More than a month removed from getting traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, James Harden is still somehow causing headaches for the Sixers. He recently told Sam Amick of The Athletic that Sixers team president Daryl Morey had promised him a max contract at some point prior to last year’s playoffs, although a team source denied that claim to Amick.
The NBA has already investigated whether the Sixers promised Harden a max as a quid pro quo for declining his $47.4 million player option ahead of the 2022 offseason and taking $14.4 million less by re-signing on a two-year, $65.6 million deal. The league office revisited that investigation when Harden called Morey a liar this past offseason, but Harden said the “liar” comments were in reference to his then-unresolved trade request.
That might not stop the league from investigating the Sixers for a third time, though. Longtime NBA insider Marc Stein wrote Wednesday that “no rulings have been revealed yet, but the league office has been forced to consider taking another investigative look at James Harden’s past two free-agent summers” in the wake of his comments to Amick.
“A Sixers source this week refuted Harden’s claim to The Stein Line, but it’s reasonable to believe that league officials—who have already docked a second-round draft pick from the Sixers for their dealings that summer—will elect to revisit the issue,” Stein added.
On the bright side, the Sixers might not be the only ones in hot water thanks to Harden’s comments to Amick.
In early October, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said Harden “talked himself out of a max deal” with the Houston Rockets “because he went in there talking about how he wanted to return to being a scoring champion.” Amick specifically asked Harden about that report, to which Harden replied:
“Where is the personnel for that on that team? And in the last three or four years, what have I been trying to accomplish (in terms of playmaking)?
“You can answer that for yourself. Now the meeting was had, and those conversations about style of play, how I’ve been playing and things like that (took place). But (the idea of) me going out there and averaging 30-something points a game who wants to do that?
Amick followed up by asking Harden who was in the meeting, and Harden said it was only his “representation” and new Rockets head coach Ime Udoka.
There’s just one problem: Harden never became a free agent, which means he couldn’t meet with other teams without express permission from the Sixers. He picked up his player option on June 30 and promptly demanded a trade.
Once Harden opted in, the Sixers theoretically could have granted Harden and his agent permission to meet with other teams. Harden didn’t specify to Amick when his reported meeting with Udoka and the Rockets took place, but it doesn’t take a private investigator to deduce that it was likely before he opted in.
Harden spent the months leading up to free agency—dating back to Christmas Day!—flirting with the idea of returning to the Rockets. But as his opt-in decision grew closer, it became increasingly clear that the Rockets weren’t a realistic option for him.
In mid-August, Steve Bulpett of Heavy Sports reported that Udoka is the one who shut down the Rockets’ interest in Harden.
“From everything we’ve gotten out of there, it was a matter that Ime didn’t want him,” a league source told Bulpett. “At the beginning, were they thinking about Harden? Yeah. But then they hired Ime, and Ime said, ‘It’s not going to work here.’”
If Harden thought the Rockets were a realistic landing spot, he likely would have declined his $35.6 million player option and tested the free-agent waters. His decision to opt in thus suggests that the reported meeting with Udoka took place ahead of free agency.
“Even though many of us know and understand and even accept that this sort of impermissible contact happens all the time in free agency in the modern NBA, we don’t often hear one of the parties involved publicly admit to it,” Stein wrote. “Which figures to force the league’s hand.”
It would admittedly be hilarious if the league office investigated the Rockets for tampering with Harden six months after the fact. Losing a second-round pick for someone whom you ultimately didn’t even sign might be worse than losing two second-round picks for tampering with P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. ahead of free agency.
One would imagine the Sixers, who have repeatedly cited that punishment as the reason why they refused to negotiate with Harden ahead of free agency this past summer, would enjoy seeing the league office penalize another team for doing the exact same thing.