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Opinion: Morey may hold the cards, but Harden holds the fat suit

James Harden has thrown some gas on this trade stalemate fire. He wants to join forces with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers. But L.A. is playing hardball.

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James Harden China Tour In Shanghai Photo by Tang Yanjun/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

James Harden has officially turned up the heat on Daryl Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers. Shams Charania of The Athletic and Partner of FanDuel Sportsbook dropped the now viral clip online.

To refresh, Harden wants to be a Clipper but L.A. isn’t offering Philly anything interesting, so the Sixers pulled out of trade talks this past weekend.

Perhaps, by pulling out of talks, Morey was simply haggling with L.A. Perhaps they want to head into the season and hope a team like Chicago stinks and lowers their asking price for someone like Zach LaVine, or the Lakers could jump in the mix, offering a combo of Gabe Vincent and Jarred Vanderbilt by winter. Or perhaps Philly truly hopes to make this all work with The Beard, no matter how farfetched that feels.

That’s what the 2018 MVP addresses when he sent this trade stalemate into hyperdrive levels of awkward.

The NBA’s most torrid love affair, now its messiest divorce. But they still live under the same proverbial roof:

(It makes the team not making a play to land a friend and workout partner of Joel Embiid’s in Bradley Beal when he was being dealt to Phoenix for peanuts look even weirder in hindsight!)

Just another Tuesday in Philly

Before I spotted the full context, my first question was oh no, did they ask James about Morey and Hong Kong or something?

But no, the full context of the question here:

And yes, I too have noticed the irony of Harden claiming he’ll never be a part of an organization he’s literally a part of.

But what would the lie or lies be that Morey told?

The NBA’s version of the death penalty?

Yaron Weitzman of FoxSports, on an X thread, ventured this:

“...seems to be [Harden] saying he believed he had an illegal wink-wink deal with the Sixers (Sixers, obviously, deny this being the case). Even if he’s right and Sixers are lying—would admitting to an illegal salary cap maneuver really be the way to go?”

That implication opens up a five-alarm, Code Red Can of Worms for the Sixers. If the league decided to dig further into what, if any, promises or future arrangements were discussed in an alleged illegal manner, hypothetically, it could cost the Sixers every draft pick through the 2040 artificial intelligence world takeover.

Now, I’m just going to put my tinfoil hat on and start some stream of consciousness.

Could the Sixers have hinted at a long-term agreement then reneged... maybe even two summers in a row?

Now I’m wondering if Harden first threatened to take this liar angle if he wasn’t traded to the Clippers, and being asked about the Sixers apparently leaking they’re not going to trade him prompted this obvious, emotional ploy for leverage. Or maybe it was a spontaneous and vague outburst like the one Tiffany Gomas is now claiming to have had.

Either way, maybe it’s a ploy more disgruntled stars should adopt:

Going back to Harden’s brief time in Brooklyn, fans and analysts openly wondered if there was some type of handshake agreement in place with Philadelphia, that if Harden asked for a trade to join forces with Joel Embiid and co., the Sixers would sign him to a long-term deal come summer of 2022.

Remember this stuff from The Athletic’s Sam Amick, written when Harden was still a Net.

Amick explained how the Sixers could:

“Sign Harden for either the max (starting salary of $42 million) or something close to it. And for anyone who’s hung up on the fact that the Sixers might struggle to get to Harden’s max number, consider this much: At this later stage of Harden’s career, he has made it abundantly clear that his focus is on the goal of winning a title. The belief in Philadelphia, sources say, is that he wouldn’t let $10 million or $20 million (over the life of a deal) be a deal-breaker if he wanted to play for the Sixers.”

That there was “a belief in Philadelphia” Harden might take $10 or even $20M off the top of a four-year max deal might give us some sense of the team’s reasonable salary expectations heading into the summer of 2022.

Here was how Jake Fischer put it on his “Please Don’t Aggregate this podcast back in May, 2022:

“Tampering is alive and well in the NBA....Ask anyone with Brooklyn about the James Harden deal and they will kind of roll their eyes and talk about certain, if you give them a beer, and they’re shooting the s—t off the record, you’ll probably hear some pretty - accusations... about potentially what Sixers figures may have promised an offer behind the scenes to get that deal done.”

Instead, things took a major turn, as Harden was injured most of that season and wound up settling for a one-plus-one, even doing the franchise a solid taking a major $15M pay cut, opening up the cap-room to ink P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., both friends and former teammates.

Any idea that the Sixers had made some handshake agreement for summer of 2022 would be at least pushed back until 2023. Now we know it never came then either, extinguishing smoking gun evidence of some illegal deal consummated months prior. The league found no wrongdoing in Harden taking a $15 million pay cut to re-sign with Philadelphia.”

Next, we’d hear throughout the 2022-2023 season from James himself that he was all about sacrifice, and to Harden’s credit he left money, and field goal attempts, on the table in order to help Embiid win MVP and help the team reach a certain threshold.... then after carrying them to a 3-2 lead coming back to the crib, for the second straight postseason, Harden fizzled down the stretch the last two playoff games against the Boston Celtics.

So the Sixers were already investigated for tampering and docked a pair of second-round picks for what’s considered an NBA misdemeanor felony regarding Tucker and House Jr.

