Entering the 2023 offseason, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey viewed re-signing James Harden as the team’s top priority, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com writes in an in-depth look at the Harden saga. In fact, sources tell Shelburne that the “unofficial” reason the team moved on from head coach Doc Rivers was an awareness that Harden didn’t want to play for him again.
If Harden had declined his $35.6MM player option and become a free agent, he would’ve been eligible for contract worth up to $213MM over four years. According to Shelburne, the veteran was hoping for – and expecting – an offer in that range. However, since the Rockets‘ interest in Harden waned following their hiring of Ime Udoka, the former MVP didn’t have the leverage to extract that sort of offer from Philadelphia.
Unsure what sort of offer might be awaiting him when free agency opened, Harden attempted to touch base with Morey to determine the club’s position, but the 76ers – who were forced to forfeit two future second-round picks due to free agency gun jumping a year ago – weren’t willing to negotiate early.
“James felt like Daryl was ghosting him,” a source close to Harden told ESPN. “He felt betrayed.”
Harden and his representatives ultimately decided to take the guaranteed money by picking up his player option rather than being forced into a position where they’d have to accept whatever offer the Sixers made in free agency. The club was “stunned” by the decision, per Shelburne, who said the front office subsequently attempted to convey that it had only been “distant” with Harden leading up to free agency because of last year’s penalties. However, that did little to mend the relationship.
“James takes things very personally,” a second source close to Harden said to Shelburne. “When he feels like he’s been wronged, he can be very stubborn.”
Here are a few more highlights from Shelburne’s story, which is worth checking out in full:
- Morey assured Harden’s camp that he would make a good faith effort to trade the 34-year-old and had initial talks with the Clippers and Knicks, league sources tell ESPN. However, when it became clear that no potential trade partners were willing to give up the sort of assets Philadelphia was seeking, the team informed Harden that it planned to hang onto him, a decision he didn’t take well.
- Harden and Rivers had multiple “flare-ups” throughout the 2022/23 season, as Shelburne details. One such incident occurred in late February, following a pair of home losses to the Celtics and Heat. The Sixers were scheduled to play in Miami two days after falling at home to the Heat, and Harden opted to travel separately from the team to take advantage of the nightlife, which didn’t sit well with Rivers and some of his teammates. Rivers brought up the incident a few days later during a team meeting, specifically mentioning some of the players who were unhappy, which made for an “uncomfortable” situation, Shelburne explains.
- Harden, whose numbers dipped a little as he accepted a secondary role in Philadelphia, was upset that he wasn’t initially named an All-Star in 2023, says Shelburne. While commissioner Adam Silver was still prepared to name Harden as an injury replacement for Kevin Durant, he wanted assurances that the star guard would show up and play. “Days went by” without an answer from Harden, who was “pouting,” according to Shelburne. Pascal Siakam was eventually chosen as Durant’s replacement instead.
- Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey have each expressed to the Sixers that they’re OK waiting out the Harden saga, at least for the time being, sources tell ESPN. Both players are still on good terms with their teammate — Embiid invited Harden to his wedding in July, according to Shelburne.