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What's James Harden's move now?
The aging NBA star called out his biggest ally
Maybe this is what James Harden meant when he posted a cryptic message on Instagram last month.
On Monday morning, Harden lit up the basketball world by declaring on the record, in front of cameras and hundreds of cheering fans in China: “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of. 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.”
As far as the NBA goes, Harden initiated an act of war. The above video netted over 40 million views on Twitter alone. The 33-year-old didn’t say Morey lied about something. This is bigger than that. He isn’t willing to shrug off this conflict as a difference of opinion, or forgive Morey for a misstep in negotiations. Harden feels wronged and leveled a wholesale attack on Morey’s character, essentially labeling him a front-office crook.
Harden has made his position clear. And as I sit here, I see it as a risky one. Without Morey, he’s now a man without a home. No decision-maker was more sympathetic to Harden’s eccentricities than Morey, and now he’s crossed off the list. After three trade demands in four years, who wants to risk a fourth?
In the convoluted web of the NBA salary cap, Harden exercised the one-year pact in hopes that it would grease the wheels for an exit via trade. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Morey conveyed some version of the following: “Look at the cap space out there. If you want to go to the Clippers, your best chance at a trade is opting in and I’ll do my best to make that happen.”
A good agent would have laid out the landscape to Harden, specifically about the Clippers’ cap issues, even before the Sixers could make overtures in the marketplace. The Western Conference power didn’t have cap space to sign Harden at the number he wanted, nor did the Clippers have the valuable assets that would entice Morey and the 76ers to strike a deal. And so Harden is still a Sixer.
I can see why Harden would be upset with Morey for reportedly shutting down trade talks in August, as if trades don’t go down this time of year. Let’s not forget Donovan Mitchell was traded to Cleveland last year in early September. When Boston traded for Kyrie Irving, that blockbuster happened on August 30. Whether a promise was made to Harden will be a case of he-said-he-said, but it’s not a coincidence that Harden unleashed his statement right after Morey reportedly pulled the plug on trade discussions. Lip service happens all the time in the NBA, but perhaps this one burns more because it’s Daryl Morey.
James and Daryl
It’s a Shakespearean twist in the timeline of Morey and Harden’s relationship. Time and time again, Morey had offered Harden a safe harbor both in praise and employment. Morey, widely considered the NBA’s most ardent analytical thinker, pried Harden away from Oklahoma City, perennially campaigned for Harden’s MVP credentials and once declared to ESPN that he deserved to be in the conversation for “the greatest offensive player ever.”
A 6-foot-5 embodiment of the MoreyBall basketball gospel that preaches the efficiency of free throws and 3-pointers, Harden was Morey’s grand prize. Less than two years after Morey left Houston for Philadelphia, Morey reunited with Harden and traded for him to be Joel Embiid’s co-star at the 2021-22 trade deadline. Following the Sixers trade, Harden walked off the private jet ramp and posed for a photo with Morey, who shared the pic on Twitter with a single emoji.
By antagonizing his biggest champion, Harden has retreated to his corner, deploying missiles from an Adidas promotional tour — in China of all places. Which brings us to the second problem with Harden’s statement, one that he should know already:
Daryl Morey is more than comfortable with the uncomfortable.
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On a 10-point scale of discomfort, fallout from Morey’s China tweet clocked in at an eleven. In 2019, Morey became a central figure in a geopolitical standoff when he tweeted in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. With one social media post, Morey turned into the most hated man in the sport, costing the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars and threatening the billion-dollar businesses of American companies like Nike and Adidas that depend on Chinese customers.
Morey became enemies with a world superpower in China, but tremors from the backlash ripped through the basketball world. Morey’s tweet ended his close relationship with former Houston Rocket center Yao Ming, who was the sitting president of the Chinese Basketball Association and face of Chinese basketball at the time of the controversy.
On American shores, his boss, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Firtitta, started liking social media posts calling for Morey to be fired. Despite the turbulence, Fertitta didn’t reciprocate fan outcry for Morey’s dismissal. However, with deep cultural and financial ties to China through Yao, the Rockets organization distanced themselves from Morey’s comments. Still, Morey stayed on. All the while, he created an enemy in LeBron James, the face of modern basketball and Nike, who criticized Morey because he “wasn’t educated” about the financial and safety implications of challenging China’s politics.
Morey never resigned in the storm, standing firm with his pro-democracy stance. The NBA never suspended Morey or punished him for his tweet. Morey deleted his post and offered some soft apologetic remarks on Twitter. He deleted those, too. Morey moved forward.
The Cautionary Tale of Ben Simmons
In Philadelphia, it didn’t take long for Morey to find himself in a wildly uncomfortable conflict, this time grappling directly with LeBron’s Klutch Sports agency. Morey participated in one of the biggest standoffs in NBA history when three-time All-Star and then-Klutch client Ben Simmons demanded to be traded in training camp last year and when no deal materialized, he refused to play for the Sixers.
