But another piece of ammunition could be aimed at the club if things are not worked out. A very tall one.
The Players Association said Tuesday it will file a grievance and have an appeal of the ruling heard by an arbitrator, charging that Harden’s statement about the team’s head of basketball operations — “Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of” — did not violate the rule against public trade demands.
The good news for the Sixers in all of this SO FAR is that the league, in its ruling, stated that its investigation determined that Harden’s comments referred to his “belief that the 76ers would not accommodate his request to be traded.”
The positive there is that the NBA seems to be leaving alone or has answered the question of whether there was some type of handshake/wink agreement of future benefit when Harden opted out of his contract before last season and accepted some $14.4 million less for 2022-23.
“I don’t know what was done last year with his contract when he took less money and if anything was promised,” a Sixers source told Heavy Sports. “I’m pretty sure that’s something that’s being looked into now. If there was some kind of agreement that wasn’t met, then this could get messy.”
Joel Embiid Could Be the Next Domino
In any case, as long as these issues are festering, a hoops hazmat team may be needed in Philly at some point in the not too distant future.
“I think there’s another domino that might fall here before long if this stuff keeps going,” the source said.
Asked to elaborate, he said, “Well, the big fella. Eventually he’s gonna get fed up with this.”
Reigning league MVP Joel Embiid has never made it past the Eastern Conference semifinals in his seven active years with the 76ers, and after living through the Ben Simmons drama, he may not be excited about a Harden-Morey reality show.
A number of sources with ties to the club have said Embiid’s motivation leans more toward personal than team goals, and the Sixers source said, “There’s a lot of truth to that. But the guy is a legit major force in this league, and there ain’t too many of those. And now that he’s got his MVP, the next thing a guy looks at is legacy — and legacy is all about winning.”
Harden, meanwhile, has made it as far as the NBA Finals, coming off the bench for Oklahoma City in a 4-1 series loss to Miami in 2012. His scoring and shooting numbers fell off in those meetings with the Heat, and the narrative hasn’t been great for the 6-5 guard when it comes to the postseasons since.
“There may be a team that goes for him at some point,” one Eastern Conference executive told Heavy Sports. “But he costs you a lot of money, and he can obviously be a major headache when he’s not happy. This is the third team he’s demanded a traded from.
“And if you’re looking to build a team to win everything, you have to have questions. The bottom line is you’d rather be playing against him in the playoffs than have him on your team. No question he can get you numbers, and the averages in the playoffs can make it look not that bad. But the playoffs are different, and that’s when he can cost you a lot on defense and, in general, how he wants to play with the ball in his hands.”
Once Upon a Time, the Sixers Were a Happy Lot
Yet things appeared to be going well for the Sixers last season when they had the third-best record in the league and were ready to advance to the East finals after rolling up a 3-2 lead against Boston.
As for Harden’s temperament during the year, a source said, “He had his moments, but I thought for the most part he was fine … at least he put on the good teammate hat. I mean, he had a good regular season. He led the league in assists and was over 20 points a game.”
And Harden had 45 points as the Embiid-less Sixers won the series opener in Boston.
“Obviously he was really good in Game 1 against Boston, but things changed after that,” said the club source.
What was different in Game 2 is that Joe Mazzulla had Jaylen Brown pick up Harden full court, forcing him to take a long time to get the Sixers into their offense or making him give the ball up.
“That was the difference in the series, the whole difference,” he said. “As soon Jaylen started guarding him in the backcourt, that changed everything. A lot of people don’t talk about that, but that was a huge part of that series. And Jaylen, to his credit, he took on that challenge. He was clapping his hands and he was into it. And then that allowed (Marcus) Smart to roam around and do other things, which was important because Embiid was back.
“And James is one of those guys who, as soon as he gives the ball up, he’s not going to work very hard to get it back. That’s why he doesn’t want to give it up.”
The pressing question for the 76ers now is whether Harden will give up his fight to be traded and allow the team some measure of harmony as it makes its 2023-24 journey.