How Should 76ers Handle the James Harden Situation?

How Should 76ers Handle the James Harden Situation? Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason has been a quiet one thus far in Philadelphia. The biggest move the Philadelphia 76ers made was matching the Utah Jazz’s offer sheet in order to re-sign Paul Reed. However, there is one player whose uncertain future could have a domino effect on the rest of the roster. James Harden accepted his $35.6 million player option in late June, although he also requested a trade out of Philadelphia. How should the Sixers handle the Harden situation? Before jumping in, it is important to dissect a few key pieces of the conversation.

Lack of Strong Trade Market for Harden

Harden’s trade request put the Sixers in a tough position. There is not much of a market around the NBA for Harden’s services. The Los Angeles Clippers are the lone team with significant interest in Harden. That interest is reportedly mutual, according to a report from The Athletic’s Sam Amick. “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 in the process of discussing his desired move.”

The dialogue between the Sixers and Clippers has thus far resulted in the two sides being very far apart. During the July 5 episode of “The Lowe Post,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said he “doesn’t sense that their’s a big appetite among teams to trade Philadelphia real stuff.” Lowe later on went into further detail about the state of negotiations between the Sixers and Clippers. “The Clippers, from what I’ve heard, they have been reluctant so far to offer [Terance] Mann, picks, maybe even [Norman] Powell, and I don’t know that the two sides have really even had super significant dialogue, and I don’t really know what you do from there.”

The two teams are clearly far away from each other in negotiations. The Clippers’ current offer is not anywhere near what Sixers’ president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is looking for. However, according to Amick, Morey’s asking price for Harden is more than what any would be willing to part with. “Morey is known to be asking for the kind of return that — as of Tuesday afternoon — left the strong impression that he had no genuine interest in getting a deal done anytime soon.”

One potential solution to bridge the gap between the Clippers and Sixers is to get a third team involved. Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports reported the Chicago Bulls could be a potential team to watch in this regard. “Chicago would be one potential trade partner to keep in mind, as the Bulls have made Zach LaVine available in conversations this offseason, sources said, and could also send an All-Star such as DeMar DeRozan back to Philadelphia. But there will be many avenues the Sixers explore before finalizing a Harden trade.”

K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago followed that up with a report stating LaVine “landed in preliminary conversations” with both the Sixers and Portland Trail Blazers. He went on to add that the conversation “did not gain any traction for now.” While trading Harden for a star player like LaVine might be what Morey wants, it does not seem like a realistic outcome at this point in time.

While the current market for Harden is not very strong, Morey is showing he has no issue waiting things out. This could play out in a similar manner to the Ben Simmons situation from a few years ago. Morey held out throughout the entire 2021 offseason and for a large portion of the following season before ultimately including Simmons in the trade package that brought Harden to Philadelphia. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, in his latest report on the Harden talks, emphasized Morey’s patience and how the situation is likely to be drawn out:

“In the James Harden situation in terms of where we are on in the calendar in July, it feels a lot like what Daryl Morey was doing with Ben Simmons a couple years ago. His asking price is exorbitant. Teams are not engaging the Sixers with the kind of asks that Daryl Morey is asking for James Harden and so that’s where Daryl Morey always starts in trade talks. Really high, and then over time, perhaps you work them back down, but like Ben Simmons, there’s hope on the Sixers’ side that eventually at some point, they can get James Harden on board about being in Philadelphia in the last year of this deal, this opt-in that he did it at $35.5 million. Now they may get the training camp, and it may look different to Philly, they may have a James Harden who’s not as enthusiastic about his return as they are and then maybe they get more serious about it, but right now, I think the Harden talks, [Damian] Lillard, are going to linger into the summer.”

The Idea of Harden Returning to the Sixers

There is a growing sense around the league that Harden is going to remain in Philadelphia next season. Wojnarowski said on SportsCenter back on July 2 the idea of Harden returning is “more than conceivable.” Wojnarowski followed that up a few days later on SportsCenter by saying the Sixers “would still love to keep [Harden] in Philadelphia for the season.” On July 11, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin went on the “Dan Patrick Show” to discuss the latest on the Harden talks. He said the “signals right now is that [Harden] will be back” with the Sixers next season. On July 13, Amick reported rival executives were “universally convinced” the Sixers are now attempting to keep Harden.

