PHILADELPHIA (AP) — James Harden vowed he would never play for a franchise run by 76ers team president Daryl Morey.
The Sixers learned Harden really may stick to his word, after the disgruntled guard skipped Philadelphia’s entire preseason slate in the wake of his trade demand. Harden — officially away because of a personal matter — did not practice with the Sixers this week and the three-time NBA scoring champion was not at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night for the finale against Atlanta.
Harden’s No. 1 jersey still hung at the arena — only on sale at team stores for $139.
The Sixers are set to open their season Thursday against Milwaukee. They play at Toronto before the Oct. 29 home opener against Portland. Coach Nick Nurse, in his first season after five years with Toronto, is preparing for games without Harden.
“I think I’ve been preparing for it all this week, for sure,” Nurse said Friday. “Lots of thought has gone into him not playing and preparing the team that way this summer. I keep saying, there is another plan if something changes. I don’t think it’s affected us very much, at all. We’ve just gone out and played and we’re going to have to go out play the way we’re trying to play. I think that is without (him) until something changes.”
Harden and the 76ers are no strangers to turmoil. Harden’s wildly successful tenure in Houston — where he first teamed with Morey, then the general manager — included the scoring titles and 2018 NBA MVP award. But his relationship with Houston eventually soured and he forced his way to Brooklyn in 2021. He joined Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and formed a Big 3 that was never very big. The trio was socked by injuries and other controversies (notably, Irving’s stance on the COVID-19 vaccine) and they played only 18 games together before, yup, Harden wanted out.
So it was off to Philly at the 2022 trade deadline, where he was reunited with Morey and seemed comfortable in his role as a playmaker while the offense ran through Joel Embiid. Harden even declined in June 2022 his $47.4 million option, saying he wanted to give the 76ers flexibility to improve their roster and compete for a championship. He signed a deal worth slightly over $68 million, paying him about $33 million last season with a $35 million player option for this season.
The Sixers were able to sign P.J. Tucker to the full mid-level exception and Danuel House to the bi-annual exception because Harden declined his option. Both players are still on the Sixers.
Here’s where circumstances get tricky. Part of Harden’s complaint stems from his belief he should have earned a long-term contract with the Sixers after last season. It never came, thus the trade demand. Harden could have declined the option and decided to try for free agency. The player known as The Beard instead picked up his $35.6 million option with the 76ers for this season, with the desire to force a trade. Harden preferred a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers but those talks — and talks with other teams — went nowhere.
Harden unloaded on Morey at an August promotional event in China.
“ Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said at the event. “Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”
The NBA fined Harden $100,000 for his comments. The league talked to Harden as part of its investigation and confirmed that his comments referenced his belief that the 76ers would not grant his trade request.
In large part to not violate parts of his contract that could affect free agency under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and to show he’s ready to play should he get traded to the Clippers, Harden eventually showed up late to training camp and did practice with the 76ers at their New Jersey complex. He later said he lost trust in Morey.
“I wanted to be here and retire a Sixer, and the front office didn’t have that in their future plans,” Harden said last week. “It’s literally out of my control. It’s something I didn’t want to happen to be in this position.”
Nurse said it wasn’t a waste of time — “it’s cool” — to even bother to practice this preseason with Harden in attendance.
Now Nurse, Morey, Embiid and the rest of the Sixers are set to navigate a season — which more or less hinges on the outcome of the Harden situation — with the promise of more off-court theatrics ahead.
“There really doesn’t feel like there’s a need to address anything,” Nurse said Friday. “Listen, if you’re not fully aware of what’s going on … I think you’re probably asleep a lot or something.”
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