Why James Harden’s reunion with Daryl Morey in Philadelphia went south and what’s next in their looming divorce

James Harden’s days in Philadelphia are unofficially over, with the Sixers star deciding Thursday to pick up the $35.6 million option on his contract for next season en route to asking for a trade, which Athletics‘s Shams Charania first reported.

According to sources directly involved in the situation on both sides, the Los Angeles native wants to play for the Clippers, and the Sixers are already discussing his desired move. Harden, according to sources close to him, is extremely upset with the way the Sixers handled his potential free agency and has made his displeasure clear to the organization.

While it seems likely that he will land with the Clippers, it remains to be seen whether his longtime basketball partner, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, will grant this unexpected request. However, sources say that there is great optimism on Harden’s part that it will actually happen. Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are said to be on board with the idea of ​​Harden potentially joining their core, according to sources.

Even with the frustrations of the playoffs and the challenge of sharing the spotlight with someone as dynamic and dominant as reigning MVP Joel Embiid, there was a sense around the league that the chance to contend for his first title again might be enough to bring Harden back. Also, many believed that the hiring of Nick Nurse in late May to replace Doc Rivers as coach would lead to Harden’s re-signing. But ultimately, sources involved say, it was a series of silent Sixers signals sent in recent weeks that forced Harden to pursue that goal elsewhere again.

When Harden decided to take a significant pay cut nearly a year ago, declining his $47.4 million player option with the Philadelphia 76ers to sign a one-plus-one deal in which he would be paid $33 million for the 2022 campaign- 23, it was widely believed to be a classic case of quid pro quo. Harden would return some money as a way to help the Sixers fill out their roster, bringing them even closer to a title that has eluded the franchise since 1983 and Harden throughout his professional career (circa 2009). And in the following offseason, many assumed the 10-time All-Star and former MVP would be handsomely rewarded with a contract better suited to his future Hall of Fame talents.

If Harden chose to leave, perhaps to join the Houston Rockets franchise, where Morey brought him to town via trade from Oklahoma City in 2012 and where Harden was widely known to be considering a return, that would be one thing. But Morey and the Sixers would surely make it clear they wanted him back in a big — and expensive — way this time around. Right?

As it turned out, that league-wide expectation was wildly wrong.

While free agency doesn’t officially begin until Friday night, a player of Harden’s caliber could typically expect to have some clarity about the established franchise’s intentions long before that time. But in recent weeks and days, sources say, all indications on Harden’s part pointed to the Sixers forcing him to test the market before making an offer of any kind. The understandable concern for Harden, sources said, was that Philadelphia was preparing to offer him the kind of short-term, team-friendly contract that wouldn’t come close to reflecting his stature in the league or the level of his current game (he averages 21 points , a league-leading 10.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds in the regular season; 20.3 points, 8.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds in 11 postseason games). Harden, who hired Troy Payne, Mike Silverman and Brandon Grier of Equity Basketball to be his agents in February after going more than five years without full-time representation, had no interest in being put in the compromised negotiating position. And it would only get worse as free agency approached.

Sources say the Rockets — with a first-year coach in Ime Udoka, a cadre of young prospects and $64 million in salary cap space to spend — had already opted not to pursue Harden in free agency in recent weeks, eliminating another of the his top options. As so many suspected long ago, as the league-wide talk of Harden returning to the rebuilding Rockets grew louder each month, the fit was ultimately deemed a mismatch. There’s still no shortage of love for Harden and his game among Rockets officials, with owner Tilman Fertitta, his son and liaison Patrick, and general manager Rafael Stone chief among that group, but the choice was made to take a pass on another Harden -chapter.

Harden also had serious interest in a trade with the Phoenix Suns before Bradley Beal, with his old friend Kevin Durant known to be a supporter of the possible reunion. Harden, who went from LA to Arizona State on his way to the NBA and still owns a house in the Phoenix area, considers the region a third home of sorts and was excited about the idea of ​​heading to the Valley of the Sun. But the Sixers never engaged with the Suns on a possible deal, and the Beal trade with Washington loomed.

Harden was losing leverage by the day. Sources say Morey, meanwhile, insisted he chose not to discuss free agency until allowed by league rules, largely because of the price the Sixers paid to do so in the past. And in a very ironic twist, his reasoning was rooted in the moves Philadelphia had been able to make because of Harden’s choice to take a pay cut last season.

Just eight months ago, the NBA announced that the Sixers had engaged in premature free agent discussions with PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr. before their signings last summer. As a result, they were anchored with second-round picks in 2023 and 2024. The league’s investigation, it should be noted, also determined that no wrongdoing was found in Harden’s choice to pass on the $15 million in savings to the Sixers.

Regardless of the reasoning, Morey’s choice to keep Harden and his camp in the dark about the Sixers’ plans had everything to do with Harden’s choice to ask out. And as Morey may know better than anyone, the prospect of keeping Harden against his wishes — as the Rockets and Brooklyn Nets can attest — is uncomfortable at best and unsustainable at worst. A deal with the Clippers may be the only way to salvage this messy situation.

Athletics‘s Kelly Iko contributed to this report.

(Photo of James Harden and Daryl Morey: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

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