to make the 76ers so uncomfortable ultimately that they don’t think they’re going to get the best out of him and that they’ll make a trade.”
“The Sixers, on the other hand, they want to wait this out and hope they get the best James Harden, the best version of him, sooner than later,” Wojnarowski added. “The Sixers’ stance has been all along, ‘There’s not a deal out there right now that gets us back the kind of assets we need to improve this team.’”
It doesn’t sound as though Harden plans to follow in Ben Simmons’ footsteps and mostly stay away from the team amidst his trade request. He’s planning to show up and wreak enough havoc to force Morey’s hand.
There’s just one problem: Doing so could cost him dearly next summer, too.
Multiple league executives told The Athletic’s David Aldridge that “there’s not much of a market” for Harden beyond the Clippers. Since the Clippers appear to be Harden’s lone suitor for now, they aren’t inclined to bid against themselves. According to Jake Fischer of The Athletic, the Sixers have been “seeking greater draft capital than Los Angeles has been willing to forfeit.”
If a trade between the two teams doesn’t come to pass, both could grow to regret it. Harden would solve the Clippers’ longtime question at the point, while the Sixers would avoid having Harden-related drama derail an entire season with an in-his-prime Joel Embiid. But the Sixers have to value Harden as an All-Star-caliber player, while the Clippers may be valuing him as a possible one-year rental, as Harden can’t sign an extension this season.
Harden is desperate to force a trade ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline to preserve his Bird rights, which allow his incumbent team to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him in free agency. If he remains in Philadelphia past the trade deadline, the Sixers will own his Bird rights, which would limit his financial options next summer if he hoped to join another team.
To give up the haul that the Sixers want in return, any team that trades for Harden basically must intend on re-signing him in free agency. That could also be limiting the trade market for him, as few teams would likely want to gamble on a 34-year-old who has now requested three trades in three-and-a-half years and has a long history of playoff no-shows.
When Harden lands in Colorado, he’ll arrive at a fork in the road. If he goes with his typical disgruntled playbook—loafing through games until the team runs out of patience—any team that acquires him will have to wonder whether he’d do the same to them in a year or two. Although he still played at a high level last season, the combination of his age, recent injury history and burn-all-bridges approach on the way out may deter some potential suitors.
However, Harden has another option. He could go back on his word.
In mid-August, Harden called Morey a “liar” and vowed to never “be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.” Three months after the fact, Harden is still seemingly furious about how the Sixers handled him in the days leading up to free agency this summer. The Sixers can’t modify his contract this year, so there’s nothing they can do financially to change that.
Harden could read the tea leaves, though. While the Celtics and Bucks went all-in to acquire Lillard and Holiday, there’s a reason why Harden’s market has been far more tepid to date. That isn’t likely to change if he creates nonstop chaos until the Sixers trade him.
This season is Harden’s last chance to prove that he’s deserving of the long-term, big-money contract that he’s reportedly seeking. Staying healthy, adapting and buying into new head coach Nick Nurse’s system—particularly on defense—could do wonders for Harden in that regard.
Harden’s problem is that the Sixers are the only contender projected to have cap space next summer, and no team above the first salary-cap apron can acquire a player via sign-and-trade. With the Sixers prioritizing cap space next summer, they might not be willing to work with him on a sign-and-trade, either. He thus knows his Bird rights may be his best (only?) way to get a nine-figure deal in free agency.
Harden played well enough last season to get such a contract, although a four-year max is likely out of the question at this point of his career. He averaged 21.0 points and a league-leading 10.7 assists per game while leading the Sixers to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. He also had a pair of 40-point outings against the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals that helped the Sixers even the series at two games apiece.
However, Harden combined for only 22 points on 7-of-27 shooting over the Sixers’ Game 6 and 7 losses, adding to his troubling history of playoff no-shows. That might not matter as much on the Clippers, where he’d be their third-best player behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but the Sixers have him as their No. 2 option behind only Embiid.
If Harden proves his worth through the first few weeks and/or months of the season, more suitors might emerge ahead of the trade deadline. But if he mopes and loafs around until the Sixers trade him, they might decide to suspend him, preventing him from making a good impression on other teams around the league.
Harden did successfully force his way out of Houston and Brooklyn by following the same playbook. But he’s about to meet his greatest test yet in the famously stubborn Morey—and the highest stakes, too.