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Sixers round up: Did the Sixers negotiate illegally with Harden? Key insiders still sound perplexed

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Bobby Marks have a very interesting back and forth about the Daryl Morey-James Harden conundrum, and whether or not there might be something that doesn’t pass the smell test.

Philadelphia 76ers Introduce New Players - Press Conference Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Last week we were catching up on the podosphere and we heard Zach Lowe’s epic rant calling out Sixers owner and new Washington Commanders owner, Josh Harris, for overseeing about a decade’s worth of “chaos” in Philadelphia.

This is going to be the next in a multipart series spent hopping around the internet and Sixers podosphere. I went rounding up nuggets and intel and listening to pods for a few other juicy morsels for all of you depraved souls who for some reason or another need your pro-Philly basketball fix.

Let’s start with this alleged (or maybe not even alleged, just spoken around) hypothetical idea that the Sixers maybe, kinda sorta committed the NBA’s version of the death penalty, which is illegal negotiation, while (again, allegedly if any one is even actually alleging) communicating with James Harden prior to his opt-in date last June.

Did the Sixers make James Harden any illegal, NBA-banned promises regarding a future contract at any point between Feb. 2022 and his opt-in date 2023? In case you wanted to put the idea to bed (I’m sure the team is beyond ready to) apparently some top insiders are still talking about this theme a week or more into mostly vague terms.

On a recent episode of “The Lowe Post,” Zach Lowe and his guest, ESPN’s Bobby Marks, delved further into the weeds of this now unbearable Harden-Daryl Morey stalemate.

Just as a firm reminder, it does truly appear as if the Sixers are in the clear. Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium tweeted out the following nearly one year ago when the NBA investigated this issue:

But it all came back up again when James Harden publicly called Daryl Morey “a liar.”

FoxSports Yaron Weitzman tweeted that 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?”

You can read more about what Weitzman tweeted at the time here:

The NBA launched an inquiry into this matter, but Harden may have poured some water on the organization’s potential five-alarm fire when he reportedly claimed he meant he was promised he’d be traded, but not that the team did anything illegal.

The league once again found no evidence the Sixers did anything wrong, and fined Harden for comments indicating he would not perform duties outlined in his contract.

Still, ESPN’s Senior Writer Zach Lowe doesn’t think Harden’s explanation passes “the smell test.” It sounds more like Lowe thinks Harden is simply not trying to be a rat or something. That’s kinda of my interpretation, at least. You be the judge:

Per ‘The Lowe Post’:

Lowe: “The NBA’s investigation finds that maybe ’cause James says this in the investation I don’t know the particulars of it, we’re not privy to that, finds that the source of James Harden’s rage, the motivation for him being so mad at Daryl to come out and publicly shame him that way is that he hasn’t been traded since opting in.... that just doesn’t pass the smell test. It just does not pass the smell test.

He opted in and was already mad. The reporting when he opted in, [Adrian Wojnarowski] said it was ‘has likely played his last game for the philadelphia 76ers.’ He was already mad. He was mad before he even had a chance to not get traded quickly which raises the question. Like okay, whats he mad about?

What he’s obviously mad about is he did not get a contract offer that he expected to get at the time he expected to get it.

What does that mean? I dont know the particualrs of what that means it could just mean the very simple thing of you know he wanted to negotiate early, he wanted the Sixers to negotiate early before the [illegal tampering period ends] bell rung, they didn’t, having been dinged for doing so the year before, they didn’t maybe out of worry that whatever negotiating they would’ve done with James Harden the Rockets who were looming as a threat all season, theoretical, or real who knows would’ve trumped that offer I don’t know. The Sixers obviously — the first NBA investigation found no evidence that there was any kind of promise of max deal here, years here, any deal at all. But clearly, the idea that he’s mad because he hasn’t been traded that’s really the source of the anger? That does not pass the smell test to me. Does it pass the smell test to you?”

Marks: “No I think what he’s mad about is he declined a $47 million contract, opted out and took $14 million less for them to go out and sign P.J.Tucker and Danuel House and the thought was that if he played at a high level this year and he certainly had a good year this year that he would be rewarded with a long-term lucrative contract.”

Lowe seems to think the idea that Harden is just mad because he hasn’t been traded yet is Totes McGotes bogus.

