For the third time in three years, 10-time All-Star James Harden is looking to change addresses. He wants out of the Sixers (and apparently aims to land with the Clippers). To be sure, it’s his prerogative to ask — even demand — to be traded, never mind that he still has one year left on his contract. For some reason, he doesn’t think it’s in his best interest to stay despite his obvious fit with newly minted Most Valuable Player awardee Joel Embiid, and despite having led the National Basketball Association in assists through the 2022-23 season.
Ironically, Harden could have signed for the max when he inked a new deal last year. Instead, he acceded to the wishes of Sixers general manager Daryl Morey, with whom he has a relationship dating back to their Rockets days; he took a significant pay cut that allowed the red, white, and blue to sign a couple more vital cogs and strengthen their competitiveness. As things turned out, not even his sacrifice enabled them to get very far in the playoffs; they lasted only until the conference semifinals. And although they took the highly touted Celtics to seven games, he did not — could not — play well enough to help steer them to victory.
In fact, Harden had an up-and-down postseason that served as fuel for critics. As well as he played in a handful of matches, he proved ineffectual in others; his disappearing acts once again lent credence to arguments that he’s like a box of chocolates when the going gets tough; with him, you never really know what you’re getting in the crunch. That said, he was apparently angling for an extension that he believed reflected his worth. At the very least, he thought Morey would back him up — especially given his willingness to help the Sixers claim more cap room last year.
Not that Harden should be overvalued for his previous acquiescence. With the new collective bargaining agreement kicking in and salary cap restrictions meting punitive damages to the profligate, the Sixers cannot but be fiscally prudent. Needless to say, he has a different perspective, and is now forcing his way out. The bad news is that the market can no longer bear what he seeks; potential suitors are likewise compelled to get ample bang for the buck under the new financial regime. It likewise doesn’t help that he’s already 33 and no longer a foundation franchises can build on; for instance, it’s why the Rockets backed up the Brinks truck for the extremely inefficient Fred VanVleet instead of him.
In all likelihood, Harden will have no choice but to stay with the Sixers until he becomes an unrestricted free agent next year. Granted, nothing is etched in stone; league annals are replete with examples of player movements not even the most astute observes saw coming. Until that happens to him, however, conventional wisdom sees him running it back with Embiid. Hopefully, he’ll keep engaged if for no other reason than to prop up his worth in a contract year. Else, it’ll be a long, long campaign of What Ifs and Could Have Beens in the City of Brotherly Love.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.