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After an entire offseason of waiting, James Harden padded an extra half hour of wait time before finally speaking with the media on Friday afternoon. Harden was going through a lengthy post-practice routine, working with assistant Rico Hines on a variety of pull-up jumpers to close out his day.
When he finally spoke, Harden was candid, ruling out reconciliation with Daryl Morey after calling the executive a liar over the summer.
“For me, it’s just, trusting people you’ve known for over a decade,” Harden said Friday. “And when I got traded here, my whole thing was I wanted to retire a Sixer. I wanted to be here and retire a Sixer. The front office didn’t have that in their future plans. It’s literally out of my control. It’s something I didn’t want to happen, to be in this position. But I’ve got to make a decision for my family.”
“Understand, this is a business, it’s just as simple as that. Come in here today, work my butt off, and do the things necessary as a professional as I would do, and that I’ve been doing for 15 years.”
The root of this standoff is how Harden’s impending free agency was handled coming out of last season. Each side has its own version of the story there.
Philadelphia has claimed for months that they wanted to avoid any accusations of impropriety after earning tampering charges while signing P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. last summer. Harden’s version, as you can imagine, is slightly different. He said Friday that the breakdown began the second the Sixers were eliminated from the playoffs.
“Me and the front office had a very, very good relationship like I said for a decade,” Harden said. “There was constant communication. There was no communication once we lost.”
Even if the Sixers’ explanation for that issue is true, it’s not likely to matter.
Throughout the last couple of months, Harden’s camp has insisted that it was a major departure from how Harden and Morey operated in the past, and that itself was the problem. They believe that the lack of communication was less about playing by the rules and more about trying to box Harden into a team-friendly deal based on how the market was shaking out.
Notably, the Houston Rockets backed away from a potential reunion with Harden after hiring Ime Udoka, which left him without a clear-cut suitor in free agency who would pay him top dollar. But it’s still unclear what the Sixers would have offered Harden had he decided to opt out of his deal, as most expected in early-to-mid June. The decision to opt-in caught even the team by surprise.
In any case, the momentary break in communication was enough to reveal the differences between the two men after years of partnership.
Morey, as much as he did and does want to keep Harden on the team, wanted to do so in a way that best suited the franchise. After so many years as something close to a partner, Harden felt as though he was being treated like any other player Morey might try to whittle away at in negotiations, viewing this summer as a personal betrayal. At the end of the day, the dispute is about money, but somewhat indirectly.
That helps explain why Harden was at his most definitive when asked whether he felt he could resolve his problems with Morey, likening the split to a failed marriage.
“No,” Harden said. “This is not even about this situation. This is in life. When you lose trust in someone, it’s like a marriage. You lose trust in someone, you know what I mean? It’s pretty simple.”
Had a market emerged for James Harden beyond known interest for the L.A. Clippers, there’s a decent chance he would have been moved by now. But the Sixers and Clippers have been involved in a standoff over what constitutes “fair value” for the unhappy star. Up to this point, the best-known offer L.A. has made for Harden was a single unprotected first-round pick, a pick swap, plus multiple expiring contracts for Harden.
The Clippers have refused to make both of their 2028 and 2030 first-round picks available in a trade, and have sought to hold onto role player Terance Mann in any discussions with Philadelphia. But there has been some movement in the last week or two. The Clippers have been shopping their picks and pick swaps on the open market to see if they can turn individual chips into multiple trade assets, trying to meet Philadelphia in the middle in that way.
Outside factors have also complicated those discussions. Both the Clippers and Sixers made attempts to trade for Jrue Holiday during his brief stay in Portland, and the Clippers continue to have interest in Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon.
As L.A. threatens to simply make a deal for someone else, the Sixers have had one trump card to play — James Harden has been a good soldier in preseason up to this point, putting forth a commendable effort in practices under new head coach Nick Nurse. It has been the strangest part of the whole ordeal, a bit of whiplash for anyone expecting Harden to stomp his feet and derail the team.
Perhaps sensing that throwing a fit won’t do him any good here, Harden arrived in shape and engaged for their camp in Colorado. On Friday, he even showered praise on Nurse, calling him a creative thinker who he expects to have a positive impact on the team.
“Nick is very versatile. He’s a player’s coach. He understands it. I knew him a little bit when he was the G-League coach in Houston,” Harden said. “Obviously, he’s won a championship and he just sees the game different. I’m a fan of him.”
“I think [the offense] will have more spacing, more opportunities for everyone and just unpredictable. He can change things up on the fly and if things in one five, six, seven possessions aren’t going right or in one quarter, he can change it and make adjustments. Which is very difficult to do. But he’s very, very good at that.”
Whether that means Harden will suit up for the team or not is another matter entirely. He declined to answer whether he still wanted to be traded, avoiding a fine by saying that was a decision for the front office. And though the Sixers have said he has been full-go in practice this week, Harden indicated that the soonest he might play would be next Friday, October 20th, in Philadelphia’s preseason finale against the Atlanta Hawks.
It could be nothing more than Harden delaying things until they can’t be delayed any longer. To the observer’s eye, he looks ready to get on a floor and at least get some game-speed cardio before the season begins, whether he gets traded out of Philly or not. And with “or not” looking likely in the short term, Harden says his focus has turned inward.
“Control what you can control,” Harden said. “I’ve been in this league so long and I’ve seen so many things and I’ve been putting work in. That’s all I can do. I work my butt off. You can say whatever you want to say about me, but you don’t get this far in this league without putting work in. That’s what I lean my hat on. When things fail or things don’t go how you feel they should go, you continue to work. That’s it.”