We can extrapolate a little, and conclude that maybe Lowe thinks Harden isn’t quite ready to hit that nuclear button and formally rat out the Sixers to Adam Silver for doing something that could cost their franchise a half-decade’s worth of picks (that’s what the Minnesota Timberwolves were once docked by former Commish, David Stern, for their illegal wink-wink with Joe Smith back in the day); especially if there’s no proof anyway.

Editor’s note: Harden himself would appear to have a massive financial incentive not to rat the Sixers out as well, since if the NBA found anyone guilty of illegal negotiations they could nullify deals and strip precious Bird Rights.

Still, you get the sense listening to this pod, that Lowe might think something shady went down, even if there’s no evidence proving so, and that’s really why Harden is so pissed.

At a later point, Lowe strikes a few more notes on a similar theme, this time, referring to the 2021-2022 season prior to the NBA Trade Deadline:

Lowe: “You know what I never really got a satisfactory answer to? Like what happened in Brooklyn. If I’m the Nets I’m rooting for like a Watergate-level investigation of everything. Like what happened? Why did [Harden] want to go to Philly all of a sudden? Was it really just Kyrie [Irving] being unavailable? The vaccination thing? Everything being a mess? Like I feel like I never got a satisfactory answer....It was a lot of noise and I felt like I never really got a real answer to it.”

Well Zach, since you mentioned the Brooklyn element, here’s what Yahoo Sports Jake Fischer had to add about this subject back in May of 2022, on an appearance of the “Please Don’t Aggregate this” pod:

“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.”

And Fischer made those comments when many of us still expected Harden to land a multi-year max from the Sixers back in 2022.

But getting back to Zach Lowe’s more recent thoughts, he is again being pretty vague.

Certainly, the idea of Harden, having played in the playoffs on a Grade 2 hamstring injury back in 2020-2021, one he never should have played on in the first place, then trying to come back from that in 2021-2022, all while watching Kyrie Irving remain absent or a part-time unvaccinated player, must have been reallly frustrating.

But I think Zach’s point here (or the folks Fischer alludes to in Brooklyn) might be even that whopper may not have been enough to get James to ask out ‘cause...Bird Rights. And that in order for him to ask out, perhaps there were vague assurances or insinuations from members (or former minority stake owners, as Michael Rubin’s name was mentioned on the same pod at another point) of the Sixers that if he requested a trade out of Brooklyn, he’d eventually get a lucrative, multi-year deal from Philadelphia.

Recall that, similar to our current situation, whichever team possessed Harden’s Bird Rights could have exceeded the salary cap to pay him, and paid him far more handsomely than an acquiring team could have. At the time either the Sixers or Nets would have been able to offer him a record-breaking, ~$260M five-year deal.

This graphic from the new Phly_Sixers pod featuring Derek Bodner and Kyle Neubeck details some of the money Harden left on the table over the years, and leaves us to wonder how that might impact his feelings today:

On that podcast, Kyle Neubeck and Derek Bodner sound like they too think the “Harden is just mad at Daryl Morey because he hasn’t been traded yet and that’s what he meant about Morey being a ‘liar,’” is Totes McGotes bogus.

Per Bodner and Neubeck:

Bodner: “I think almost the entire beef, and we’ve talked about Morey being a liar ‘cause he didn't trade him in a couple of weeks —

[Neubeck shakes his head incredulously]

Bodner: .... I don’t buy that at all, [almost the entire beef] comes down to money. And if you don't resolve the money situation you’re just changing who he’s pissed off at.”

So clearly, like Zach Lowe and Bobby Marks, Bodner and Neubeck don’t seem to be buying the explanation Harden reportedly gave the NBA that he’s just mad he hasn’t been traded yet. All four seem to think it’s about the money that never came.

Oh, and Adam Silver doesn’t like the situation or Harden’s approach to it.

Let us know what you think in the replies. Is this maybe they tampered thing in the rearview yet? Could a lingering concern that Harden could say anything at any time and at least make plenty of insiders simply wonder about this very subject cause (or tempt) Morey to take back just a little less in a potential/eventual trade to let his bosses (ownership) rest easier at night?

You can bet the Clippers and other teams are just drooling at the idea Harden says or does something else that has a similar impact around the league, pod and blogosphere.

Like we’ve said before, Morey may hold the cards, but Harden holds the fat suit. And a vague public admonishment that even can be walked back a bit can leave some lasting organizational damage for Morey and co. to deal with.

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