When James Harden exercised his player option for the 2023-24 season on June 29, he came with a caveat, one that has become familiar to the 10-time All-Star during the final leg of his career: an exchange request.
Harden expected the Philadelphia 76ers to trade him this offseason, the third time he’s requested a trade since January 2021, when he left the Houston Rockets. And when Harden is focused on finding a new team, he doesn’t sit idly by in the meantime.
The start of another Harden business saga began to play out over the past month. Harden expressed his annoyance at still being a member of the Sixers during a recent appearance in China, calling out Philadelphia president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.
“Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be part of any organization he is part of,” Harden said at an Adidas media event in China. “Let me say it again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be part of any organization he is part of.”
The NBA fined Harden $100,000 for the statement, which was challenged by the National Basketball Players Association, which last week announced plans to file a lawsuit against the league. Still, Harden’s discontent in Philadelphia followed a similar pattern to his previous stops in the league.
Harden has already been traded three times in his career and is looking for a fourth, so here’s a look back at his trade history and the factors that made him leave town:
Coincidentally, the Harden era in Houston began with a trade. Harden was named Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12, helping the Oklahoma City Thunder reach the NBA Finals. Entering the final year of his contract, he was eligible to sign an extension. The Thunder offered him a four-year, $55.5 million contract, less than the maximum he was eligible for. Unwilling to accept this deal, Harden was traded to Houston, where Morey, then Houston’s general manager, believed Harden had the tools of a future superstar. To back up his belief, Morey signed Harden to a five-year, $80 million extension days after completing the trade.
Harden honored that deal, racking up All-Star appearances, three scoring titles and the Most Valuable Player award in 2017-18, while the Rockets became perennial contenders, never missing the playoffs in his eight first seasons with the team.
However, things turned sour once Harden and Chris Paul’s relationship began to sour after their run to the 2018 Western Conference Finals. Russell Westbrook, sources told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, saying he would demand a trade if the Rockets don’t find a way to make it happen. But their only season together ended in an early elimination from the playoffs, and the two stars didn’t want to play together anymore.
After eight years, Harden had begun to doubt his future in Houston. His split from Westbrook ahead of the 2020-21 season effectively marked the end of his tenure, and Morey resigned on October 15, 2020. In November, Harden was focused on his path to Brooklyn.
Harden delayed his arrival at boot camp for a week, spending time with rapper Lil Baby in Las Vegas. Days before the team’s season opener, Harden violated league health and safety protocols by attending a private indoor party, which resulted in a $50,000 fine from of the NBA.
Still, he played in the Rockets’ season opener and lost 44 points. He scored at least 30 points in his next two games before being eliminated late in his fourth game with an ankle injury. After months of trade speculation and reports of his displeasure, Harden’s production in his last five games in Houston has plummeted — 17.4 points on 37.8% shooting while the Rockets have lost four of five games. After their January 12 loss, Harden told reporters the Rockets were “just not good enough.”
It was his last game with the team. He was traded a day later to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team trade to create a potential superteam including Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Harden’s tenure with the Nets is one of the biggest NBA speculations in recent memory.
The Nets traded two promising young players, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert, along with four first-round picks and three pick trades to acquire Harden and pair him with Durant and Irving to form a title contender in the East.
However, Durant and Harden have had their availability limited by injuries. Harden played 36 games with the Nets the first season after the trade, missing 21 of the final 24 regular season games with a pulled hamstring. He returned for Brooklyn’s first-round win over the Celtics, but injured his hamstring again in Game 1 of the second round, causing him to miss three games. Harden clearly wasn’t himself when he returned for the final three games of a seven-game loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Nets general manager Sean Marks has spoken of a plan to extend Durant, Harden and Irving’s contract into the summer of 2021, but only Durant has signed. The following season, Irving’s decision not to take the COVID-19 vaccine rendered him ineligible to play in New York and limited his availability in the 2021-22 season. The trio ultimately only played 16 games together over two seasons.
Just 13 months after his request for a trade from the Rockets, Harden was looking for another trade close to the February 2022 deadline. He resisted making a formal request for fear of public backlash for asking again, have sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but he wanted a trade to Philadelphia to reunite with Morey.
Harden missed his last four games with Brooklyn before the deadline with a hamstring injury before the Sixers, keen to move on from Ben Simmons and their own months-long saga, reached a deal to trade guards on February 10, 2022.
The Sixers hired Morey as president of basketball operations in November 2020, a month after leaving the Rockets, and when Simmons made it known he wanted to retire, Morey set his sights on Harden.
When Harden became unhappy in Brooklyn, the Sixers were ready to place the former MVP alongside future MVP center Joel Embiid. Harden played more of a point guard role in Philadelphia, with Embiid the centerpiece of the offense, and even though the 76ers were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs (with Harden averaging 18.2 points per game over 40 .5% shooting against the Miami Heat), the partnership seemed solid.
Harden even declined his $47.4 player option with Philadelphia last offseason to sign a two-year, $68 million contract, a pay cut that gave the Sixers salary cap flexibility to bring PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr., who had both starred. with Harden in Houston. According to Wojnarowski, Harden told Morey he wanted to do his part to strengthen the squad and give him a chance to compete for a championship. The contract included a player option for the second season, which would give Harden the chance to negotiate another free agent contract this summer.
After another second-round outing in which Harden disappointed with losses in Games 6 and 7 (a total of 22 points on 7-of-27 shooting with 10 turnovers), Harden had the chance to retire and test the free agent market. However, he decided to join to protect his $35.6 million salary. Sources told Wojnarowski that Harden and the 76ers would work together to find a trade, with the LA Clippers as the desired destination. Philadelphia and Los Angeles have had periodic conversations but no conclusion on a deal, and sources told Wojnarowski on Aug. 12 that the Sixers informed Harden they had ended trade talks and planned to bring him back for the start of the season. the season. Harden’s recent comments towards Morey in China were seen as the result of the Sixers’ inability to find him a business partner after he joined, as Harden believed.
The Sixers are scheduled to report to training camp on Oct. 2, which Harden plans to do, sources told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. However, the leaders of Houston and Brooklyn initially thought they could live with an unhappy superstar before quickly finding the situation untenable. With more than a month to go until training camp, Harden’s future in Philadelphia remains uncertain as another saga of trade demands continues to unfold.