Imagine a future where the Philadelphia 76ers‘ locker room implodes before the 2023-24 season begins. All the talk surrounding the team is centered around James Harden, who showed up to training camp with the sole purpose of causing as many problems as possible. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid is making his displeasure about the situation known far and wide. The rumors of Embiid asking out of Philadelphia increase in number and severity every single day. That outcome is not difficult to picture if the team has not solved the Harden dilemma before training camp begins.
Until it is resolved, the Harden dilemma is going to loom like a dark cloud over the Sixers organization. President of basketball operations Daryl Morey likely feels he has a roadmap for how to end the situation in a way that will benefit the Sixers. Just two seasons ago, the Sixers found themselves in a similar situation with Ben Simmons. The Australian native refused to play for the Sixers in the 2021-22 season. He was then traded to the Brooklyn Nets at the trade deadline. In that case, Morey exercised his patience in trade negotiations. He was willing to wait out the trade market until he received an offer he felt was worthy of accepting. He eventually sent Simmons and some other pieces to the Nets in return for Harden.
However, the Harden situation is vastly different and more explosive than the Simmons one from two seasons ago. Simmons essentially quietly sat out, letting the rest of the roster focus on their play on the court. Harden, through both history and recent events, is not likely to allow that to happen. He forced his way out of the Houston Rockets organization in 2020-21 by showing up vastly out of shape. When things soured in Brooklyn in the 2021-22 season, he stopped showing up and claimed he had a hamstring injury before being traded to Philadelphia.
This offseason, there have been multiple reports stating his relationship with Morey is “essentially severed.” He also publicly called Morey “a liar” while in China earlier in August. The NBA then fined him $100,000 because of the comments he made amounting to a public trade demand. On the August 16 episode of “NBA Today,” ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported, “This is just the beginning of what Harden is going to do to make life very uncomfortable for the Sixers going into training camp.”
Harden has already been much more vocal than Simmons ever was. Also, Harden playing on a 1-year contract essentially takes away the option of just sitting out the season. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported Philadelphia could prevent Harden from entering free agency if he holds out longer than 30 days. A clause in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement states a player who “withholds playing services for more than 30 days after the start of the last season covered by his contract” could be held in violation of the contract and hence be barred from signing with any other team.
All of this together is a recipe for Harden showing up and creating more and more chaos. The situation is only going to get worse, barring an unforeseen reversal in Harden’s attitude about playing for the Sixers. Morey and Harden are staring each other down and waiting to see who will blink first. Morey, whether through patience or stubbornness, made it clear throughout the offseason he is not trading Harden unless the return keeps the Sixers in championship contention.
Being patient in this case, and therefore keeping Harden around, comes with massive risk. Harden reportedly still has a good relationship with the rest of the roster. Back on July 10, Embiid told SHOWTIME’s Rachel Nichols he is hopeful Harden’s “mindset can be changed.” Tyrese Maxey, on his “Maxey on the Mic” podcast, said “it’s not our first rodeo” regarding dealing with a disgruntled teammate. He also said “there’s nobody in this organization who would be upset” if Harden plays with the Sixers. The relationship between Harden and the rest of the roster currently remains in good shape. However, there is a risk of it deteriorating if the feud continues to devolve.
The Sixers’ focus needs to be on avoiding the numerous potential pitfalls that could result from keeping Harden around. Trading Harden before the start of training camp should be their goal, regardless of what the return is. The Los Angeles Clippers, Harden’s preferred destination, have reportedly been lowballing the Sixers in their offers for Harden. There is no other team interested in giving up premium assets for the 34-year-old Harden. Morey has insisted on waiting out the market until he can get a star-level package for Harden. The chances of that occurring are minimal to non-existent.
Is it really worth risking the Harden situation detonating in the coming weeks and months for at most a 1-2% chance at turning Harden into another star player? The answer is an emphatic no. Unless Morey can strike gold in the Harden trade, the Sixers’ roster is very likely not going to be good enough to win a championship this coming season. As a result, they should get out from under the destructive Harden situation by trading him for the best package they can get before training camp begins in around a month.