Harden’s camp, meanwhile, is having none of it. They have consistently maintained the stance that there is zero chance he returns to the Sixers. The relationship between Harden and Morey, who at one point were very close, has reportedly been fractured. Amick reported about the breakup back when the trade request was originally made. “Harden is, according to sources close to him, extremely upset at the way in which the Sixers handled his possible free agency and has made his dissatisfaction clear to the organization.”

The situation has not changed in the few weeks since the original trade request. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne appeared on “NBA Today” on Tuesday and dove into the Harden situation.

“James Harden has spoken to [Sixers president of basketball operations] Daryl Morey since the first trade request and I think there was some cooling off period. ‘OK, let’s let this lie and see how things play out.’ They’ve spoken again and he still reiterated he wants to be traded. Now, this isn’t a demand, it’s a request. And I think the Sixers have said, ‘OK, we will try to trade you, but there is no hurry to do this.’ I think the Sixers understand here that they have the leverage here. I mean, James has picked up his option, this is an opt-in to a contract and he’s going to be a free agent after this season. And so, at some point, he needs to play, whether that’s in Philadelphia or elsewhere.”

Harden is continuing to make it clear to everyone who will listen he wants to be traded out of Philadelphia. However, is the relationship repairable? There is hope in the Sixers organization Harden’s friendly relationship with his teammates might be able to assuage the situation. He was seen with a few teammates at Michael Rubin’s White Party early in July. Joel Embiid told Showtime’s Rachel Nichols on July 9 he is hopeful Harden’s “mindset can be changed.” Patrick Beverley, when asked if he wants Harden on the Sixers, replied with “Hell yea you want him here.” Harden’s teammates clearly want him to remain on the roster, but it is unclear whether that will have any effect.

How Should the Sixers Handle their Harden Dilemma?

The Sixers should definitely look to trade Harden as long as they receive fair value back. The lack of a strong market for Harden is going to hinder their ability to get a valuable return. However, Morey is correct in being willing to be patient if that is what it takes. Where Morey is erring is expecting to flip Harden for a star-level player in return. That scenario is highly unlikely to occur. Morey needs to be willing to accept an offer where he gets either a lot of draft capital or a few good low-end starters or high-end role players. Think a potential trade with the Clippers with the return centered around Terance Mann, Robert Covington and a first-round pick.

Holding out on the hope of landing a star-level player in return for Harden does come with some risk. Harden has a well-documented history of forcing his way out when things do not go his way. If training camp arrives with Harden still in Philadelphia, the situation has the potential to turn ugly. However, as Lowe said on the latest episode of “The Lowe Post,” there is risk for both Harden and the Sixers if the situation takes a turn for the worst.

“Philly, I guess the wildcard for that will be, we’ve seen what happens when James Harden doesn’t want to be in a situation. He has dogged it multiple times — is he actually going to do that on an expiring contract with his status in the league as a no-brainer max star having clearly taken a hit to the point where he’s not a no-brainer max star and he can’t do whatever he wants and know there’s not a four-year max deal on the other side?”

In the event a trade does not occur, it would be better for all sides involved if Harden cooperates with the Sixers and puts forth full effort on the court. From the Sixers’ perspective, keeping Harden and convincing him to play through the season would not be the worst-case scenario. Harden is still a good regular-season player, averaging 21 points while leading the league in assists per game (10.7) last season. His contract expires at the end of next season, giving Harden the freedom to go sign elsewhere.

The best outcome for both sides would be for Morey to get a few useful assets in return for trading Harden this offseason. However, that result is not currently close to coming to fruition. The Sixers are willing to run the risks of any potential blowback from Harden in order to wait things out and maximize the return on any trade. In the meantime, regardless of the ultimate outcome expect to see a continuing flow of reports about the Harden situation throughout however much longer it goes on for.

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