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Harden: ‘I’d sacrificed all that to go to Philly...and it bit me in the ass’

James Harden speaks on the record about how things fell apart between himself and Daryl Morey in the days before he opted in then awaited a trade to the L.A. Clippers to join forces with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook

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Philadelphia 76ers Introduce James Harden

The James Harden-Daryl Morey relationship was once heralded as a form of loyalty typically unseen between an executive and a star player. And then one day, their relationship was in shambles. And the entire national media seemed to think it was an unmitigated disaster for the Sixers. But in hindsight that narrative missed the mark, didn’t it?

The idea that Daryl Morey and the Sixers front office had a terrible, terrible offseason doesn’t fit anymore.

Member this crap?

Morey’s critics were content to unload on him around that time back in late September.

Things were in flux, Morey had signed multiple reserve big men (e.g. Paul Reed, Mo Bamba, Montrezl Harrell, and Filip Petrušev) causing widespread national media opprobrium directed at the franchise. It incited a mini fan panic when it felt as if nothing was going well and nothing would go well, during those nervous weeks following Harden publicly slandering Morey’s credibility. (Morey warned us not to judge the team by their July roster and sure enough, two of those big men aren’t on the team today).

Harden, as a Sixer, in his 79 regular season games played, averaged 21 points per game, on just 14.4 field goal attempts, to go with 10.6 assists per contest (he led the NBA in that category last season with 10.7 apg).

And he’s chosen to speak in a recent interview with The Athletic’s Sam Amick.

Here are a few of the more intriguing soundbites, and a few I’m sure Sixers fans will feel a certain way about it.

Harden speaks

Amick reports that Harden still feels betrayed by Morey. And well, you don’t have to take the reporter's word for it, read what the reasonably-defensive-one-time-perennial-MVP-finalist had to say:

Amick: When you decided you were done in Philly, was it always Clippers or nothing else? What was your thought process?

Harden: It was about trying to get to a situation where I could get paid and obviously have a chance to win at the highest level. These last few years, I sacrificed so much — whether it’s role, whether it’s financial — that, at this point, it’s over with. I just want to be able to move forward and still have the opportunity to make some money and obviously win at the highest level.

Amick: So you mention the financial part, and I was hoping you could clarify one aspect of that situation. Were you actually told by the Sixers that you had that deal coming?

Harden: A max?

Yeah.

Yeah.

Amick: That was said by Daryl?

Harden: Yes. Yes.

Amick: Then when did you start figuring out that it wouldn’t be there? I’d heard that he stopped communicating with you in the summertime, and you took that as a sign that things had changed.

Harden: Yeah, me and Daryl had a really good relationship. So (in the past), a week or two after we lose in the playoffs, it would be all about trying to figure out how to improve the team. (They’d talk about) ‘How do we get better?’ And that’s been going on for 10-plus years, you know what I mean? And then this year, there was no communication. And at that point, it’s like, ‘OK, I see what’s going on.’ I’m very intelligent. So then I just figure out ‘What’s my next move, and what do I want to do?’ So I understand that, at the end of the day, this is a business. And just like he has to do what’s best for his organization, I’ve got to do what’s best for me and my family. It’s as simple as that.”

Despite Harden’s insistence, I do find it difficult to believe Morey explicitly verbalized a max-salary contract offer promise for James. The NBA found no evidence of anything illegal. But that’s not why I think what I think.

Now, I do suspect, (like many fans both in Philly and elsewhere) Morey may have said something more vague like don’t worry, we’ll do all we can to take care of you when the time comes.

The idea Morey would make a formal max commitment one year away, to a 34-year-old, knowing Harden might just pull hamstrings all season long during the 2022-23 campaign, is simply too difficult for a cynic like myself to digest.

But did Morey say something ambiguous causing Harden, trusting his long-time relationships, to expect a $200M max? That seems quite plausible, right? He still believes he’s a superstar.

The Athletic’s interview continued:

Amick: Were you sweating through that (free agent process) though?

Harden: No, I wasn’t sweating. It was just patience, because the day that I opted in, there was a conversation and communication (with the Sixers) about it being a 10-day (trade) process. This was gonna happen within 10 days, and then it got dragged out for four and a half months or however long it was. So at that point, you’re holding my life up, holding everybody else’s life up. You’re making it look crazier than what it is. And something that we had internal conversations about is basically dragging out, so it was a little frustrating.

All in all, I’d sacrificed all that to go to Philly with some people that I trusted, and it bit me in the ass, you know what I mean? So it’s part of life, and we all go through certain things, so it’s gonna make me tougher.

A few takeaways here....

