Ex-Coach Kevin McHale Goes Deep on Sixers’ James Harden-Daryl Morey Fallout

Kevin McHale (right) with James Harden in 2015.

Getty Kevin McHale (right) with James Harden in 2015.

Some people are stunned at the turn of events in Philadelphia.

Kevin McHale, who coached James Harden for three years and 11 games in Houston while working under head of basketball ops Daryl Morey, is not one of them.

“Yeah, not so much,” McHale told Heavy Sports.

It’s been clear for a while that things aren’t all that fine in Philly with Harden and the 76ers. But they got even less so when the bearded bombardier stood on a court in China and launched a grenade at his boss this week.

After opting out and taking some $14.4 million less for the 2022-23 season, Harden was expecting or hoping for a significantly richer extension this summer. (And if it was indeed an expectation and it was based on a surreptitious promise from club president Morey, the league will be paying a visit from the top rope.)

When no new deal was forthcoming, Harden opted in to $35.6 million for the coming season and promptly demanded a trade. When the Sixers could allegedly find no satisfactory transaction, they said Harden would have to remain with the club that had the third-best record in the NBA last year.

Sufficiently horrified, Harden announced, “Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be a 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 a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”

McHale, who fashioned a Hall of Fame playing career with the Celtics before moving on to run and coach the Timberwolves and then spend four-plus years at the head of the Rockets’ bench, has a fair perspective on the principals in this standoff.

“I’ve been involved in a million meetings as a coach and GM, and, you know, players hear what they want to hear a lot of times. And Daryl’s smart,” McHale said. “My whole take on the thing is I think Daryl’s really hooked up with James, but I think ownership looked at it. Let’s face it, if the owner looks at you and says, ‘We’re signing that dude,’ you’re signing that dude. Story’s over. And if the owner looks at you and says, ‘We’re not signing that dude,’ you’re not signing him.

“James wanted a big extension from Philly, and Philly wouldn’t give it to him, and that’s not a Daryl decision. Daryl’s got a part of that, of course, but that’s an owner decision. So (Harden) was really mad, saying Daryl lied to him, but, you know, maybe they saw Game 7 against the Celtics (9 points on 3-for-11 shooting in a 24-point loss) and said, ‘I’m not interested in that.’

“I think Daryl would have probably tried to extend him and keep everything happy. But as far as trading him goes, you know, Daryl gets stubborn. It’s going to be interesting.”

Nick Nurse & Joel Embiid Pay for Harden Situation

Interesting in a five-car-pileup-on-turn-3 kind of way, unless feelings can be soothed. Or it can be understood that the Sixers can’t afford to take a less than reasonable deal to send Harden to the Clippers, his desired destination.

“The person I mostly feel bad for is Joel Embiid,” said McHale. “This guy’s coming off an MVP season, but when you’re team is fractured at the top — when one of the top two players is like, ‘I’m out of here. The guy’s a liar’ — you’ve got no chance of winning. It’s really hard to win when you’re tied together as a group, and it’s really hard to win four seven-game series. That’s with everybody tied together, everybody pulling together.

“I feel really bad for Nick Nurse, too. You’ve got a new coach coming in, and Nick’s like, ‘Oh, boy. This ought to be interesting.’ It just disrupts the entire flow of the team, and it’s totally unnecessary. You can do a lot of stuff behind the scenes. You don’t need to come out and just throw that out there. James started a forest fire with that.”

McHale has seen Harden play with matches before. He’d been at the Houston helm for a year when Morey acquired Harden from the Thunder in 2012.

“You know, when we first got him from Oklahoma City, he was actually pretty easy to coach really,” McHale told Heavy. “He came from being the third option in Oklahoma City with (Russell) Westbrook and (Kevin) Durant being ahead of him. He came in and we put in a couple of sets he liked that they ran there for him. He came off screens. He got off the ball. Never was a great lane runner. Never threw the ball ahead a lot. But he did more little things back then. Like he would set screens, come off screens, stuff like that.

“But as he started playing better, it became harder. He wanted the ball in his hands, he didn’t want to come off actions, he just started becoming more one-dimensional. ‘Give me the ball, put a 1-4 flat or give me a pick and roll, and just let me make every decision.’

“My feeling was and always has been that type of offense works in the regular season, but against good teams, they can take away something. It’s hard for them to take away two or three different things, but they can take away something. I said it about Phoenix when Steve Nash was there; it works great in the regular season, but when they can load up defensively and do different stuff, you have to have different prongs to your offense. So it became harder to get James to do a lot of the little things.

“I mean, if you watch Steph Curry, look at him set screens and look at the separation he gets when he sets a screen and just sprints out of it. Look at him coming off actions. He does that, and everybody gets open because of it. That became more of a problem with James.”

‘He Was Fat & Didn’t Feel Like Playing’

The problems grew in the 2015 playoffs when McHale benched Harden in the fourth quarter as Houston staved off elimination in Game 6 against the Clippers. Harden played well in the Game 7 victory, but the Rockets lost the conference finals in five to Golden State, which beat Cleveland for the NBA crown.

“The next year he came to camp, he was fat and didn’t feel like playing, and I got fired (11) games into the season,” McHale said. “He had a plan.”

Coach/GM relationships always seem to have their moments, and while others who’ve worked with Morey on many organizational levels have had issues with Morey, McHale was largely good with him.

“I liked working with Daryl, though sometimes I thought there was too much … just analytics,” he said. “There’s an odd thing in basketball that’s very hard to define. But if my skill set and your skill set really match and we really have great chemistry, you and I can beat two guys 2-on-2 when neither one of us could beat our guy 1-on-1. That’s the fun thing about basketball, and I always thought that could get lost. There were a lot of numbers with Daryl.

“I think he’s gotten better understanding that. And I’ll give Daryl and the owner, Leslie Alexander, credit. They said, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to get along with James because it’s a lot easier to replace you than it is James.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I hear ya. I agree.’ My philosophy has always been, would you rather lose your top player, or would you rather lose the other 13 guys? If you just start making rules that just allow the top guy to do whatever he wants to do, the other guys go, ‘Well, I guess being on time’s not that big of a deal. I guess showing up and playing hard’s not that big of a deal. I guess running back on defense is not that big of a deal.’

“But overall with James, it wasn’t that bad. The year he came to camp heavy and didn’t feel like playing, that was hard. I remember looking at him and saying, ‘Ugh, it’s going to take to December before he’s in shape.’ But whatever situation you’re in, you just have to find a way to work through it if you want to be successful. It’s the same with James and Daryl here. We’ll see.”

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