James Harden is a walking tragedy. He should be celebrated for his ball-handling alchemy, his mentalist-grade ability to draw fouls from reluctant defenders, and of course, the bird’s nest he’s cultivated for the past decade. Instead, he’s spent most of his career getting in his own way.
You already know the bulk of the story. Harden, who forced his way out of Oklahoma City, Houston, and Brooklyn, is now dealing with another conundrum in Philadelphia. On Wednesday, Ramona Shelburne burrowed into the Harden-Sixers rift, peeling open the onion on the feud and painting a negative picture of the two-time MVP.
Once you hit the core, though, it becomes apparent that The Beard is a different character behind the scenes than the Harden who touted sacrificing for Joel Embiid. Since Harden realized he had a singular talent for generating buckets he’s thrived as a one-man show, been most discontent on egalitarian teams, and surrounded himself with a transient collection of loyal background performers like P.J. Tucker and Danuel House. He chased out Dwight Howard, back when Howard was still a marquee player, after they reached a Conference Finals together. He couldn’t co-exist with Chris Paul. Kyrie Irving drove him to Philly and now he blames his current predicament on the contract he opted into.
After his decision last summer to remain a 76er, Harden told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that he sacrificed short-term dough to create cap room for championship cogs.
“I had conversations with Daryl [Morey], and it was explained how we could get better and what the market value was for certain players. I told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign, and give me whatever is left over,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “This is how bad I want to win. I want to compete for a championship. That’s all that matters to me at this stage. I’m willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that.”
Harden is anti-team basketball personified. Never has that been more apparent than throughout his ongoing contract imbroglio with the 76ers. For much of his prime, he was an iso basketball maestro. Harden earned rave reviews all season as Embiid’s maitre d’ but browned quicker than an avocado between the final quarter of the regular season and Philly’s playoff exit, all while internally plotting his way out of the sidekick role.
The entire saga is the result of a series of missteps by Harden thinking he was slicker than everyone else. But just like the league’s rules committee cracking down on his crafty methods for baiting zebras into sending him to the line, the league caught on. Harden painted himself as a selfless star last summer when he declined a $47.4 million option on his previous deal, then accepted a $14 million discount because the maximum offer he could accept was for $161 million over three years. By agreeing to one last prove-it-or-lose-it deal during the summer of 2023, The Beard was anticipating a windfall that would earn him $210 million over four years. That offer never came. As a consequence, The Beard opted in again this summer once he caught wind of the flatlining market for his services, and calculated that the most logical countermove was using Philadelphia to arrange a trade that would get him to Los Angeles.
To make matters worse, Harden’s disgust with the Sixers allegedly began to bubble up after the front office went silent during the lead up the period before free agency began. Instead of just moving like the chill smooth operator he masquerades as on the court, The Beard got insecure and acted out.
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.”
Once again, Harden’s insecurities interfered with his rational brain and he played himself. Now he’s stuck in limbo.It wasn’t the first time he stuck a wrench in his own gears. On a less eventful note, Harden also whiffed on being Kevin Durant’s injury replacement for the Eastern All-Stars, but ignored the commissioner’s offer while he stewed over being voted behind Durant, Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Donovan Mitchell by fans, peers, and media. The lack of introspection is incredible. Harden is so consumed by himself, he’s sinking his own legacy.
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