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Why it doesn't seem all that Brotherly in Philly these days
Wish me luck at the Rugby World Cup, but in the meantime, I have an obligation to make this both timely and spicy. So let’s get topical.
And what could be more topical than the ever-confounding antics of James Harden? Onward:
Yeah, yeah. The initial incident in question^^^ happened two weeks ago. You got me there. But the drama has continued apace, because of course it has:
Shoutout to Houston’s Jack Yates High School for hosting, by the way. Huge get.
Were it not for such paragons of chaos as Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook — both of whom he played with all too recently, which must’ve been… woah — Harden might be the biggest lightning rod in the NBA.
Like those first two, he is also a surefire Hall of Famer (I know — let’s not), an undeniable talent, and a one-man offense to which very few players in history compare.
However, Irving is really Harden’s only competition for the league’s Most Valuable Quitter award, and this latest exit might put him a length ahead.
Harden has now made three trade requests in as many years.
And while it’s hard to think of many player-GM relationships as strong as the Harden-Morey connection over the years, that appears to be over and done with.
Once you’re calling your ex a liar on a press tour through China with Adidas, the bridge is pretty well-cooked.
Quick aside — this doesn’t seem to be related, but the fact that this happened in China, where Morey is particularly unpopular after voicing his entirely defensible stance on the Hong Kong protests back in 2019, in response to which the NBA threw Morey under a highly lucrative bus to preserve its relationship with its second-biggest market, adds another level of intrigue to this wholly bizarre situation. I’ll hit the broader NBA-China dynamic in detail another time.
A Tale of Betrayal
To begin with, the line from A to B looks pretty straight.
Harden asked for a trade a few months ago, pretty specifically to the Clippers. A Westbrook reunion. Who says no!
When someone then leaked that the Sixers were not going to honor that request, Harden’s outburst in China quickly followed.
Disgruntled —> Not Getting Your Way —> More Disgruntled. Alright, I’m following so far.
A lot of people will stop and launch their takes from there. Relatively stable ground, to be sure. Harden is, by most accounts, something of a diva and a pretty savvy one at that.
He’ll show up out of shape, he’ll dog it in games. He’ll do what it takes to make an organization get rid of him, even if it makes him look bad.
He doesn’t quiet quit. He’s pretty loud about it.
So I, too, was prepared to call it. What’s there to question here? Harden’s at it again. Case closed.
But a closer look does reveal at least some grounds for that initial disgruntlement. And while I won’t go all the way to defending him, I think it’s worth taking into account, here in this complicated era of player empower/entitlement.
Let’s rewind to last offseason, when Harden — 32 at the time — declined his $47M player option and took a team-friendly pay cut to the tune of $15M.
It’s not like the guy was making peanuts, but that’s giving up about a third of your salary to help the squad.
This is the sort of thing we typically applaud aging star athletes for doing. Football fans will recall fêting (!!! A wild circumflex appeared!!!) Tom Brady for much the same.
The Sixers used that money to sign two veteran role players meant to bolster the playoff rotation, both of whom were Harden’s old Rockets teammates, as it happens: MMA-heavyweight-playing-basketball P.J. Tucker, and 3-and-D wing Danuel House.
That was a good-guy move on Harden’s part, but recent reporting suggests it came with a handshake agreement that the Sixers would sign Harden to a long-term deal the following year.
When it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, Harden made his trade request.
“It’s the American way… if this was your job and you took a pay-cut with the idea of being reimbursed later on for the company, and when that time came, they didn’t reimburse you, trust me, you will have the same mood.”
When Harden goes out of his way to call Morey a liar, it might go back to that.
There are other theories, of course. Bill Simmons has it having more to do with an even earlier move falling through, a return to the Rockets:
“[New Rockets head coach Ime] Udoka came in, he got the job at the end of April and they were like 'What about James Harden?' He said 'Yeah, we can think about it!' Then when he got the job, he said 'I don't fuckin’ want that guy,' and they threw their weight in front of it. That's what happened.
Harden thought he was going there, he thought he was getting a big contract, that's why he took less money to help Philly win for a year, because he knew he was going to leave. That's my theory and I think I'm right. Once that Houston thing got pulled out, and Daryl says 'We're going to trade you this summer,' he looks around and nobody fuckin’ wants James Harden!
I'm sorry, look around the league, who has space for a guy making $35 million? If you're Miami, would you trade Tyler Herro for him? No way! You're not doing that. Go through the league and try to find the James Harden trade. Go through every team, there's no trade for him. Philly knows that, they've told him that, and whether he fully realizes that or not, I don't know.”
Simmons’ take is less generous to Harden than Arenas', but both get at the same idea. He feels like he’s gotten snaked. Maybe he has.
It’s unclear if Harden knew he’d be getting the NBA’s enforcement attention when he made his move in China, but he’s sure got it now.
If a handshake deal did in fact exist, and the league can prove it, then they’ll have Morey on the hook for circumventing the salary cap.
They tend to look at that sort of like they do tampering: a lot of teams do it, but if they catch you, they’ll make an example of you to try and put the fear of Silver in everybody.
This is not an In Defense of James Harden column, but I’ll say this: I don’t really blame him for wanting to get out of the mess in Brooklyn. He wasn’t the main issue, if memory serves.
You can definitely quibble with his willingness to go there in the first place — quibble away — but I get wanting out when things went south. Everybody bailed, not just him.
As for his Houston exit, let’s just say I don’t endorse his methods.
Harden, to be doubly clear, is not my cup of tea. I don’t much care for his preferred style of basketball, in which relentless dribbling, cheap fouls, and scant defense have generally been the main ingredients.
His playoff record leaves you pretty frigid, though he did get up 3-2 on the 2018 Warriors before Chris Paul got hurt.
You could make a case that the Harden Rockets were unlucky to have never won a title. You’d want an ace attorney to do it, but it can be made.
For now, though, this is dicey. Handshakes aside, while I wouldn’t have given the guy prior assurances, the Sixers aren’t wrong to think Harden isn’t their best option to pair with Embiid. He isn’t.
They want him to play out the season because they lack alternatives, not because they think he’s the guy.
Maybe the Sixers could never have had it both ways, but you’d need an even better attorney than the first guy to argue they’ve handled this well.
The Beard wears disgruntlement more readily than a jersey at this point. It’s always possible that he could wake up and realize: Wait, playing with the reigning MVP and competing for a title isn’t the worst situation for me.
Maybe I should lean into that, lean into some more fouls, keep passing the ball, and play for that contract I want.
But what fun would that be?
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