  • It seems James is still (it’s been reported that he’s made this point in the past) hinting that the reason he called Morey a “liar” was because he wanted to be traded much sooner than he was. But c’mon, he knows trades are a two, and sometimes four-way street. He could never have reasonably expected the Sixers to trade him to L.A. within TEN DAYS if the Clippers weren’t willing to offer the package they eventually offered way back in September! Like dude, lol. So the reason he called Morey a liar is probably more about the money and lack of communication than the timing of the blockbuster trade that went down on Halloween.
  • I know many fans reading this will think something like: what did he sacrifice? He got what he wanted! And now the Sixers have an offense where players move off the ball, cut, and SHOOT OFF THE CATCH when Joel Embiid or Tyrese Maxey draw double-teams and kick out. Like Ben Simmons mental health absence once upon a time, the absence of a high-usage ball-handler has further unlocked Tyrese Maxey too. That said, I’m much more of the perhaps unpopular mindset that Harden DID in fact sacrifice quite a bit in Philadelphia. He wanted a more well-rounded, and unpredictable offense, he didn’t love when Doc Rivers would always marry his minutes to Embiid’s, leaving hideously overmatched all-bench units to carry the load whenever the star duo would rest, he wanted a few more shots per game, and that could have come whenever Joel rested but that wasn’t what Philly’s crummy coaching staff did. He led the NBA in dimes, helped Joel win MVP, was their best player in the second round of the playoffs, and gave the Sixers a great chance to knock off the Celtics at home in Game 6 which would have set them up to host both the East Finals and potentially the NBA Finals (they had a better record than Denver). If he wanted to win another scoring title, he never played like that in Philadelphia and his sacrifice sure helped the team. Maybe if he had sacrificed less and stood up to Doc sooner, he could have influenced the team to adapt their offense a little for the better, the way Nick Nurse might have. Plus look, Embiid and Maxey were simply awesome in the minutes Harden played alongside them both. He made them better, period. If playing that way wasn’t his first choice if opting in back in 2022 for more cash was his first choice, then yeah, I tip my cap to the Beard’s “sacrifice” sue me.
  • But the best line here is that James said trusting his guys “bit him in the ass.” I can’t help but smile at that one because I think there’s more than a kernel of truth to it, and as a Sixers fan, I don’t mind at all that Morey played things the way he seems to have played them.

It did bite you in the ass, James. But I’m glad the team had the temerity to tush push you right out the door.

Final thoughts

I’ve waffled on this idea more than a few times because of all the conflicting reporting and having to wade through so much post-trade propaganda from both sides.

But today here’s what I think happened...

Morey said something to imply the star point guard would be taken care of come the summer of 2023 following his big pay cutback in 2022, the one which allowed the team to splurge on P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr.

But following Harden’s apparent discontent with the offense (e.g. Joel being the first, second, and third option as Doc Rivers’ vanilla offense was way too easy for the Celtics to figure out in time), given Harden’s annoying ongoing flirtation with Houston last year, given how unprepared Harden’s inexperienced agent was at handling negotiations — which led Philly to believe for a time last June — he was leaving for a Fred VanVleet style deal in Houston (before Rockets then newly hired coach Ime Udoka quashed the idea), given his age, decline, and choking under pressure during Games 6 and 7, Morey decided something along the lines of this: y’know what, let’s try this, let’s not communicate with him at all before his opt-in date and just pray he opts in. It’s risky but worth it. And the downside is he’ll hate me forever. Not the team. If he opts in great, we can trade him and reset the 2024 cap space, maybe net a couple of picks from L.A. and flip ‘em down the road. If he doesn’t opt-in, then we’ll suck it up and offer him a deal in the $40M annual range for a few years. But hopefully, he just opts in because that’s a best-case scenario for us, even if there is a temporary firestorm, media-wise, when James revolts.

I totally, totally dismiss the idea the Sixers were scared of tampering because well, can you even imagine if this was Embiid waiting for a new contract and then hearing the team didn’t reach out to the MVP when his camp wanted to negotiate? I mean dude, the article even notes Harden ***met with Udoka*** before free agency!

Per the piece:

Amick: Who was in the meeting?

Harden: Representation, (Rockets) head coach (Ime Udoka). That was it.

So yeah, nobody should think the NBA cares that much about tampering. But it was one heck of a gambit by Morey to utilize that idea, tempting James to fear a lowball offer from Philly (once he had no other options) and opt in. 4-D chess move.

And here we are. Fans should be thrilled that things played out the way they did, even if James is pissed off. Morey seemed willing to face a brutal, ugly divorce from the player he’s always been most closely connected with. And maybe Joel Embiid should even take notes if he ever declines the way Harden did. It is a business after all. But from this fan's perspective, I think the 76ers played this so well and are much better off for it.

The Clippers are now 6-8 in games Harden has played. He’s averaging 15.7 points per game, 6.4 dimes, and shooting a stellar 40 percent on six three balls per game. But I like the Sixers' end of the deal much better as of now.

[Editor’s note: after this was published, we discovered that Marc Stein, via substack newsletter, reported that “A Sixers source on Monday refuted James Harden’s claim that Philadelphia promised Harden a max contract after he agreed to a two-year deal worth shy of $70 million in the summer of 2022 to help facilitate Philadelphia’s acquisitions of P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House.”]

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