Just Send Him Home
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And so it begins. James Harden did not play in the Sixers' Tuesday preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, nor did he practice with the team on Wednesday, nor again on Thursday. Nobody seems to know exactly what's going on with him, and Nick Nurse in particular seems to be learning the hard way that Harden has been known on occasion to say one thing and then do another. When asked about the happenings of his nominal co-star, Joel Embiid offered, "Maybe he has something to do." And Jo is correct, Harden does have something to do: not be with the Sixers.
The 2023-24 Sixers have a lot of problems, short-term and long-term, most of which have no easy answers. This, on the other hand, is a problem with an extremely simple solution: Just send James Harden home already.
It's going to go on like this. Maybe there will be good days and bad days, but you can be damn sure that there will be bad days. James Harden wants out -- has repeatedly, publicly, unequivocally stated as such -- and there is no getting him back in. Maybe the Sixers can force him to be physically present (though based on the past few days, maybe not), but a mentally checked out James Harden was of limited on-court worth even when he was still in his MVP-caliber athletic prime; a here-but-not-really-there Harden at age 34 and barely All-Star-level may not even get you into the plus column anymore. And if he does one day, there's no guarantee that he will the next; there's no guarantees, period, with a player of Harden's ego, notoriety, track record and historic lack of accountability. Every day with Harden will be a choose your own adventure and many of them will end up with us getting eaten by the monster.
I truly do not see what the upside to even pretending James Harden has an on-court future with this team is. From what I can tell, there are only three possible explanations for why Daryl Morey or Nick Nurse would actually want Harden around at this point:
1. They think they can convince Harden to stick around
2. They think even an irate Harden provides too much value to be kept on the shelf
3. They think their trade positioning will be made stronger by getting Harden back on the court
No. 1 seems ridiculous enough to me to want to throw it out right away. I don't have the greatest amount of respect for James Harden's personal integrity, but I will give him credit for this: When he says he is done somewhere, he is done somewhere. He may be flaky in general, but not when it comes to wanting out. Hell, Brooklyn basically broke up a superteam in early 2022 because when he said he was gone, they knew that he meant that shit. It's impossible to imagine what about returning to play for the Sixers this year could lead Harden to make an exception to this policy -- even if the Sixers were somehow good enough in the regular season to re-inspire faith that things could be different next playoffs (good luck), that's not even what Harden's grievance is primarily over. He just doesn't want to play for Daryl Morey, because he thinks Morey's a liar. And Morey is a liar. So is Harden. Seems like a tough workaround!
No. 2 isn't much more credible. Yes, Harden played at a roughly All-Star level in a contract year last season, yes he had two absolutely incredible postseason performances (and at least six markedly subpar ones) -- but Harden was never going to be that good again for the Sixers this season. The Clippers wouldn't even get that Harden this season; they'd be lucky to get 70-80% of him. And even if he was still that James Harden, that James Harden right now will mostly just get in the way for this Sixers team -- if you don't believe you can turn him around on being a Sixer (and you can't), then you need to start focusing now on who the team is going to be without him, with an aggressive, turnover-forcing defense and an offense captained by Tyrese Maxey in the backcourt. And all of this is likely moot anyway, because the chances of a seething Harden giving you anything more than the bare minimum are Flo Rida-low anyway.
So what about No. 3? It's not quite as laughable, perhaps, but I gotta tell you, I still don't see it. Other teams are never (well, rarely) as stupid as we want them to be; I can't imagine there are going to be a lot of teams out there who'll see Harden sleepwalking his way through 18 and 8 performances in Philly and go "ah fuck, I knew we should've gotten him when he had the chance!" Few things make me nuttier than when people talk about a team "showcasing" a player that they're trying to trade, like the Sixers with Jahlil Okafor a few years back -- if a player is bad enough that you're trying to trade them, chances are you want other teams to see as little of them in action as possible. Seems far more likely to me teams will see Harden playing uninspired offense and eighth-assed defense, and behaving petulantly and unpredictably both on and off the court, and go, "Oh right, that's why this guy is probably more trouble than he's worth!"
All this said, I do think I get why Daryl Morey believes bringing Harden back into the fold to be the best course of action, because that's just what Morey does. LIke Harden, Morey's commitment to his stated course of action is absolute -- his near-superpower as a GM is his Costanzian ability to behave as if a truly untenable situation is just business as usual, a "This Is Fine" meme in a check-pattern jacket. No matter how much unrest Harden causes on and off the court, he will preach the Beard being an important part of the team that the Sixers feel good about keeping around, right up to the moment he trades him. (Again: 100% a fair matchup.) But as much as Morey wants to let other GMs seem Harden playing again, it seems to me like absence would actually make other teams' hearts grow fonder, or at least fuzzier -- when you don't get to regularly see what a player is, you can talk yourself into them being anything. You forget what it is that makes them so problematic as players. Hell, it worked for us with shipping out Ben Simmons for Harden himself not that long ago.
So I'm pleading with Daryl -- likely in vain -- to listen to reason, to flexibility, on this one. If he's dead-set on not trading Harden until the Clippers' offer comes up to par or someone else joins the discussions, fine, but don't let Harden hold the team hostage in the meantime. Don't force Nick Nurse and Joel Embiid to spend every media session having to answer for their absent and/or misbehaving point guard. Don't delay the development of Maxey (or even Springer) for another year. Don't prevent this team from finding out who they are on both ends without Harden, or who they one day could be. Don't give everyone cause to remember what's so objectionable about Harden before we even get to the postseason. This already might be our last good year with Joel; don't waste it playing long-game tactics that may not pay off until it's already too late anyway. Do the right thing. Do the simple thing. In his head, Harden's already gone. Let him act that way, and hopefully soon enough, he actually will be.