James Harden has made clear and will reiterate whenever asked that his relationship with Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is beyond repair, and he has shown he’s willing to do just about anything to get his escape.
Harden will keep the pressure on Morey, who appears to be clueless as to how this type of distraction will affect the existing players on the roster should Harden arrive at training camp in early October.
The NBA is a relationship business, and the Harden-Morey business has been fruitful for Morey, who garnered the “genius” label by poaching Harden from Oklahoma City before the start of the 2012-13 season.
It paved the way for Harden to carry the Houston Rockets for nearly a decade and Morey has been the patron saint for a certain type of executive. But his blind spot has always been the people business. It has long been accepted emotional attachments can lead to wayward decisions, but not acknowledging the domino effect for other players and teams will cost someone in the end.
However this ends, could it cost Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers the services of one Joel Embiid?
Embiid has said all the right things publicly, but there has to be some residual fatigue in his entire 76ers experience. Morey is responsible for only the past few years, but in totality, many around the league believe Embiid will ask out sooner rather than later — and that a full rebuild is what Morey is covertly hoping for.
If Morey knows Harden better than anyone, and vice versa, he knows what’s coming. Will Harden show up for training camp?
“Why would he not? When you know the chaos he could bring just by showing up,” a league source familiar with Harden’s camp told Yahoo Sports.
The new collective bargaining agreement puts Harden in a spot where he has to show up to earn his own free agency next summer, and of course, he wants to collect every dollar he’s owed on a deal he willingly took a haircut on last summer.
Harden can go in and be a distraction — slightly dissimilar from what Ben Simmons pulled a couple years ago, which subsequently led to the Harden-for-Simmons swap months later.
But the difference is, Harden likely knows his standing in the public isn’t really going to change and he doesn’t come off like someone who cares if one’s opinion of him sinks to lower levels.
However, another preseason distraction could turn commissioner Adam Silver into a shade of copper, and send the reigning MVP over the edge and into Morey’s office to ask out.
“Everyone’s circling, waiting. The Knicks and Miami are keeping an eye on everything going on,” a league source told Yahoo Sports.
For Morey, a teardown could be better than another outright failure in the East. He threw Doc Rivers overboard this summer, and it’s worth noting the 76ers haven’t gotten any closer to the East finals since Morey took over — he wasn’t running things when Kawhi Leonard’s bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce buoyed the Toronto Raptors to new heights in 2019, and the 76ers have squandered at least two opportunities since.
League sources told Yahoo Sports contrary to popular belief, Morey isn’t stuck on receiving Clippers guard Terance Mann back in a Harden deal, but is coveting future first-round draft picks with the so-called “Seven Year Rule” in effect.
The Clippers’ first-round picks for the next few years are owed to Oklahoma City outright or subject to a swap due to the Paul George deal in 2019, but the Clippers own their picks in 2027 and ’28.
Morey is believed to want those more than the productivity of Mann — who’s on an affordable number the next two years ($10.5 million in ’23-24, $11.4 million in ’24-25).
Another teardown for the 76ers could lead Morey to believe he has time to rebuild it from the tatters he helped create, starting with the Simmons fiasco and now this mess with Harden.
Embiid will turn 30 in March and by comparison, the best of Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson all occurred before that round number. The exception, Hakeem Olajuwon, played his best championship basketball at 31 and 32 but had championship-level bona fides before then — carrying substandard Houston Rockets teams farther than they should’ve gone.
Is Morey willing to risk that with Embiid, particularly with how analytical his mind goes?
Hard to say.
But Harden will keep pressing to make things untenable in the meantime. The answer to every question will be geared toward Morey’s untrustworthiness, from Harden’s eyes, and Morey, and the 76ers, will have to endure the merry-go-round every day until the pressure is released.
But it’ll be released only if Harden is set free. Again, it follows a pattern of behavior from Harden that he can’t run from, but one runs only if they care.
Sentiment on Harden has gone so far in the other direction, it’s easy to forget he’s still a very useful player. While it would be foolish to call him an MVP in waiting, it would also be just as silly to assume he’s done being impactful.
He led the league in assists last season and shot a career-high 38.5% from 3-point range on over seven attempts per game.
His closeout games in playoff series speak for themselves, a string of disappointments and unmet expectations. However, he delivered two 40-balls against the Celtics in their second-round matchup this spring.
If his previous playoff credit report was any indication, those games qualify as gravy.
“To use a baseball analogy, he’s a middle reliever,” a Western Conference high-ranking executive told Yahoo Sports. “You can’t count on him to close, but he’ll eat up innings in the regular season. If nothing else, he loves to play, that’s what you hear.”
Harden wants the Clippers, the Clippers want Harden — with Harden and several players having communicated on the desire to play together. Depending on Harden to be a championship team’s second-best player is a risk — but how about a third?
He’ll play heavy minutes while presumably, George and Leonard build it up to be ready for May and June, if they’re to be available.
Both haven’t received extensions from the Clippers this summer and there doesn’t appear to be any rush by either side to do it, but smart money says they’d have a three-year window with Harden as he approaches his mid-30s.
If George and Leonard aren’t healthy, it doesn’t matter what Harden does or doesn’t do anyway over that time period.
But that isn’t Morey’s concern here, as he finds himself out of leverage, out of an ally with perhaps another not far behind, and maybe, running out of time.