The 76ers are in a precarious position with James Harden, who only has eyes for the Clippers

It was mid-December, two days before the NBA’s unofficial start of the trade season, when Joel Embiid slunk into a chair at the Sixers’ practice facility and told Yahoo Sports he believed Philadelphia fans would trade him.

The league’s Most Valuable Player has always stared right through the fourth wall on this telecast, recognizing the face of a franchise that encapsulates far more than the two-way brilliance that can earn the game’s greatest honors. He is an entertainer as much as a competitor. And with that, Embiid has always understood that the central plot line of this drama is not just to compete for a championship, but to win the damn thing — at least once. That’s why Sam Hinkie selected the injured giant out of Kansas with the No. 3 pick back in 2014. You take big swings when you swing for the fence. But twisting a worldview around winning makes losing even more unbearable. That’s what makes the potential collapse of a competitor all the more exciting.

So last week in Los Angeles, with another brutal second-round playoff exit top of mind, when Embiid told Uninterrupted CEO Maverick Carter about reaching his goal of a championship: “I don’t know where it’s going to be, whether it’s in Philly or somewhere else,” there was a familiar ring of provocation to Embi. As loyal as any superstar is to his established organization, especially homegrown superstars who arrived as promised teenage saviors, there is an inherent value in hanging the thought of a future without you in it. Gearing can swing like a seesaw in the NBA. This time, Embiid’s comments came as the future of fellow All-Star point guard James Harden remains in the balance following a trade request in late June, after Harden exercised his $35.6 million player option the day before free agency began, intending to be dealt to the Clippers, league sources told Yahoo Sports. It’s a simple exercise to draw a straight line from Embiid’s open response to the uncertain state of Philadelphia as a whole.

The 76ers are at a crossroads with James Harden, and it’s safe to say Joel Embiid is paying close attention. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

However, this dynamic is never quite so linear. In December, moments after Embiid said he thought Sixers fans wanted him traded, he slipped into Daryl Morey’s office and closed the door for an extended conversation as pre-deadline phone calls began ringing around the league. Philadelphia’s president has made it a prerogative to work with Embiid during his tenure as the Sixers’ steward. They remain in close contact and still play tennis together after was first seen two years ago during an offseason doubleheader. Their mutual quest for a first championship seems to have bonded them more than anything else, even though it was once part of the bond for Harden and former head coach Doc Rivers, who was also fired after the team blew a 3-2 series lead over Boston in the semifinals.

The commonality of chasing the title, however, is the ultimate context surrounding Harden’s pending trade request. These are much higher stakes, from Philadelphia’s perspective, than what Portland faces in moving Damian Lillard. The Blazers’ franchise face has already sought a new home, away from a team that has been out of the playoff conversation for several seasons. Morey and the Sixers are navigating the possible deal with another disgruntled All-Star point guard before their franchise centerpiece ever truly considers playing elsewhere. And they think Nick Nurse is the coach who can push this thing over the hump.

Let’s be clear: Regardless of the Sixers’ wishes, Harden still intends to play for the Clippers through the 2023-24 season, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Since the beginning of this subplot, Harden and his representation have chosen to designate Los Angeles as his next destination and have maintained a confidence that he will eventually join the Clippers. There has been no significant trade talk for Philadelphia about Harden and any other team, sources said, as rival front offices have been briefed on Harden’s unwavering focus on the Clippers and the Clippers alone. The 76ers have held talks with other teams and have established their high asking price for the league’s assists leader.

To Harden’s credit, the Clippers make sense. Los Angeles had been active before February’s trade deadline, and again in the early stretch of the offseason, looking for upgrades at the Clippers’ lead guard position. The team almost traded for Celtics ball handler Malcolm Brogdon before June’s NBA Draft. And Harden’s side sees Los Angeles’ roster — with young blue-chippers like Terance Mann and valuable postseason contributors like Norman Powell — plus a collection of serviceable contracts and first-round draft capital to pull off a deal. One that could still satisfy Philadelphia’s demand that any Harden return salvage as big a championship window for the Sixers as possible.

Philadelphia has not shared that view. And by all accounts, the Clippers have no interest in parting ways with Mann. The Sixers, according to Morey himself, are thinking of a far more binary return for Harden than what Los Angeles can muster.

“If we’re looking at a trade, it’s going to be for one of two things: a player that’s going to help us be right where we were last year, or we’re going to trade for picks that we can use to become a player that can be a running mate with Joel,” Morey told Philadelphia’s 97.5 FM on Tuesday. “If we can’t get it, we won’t do it.” And the Sixers aren’t exactly in a rush to complete the process.

We haven’t seen this movie before, but we have seen the prequel. Yes, it was only two summers ago that Ben Simmons requested his way out of Philadelphia, and after an offseason of fruitless trade talk, Morey used a 97.5 performance to say that Simmons’ trade attempt could take its toll four years was left on his contract. Then Morey and Rivers spoke at the media day and shared how they would welcome Simmons back to Philadelphia with open arms. Sure enough, during this year’s Summer League in Las Vegas, there was growing word among league personnel that the Sixers hoped to reunite with Harden, who Philadelphia has always envisioned returning to the franchise to compete for the 2023 title. “If James changes his mind, we’d love to have him,” Morey told 97.5 on Tuesday.

Harden’s situation is different from the Simmons debacle in several important ways. On the surface, Harden only has one season left on his contract, which would give Philadelphia a much quicker resolution and a lot of cap space if Morey’s front office never grants Harden’s request to be moved. And while Simmons stayed away from the team when training camp opened, with player and representation at the fore, never wanting to play for the franchise again, Harden’s approach appears to diverge from there.

Harden is a future Hall of Famer, a Top 75 all-time player in scoring titles and an MVP. He’s also well-practiced — from the end of Harden’s tenure in Houston, as well as Brooklyn — in behaviors that can drive a team toward giving in and finally moving on from the talented guard. If this saga drags on through September and until media day on Oct. 2, Harden is expected to report to training camp at that point, according to league sources. You can cause far more headaches for the organization you’re trying to leave by showing up as opposed to staying home. With both the Rockets and Nets, Harden made various trips away from the team to various nightlife activities. He made Brooklyn feel like it had no other option but to trade him to the Sixers before the 2022 trade deadline or risk losing him for nothing. With Philadelphia, Harden’s side is very much of the belief that joining the Clippers isn’t a matter of if, but when.

While this July stretches into August and the decline of the NBA calendar, this is also the season Embiid turns 30 in March, the magic number that begins to introduce the concept of basketball mortality to any talent. Embiid has made a case — both with his play and open campaign — to be the game’s best player over the last handful of regular seasons. He shows no signs of slowing down, entering the first of a four-year extension that has a player option in 2026-27. However, the variability of Harden’s situation must be of greater concern among the Sixers’ ranks at some point than during Simmons’ entire holdout. Embiid’s open dance with the term “anywhere else” certainly shows that he knows the biological clock to win a championship is already ticking. What factor Harden’s trade request ultimately plays into that equation will totally shift the balance.

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