Over this past weekend, two interesting things happened. First, the Sixers announced that they are backing away from the trading table and plan to start the season with James Harden, followed on Sunday by The Beard’s response from China proclaiming that Morey was a liar and that he would never play for any Morey organization ever again. These two events are only interesting when seen through the lens of a bored 76ers fan who has had little to be excited about this summer because nothing of significance happened. The reality is that this latest outburst does absolutely nada to change whatever the outcome of this situation may be.
The entire episode is just a tantrum about how frustrated Harden is that nothing is working out the way that he had expected. It perfectly mirrors the talks that were had pre-draft when Harden wanted a four-year max contract but the 76ers saw that there was no market anywhere in the NBA for Harden to either go on his own or for the team to work a sign and trade.
No matter what happened Harden wasn’t going to get what he wanted.
This forced him to sign a one-year deal and trust that Daryl Morey would keep his word and trade him. There was no market for an expensive, aging Harden then, and there still is not one today. Nationally the response from fans and the media seems to be to overreact as if Harden has dropped some bomb on the team so they had better trade him or there will be trouble.
That reaction is exactly what Harden wants, but it’s silly in the grand scheme of things. The reality is that Harden has very few options that are beneficial to him and it’s high time that someone sat him down and explained to him how this needs to work. He holds very few cards and acting like a child hurts no one worse than him.
Harden’s agent, Troy Payne, recently stated that James was in the best shape of his life, doing two-a-day workouts all summer, and poised for an MVP season. That all sounds lovely, but the world has grown accustomed to tuning out the crazy ramblings of players like Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, so no one cares what is said in August. This is a “show me” league and if Harden feels disrespect that there is no trade market for him then the only way to rebuild his trade value is to show up and play great.
Daryl Morey is a highly respected GM and basketball mind with ice water running through his veins, so he’s not going to be bullied or shamed into making any move that he doesn’t think is smart. He will certainly never trade Harden for nickels on the dollar simply because the Beard makes a few threats about misbehaving. If anything, this recent announcement from Harden will have exactly the opposite effect of the one he wants. If Morey caves now and deals Harden for meaningless players or poor draft assets it will send the message to players, agents, and GMs around the league that he has no authority and players can walk all over him. It would be the end of his career, and Morey will sit Harden the whole year before he does that.
Harden is left with precious few real options.
One is to sit out, but due to a recent change in the CBA if he sits out for more than 30 days he would be forced to remain with the 76ers next season. Another is to show up, play terrific, and let Morey find teams who will deal fairly for him. The better he plays, the more teams will bring real offers to the table. The last option, the one the internet trolls seem to think gives Harden the power, is to show up and either be wildly out of shape or be such bothersome cancer that the team will be overjoyed simply to get rid of him for anything at all. This is where he is messing with the wrong GM.
If Harden shows up out of shape he runs the risk of reinjuring his fragile hamstrings, which is part of the reason his value isn’t higher in the first place. If he shows up and is a complete malcontent the Sixers will be forced to do what no one thinks they will: play him less, bring him off the bench, or pay him to stay home. New coach Nick Nurse will try hard to please Harden, but he will also pull the plug and move on if Harden continues to act out. He is not a young coach who will be bullied and he only wants guys who want to be here.
In the long run, Harden acting out could be crippling for the rest of his career. If he is moved to the bench he plays less, shows less, and is harder to move. If he is sent home the team will continue without him the same way they did without Ben Simmons, and Harden, at the age of 34, will be left to watch his health and skills deteriorate. No one can stay in basketball shape if they are not playing, and the longer he is away from the game the less the likelihood that he ever becomes the player that he was. At his age, if he lost the entire season he would be done as a relevant player.
In a game of NBA Chicken, if he dares the Sixers to try to play without him, they will. Until he can be moved a starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, Paul Reed, and Joel Embiid sounds pretty fun and exciting. They won’t be great, but they could play the Miami Heat game of hiding around the 6th or 7th playoff spot in the hopes of making a deal at the All-Star break, catching fire, and making a run in the playoffs. This might be better for the team in terms of growing and developing Maxey and Reed.
The X-factor in all of this, of course, is Joel Embiid.
Does he endorse the plan to refuse to move Harden until the right deal comes along or does he want to get rid of him and just take anything? He is nearing the end of his window of superiority and is in Championship-or-bust mode, so keeping the big man happy is just as big a priority as contending. This could go either way but it’s not hard to imagine him agreeing with Morey if he can be sold on the idea that it will be better to wait for talent than settle for peanuts.
The way I see it, Harden only has one positive option and it involves him putting on a Sixers uniform, eating his words, and playing for Morey. The power move in his control is to tell Morey and the Sixers before training camp that he is going to play his butt off for the team, but only until January or February. New Year’s Day is a nice target. After that point, he will calmly sit on his terms and be finished playing until he is traded. This move tells everyone on the team exactly where he stands so that no one feels hurt when he leaves, shows the league that an All-Star point guard is available if they feel like making a deal, and makes him look less like a whiny teenager and more like a player who can be the missing piece to a contender.
This whole situation has been handled poorly by both sides and could easily blow up in someone’s face, but it still holds hope. If Harden gets moved to a team he can stomach and the Sixers can get back players who will improve their playoff chances, this whole ugly summer disappears. For everyone to get what they want, both sides have to try to work together and pretend to get along. If Harden wants to leave, it’s time to shut up and play ball.