No evidence of any secret promises were found and whew, because that one is closer to an NBA life sentence. The Timberwolves once forfeited five future first-round picks for making secret contract agreements with Joe Smith.

Jeffrey Denberg once penned “David Stern handed the Minnesota Timberwolves the death penalty Wednesday afternoon.”

So I’m comfortable concluding that the Sixers were clever enough to never put anything illegal in writing (or text message). And there’s no way, no how they’d ever promise to sign him to a max no matter what, even if he tears both ACL’s. So we can throw that idea out too.

But I’m also comfortable offering my humble opinion that Philadelphia most likely did lead Harden to believe somehow or another (whether that’s when he was still in Brooklyn, or last summer, or both) that he would be taken care of on a long-term deal if relatively healthy. There’s enough wiggle room in that type of phrasing to satisfy my inner sleuth.

As Weitzman (and others) have noted the Sixers have vehemently denied any type of handshake agreement and would point to the league’s prior investigation essentially clearing them of any such wrongdoing. And that’s totally fair.

I also suspect the Sixers were open to offering Harden something like a two-plus-one back in 2022, with Harden actually preferring the short-term deal with the chance to sign an even bigger deal come summer 2023.

I also suspect the Sixers would have eventually sat down with Harden this past free agency period to discuss a couple iterations of a shorter-term deal, had he opted out.

(Making it all seem a bit arbitrary, I even think Harden could have even commanded a near four-year max if he’d had a better final five minutes of Game 6 vs. Boston and sent Philly to the Conference Finals.)

The way it really played, Michael Scotto of HoopsHype speculated they might have considered a team-option on the second year of a possible short-term deal.

But things clearly never got that far. Morey and co. apparently went silent on James, upholding the letters of the CBA’s law on tampering violations. And Harden and his agent interpreted that as all the evidence they needed that the Sixers were once again not offering him a max deal.

This past weekend Woj wrote: “Harden is unhappy with Sixers president Daryl Morey over the lack of a long-term maximum-level contract offer, sources said....”

Whether or not there was a misunderstanding, well... maybe that can explain some if not all of this too.

What really matters is what Embiid thinks.

Fall out

I’ll admit, it’s difficult for a fan to give one’s favorite team the benefit of the doubt they did not at least flirt with breaking league rules, (I assume literally all but the dumbest teams bend these rules) and also make any reasonable sense of Harden’s reaction here.

I do think Harden genuinely feels mislead somehow, as this type of outburst really isn’t even in his own self-interest. This “maneuver” certainly won’t help Philadelphia extract the most value on the trade he desires. So I think it’s closer to a tantrum than a strategy, even if he intended the latter.

And Harden obviously isn’t super credible since he seems to believe he’s worthy of a four-year max level deal and the reality is the marketplace proved definitively otherwise.

Mutually assured destruction?

So unfortunately, we’re entering mutually assured destruction territory for both parties. If you’re the Clippers, how badly do you now want a player who’s causing this type of row with the exec he built his legacy with?

Might there have been a simple misunderstanding? Is it possible that Harden’s injury situation, playoff meltdowns and a new CBA that recently took effect, one which includes stunningly harsh roster-building penalties for the highest paying teams, changed Morey’s (and/or Josh Harris, Joel Embiid’s) mind about a longer deal?

On the flip side, if the Beard was under the impression there was some type of “promise” or strong hint the Sixers would pay him the type of deal he coveted, then why was his camp hellbent on drumming up Houston Rockets rumors and distracting the team for the better part of five months during a crucial championship campaign?

I cannot pretend I wouldn’t have been thrilled with acquiring Harden from the Nets in the first place like Morey probably once was. But the results are a major bummer.

Harden isn’t a credible actor in this play, but there are so many unknowns here I can’t rule out his frustrations being reasonable ones. If Embiid was even close to as good in Game 6 as Harden was in Games 1 and 4, well... we might not have anything to discuss but Nick Nurse’s vision.

If Morey indeed decided the team was better off with Harden on a one-year deal and being cap-space players next summer, I’m impressed with how strong his stomach is for awkward tension.

But with a trade demand and now accusations he’s a liar? This makes everyone look bad. It makes it more difficult for Morey to find the type of deal he’s looking and makes him the “holdout GM.” It might cement Harden’s reputation (fair or not) as someone who’s ultimately not a true champion at heart.

Now we can all relive the whole Simmons thing where we wonder if the max-player not playing will still be paid this season:

So Morey holds the cards. But smack dab in another year of Embiid’s prime, it’s Harden who holds the fat suit.

If he won’t play, or suits up and goes through the motions, all while hopping private jets to Vegas, that may just tank his trade value along with the team’s season.

I think the Sixers would have liked to make this work. But I really do think they’re resigned enough to understand they should strive to get a deal done sometime between now and mid-November. I still think they’ll accomplish that. But maybe they should have called Harden and reassured him that despite the Woj report that they’re pulling out of negotiations, they’ll still be taking calls if teams step up their offers. The way it played certainly won’t help Harden’s cause.

So it’s one lose-lose game of chicken with Embiid’s patience on the clock. Or as Morey would say, just another Tuesday in Philadelphia.

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