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Less than two years ago now, James Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia was heralded as a shocking success1 for Daryl Morey. How did the Sixers, months into a Ben Simmons standoff, pry away the player they’d wanted to trade for at a higher price in the winter of 2020-21? At the cost of a declining Simmons, two role players, and draft capital, it seemed that the Sixers had turned an unwinnable situation into a victory.
Then, well, James Harden was James Harden in Philadelphia. The highs were high enough to justify having a legion of stans, and the lows were low enough for many fans to wake up on Tuesday morning and say, “Great trade, who’d they get?” I somehow came out of the experience with respect for Harden at net neutral — if he disappointed you with how things played out, it’s only because you were expecting him to be someone he never was and likely never will be.
Dating back to last winter, we were given signs that Morey and Harden were destined for a messy divorce. Though Harden repeatedly pushed back against the reporting that started around Christmas, only one side stood to gain from leaking that he would pursue a reunion with Houston. As leaks piled up in late May and early June, the word out of Sixers world was to be cautious about who you trusted when reporters suggested they’d pay any price to keep Harden.
The key sticking point was and is the why behind Philadelphia’s approach to Harden’s free agency. Harden’s camp has told anyone who will listen that Morey essentially ghosted the star guard, cutting all contact with Harden after the season ended. It was their belief that the Sixers were going to squeeze Harden far beyond acceptability, hence the surprise opt-in that derailed the Sixers’ summer.
The team has maintained throughout the last five months that their desire to avoid more tampering charges drove their silence. Stepping outside of the spin zone, it’s more likely that they didn’t want to put a deal on the table and bid against themselves or piss Harden off with their initial approach, with the hope that they could come in over the top of whatever an outside bidder would offer. When that outside offer didn’t come, chaos ensued.
Harden has worn the bulk of the blame on his way out of town this offseason, though his desires have not been much different from those of any superstar player: pay me, feature me, surround me with people I like.
Those requests were easy enough for Morey to fulfill when Harden was leading the league in scoring, serving as the driving force behind several elite teams in Houston. And betting on Harden coming off of a blown hamstring in Brooklyn was simple at its core. If the choice was between betting on a Harden bounceback and a Ben Simmons reclamation project, there was no choice at all.2
Had Harden delivered the ass-kicking, title-driving performance Morey has been hoping for since stealing him from Oklahoma City all those years ago, both sides likely would have ridden off into the sunset together with a fresh max deal. Instead, Harden (and in fairness, the league’s MVP) delivered the sort of soul-crushing loss he has become known for when it counts.
Is it unfair to blot out two 40-point performances because of his impotence in the games that mattered most? Perhaps slightly. But legacies aren’t defined by how you start. If they were, Enron would be known for being named America’s Most Innovative Company six years in a row instead of prolific accounting fraud.
In hindsight, Harden told us all how the offseason would go after a Game 4 victory in Brooklyn to complete a sweep over the Nets. Reflecting on what they’d done up to that point, Harden gave reporters his extended thoughts on sacrifice and offered that his whole season had been centered around that idea:
“I told myself this year I’m all in on sacrifice, whether it’s the money, my role, just letting everything go and sacrificing and see what it gives me. I’m not the type of person that’s naive, or I’m not the type of person who’s – I’m a sponge, I listen, and I can go out there and just be [whoever] for the betterment of the team.
So throughout the entire year, people expect me to be the scoring James Harden, the James Harden that goes out there gets 40, 50 points and people talk, oh they can’t win like that. And then it’s like, well I go out there and get 20 points and 11 assists, and it’s like, well he’s not the old James Harden anymore.
There’s always going to be something to say. So I think about my role, and what I can control to impact this team the best I can every single night. Sacrifice is my word I’m going to continue to use for this year and see where it gets me.”James Harden
There was a real sacrifice from Harden last year, and he was within his right to decide when he’d given up enough. But in so many words, his sacrifice was only about the team insofar as being about the team would help James Harden the individual.
Sliding into a role as Embiid’s sidekick and giving up money to clear space for free agents, Harden expected an executive who has been referred to as his “partner” to take care of him, even (and especially) as others lost faith. His mistake was thinking his personal relationship meant he was owed sentimentality that Morey has rarely offered anyone else. Yesterday’s price, as Fat Joe once said, is not today’s price. Morey’s error was thinking he could retain Harden’s loyalty while offering him the same approach given to lesser players after a decade of treating him as the favorite son.
Philadelphia’s saving grace in this scenario came in the form of what is left over without Harden. Nick Nurse has captured the buy-in of the full roster, inspiring tough defense, fast pace, and ball movement from all of the available players. Tyrese Maxey looks ready for an All-Star push, taking all of Harden’s on-ball reps and delivering three straight bangers to open the year. The Sixers did not have to play a single game with disgruntled Harden on the floor, allowing them to avoid the team-altering shenanigans that Harden used to force his way out of Houston and Brooklyn.
It says much about Harden’s current reputation that the Sixers were willing to accept a trade for him that all but necessitates another trade later. Morey, who may still be Harden’s biggest booster in the league, has calculated that a deal that could become something later is more valuable than simply waiting and hoping his value will increase. The Sixers got draft picks that may or may not hold value down the road, a young role player who is only currently valuable in theory, and a group of older veterans who are valued as much or more for their expiring contracts as they are any on-court contributions.
That leaves Morey with significant work to do. Embiid is not going to be humored by the idea of a trade for a good-to-great player. In the circumstances, the Sixers got good value for a player who might have burned the entire organization down, but the circumstances were created by a relationship the Sixers had bet the short-term future on when Harden arrived in 2022. They’re still probably a move away from being a move away.
And yet, after 21-ish months of Harden in Philadelphia, he leaves inspiring nowhere close to the emotion of other big departures, a la Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons. That may be the most damning indictment of all, and a sign of what the future could look like if things go south in L.A. Because when people believe a joyless ending is inevitable, you will eventually run out of people to start with.
- Except for the bozos who suggested the Nets won the trade. Ben Simmons’ revenge season is just another year away, they swear! ↩︎
- It is easy to forget now, but the dialogue surrounding the team in the winter of 2021-22 could be summarized by one sentence: “Embiid needs more help right now!” No one was willing to look at Embiid in MVP-level form and accept that waiting any longer was a worthwhile choice. ↩︎