As the Philadelphia 76ers prepare to tip off their 2023-24 season on Thursday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, they appear no closer to resolving James Harden’s trade request.
“At least for the foreseeable future,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday, the Los Angeles Clippers “are stepping back from the trade talks about James Harden. They are essentially pausing them.”
The Clippers’ stance makes sense. Now that the start of the regular season has arrived, they don’t want half of their roster worrying about being traded after any given upcoming game. The Clippers will likely want to see how far Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can carry them—and whether they can stay healthy—before increasing their offer and making an all-in move for Harden.
That leaves the Sixers and Harden in an uncomfortable partnership for the time being.
Harden initially requested a trade to the Clippers in June after picking up his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season. In mid-August, he called team president Daryl Morey “a liar,” seemingly regarding his trade request remaining unfulfilled.
Morey made his stance clear throughout the offseason: He’ll only trade Harden for either a similar star who helps the Sixers remain a championship contender or a package of draft picks and players that can help the Sixers land the next star via trade.
The Clippers, knowing they’re the only bidder for Harden at the moment, don’t feel compelled to meet that asking price. They’ve reportedly offered one unprotected first-round pick and a pick swap and expiring contracts, according to Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic, but 27-year-old swingman Terance Mann has been deemed off-limits thus far. That appears to be one of the main sticking points between the two teams.
Wojnarowski said the Clippers may revisit Harden trade talks down the road, but the Sixers might regret not acting sooner.
“I think the Sixers have to wonder, ‘Have we already gotten the best offer we’re gonna get for James Harden?’ Especially as the games start to peel off the calendar,” he said. “And if you’re the Clippers, why offer more when there’s fewer and fewer games that James Harden can play for you?”
The Sixers might be banking on other teams getting off to a slow start and perhaps circling back on the possibility of a Harden trade. Heck, the Chicago Bulls might already be there after Game 1 of the season.
Come Dec. 15, most players who signed in free agency this past offseason will become trade-eligible, too. That could expand the list of Harden suitors just by opening salary-matching possibilities that don’t exist today.
If another team does jump into the mix, the Clippers will have to weigh whether to increase their offer or if they’re fine with their non-Harden options. They might concede defeat to another team, unwilling to gamble that many of their long-term assets for a possible one-year rental, but that could also depend on how their first 15-20 games go.
In the meantime, the Sixers will have to weather whatever storm Harden brings upon their shores.
Harden had been back in Houston for the past week-and-a-half for what the team called a personal matter, but he returned to practice Wednesday ahead of their flight to Milwaukee. At that point, the Sixers reportedly directed him to stay at their practice facility and work on ramping back up into game shape, per Wojnarowski.
Things reportedly escalated from there, according to John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia:
Harden likely returned to the Sixers ahead of the season opener to avoid the $390,000 fine he’d incur for any game he misses this season. Since the Sixers are the ones who kept him off this season-opening two-game road trip, they likely won’t fine him for missing either game.
From there, it’s anyone’s guess what happens.
Harden needs to be careful with how he proceeds, though. The Sixers have made it clear that they have a plan both with and without him this season. They need to test how Tyrese Maxey fares as the full-time point guard to decide whom they can pair him with long-term. They could use Harden’s absence test the viability of a Maxey-De’Anthony Melton starting backcourt before the latter becomes a free agent next summer.
It might be in Harden’s best interest to show up and show out to attract more suitors, too. If the Sixers keep him beyond the Feb. 8 trade deadline, they’d hold his Bird rights heading into free agency next offseason. That means they’d be the only team that could exceed the salary cap to sign him.
As of right now, seven teams are projected to have more than $20 million of cap space next summer, per Yossi Gozlan of HoopsHype: six teams in some stage of a rebuild and the Sixers. Harden’s only chance to join a contender at that point would be working on the Sixers with a sign-and-trade—although teams over either salary-cap apron couldn’t acquire him that way—or taking either a mid-level exception or a veteran-minimum deal from another team.
Harden is understandably focused on securing what could be his last long-term NBA contract. He wasn’t certain what the Sixers planned to offer him this past summer, per Amick, which caused him to pick up his player option to work on a trade instead. The Sixers’ party line all offseason is that they avoided early contact with Harden and every other free agent after getting punished for tampering twice last summer.
Harden recently told reporters that his decade-plus-long relationship with Morey couldn’t be repaired because he lost trust in him. If the Sixers assure him that they’ll reward him with a hefty contract after this season, it’s unclear how—if at all—that would change his stance. But at this point, it’s hard to envision him remaining in Philadelphia beyond this year.
Harden and the Sixers figure to be locked in a chess match for the days, weeks and/or months to come. If Harden becomes a distraction at any point, the Sixers seem inclined to send him home to avoid disrupting the rest of the team. Otherwise, they’d likely welcome him back with open arms as long he gave full effort.
The Ben Simmons situation two years ago gave the Sixers some experience in this department, but a Harden trade request is the final exam. How they handle Harden’s reaction to this Clippers news and the ensuing fallout could shape the beginning of their season.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.