Objectively, the Philadelphia 76ers are in a rough spot with the James Harden situation. They also may have made things worse by electing not to have him travel with the team on the opening road trip, despite Harden being willing to do so. Despite these things, the Sixers must hold on to James Harden until a better offer comes through.
To be clear, this is not a proclamation that the relationship can be salvaged and that everything will be fine; Harden is still a generational disaster come playoff time and will certainly be leaving the team in the offseason if the team does not trade him. Other teams should not be interested in him, but they probably will be.
Fans who have to suffer through the Sixers and Harden experience often think that they are the only team panicking, but this is not true. Every year, teams will disappoint themselves and make moves out of desperation. All it takes is for the Sixers to outlast one or two of those teams for another organization to talk themselves into trading for the former MVP.
As of now, the only team to have shown “interest” is the Los Angeles Clippers. Interest in this case is defined as the Clippers being the only team to have lowballed the Sixers thus far. Bad players that are expiring, a first-round pick from a contender, and a pick swap that likely will not convey is not a serious offer. The refusal to include Terrance Mann is egregious and the Sixers should not waste their time with the Clippers until they make a real offer.
While clearly not a contender and despite the loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers proved that they will be just fine in the regular season without Harden. Joel Embiid always starts slow, Tyrese Maxey looks like he has taken another step, Tobias Harris looks more comfortable under Nick Nurse, and Kelly Oubre is the best former Kansas Jayhawk on the team (ok that one may not be true). All of this combined with the fact that Harden has actually shown a willingness to suit up for the team will keep the Sixers afloat.
It is far from an ideal situation, but it is better than the Ben Simmons situation. While Simmons may have had more value due to age and being under team control for multiple years, Harden has at least shown a willingness to play basketball. Even with all of his flaws, Harden is a regular season floor raiser. When he requested out of Houston, he was still productive early in the season for the Rockets.
His track record suggests that he can still help the team out enough in the regular season that another team could be intrigued by bringing him on and could usurp the Clippers’ offer, even if they plan on Harden being a rental.
Teams such as the Raptors or the Magic could overachieve and bring along Harden as a veteran point guard to fill their current voids just to make some noise in the playoffs. We have seen in the past that teams are willing to pay a fair price for a rental, and even convince themselves that they can either retain him or that it will work for them for one year.
The two teams mentioned above are just archetypes, several teams could fill this role. There is also the possibility that a contender underwhelms and panics into a Harden trade. If the Clippers are not looking like title contenders a few months into the season and they realize Terrance Mann is not the second coming of Michael Jordan, they could easily improve their offer. Other teams like the Lakers or the Heat tend to also be in the hunt for stars and they are not usually regular-season juggernauts.
The Lakers are in need of a point guard, especially with how they are using LeBron James this year, and it is obviously a destination Harden approves of. The Heat just missed out on Damian Lillard, if desperate, could they pivot toward James Harden? Despite the current talent disparity, Harden and Lillard do share overlapping skill sets.
The point is, while the Clippers may look like the only team for Harden at the moment, a new team will arise as the season goes on. Even when the Sixers traded Ben Simmons, the Nets were not considered a possibility to start the season. The NBA can be unpredictable, and some teams will exceed expectations while others will disappoint.
Some may argue that keeping Harden around is detrimental to the team as he is a major disruption. While there may be some truth in that, if they do not get an adequate return for James Harden, this team has no chance at a title and the countdown on an Embiid trade request begins or the team could look to trade Maxey. Unfortunately, the Sixers have made a myriad of errors over the years and do not have any more to make. They have to get the Harden trade right or they will likely be looking at another rebuild.