We may be entering uncharted waters regarding the James Harden situation in Philadelphia.
The 10-time All-Star spoke at an Adidas media event in China earlier today and had some choice words about 76ers president Daryl Morey.
“Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of," Harden said. "Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of again."
James Harden: “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be part of an organization that he’s a part of. Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be part of an organization that he’s a part of again.” 😳 pic.twitter.com/r2Gv07wAH7— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) August 14, 2023
The root of Harden’s displeasure with Morey and the front office comes from the team’s unwillingness to offer him a long-term maximum-level contract extension, according to Wojnarowski.
The Sixers had preliminary conversations with the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden’s desired destination, but no deal came close to materializing. This was partially due to the Clippers' unwillingness to part ways with Terance Mann as well as Morey's insistence in getting a star-level return for a player of Harden’s caliber.
Despite being reportedly taken off the trade market, Harden’s desire to play elsewhere has not changed, and he still does not plan to report to training camp, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick. Given his recent comments, one would certainly not expect Harden to change his mind anytime soon.
Harden has already shown his ability to “stir the pot” when it comes to forcing his way to a new destination. In 2020, Harden requested a trade from the Houston Rockets and when they didn't deal him prior to the start of the season, he responded by showing up late and out-of-shape to training camp and making disparaging comments toward his teammates once the season started. These actions ultimately led to the Rockets dealing the star guard to Brooklyn, where he asked out again just a year later.
However, Harden’s request out of Philadelphia differs for two main reasons: his contract and Morey.
In June, he unexpectedly accepted his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season and, in turn, asked to be sent elsewhere. Under this contract agreement, Harden is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. If the star guard is adamant about not playing again for the Sixers, he may face some challenges in holding out of training camp.
As relayed by ESPN’s front office insider Bobby Marks, the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement has specific guidelines for players withholding their services in the final year of their contract.
“Withholding services: A player who withholds playing services called for by a Player Contract for more than thirty (30) days after the start of the last season covered by his Player Contract shall be deemed not to have ‘complet[ed] his Player Contract by rendering the playing services called for thereunder,” Marks conveyed on Twitter. “Accordingly, such a player shall not be a Veteran Free Agent and shall not be entitled to negotiate or sign a Player Contract with any other professional basketball team unless and until the Team for which the player last played expressly agreed otherwise.”
In simpler terms, if Harden chooses to hold out for more than 30 days into the regular season, he will no longer be able to hit free agency next summer because he would not have completed the terms of his contract (unless the Sixers let him). Not to mention, the star guard would incur a significant amount of fines if he has a lengthy holdout. To my knowledge, this clause has never needed to be applied in NBA history to this point.
Harden may have no choice but to show up for training camp due to these restrictions. But would the Sixers even want him at camp if he is going to be a nuisance, much like he was in Houston back in 2020? Just two years ago, Philadelphia had to deal with the Ben Simmons situation, where he created a toxic atmosphere that led to the organization sending him home until his trade request was met later that season.
However, the reason Simmons’ trade request lasted all the way through the 2021-22 trade deadline is because Morey insisted on a star-level return for the young three-time All-Star. The trade just so happened to reunite him with his old colleague from his days in Houston: James Harden.
Morey and Harden’s relationship dates back to when Houston acquired Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the summer of 2012. The two were able to reach two Conference Finals during their run together and were presumed to have a good working relationship. Morey even acquiesced to Harden’s request to trade for his former OKC teammate Russell Westbrook, a move that did not prove to be successful.
When Harden was brought to Philadelphia, he worked with Morey to sign a team-friendly contract during the summer of 2022 to leave room for the team to sign valuable pieces like PJ Tucker and Danuel House. As part of this deal, it has been suggested that the team gave Harden a “wink-wink” deal on a new long-term contract that would’ve been extended this past offseason (which might explain Harden's comment).
Given the lack of any talks on a long-term deal, the relationship has since soured to the point of Harden directly calling Morey a liar. But that shouldn’t stop Morey and the Sixers from trying to bring Harden back into the fold.
The only solution for Philly if they wish to compete for a championship in 2023-24 is bringing Harden back. The trade market has made clear that a Harden return package would not meet either of the Sixers' desired outcomes of keeping them in title contention or keeping cap flexibility for next summer. If they let Harden hold out, triggering the Withholding Services Clause or even allowing him reach free agency next summer, they would relinquish much of their cap flexibility that they hope to have next offseason.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the other domino in the City of Brotherly Love: Joel Embiid. If the 76ers pull the trigger on a Harden deal, they may have to waste a prime year for Embiid, which will only stretch his patience to win a title in Philadelphia thinner. Remember, earlier this offseason, Embiid said: "I just want to win a championship, whatever it takes. I don't know where that's going to be, whether that's in Philly or anywhere else, I just want to have a chance to accomplish that."
Lastly, anytime a player bashes a front-office member in a very public way, the league office should take notice. Expect them to monitor this situation closely to see if there were any possible under-the-table discussions, promises or agreements that violated league rules, similar to a situation that occurred in the early 2000s with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Joe Smith. If the NBA discovers there was any kind of agreement on a future long-term deal between Harden and the Sixers prior to him signing his team-friendly deal in 2021, then Philadelphia could face serious punishment.
Overall, this situation has become an absolute mess. Both sides have some form of leverage over the other, and neither seems to be in the “right.” The NBA seemingly never sleeps, and it seems as though we will have to keep an eye on what Harden or the 76ers' next moves might be.