ESPN’s Tim Bontemps polled 15 scouts, coaches and executives from around the NBA about a number of topics, including the unresolved futures of Damian Lillard and James Harden. While the panel was relatively split on whether Lillard would begin the season with the Portland Trail Blazers—nine said yes and six said no—results were far more lopsided for Harden.
Out of the 15 people polled, only two expected Harden to begin the season on a team other than the Sixers. Both of them chose the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden’s preferred trade destination.
“I don’t think [Morey] wants to trade him, and I don’t know if someone is willing to give enough for him to move him,” an East executive told Bontemps. “He has to win this year, so it’s only a trade that helps you do that. And what other team is doing that?”
During a mid-July radio interview with Anthony Gargano of 97.5 The Fanatic, team president Daryl Morey made clear that if the Sixers were to trade Harden, it would be “for one of two things.”
“It’s either going to be for a player who continues to help us be right there like we were last year ... or we’re going to do it for something where we get enough draft picks and things like that in a deal that we could turn those into a player who can be a running mate with Joel [Embiid] as well,” Morey said.
Granted, Morey said that before Harden called him a “liar” and said he would “never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.” Those comments wound up costing Harden $100,000—although the National Basketball Players Association has filed a grievance to appeal that fine—but there’s little reason to suspect his stance has changed since then.
Money appears to be the root cause behind Harden’s trade request. The Sixers supposedly went radio silent on Harden in the days leading up to free agency, according to multiple reports, which caused him to pick up his $35.6 million player option with the intention of pursuing a trade. Since the Sixers are the only contender in line to have significant salary-cap space next summer, Harden knows that he needs to force his way out by the Feb. 8 trade deadline to a team that’s willing to re-sign him. Otherwise, he might face the same dilemma next summer that he did this past year.
Granted, Harden is all but telegraphing his next moves at this point. He’s seemingly planning to make life hell for the Sixers until they comply with his trade request.
“This will get ugly enough to where James gets himself out of there,” a West executive told Bontemps.
The ongoing Harden saga appears to be affecting perception of the Sixers as a whole. Joel Embiid, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, did not get a single vote from the panel when asked to predict who would be this year’s MVP. Nikola Jokic led the way with nine votes, followed by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum (two apiece) and Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell (one each).
The Sixers also got zero votes for the team that had the best offseason (for obvious reasons) and four votes for the team that had the worst offseason, trailing only the Toronto Raptors (five).
“Philadelphia lost Georges Niang to Cleveland, has made minimum-level moves and is now dealing with the Harden situation,” Bontemps wrote.
While any and all Harden-related critiques are fair game, the Sixers’ offseason was otherwise low-key…fine? They lost Niang, Shake Milton and Jalen McDaniels in the opening hours of free agency, but they wound up signing Patrick Beverley, Mo Bamba, Danny Green and Kelly Oubre Jr. to one-year, veteran-minimum deals over the ensuing weeks and months. The Harden debacle notwithstanding, one could argue their roster didn’t get substantially worse this offseason. In fact, they might even be slightly better?
However, we’ve already seen in Houston and Brooklyn what happens when Harden is disenchanted with his current team. His half-asses his way through games until the situation becomes untenable. That’s perhaps why the Sixers got zero votes from the ESPN panel to win the Eastern Conference this season, much less the NBA championship.
If the Sixers can smooth things over with Harden, they’d be poised to potentially surpass their relatively low expectations this season. We may find out Monday during media day how likely that scenario is.