James Harden is still searching for the NBA superteam of his dreams

On Thursday, James Harden notified the Philadelphia 76ers that he’d be foregoing free agency and picking up the $35.6 million player option on his contract for the 2023-2024 season instead. But he wasn’t doing so because he wanted to remain in Philadelphia. He informed the Sixers, according to a source familiar with the events, that he wanted to be traded. 

Why he’s asked out of Philadelphia is unclear. For more than two years now, Harden’s stated motives have been a contradictory mess. 

First, he forced the Rockets to trade him in the middle of the 2020-2021 season. Then, on the day a deal was finalized with the Brooklyn Nets he told the team’s top decision-makers, “I’m going to want to come back to you guys” according to multiple people familiar with the conversation. He’d only asked out, he had said, because he felt the team “needed a reset.” He was right. The Rockets’ title window had closed, but much of that was because he had coerced them into a number of dismal deals, most notably swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. It didn’t matter. He wanted the Nets and the Nets wanted him. 

Less than a year later, history repeated itself. Harden had grown frustrated with life in Brooklyn: not being the center of the offense, Steve Nash’s coaching, the way Kevin Durant held the type of organizational power Harden once held in Houston, Kyrie Irving missing games due to his refusal to get vaccinated. He started loafing and pushing for another trade — this time he had his eyes on the Sixers. It didn’t matter that one year earlier, after being asked by Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta on the morning of the trade deadline which of the two teams he preferred, Harden had said the Nets. 

In Philadelphia, Harden ran into similar problems. Once again, he wasn’t the center of everything.

“I’m getting traded to a situation where everything was geared toward Joel, everything was Joel, Joel, Joel,” Harden said of his first year with the Sixers during a wide-ranging interview with FOX Sports in October. “Which I get, that’s how they were playing the entire year, and so I was trying to fit in. It was never, like, ‘Here, you’re James Harden, this is how we want you to run the show.’ That’s the kind of role I was playing.” 

He had taken a $15 million pay cut to return to the team, declining his $47.3 million option and instead signing a two-year, $68 million deal, with the second year being a player option. He’d done so, he had said, so that the Sixers could bolster their roster; that extra cap space was used to sign P.J. Tucker. Harden, it seemed, was indeed prioritizing winning.

But you could tell he was struggling with what that meant. In May, after completing a first round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, Harden shared with reporters his approach to the season. “I told myself this year, that it’s just, I’m all big on sacrifice. Whether it’s the money or my role, just letting everything go and just sacrificing — and then seeing what it gives me,” he said. 

Harden had spent the year, according to friends, considering a Houston reunion. He wasn’t two-timing the Sixers, suiting up for one team while laying the groundwork to play for another. It was just that the pull which Houston had on him — it’s where his family lives and where he’s most comfortable — was hard to ignore. 

But the Rockets, it seems, have cooled on the idea. They have the cap space — nearly $61 million in room this offseason, the most in the NBA — but over the past few months, their executives have made clear to people throughout the league that they weren’t sold on the idea of a Harden return. They’ve also indicated to agents this off-season that they have no intention of offering contracts that extend longer than two seasons.

James Harden opting into his $35.6M deal, Clippers and Knicks to engage in trade talks | SPEAK

With no mega-deal coming from Houston, Harden had no offer to leverage against the Sixers. There are no other suitors out there, no team with cap space that would both want Harden and be wanted by him. Which is likely how we’ve reached the point of a trade request. If there’s no one bidding against the Sixers, there’s no need for them to come with a strong offer. 

Meanwhile, Harden probably thought he’d be able to play the Sixers and Rockets against each other and wind up with a four-year, $200 million deal. At one point he had the Sixers concerned. As recently as late May, according to multiple sources, he’d yet to share his intentions with them. And even after they fired head coach Doc Rivers — with whom Harden clashed — the Sixers’ front office was still worried that Harden would bolt. 

He turns 34 in August. He’s entering the final phase of his career. He’s still great, but not as great as he once was. There’s nothing wrong with that, but is Harden willing to accept that new reality? Or, more to the point: What is it he wants from his final years in the NBA? Is it a title and a chance to solidify his historical standing? Is it money? Is it being able to play the style he wants? Something else? 

The Los Angeles Clippers are at the top of Harden’s list. They also reached out to the Sixers this week about a possible Harden trade, according to multiple league sources. You can see why they’d appeal to Harden. They’re in L.A. He could play alongside a pair of stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Of course, so did the Nets. And, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and now to Joel Embiid, you could put together a All-Star team just with the superstars Harden has broken up with. 

“Things just don’t work out,” Harden said in that interview last year. “This is part of the business. Like, you know, Dwight, we had our years — it didn’t work out. CP, we had our years — it didn’t work out. Russ, we had our years and didn’t work out. Winning cures all that so if we win then everything is good.”

In the meantime, the ball, to use a poor cliché, is now in the Sixers’ court. We know from the Ben Simmons saga that Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey isn’t just going to make any deal, that he’s comfortable waiting for the right one to arrive. We can assume, based on Morey’s history, that getting some draft picks and salary filler like Norman Powell and Marcus Morris from the Clippers isn’t going to do — at least not until Morey has a separate deal for another star (Zach LaVine maybe?) ready to go.

We know the playbook. Morey is going to insist, both in public and private, that he has no problem holding on to Harden for the season. (Though it is worth pointing out that for complicated salary cap reasons the Clippers would benefit from getting a deal done before July 1.)

Whatever happens, Harden’s contract with the Sixers cannot extended. This time next year he’ll be a free agent, free to sign wherever he likes. Maybe things go well for him in L.A., or wherever his next stop is. But history says otherwise.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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