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May 26, 2022 | 11:51 am EDT Update
The Sixers undoubtedly would love to work out a similar deal with Harden. The question is if Harden will go for it. “This is going to define Daryl,” said the exec. “The trade has not worked out the way he had hoped. If he messes this up and James leaves, where does that leave them? If he overpays him, how do they build a winner? He knew James better than anybody. He knew his lifestyle, he knew where his body was at. He had to have some level of knowledge about where this was going. He loves the guy. He’s loyal to the guy. I get that. But you have to separate from that when making these decisions.”
Storyline: James Harden Free Agency
It’s not that simple. Embiid knows it. “Everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said. “That’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.” Harden knows it. The rest of the NBA knows it. “The decline is evident,” a rival team executive told SI. “You can see it in his ability to create space, to create the shots he would usually generate. He doesn’t have the burst. People aren’t scared of him driving and scoring. They are challenging that step back more frequently. He’s just not the same player.”
He’s not, but Harden, who will turn 33 this summer, enters the offseason with leverage. He has until June 29 to opt into the final year of his contract, a decision that would guarantee him $47.4 million next season. He could bet on himself, that a healthy summer and a full training camp with Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle will lead to a more productive season. It’s a risk—Harden’s hamstring issues have become chronic, and he could get hurt or his regression could continue—but it’s a stick he could use in negotiations. Because what is Philadelphia going to do? Allowing Harden to opt in and play out his contract makes some business sense. But Harden has effectively quit on two teams when he didn’t like what was happening. Philadelphia, desperate to maximize the MVP-level seasons of Embiid, doesn’t want to be a third.
Morey has routinely referred to Harden as the greatest isolation player in NBA history and believed the chance to play with a dominant scoring big like Embiid—the type of player Morey and Harden talked about but were never able to bring to Houston—would energize him. It didn’t. Harden averaged 21 points per game during the regular season. His field goal percentage (40.2%) and three-point percentage (32.6%) were career lows. His numbers in the playoffs were comparable. For every brilliant game Harden played (a 22-point, 15-assist effort in Game 6 against Toronto, a 31-point outburst in Game 4 against Miami) there were twice as many clunkers. In Philly’s last two games, Harden attempted 22 shots, scored 25 points and had nearly as many turnovers (eight) as assists (13). While ex-Sixer Jimmy Butler carried his team—“I still don’t know why we let him go,” said a still-salty Embiid—Harden was little more than a bystander on his.
Storyline: James Harden Free Agency
The season tickets cessation might not have been the deepest cut here. According to sources, Jerry West’s son Ryan, formerly director of player personnel for the Lakers, was frozen out in his last year with the team, the 2018-19 season, in an act of proxy revenge directed towards his father. What does “frozen out,” mean? Ryan West wouldn’t be involved in any meetings or official operations. He’d show up to the facility and essentially get treated as a ghost, in what was effectively a dare to leave.