Promises, sacrifices and betrayal: Inside the feud between James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers


FOR A GUY who had an off night, James Harden is in a good mood as he leaves Arena. It’s Jan. 17, and his Philadelphia 76ers have just finished a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers and the LA Clippers in a two-game set over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend to improve to 28-16 on the season. More importantly, though, after fellow superstar Joel Embiid missed 11 of the Sixers’ first 42 games and Harden 15, the team is finally in position to gauge what it could be.

“This team is definitely the best chance I’ve had to win,” Harden tells ESPN as he walks out of the arena. He is alone and unhurried, despite having the rest of the night free in Los Angeles. “It’s still not perfect,” he says. “It’s still constant communication.

“The faster we can get going and catch a rhythm, we got a really good chance.”

Harden says all of this on a night he shot 1-for-6, with just six points and nine assists, snapping a six-game streak in which he had posted double figures in both categories. He was fine, he insisted throughout his time in Philadelphia, with sacrificing his offensive game. In doing so, though, he wanted to make sure everyone understood: This was a choice, not a result.

Back in the arena, Harden continues. “Obviously I’m capable of [scoring] more,” he says, making eye contact to emphasize his point. “But I’m playing the right way, just doing whatever’s necessary to win. That’s what it’s all about.”

The Sixers won the game because the Clippers had no answer for Embiid, who finished with 41 points in 33 minutes and after the game credited Harden for “making it easy” for him.

In terms of momentum and messaging from Philadelphia’s two superstars — any two superstars, really — this is as good as it gets. Both players talking about how much they appreciated each other. One, after a dominant performance, recognizing the other’s role in making it so.

But the line between positive self-talk and talking yourself into something is a fine one.

Harden teetered along it all season. He came to Philadelphia thinking Sixers general manager Daryl Morey would help him recreate his best years with the Houston Rockets, this time with an MVP-caliber center alongside him and a championship coach in Doc Rivers guiding him.

Morey built his reputation by believing in Harden and wasn’t about to stop now. Embiid respected Harden’s game and knew he needed him. Rivers did, too, but understood it isn’t always about talent or belief. Championships are borne out of a special alchemy of timing, sacrifice and alignment that’s hard to predict, much less engineer.

But Harden had also come to Philadelphia thinking he would be compensated like he used to be. After his first season in Philadelphia, Harden took approximately $14 million less than what he was due in a player option so the team could sign veteran forward P.J. Tucker away from the Miami Heat.

It was sold by the Sixers as “sacrifice” to both Harden and the public — a line he dutifully repeated throughout the season.

“You have to sacrifice to get to where you’ve never been,” Harden said that night in Los Angeles. “I’m in a really good space on the court and off the court.”

But Harden was savvy, too. He knew the reason he was “sacrificing” was that the Sixers didn’t feel comfortable offering him a new maximum contract worth upward of $270 million, sources said, after the way he played following a midseason trade from the Brooklyn Nets. They were still evaluating him, much like he had been evaluating the Nets a year earlier when they offered him a max deal and he said he wanted to see how things went.

This wasn’t so much a sacrifice as mutual unspoken recognition. The dream of recreating the glory days in Houston had probably already passed them by. But they played it out anyway, the Sixers never quite sure Harden was worth the max he sought, and Harden suspecting they felt that way.

So the “sacrifice” narrative was created. And it worked for everybody — until it didn’t.

What Harden didn’t realize was how little he’d be left with when it all came apart.

THE FIRST HINT that Harden’s “sacrifice” wasn’t being appreciated, much less rewarded in the way he hoped, came in late January when he wasn’t voted to be an All-Star. Harden, who had made 10 consecutive All-Star games, was dismayed at the snub, sources said.

It didn’t help that his former Nets teammates Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had both been voted in as starters by the fans, media and players, while Harden was a distant fourth among Eastern Conference guards behind Irving, Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown.

Still, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was prepared to name him as an injury replacement, sources said. Harden just had to give assurances that he would show up and play in the game.

Days went by without Harden’s answer. He was pouting.

By the time Harden sent word that he would accept the invitation, Silver had moved on, naming Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam as the replacement for an injured Durant.

Because of the way Harden handled the situation, the Sixers did not engage in much damage control afterward. They spoke up for him publicly, calling attention to the snub. But they were walking a fine line, too.

On the one hand, they knew Harden needed to be treated like a superstar to play like one.

On the other, the thinking went, he had never won a championship playing that way and had expressed a desire to be pushed by a coach like Rivers.