Morey took the unpopular position of waiting for the right deal to come along, seemingly unfazed by the soap opera playing out on the national stage. The organization fined Simmons for his months-long unexcused absence. While Simmons’ trade value seemed to plummet, Morey flipped the 26-year-old to Brooklyn for Harden at the trade deadline. It was a calculated bet by Morey, hedging the long-term risk of trading away Simmons, a former wunderkind entering his prime, and acquiring a known, but aging quantity in Harden.
So far, on the Simmons side, Morey’s intuition seems prescient. Simmons missed the entire season in 2022-23 dealing with a variety of physical and mental maladies. Following the gap season, Simmons filed a grievance against the Sixers trying to recoup the some $20 million he lost; they eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. After averaging 6.9 points in 42 games, Simmons shut down his season in February. A month later, Simmons and Klutch parted ways.
A data-driven man from MIT Sloan business school with beginnings in the C-suite consulting world, Morey has undoubtedly made a cold, dispassionate assessment of Harden’s long-term value. According to reports, Harden’s chief complaint is that the Sixers never made a long-term contract extension offer ahead of free agency. With new CBA rules making it more prohibitive for teams to operate deep in the luxury tax, Morey and the Sixers’ front office have abstained from tying nine-figures to Harden’s back-half of his career.
Morey would be joining the chorus of Harden apathy. Few players have lost as much juice around the league as Harden. Last season, Harden missed the All-Star game despite averaging 21.0 points and a league-high 10.7 assists in Doc Rivers’ system, leading Harden to post a simple two-word caption on his Instagram story: “the disrespect.” Fans gave Harden half as many All-Star votes as they balloted to Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell each. Harden’s peers – the players – slotted him even worse, ranking fifth behind Irving, Mitchell, Jaylen Brown and DeMar DeRozan, with a paltry 35 votes. The media soured on Harden the most, awarding just three votes to Harden; one-ninth the total of Tyrese Haliburton.
Harden’s lack of All-Star love could be attributed to missing a month due to a foot injury just before midseason votes were to be cast, but the year-end All-NBA team voters was just as unenthused with Harden. The tally reveals that Harden didn’t receive a single first-team or second-team vote for All-NBA despite leading the league in the assist category – becoming the first player with such a distinction since Rajon Rondo in 2015-16 when he played for the Sacramento Kings.
Assessing Harden’s future
The perceived emptiness of Harden’s gaudy regular-season numbers have been certified by lackluster postseason performances. For the ninth straight postseason, Harden’s scoring average slumped in the playoffs and this past season, he checked in with a 39.3 percent field goal percentage, anchored by an abysmal 2-point field goal percentage. Harden’s conversion rate on 2-point shots has fallen in the playoffs from 64.3 percent in 2020-21 to 43.9 percent in 2021-22 to 40.6 percent in 2022-23. His playoff free-throw attempts per game has subsequently been halved from 9.7 in his final postseason in Houston to 5.0 freebies this past season.
This was the worry with Harden as he aged. Harden dominated the game with the best brakes in the business. The Arizona State product mastered the ability to deftly hop-scotch his way into the paint and draw fouls from flailing defenders. If his tires don’t have the same deceleration or bounce, Harden’s elite scoring days are over. He’ll be forced to evolve as an off-ball weapon and plus-defender but as his former coach Kevin McHale said on SiriusXM NBA radio, Harden just didn’t want to do the dirty work. Maybe he still can.
If contending teams were tepid on the idea of bending over backwards for Harden’s services as free agency opened, they almost certainly won’t be forking over more assets or cash if Harden shows up out of shape and making a circus out of the Sixers’ 2023-24 season. When Harden pulled a Weekend At Bernie’s in Houston and forced his way out in 2020-21, opposing teams could convince themselves that he would be fine. He was 31 and coming off three straight scoring titles.
Now, he’s turning 34 and tallied more turnovers than made baskets in his last three postseason games.
The problem for Harden is that sabotaging the Sixers’ season is also sabotaging what little is left of his long-term earning power. We just saw Russell Westbrook, who is just nine months older than Harden, sign for near league minimum in ClipperLand. Though Harden’s decline is not as steep as Westbrook’s, he serves as a cautionary tale. If the headaches continue, league minimum is not far away. There are signs that his body is breaking down; Harden has missed 30 percent of his games in the past three seasons. Recent All-NBA appearances don’t guarantee an NBA job if the body betrays. Just ask John Wall and Kemba Walker.
