The Weitzman boy
FOX Sports NBA writer
On Thursday, James Harden notified the Philadelphia 76ers that he would forgo free agency and instead pick up the $35.6 million player option on his contract for the 2023-2024 season. But he didn’t because he wanted to stay in Philadelphia. He informed the Sixers, according to a source familiar with the events, that he wanted to be traded.
Why he has been asked out of Philadelphia is unclear. For more than two years now, Harden’s stated motives have been a contradictory mess.
First, he forced the Rockets to trade him in the middle of the 2020-2021 season. So on the day a deal was struck with the Brooklyn Nets, he told the team’s top decision-makers, “I want to get back to you guys,” according to multiple people familiar with the conversation. He had only asked out, he had said, because he felt the team “needed a reset.” He was right. The Rockets’ title window had closed, but much of that was because he had forced them into a series of dismal deals, most notably trading Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. It didn’t matter. He wanted the Nets and the Nets wanted him.
Less than a year later, history repeated itself. Harden had grown frustrated with life in Brooklyn: not being the center of the offense, Steve Nash’s coaching, the way Kevin Durant wielded the kind of organizational power Harden once had in Houston, Kyrie Irving missing games because of his refusal to get vaccinated. He began loafing and pushing for another trade — this time with his eyes on the Sixers. It didn’t matter that a year earlier, after being asked by Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta on the morning of the trade deadline which of the two teams he preferred, Harden had said the Nets.
In Philadelphia, Harden ran into similar problems. Once again, he wasn’t the center of everything.
“I’m being traded to a situation where everything was Joel, everything was Joel, Joel, Joel,” Harden said of his first year with the Sixers during a wide-ranging interview with FOX Sports in October. “Which I get, that’s how they played all year and so I tried to fit in. It was never like, ‘Here, you’re James Harden, this is how we want you to run the show.’ ” That was the kind of role I played.”
He had taken a $15 million pay cut to return to the team, declined his $47.3 million option and instead signed a two-year, $68 million deal with the second year being a player option. He had done it, he had said, so the Sixers could strengthen their roster; the extra cap space was used to sign PJ Tucker. Harden, it seemed, prioritized winning.
But you could tell he was struggling with what that meant. In May, after completing a first-round pick by the Brooklyn Nets, Harden shared his approach to the season with reporters. “I told myself this year that it’s just, I’m all about sacrifice. Whether it’s the money or my role, just to let everything go and just sacrifice – and then see what it gives me, ” he said.
Harden had spent the year considering a Houston reunion, according to friends. He wasn’t two-time Sixers, suiting up for one team while laying the groundwork to play for another. It’s just that the pull that Houston had on him—this is where his family lives and where he’s most comfortable—was hard to ignore.
But the Rockets, it seems, have cooled on the idea. They have the cap — nearly $61 million in cap space this offseason, the most in the NBA — but over the past few months, their executives have made it clear to people around the league that they weren’t sold on the idea of a Harden- return. They have also indicated to free agents this offseason that they do not intend to offer contracts that extend beyond two seasons.
James Harden picks his $35.6M deal, Clippers and Knicks to join trade talks | TALK
With no mega-deal coming from Houston, Harden had no offer to exploit against the Sixers. There are no other suitors out there, no team with cap space that both wants Harden and is wanted by him. Which is probably how we got to the point of a trade request. If there is no one bidding against the Sixers, there is no reason for them to make a strong bid.
Meanwhile, Harden probably thought he would be able to play the Sixers and Rockets against each other and end up with a four-year, $200 million deal. At one point he had the Sixers in question. As late as the end of May, according to several sources, he would not yet share his intentions with them. And even after they fired head coach Doc Rivers — with whom Harden clashed — the Sixers’ front office was still concerned that Harden would strike out.
He turns 34 in August. He is entering the final phase of his career. He’s still great, but not as great as he once was. There’s nothing wrong with that, but is Harden willing to accept the new reality? Or more to the point: What does he want from his final years in the NBA? Is it a title and a chance to strengthen his historical status? Is it money? Is it being able to play the style he wants? Something else?
The Los Angeles Clippers are at the top of Harden’s list. They also reached out to the Sixers this week about a possible Harden trade, according to multiple league sources. You can see why they would appeal to Harden. They are in LA. He could play alongside a pair of stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Of course, so did the Nets. And from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and now to Joel Embiid, you can put together an All-Star team just with the superstars Harden has lined up.
“Things just aren’t working out,” Harden said in that interview last year. “This is part of the business. Like, you know, Dwight, we had our year — it didn’t work out. CP, we had our year — it didn’t work out. Russ, we had our year and did’ It doesn’t work. Winning cures all that, so if we win, then all is well.”
Meanwhile, the ball is now, to use a bad cliché, in the Sixers’ court. We know from the Ben Simmons saga that Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey doesn’t just want to make a deal, but is comfortable waiting for the right one to come along. Getting some draft picks and salary filler like Norman Powell and Marcus Morris from the Clippers isn’t doable — at least not until Morey has a separate deal for another star (Zach LaVine maybe?) ready to go.
We know the playbook. Morey will insist both publicly and privately that he has no problem hanging on to Harden for the season. (Though it’s worth pointing out that, for complicated salary cap reasons, the Clippers would benefit from getting a deal done before July 1.)
Regardless of what happens, Harden’s contract with the Sixers cannot be extended. This time next year, he’ll be a free agent, free to sign wherever he wants. Maybe he’ll do well in LA or wherever his next stop is. But history says otherwise.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Process in Professional Sports History.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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