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James Harden unlikely to join the Pacific Division

The 76ers announced they are giving up on trade talks with the Clippers for The Beard

Philadelphia 76ers v Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry talks to James Harden, who might be in street clothes a lot next season
Photo by Kavin Mistry/Getty Images

For years, James Harden had a Western Conference rivalry with the Golden State Warriors. From 2015-19, the Warriors beat the Rockets in the playoffs four times, twice in the Western Conference Finals, with Houston pushing Golden State to the brink in 2018 and 2019. But according to Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey, he has no plans to trade Harden back to the West any time soon.

Harden made his third trade demand in less than three years this June, after Philadelphia wouldn’t give him the long-term contract he expected. He opted into his $35.6 million contract for 2022-23 and simultaneously requested a trade, ideally to the Los Angeles Clippers. Six weeks later, after some half-hearted trade attempts - ESPN reports that Philly’s “asking price was steep” - the Sixers announced they’re giving up on trade talks, and expect Harden to join the team for training camp.

For his part, Harden says he has “no plans of taking part in training camp.”

It’s a rough time for Morey and Harden, who spent eight years together in Houston and a year and a half in Philadelphia. Morey championed Harden at any opportunity, including some aggressive lobbying for the MVP award that may have forever poisoned the NBA awards races. Of course, it could also be the full-court press Morey & Co. gave for Joel Embiid’s campaign last year, that almost caused a war between Denver Nuggets fans supporting Nikola Jokic and rabid Embiid supporters online.

Harden may have overestimated Morey’s esteem for him. Or he feels betrayed. Harden opted out of his $47.4 million player option for 2022-23 last summer, in order to free up money for Philadelphia to sign free agents. He took a sizable pay cut, signing a $33 million deal, with a player option for $35.6 million, and the Sixers promptly signed his former Houston teammates P.J. Tucker and Danuel House.

But Harden clearly believed that the 76ers would reward his financial sacrifice with a long-term contract. Or, he thought that interest from the Rockets could force a bidding war. Instead, Houston moved on to signing Fred VanVleet and wildly overpaying Dillon Brooks, and Philadelphia didn’t make Harden a long-term offer at all.

While he led the NBA in assists last season and twice put up 40-point performances in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics, Harden is also turning 34 in two weeks. He might simply not be worth the same superstar money on the open market. But at the same time, it seems very likely that the Sixers made The Beard think they’d take care of him when he gave so much money back last summer.

So for the second time in three years, Philadelphia is prepared to enter the season with a disgruntled player who demanded a trade and threatened not to play. In 2021, Ben Simmons didn’t play a single game while Morey waited him out, and eventually traded him for...James Harden. However, sitting out isn’t really Harden’s style. When he’s unhappy, he generally shows it by partying in Las Vegas and Houston, putting on weight, and refusing to shoot during games. In Houston, he also started a fight in practice.

As for the Clippers, it’s not clear if they were unwilling to trade for Harden, or if they simply weren’t able to meet Philadelphia’s asking price. While the Clippers have useful role players on expiring contracts that could help the 76ers (Robert Covington, Marcus Morris Sr., Terance Mann), that’s not an exciting return.

Also depressing Harden’s trade value? The NBA’s new rule punishing flopping with technical free throws. Harden is one of the game’s finest thespians, but if he can’t whip his head around or flail his arms, all while being completely untouched, can he really be James Harden?

So the Clippers will go into the season relying on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to stay healthy, Russell Westbrook to turn back the clock, and Harden to make himself such a distraction in Philadelphia that the 76ers send him away in frustration. But for now, the Warriors will only see their longtime bearded rival twice a year. If he’s even suiting up for the 76ers then.

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