During James Harden’s introductory news conference with the 76ers back last February, two quotes — one from Harden himself, one from someone else — should have given anyone paying attention an indication of how his tenure with the team would go.
At one point, Harden said he “knew for a really long time that this was a perfect fit.” It was an odd thing for him to say, considering that Harden hadn’t spent very much time doing much in the previous few years other than not finding a perfect fit for his style of play and his ego.
The Rockets hadn’t fit anymore. The Nets no longer fit, if ever. And there was only one way the Sixers would fit: Harden would have to become a quasi-point guard, be more of a facilitator than a scorer, and defer to Joel Embiid. As it turned out, he did last season, and he considered giving away his prized “basketball freedom” such a sacrifice that he’s decided he’d rather play somewhere else.
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In fact, Thursday’s revelation that Harden had exercised his 2023-24 player option with the Sixers just so they could trade him matched the other memorable quote from that presser 16 months ago. When Sixers managing partner Josh Harris introduced Harden, he said, “James, thank you for choosing Philly to play.”
It was respectful. It was an acknowledgment that the Sixers were dealing with Harden on Harden’s terms. It was a hint of what would happen if he ever became uncomfortable or unhappy with his working conditions—if his relationship with Doc Rivers wasn’t all sunshine and roses, if the Sixers didn’t draft him enough, if he did poorly in a major playoff game and received criticism for it. Want a perfect fit? That Harris line was the perfect fit for James Harden.
So he gets his wish. He wants to play somewhere else. There are good reasons to believe the Sixers will be better for it. Here are a few:
1. Bringing Harden back would have been exactly the kind of move that inspired “The Process” in the first place.
When it comes to re-signing Harden, there’s really only one argument that makes any sense: The Sixers nearly made the Eastern Conference Finals with him last season, and they’ll likely be a lesser team without him next season. So take him back and try again with him, Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris before you break up that group. It might work.
But there are a few significant flaws in this argument. First, this approach would have required Harden to agree to opt out of his contract and then re-sign with the Sixers for just one year — something he obviously didn’t want to do. Otherwise, we’re talking about the Sixers signing him to a multi-year deal, limiting their roster and salary cap flexibility, and committing to a player in decline who turns 34 at the end of August.
Second, any franchise can defend any personnel move on the grounds that its team will be better off in the short term for it. The question is whether keeping Harden would give the Sixers a realistic chance to win a championship. We have two years of documentation that it would not.
2. Any kind of commitment to Harden is a commitment to him as the link to your team.
In his recent podcast interview with Bill Simmons, Rivers explained how difficult it was to persuade Harden to tone down his ball-dominant style of play — a style that, after the second round of the 2022 and 2023 playoffs, appeared to hurt Harden and the Sixers.
“I think that’s James’ Kryptonite right now,” Rivers said. “I don’t believe the whole thing, him quitting and stuff like that. I just think teams make him fight because they know where he is and it’s easier to find him.”
Finding Harden will become easier for defenders as he ages and slows down, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to play any other way. If he’s on your team, he wants the ball in his hands, and the head coach will probably have to give it to him, because Harden is pretty much useless without the ball in his hands. (Which is a long way of saying that no one should expect a huge return for Harden in whatever trade the Sixers end up making.)
3. Tyrese Maxey has a better chance to develop now.
Let’s travel back in time to the summer of 2006. It’s late July, the Major League Baseball trade deadline. Pat Gillick, the Phillies’ general manager then, trades Bobby Abreu – the team’s de facto leader and most skilled player – and pitches Cory Lidle to the Yankees for a package of anonymous prospects. The Phillies are seven games under .500 at that point. Less than two years after his appointment, Charlie Manuel seems like a dead manager walking.
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What looked like a white flag, however, was actually a turning point for the franchise. With Abreu’s departure, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were freed up to be more assertive, to make the team theirs in a way it hadn’t been before. It is reasonable to believe that Harden’s departure could have the same effect on Maxey, that over time Harden would not make Maxey better, but hold him back.
“I would love to see this become more of Tyrese Maxey’s team,” ESPN analyst Tim Legler said Monday, “because I think he has something else running through his veins. He will always be in Harden’s shadow for so long [Harden is] there. You’re never going to maximize who Tyrese Maxey is as long as Harden is there.”
Think about it: A common case for bringing Harden back has been, Can you really afford to waste a season of Embiid in his prime? But what if bringing Harden back would have wasted a season or two of Maxey in his?