That all takes time and trust, which the Sixers never really developed.

A coach has to earn that trust and respect. A player has to believe in what’s being said and the person saying it. Things come apart quickly when that doesn’t happen.

In mid-December, Rivers lit into Harden for taking the final three shots in regulation of a double-overtime loss to the young and lottery-bound-again Rockets, sources said. It wasn’t that Rivers didn’t trust Harden to take the final three shots — he had allowed him to run the offense and call his own number on the final play of regulation by not calling a timeout following a defensive rebound. It’s that the Rockets had no answer for Embiid (39 points) all night and Harden wasn’t shooting well (4-for-19).

When questioned in the film session, Harden demurred, saying he just couldn’t get the ball to Embiid, sources said. These flare-ups between Harden and Rivers continued throughout the season.

On Feb. 27, Philadelphia lost 101-99 at home to the Heat — the team that had knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs a year ago. On the surface, there was nothing all that remarkable about the loss, except that it was the second in a row to a team they would likely have to go through in the playoffs. Two nights earlier they had dropped a 110-107 game to their other playoff nemesis, the Boston Celtics.

For a team with championship aspirations, it was a good moment to refocus. Especially with the next game being a rematch in Miami two days later.

But Harden didn’t travel with the team to Miami, sources said. He traveled separately, with permission from the front office, to enjoy the nightlife. This is not uncommon in the NBA, or for Harden, but it didn’t sit well with Rivers and several players on the team, sources said.

Days later, Rivers brought it up in a team meeting, sources said, specifically mentioning several of the players who expressed concerns about Harden’s actions.

The whole episode was “uncomfortable,” one team source said. Even if they agreed with the substance of Rivers’ message to Harden, and the idea of holding him accountable, it was awkward for the players who were named.

It did not affect their play on the court, however. If anything, it had the opposite effect, as the Sixers walloped the Heat 119-96, despite Embiid sitting out because of a left foot injury.

If the Sixers had gone on to win a championship, or even contend for one, this could’ve gone down as some kind of turning point. But they didn’t. Not even close. Again.

BY NOW THE ugly details of their breakup are well known. After the Sixers flamed out in the second round of the playoffs yet again, there was a reckoning.

Two days after the Game 7 loss to the Celtics, Rivers was fired — officially because he had fallen short of a championship. Unofficially, sources said, because the team knew Harden did not want to play for him again.

Morey made it clear that re-signing Harden to a new contract was the team’s top priority. But there was real debate internally about how much and how long of a contract they should offer him, sources said. Was he worth as much as the three years and up to $126 million that 31-year-old Irving ultimately received from the Dallas Mavericks?

Harden was eligible for a four-year, $210 million contract if he declined his $35.6 million player option and became a free agent. And he was expecting a contract in that range, sources said, having taken less the previous summer and having left a $161 million extension on the table from Brooklyn in August 2021 and turned down a two-year, $100 million extension from the Rockets in February 2021.

But Harden had little leverage to extract that kind of offer from Philadelphia. The Rockets’ interest in reacquiring him as a free agent cooled after they hired Ime Udoka as their head coach in late April, sources said. Udoka was trying to set a new culture in Houston, not bring back the past. He wanted to target defensive-minded players like Memphis’ Dillon Brooks and Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez.

With no other strong suitors, Harden was in a difficult position.

His best leverage was a loyalty play with Morey, who made his career in the NBA by seeing Harden’s brilliance early and then empowering him throughout an eight-year run in Houston. Morey had signed Harden to three contract extensions in their time together, including the richest contract in NBA history at the time. He tried to trade for Harden almost as soon as he took the Philadelphia job in November 2020.

But now, when it mattered most, Morey wasn’t taking calls from Harden’s camp.

“James felt like Daryl was ghosting him,” one source close to Harden said. “He felt betrayed.”

Rather than wait for Morey and the Sixers to present whatever offer they had come up with once free agency opened July 1, Harden and his representatives, Mike Silverman and Troy Payne, decided to pick up his $35.6 million player option before the June 30 deadline and ask for a trade.

Better to take the guaranteed money for the 2023-24 season than be forced to accept whatever offer the team made him.

The Sixers were stunned at Harden’s decision, sources said, insisting to him and his representatives that they had been distant only because they were just hit with the largest tampering fine in NBA history and that they had every intention of re-signing him, as soon as the rules allowed.

But Harden was already too far gone.