It’s not clear what move Harden is trying to pull. After another subpar postseason, Morey had plenty of ammunition to play hardball on Harden’s extension. He effectively dared Harden and his team to find the bag on the open market in free agency. A Christmas Day report from ESPN said Harden’s camp mulled a return to Houston. But then the Rockets hired Ime Udoka, who coached Harden as an assistant in Brooklyn. The Rockets gave Fred VanVleet $130 million instead.
Harden is the rare star who has essentially operated without an agent over the last half decade. After roaming the NBA as a sole practitioner since 2017, Harden hired two agents, Brandon Grier and Michael Silverman of Equity Sports, to help him extricate himself from Brooklyn in 2022. More recently, he added his childhood friend and former Adidas manager Troy Payne to be part of his official representation. NBA reporter Jason Dumas indicates that Harden went rogue in calling Morey a liar, and it’s not clear which agent of the three -- if any -- was consulted on the matter.
After the NBA slapped the wrist of Damian Lillard and longtime power agent Aaron Goodwin for backchanneling a trade demand out of Portland, plausible deniability may be a smart card to put in the backpocket of Harden’s representation. Even so, a holdout will be costly.
The collective bargaining agreement contains a rule that prohibits a player from entering free agency if he is found to be “withholding playing services” for more than 30 days. That seems like a wide interpretation for lawyers to chew on if a player shows up out of shape and disinterested but “playing.” Maybe Harden thinks he can create enough of a mess that it convinces Joel Embiid to follow him out the door. But it’s hard to imagine Embiid joining Harden in solidarity when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving let Harden flee Brooklyn in 2022.
For now, Morey is calling Harden’s bluff and the team is expecting him to participate in training camp. They thought the same with Ben Simmons and we know which route Simmons chose. It’s not clear if Harden has any evidence of a handshake agreement, but that type of exposure also has its own troubles; the league already investigated the tampering charge and found no evidence of an under-the-table deal. Perhaps Harden has something that the NBA doesn’t.
Nonetheless, it’s another workplace crisis for an NBA team employing Harden’s services. Morey has absorbed more than his fair share of turbulence as an executive, but he isn’t beholden to his physical body holding up in the same way as NBA stars. As Harden’s legs break down and playoff appearances continue to shrivel, the future doesn’t look bright for Harden. If Morey doesn’t value Harden, who will? As Harden enters the twilight of his career, these are scary hours indeed.
So what’s Harden's move?
Let's take a look at the options on his menu.
(1) The Jimmy Plan
Without warning, show up to practice in shape — emphasis on in shape — and become a pathological competitor to the point of embarrassing your teammates.
Optional: maniacally screaming “I’m him! Pay me! Pay me!” while scissor-cutting the Sixers logo out of your team apparel. Sound preposterous? Let the preeminent bard of our time, Jeff Teague, tell the ballad of Jimmy Butler in Minnesota.
Such a move accomplishes two things: Harden gets to enjoy the fulfilling sensation of sweet, sweet revenge and; two, it signals to any potential suitor that you're plug-and-play.
Who’s rooting for this? The Clippers — maybe an undressed Daryl Morey is humbled to the point of accepting the Terance Mann package.
(2) The Dreams Plan
Don't show up, proudly eat a thousand Trill Burgers from Bun B, and just hold out.
This only works if Harden has intelligently invested the $300-plus million he’s earned in his NBA career. If he goes this route, his time in the league may be in jeopardy, but it sure would be interesting.
Who’s rooting for this? In no particular order, The Shanghai Sharks; Dreams; Social media; Lawyers; Ben Simmons; Bun B.
(3) The Kevin Durant plan
This is the longer play. You made your offseason trade demand and enjoyed a few trips through the news cycle. That’s step one. But good things only come to those who wait.
Show up, be primo James Harden, collaborate with new head coach Nick Nurse to realize the best season possible as you hit your (likely last big) free agency. All the while, be sure to have your reps quietly canvas the league for a possible mid-season deal.
Bonus if you can convince a win-at-all-costs billionaire to buy a team and ignore long-term fiscal responsibilities.
Who’s rooting for this? The 76ers; Naismith Hall of Fame voters; the NBA.
(4) The Anti-Ben Simmons Plan
It’s one thing to hold out; it’s another to spearhead a widespread rebellion. Simmons couldn’t flex full leverage because he didn’t have an ally in the superstar, Embiid. Can Harden really convince Embiid, coming off an MVP, that Morey isn’t his guy?
Philadelphia wing P.J. Tucker has already shown solidarity with Harden, but Embiid has notably stayed mum. That could change. Per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Harden is getting the word out that this is just the beginning.
If Harden can flip Embiid to Team Harden, that might be his ticket to greener pastures. No team has ever traded a reigning MVP. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Who’s rooting for this? The Miami Heat and every other team that covets Embiid’s services.
How do you think this plays out?