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It was mid-December, two days before the NBA’s unofficial start of trade season, when Joel Embiid slunk into a chair at the Sixers’ practice facility and told Yahoo Sports he believed Philadelphia fans wanted to trade him.
The league’s Most Valuable Player has always stared right through the fourth wall of this television show, recognizing the face of a franchise encapsulates far more than two-way brilliance that can earn the game’s greatest accolades. He is an entertainer as much as a competitor. And with that, Embiid has always understood the central plot line of this drama is not just competing for a championship but winning the damn thing — at least once. That’s why Sam Hinkie selected the injured giant out of Kansas with the No. 3 pick back in 2014. You take big swings when you’re swinging for the fences. Warping a worldview around winning, though, makes losses all the more excruciating. It’s what makes the potential collapse of a contender all the more intriguing.
So last week in Los Angeles, with another brutal ouster from the second round of the playoffs top of mind, when Embiid told Uninterrupted CEO Maverick Carter on accomplishing his goal of a championship: “I don’t know where that’s going to be, whether it’s in Philly or anywhere else,” there was a familiar ring of provocation to Embiid’s words. As loyal as any superstar is to his incumbent organization, particularly homegrown superstars who arrived as promised teenage saviors, there’s inherent value to dangling the idea of a future without you in it. Leverage can tilt like a seesaw in the NBA. This time, Embiid’s comments came as the future of his All-Star point guard, James Harden, remains in the balance following a trade request in late June after Harden exercised his $35.6 million player option the day before free agency began, with the intention of being dealt to the Clippers, league sources told Yahoo Sports. It’s a simple exercise, to draw a straight line from Embiid’s open-ended answer to the uncertain state of Philadelphia at large.
These dynamics, however, are never quite that linear. In December, moments after Embiid said he believed Sixers fans wanted him traded, he slipped into Daryl Morey’s office and shut the door for a lengthy conversation as pre-deadline phone calls started ringing around the league. Philadelphia’s president has made it a prerogative to work alongside Embiid during his tenure as the Sixers’ steward. They remain in close contact, still playing tennis together after first being spotted two years ago during an offseason game of doubles. It seems their mutual quest for a first championship has bonded them more than anything, although that was once part of the rallying call for Harden and former head coach Doc Rivers, too, who was fired from his post after the team fumbled a 3-2 series lead over Boston in the semifinals.
That commonality of chasing the title, though, is the ultimate context surrounding Harden’s unresolved trade request. These are much higher stakes, from Philadelphia’s perspective, than what Portland is facing with moving Damian Lillard. The Blazers’ franchise face has already sought a new home, away from a team that’s been out of the playoff conversation for several seasons. Morey and the Sixers are navigating the possible deal of another disgruntled All-Star point guard before their franchise centerpiece ever does truly consider playing elsewhere. And they believe Nick Nurse is the coach who can push this thing over the hump.
Let’s be clear: No matter the Sixers’ wishes, Harden still intends to play for the Clippers during the 2023-24 season, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Since the beginning of this subplot, Harden and his representation opted in to pinpoint Los Angeles as his next destination and have maintained a confidence he will ultimately join the Clippers. There has been no substantial trade conversation for Philadelphia regarding Harden and any other team, sources said, as rival front offices have been briefed on Harden’s unwavering focus on the Clippers and the Clippers alone. The 76ers have held talks with other teams and have established their high asking price for the league’s assist leader.
To Harden’s credit, the Clippers do make sense. Los Angeles had been active before February’s trade deadline, and again during the early stretch of the offseason, searching for upgrades at the Clippers’ lead guard position. The team nearly traded for Celtics ball-handler Malcolm Brogdon before June’s NBA Draft. And Harden’s side sees Los Angeles’ roster — with young blue-chippers like Terance Mann and valuable postseason contributors like Norman Powell — plus a collection of usable contracts and first-round draft capital to make a deal happen. One that could still satisfy Philadelphia’s requirement that any Harden return salvages as large of a championship window for the Sixers as possible.
Philadelphia hasn’t shared that purview. And by all accounts, the Clippers don’t have interest in parting with Mann. The Sixers, according to Morey himself, are thinking of a far more binary return for Harden than what Los Angeles can cobble together.
“If we do look at a trade, it’s going to be for one of two things: a player who is going to help us be right there like we were last year, or we’re going to trade for picks that we can use to turn into a player that can be a running mate with Joel,” Morey told Philadelphia’s 97.5 FM on Tuesday. “If we can’t get that then we are not going to do it.” And the Sixers aren’t exactly rushing to complete the process.
We haven’t seen this movie before, but we have seen the prequel. Yes, it was only two summers ago that Ben Simmons requested out of Philadelphia, and after an offseason of fruitless trade chatter, Morey used an appearance on 97.5 to say the Simmons trade ordeal could take the full four years that were remaining on his contract. Then, Morey and Rivers spoke at media day and shared how they would welcome Simmons returning to Philadelphia with open arms. Sure enough, throughout this year’s Summer League in Las Vegas, there was increasing word among league personnel that the Sixers hoped to reconcile with Harden, that Philadelphia has always envisioned him returning to the franchise to compete for the 2023 title. “If James changes his mind, then we’d love to have him,” Morey told 97.5 on Tuesday.
Harden’s situation is dissimilar from the Simmons debacle in several key ways. On the surface, Harden only has one season left on his contract, which would allow Philadelphia a much quicker resolution and a bounty of cap space if Morey’s front office never grants Harden’s request to get moved. And while Simmons stayed away from the team as training camp opened, with player and representation fronting he would never play for the franchise again, Harden’s approach appears to diverge from there.
Harden is a future Hall of Famer, a Top 75 player of all time with scoring titles and an MVP. He is also well practiced — from the end of Harden’s tenure in Houston, as well as Brooklyn — in conduct that can drive a team toward relenting and finally moving on from the talented guard. If this saga does drag out through September and until media day on Oct. 2, Harden is expected at this point to report to training camp, according to league sources. You can cause far more headaches for the organization you’re trying to leave by showing up, as opposed to staying home. With both the Rockets and Nets, Harden made various trips away from the team for various nightlife activities. He made Brooklyn feel it had no other option but to trade him to the Sixers before the 2022 trade deadline, or risk losing him for nothing. With Philadelphia, Harden’s side is very much of the belief joining the Clippers is not a matter of if, but when.
As this July stretches into August and the doldrums of the NBA calendar, this is also the season in which Embiid turns 30 next March, the magic number that starts to introduce the concept of basketball mortality for any talent. Embiid has made his argument — both with his play and openly campaigning — for being the game’s best player during the past handful of regular seasons. He’s showing no signs of slowing down, entering the first of a four-year extension that holds a player option in 2026-27. The variability of Harden’s situation, though, has to take greater concern among the Sixers’ ranks, at some point, than during Simmons’ entire holdout. Embiid’s open dance with the notion of “anywhere else” certainly shows he knows the biological clock for winning a championship is already ticking. What factor Harden’s trade request ultimately plays in that equation will shift the balance altogether.