“James takes things very personally,” another source close to Harden said. “When he feels like he’s been wronged, he can be very stubborn.”

FOR THE NEXT few weeks, Morey left Harden alone. He said he would make a good faith effort to trade Harden and had initial conversations, league sources said, with Harden’s preferred team, the Clippers, as well as the New York Knicks.

But by mid-August, it became clear none of the teams that expressed interest in Harden had any intention of giving Morey the kind of return he was looking for — namely, a player or assets to keep the team in championship contention. On Aug. 12, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Philadelphia decided to end talks with the Clippers and expected Harden to report to training camp.

Harden was informed of the team’s decision before the report came out, sources said, and he was not happy.

On Aug. 14, while at a promotional event in China, Harden announced, “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never play for an organization he is a part of again.”

The message was meant to hurt, and it did.

Harden later told NBA investigators that the lie he was referring to was his belief that Morey had gone back on his word after telling Harden he would trade him. The NBA fined Harden $100,000 for his comments.

Very little has happened since. The calendar has turned to September. Training camp begins at the end of the month.

Nothing is resolved.

“The situation with James Harden is unfortunate,” Sixers majority owner Josh Harris told ESPN. “I want this to work out for all sides, including James. But we have to keep our eye on the big picture, which is that we’re still a contending team and most teams in the NBA would change places with us in five minutes.”

HARRIS IS RIGHT. The Sixers still have the look of a contender, with or without Harden this season. Although they certainly have a better chance with him.

Morey even went so far as to say “we’d all be thrilled” if Harden rescinded his trade request, during a radio interview with 97.5 The Fanatic in July.

“James is a Hall of Famer, one of the best players offensively to ever do it,” Morey said. “We either are going to move him for a player that helps us win now, we’re going to get assets that allow us to go get a good player in the short term, or we’re going to continue to wait and continue to look for other players like a [Tyrese] Maxey or a Joel [Embiid] to take a step forward in that situation.”

Both of those players have been in this position way too recently: when disgruntled guard Ben Simmons sat out of training camp in 2021 rather than play for the Sixers again.

Both stepped up in that situation, too. Maxey broke through as a bright young star; Embiid established himself as an MVP candidate.

This could go the same way. Or not. Which raises the stakes even higher for the Sixers.

Thus far, Embiid has given the franchise assurances he is OK riding out the current drama with Harden, sources said. How long he gives them to resolve the matter remains to be seen.

Maxey has done the same, even waiting on a contract extension this summer so the franchise can preserve its ability to operate under the salary cap and improve the team in the future.

Both have been in touch with Harden throughout, maintaining their personal relationships. Embiid even invited Harden to his wedding in July, sources said.

What’s clear to all involved is that this has become a personal matter between Harden and Morey. An emotional one, borne out of frustration and a perceived wrongdoing by a man who had long been Harden’s champion.

Harden didn’t wait to see what kind of offer Morey and the Sixers would’ve made him once they were allowed. He sensed it wasn’t going to be what he was hoping for, and that it was never going to be anywhere close to the money he had previously been offered in Houston and Brooklyn that he either rejected or left on the table.

Harden might have cost himself even more money by picking up his player option for this season, which effectively took away his ability to sign a new long-term contract until he becomes a free agent next summer at age 35.

Perhaps it was just hubris. Ultimate confidence and faith in his own abilities and that the money would still be there for him.

Perhaps promises were made, on the record or off, clear or subtle. The NBA investigated the situation last summer and found the Sixers in violation of several aspects of tampering rules with regard to the timing of Tucker’s and Danuel House Jr.’s free agency decisions and rescinded the team’s 2023 and 2024 second-round picks. This summer, the league’s investigation found Harden’s comments in violation of the rules concerning public trade demands.

Perhaps it was just hard for Harden to accept there wasn’t a robust market for his services, at the price point he was expecting.

In negotiations, this is called anchoring bias. When someone gets stuck on the first price they’re quoted and compares every subsequent offer to that number. Talented sales people know how to exploit this bias. They start high so the customer feels like they got a deal when the price comes down.

In Harden’s situation, the price started high — max offers from Houston and Brooklyn in 2021 — and has come down every year. Only he’s not the customer in this equation. The team is. And it’s making him feel cheap.

For so long, it was a perfect marriage — an executive with a desired style of play, and a player brilliantly capable of executing it.

Morey and Harden had been each other’s anchors.

Now they are both adrift. The dream of reigniting what was, for now, is over.

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