On June 29, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a classic “Woj Bomb,” reporting that James Harden had accepted his player option for the 2023-24 season and would work with the 76ers on trade scenarios.
“It’s expected that Harden has played his last game for Philadelphia,” Wojnarowski tweeted.
Well, more than two months later, Harden remains on the 76ers’ roster. And with Philadelphia reportedly ending trade talks in mid-August and planning to bring the 10-time All-Star to training camp, it doesn’t appear the saga will be ending anytime soon.
So, with Harden and the Sixers stuck in a stalemate, we’re going to evaluate the biggest winners and losers in what has become a toxic situation. Let’s start with the man in the middle of it all…
MORE: Why Raptors should and shouldn’t trade for James Harden
James Harden trade request winners and losers
Because of his MVP-level impact, the Nets and 76ers were willing to take on the Harden baggage after his first two trade requests. That hasn’t been the case this time around.
The Sixers had “periodic offseason conversations” with the Clippers, according to Wojnarowski, but they didn’t seem to come close to finalizing a deal. No other strong suitors have materialized. Contenders aren’t going to give up legitimate assets for a 34-year-old guard with an ugly playoff history who might hit the eject button on your franchise at any moment.
Simply put, Harden doesn’t have a ton of moves to make in this standoff. He has already fired a personal shot at 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, resulting in a $100,000 fine. He can’t refuse to play because his free agency period could then be moved back, per rules outlined in the collective bargaining agreement.
And if he wants one more huge contract before the end of his career, he can’t loaf his way through the season. He needs to show that he has value beyond counting stats.
When Harden took that $35.6 million player option, he probably didn’t anticipate that he would still be a member of the 76ers less than a month before the team begins its training camp. And yet, here we are.
Morey has been attached to Harden throughout his career, sharing an executive-player bond that is uncommon in the NBA. It couldn’t have felt great when Harden called him a “liar” and declared that he would never be part of the same organization as him.
Aside from the personal issues, Morey is also in a tough spot from a roster-building perspective. Harden isn’t happy in Philadelphia, but Morey can’t just send him away and get scraps back in return.
We have watched Morey navigate his way through turbulence before. He managed to unload a disgruntled Ben Simmons in order to secure Harden, of course, but even someone as sharp and experienced as Morey may struggle to land this plane.
Unfortunately for Embiid, this is nothing new — constant drama, an angry sidekick, nothing certain except uncertainty. Can the Sixers keep testing his patience and not lose his trust?
Coming off an MVP season, Embiid is firmly in his prime at age 29. The championship window is currently open for the 76ers if they build the right team around him, but it won’t stay open forever.
Sanity of 76ers fans
If you happen to run into a Philly fan, just stop what you’re doing and hug that person.
Sixers offseasons are undefeated. pic.twitter.com/ExAKfHF7fe
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) August 14, 2023
If Harden leaves — or stays but isn’t fully committed — Maxey could make a major leap in Year 4.
Despite the fact that Harden and Embiid were the focal points of the offense in 2022-23, Maxey averaged 20.3 points and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 43.4 percent on 3-point attempts. Imagine what he could do if the 76ers completely unleashed him as the primary ball handler.
A big year would also allow Maxey to command a massive contract.
Earlier this summer, Philadelphia chose not to give an extension to Maxey, who is eligible to receive a five-year deal worth more than $200 million. The deadline to present that offer will arrive in late October, and if that deadline passes without an agreement, Maxey will enter restricted free agency in 2024.
Joel Embiid suitors
Let’s be very clear about this: Embiid has not requested a trade. In fact, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne said last month that Embiid is “happy to be a Sixer.”
However, if Philly eventually does trade Harden and drops down to a lower tier in the Eastern Conference, will Embiid be satisfied carrying a team with no real shot at a title? That doesn’t sound appealing.
The Athletic’s Kelly Iko has speculated that the Knicks and Rockets would be among the suitors interested in acquiring Embiid if he is ever truly available. Other teams would inevitably jump into the sweepstakes as well. They are hoping things continue going south for the 76ers.
The Clippers haven’t been willing to give Morey what he wants. That strategy is wise considering Los Angeles isn’t competing against other offers. It may end up stealing Harden for a low price.
Then again, is adding Harden a good thing for the Clippers? And do they really want to pay him as he shifts into what will be a less productive phase of his career?
Let’s call LA a potential winner depending on the trade package and contract for Harden.