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This is the beginning of the end for the Philadelphia 76ers

After seemingly finishing the Process, another drama-filled offseason and James Harden trade request could doom the Philadelphia 76ers for good.

“I don’t know why people think I’m a bad teammate,” James Harden told Tim Bontemps, ESPN after his debut game for the Philadelphia 76ers.

“That’s the media that says that. I feel like I’m one of the best teammates that the NBA has seen, on the court and off the court. Just because the current situation happened, whatever happened, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad teammate.”

This answer fails to mention the several chemistry issues Harden has reportedly had in the past including, but not limited to: upsetting Dwight Howard, “beefing” with Chris Paul, showing up to the start of the Houston Rockets’ season unfit after not getting traded and requesting a trade out of Brooklyn after just 80 games.

When he joined Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, this was supposed to be his final destination. Harden was supposed to be happy in Philly, playing for his former colleague and friend, Daryl Morey, and on a team that’s competing for a title every season he and Embiid touch the court.

But after a total of 102 regular season and playoff games for the City of Brotherly Love, Harden has dusted off his trade request cue cards and asked out of yet another team. 

In the past, when a trade request hasn’t gone his way, he sulks until it happens. This time, Daryl Morey is at the helm, a guy who has won his fair share of trade request squabbles, and he’s more than happy to wait out the trade request of a disgruntled player. The added variable of an obscure CBA clause protecting the Sixers means Morey can hold Harden hostage if he doesn’t report to camp.

But unlike the Ben Simmons situation, where Philadelphia definitely won the trade, this situation is a lot less promising. The 76ers aren’t moving a guy in his mid-20s with questionable injuries for a disgruntled star, they’re moving a 33-year-old with a rich history of being unhappy and one year remaining on his contract.

Additionally, Zach Lowe, ESPN reported in late December 2022 that Harden is only interested in signing short-term deals to maximise his individual flexibility for the rest of his career. Bringing Harden into the fold is hardly a safe bet.

Because of this, we’re unlikely to see many positive assets going Philly’s way this time and we could be in for an “ugly battle” between Harden and the front office. If Morey’s recent press conference calmed some nerves, Harden’s Instagram story agitated them again.

But I was willing to excuse all that. When you get into the James Harden business, you assume a level of risk and honestly, it looks like he won’t go all out to get traded like he did when he was with Houston. Jake Fischer, Yahoo! Sports reports that Harden will report to training camp if he isn’t traded and he’ll be amicable.

Regardless of his character, his contractual status or his age, Harden is still an All-Star level player in today’s NBA and in a star-driven league, teams are always willing to trade for them. A trade isn’t impossible.

What would the Philadelphia 76ers look like after a James Harden trade?

James Harden has picked the LA Clippers as his preferred destination. To pick his destination, it’s assumed that Harden would only re-sign with this team, scaring off any other potential suitors. 

After no trade happened following the request, Harden reiterated his interest in California via Ramona Shelburne, ESPN and mentioned his lack of a max extension as a major part of the trade request. Zach Lowe, ESPN adds that the trade talks are at a “total stalemate” and the Clippers’ interest is unclear: “There’s only really one team that he wants to go to, and that team is the Clippers. Their level of engagement here to me is unclear/not super enthusiastic.”

Putting all that aside (“unclear engagement” doesn’t make for a sexy article), here’s what I think a potential Harden-to-LAC trade would look like:

Does that make the 76ers better on the court? Maybe. But given how important stars are in the NBA, most likely not.

Playing devil’s advocate, Tyrese Maxey immediately becomes the primary ball handler and while he doesn’t have scoring titles and an MVP on his Basketball Reference page, he has always looked like an up-and-coming All-Star who has sat behind bigger names his entire career.

Surround a Maxey-Embiid pick-and-roll with Norman Powell, Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker and that’s at least a fun NBA 2K team. But is it a better team than this year’s 54-win squad?

The 76ers were at their best when Joel Embiid had the ball and if the league MVP wants to keep bludgeoning his way through the regular season with massive numbers, it might not be a horrible idea to surround him with weaker teammates who don’t need the ball in their hands.

The theory here also works since Embiid isn’t like his forever comp, Nikola Jokic. Embiid would rather draw a double team to shoot over two players than find the open man. If that’s his thinking, why have a ball-dominant guard like Harden wasting away behind the three-point line?

Would Daryl Morey go for that? The Clippers don’t have much in the way of future assets to send back so it’s not like the 76ers get a treasure trove of assets to send back out in a deal; there’s really only one first-round pick LA could move as well as Bones Hyland (are we calling him an asset?).

Why the sky is falling

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Moving on from a star player for a collection of role players and a middling first-round pick is a frightening reality. But it means a lot more for the most important person in Philadelphia basketball, Joel Embiid. The star big man’s recent comments in an interview with Maverick Carter at the Uninterrupted Sports Film Festival are frankly petrifying for Philly fans.

“I just want to win a championship. Whatever it takes. I don’t know where that’s gonna be, whether it’s in Philly or anywhere else, I just want to have a chance to accomplish that.” he said.

“I want to see what it feels like to win that first one, and then you can think about the next one. It’s not easy, but it takes more than one or two, three guys. You got to have good people around you, and myself, every single day, I work hard to be at that level so I can make it happen. So, every single day, I’m working towards that.”

Following that, Morey met with Embiid to discuss what he meant and to make sure the MVP wants to stay with the 76ers per Ian Begley, SNY. Yes, you read that correctly, the New York media vultures are already circling around this story with great interest.

It’s completely understandable that Embiid starts to get a wandering eye after seeing another disgruntled star lose their patience with Philadelphia and look for greener pastures. Careers are only so long and for a player who missed the first two years of his with major injuries, of course he wants to do whatever it takes to win a title.

If Joel Embiid doesn’t think his best chance at winning a title is in Philly, things could get very prickly. Embiid can’t be a free agent until the 2025-26 offseason where he has a $58 million player option for the 2026-27 season. By then, he’ll be 32 years old and who knows if he’s still performing at an MVP level.

Could the Cameroonian really request a trade when Morey is the guy making the moves and he has so many years remaining on his contract? Damian Lillard has an identical number of years remaining on his deal and Joe Cronin is taking his sweet time to find a trade partner. That’s also with Dame’s replacement (Scoot Henderson) on the roster, a potential Embiid trade could restart a Process-like rebuild.

With all the power in the world, I doubt Morey would budge in an Embiid trade request. Entering an awkward stalemate that could doom the 76ers.

The blame game

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Where did it all go wrong? Sam Hinkie started the Process as a way to collect as many premium assets as he could and it turned a middling team into a title contender within seven years.

While Hinkie was shunned from the league for his management, he collected enough assets and found enough stars and role players in the draft to form a team with sustained success. Compare that to the Charlotte Hornets, a team that has been poorly managed for as long as people have been bouncing basketballs.

Embiid, Simmons, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz aren’t the six players on a title contender but with them, the assets they returned and several other moves around the margins, the 76ers jumped back to the top of the Eastern Conference.

Tearing everything down seemed hard in the moment but the hardest aspect of the Process has been putting everything together for a championship. Multiple basketball front office members have been given plenty of assets to form their vision but the 76ers haven’t made the Conference Finals since 2001.

Bryan Colangelo, a known Adam Silver crony, was appointed to draft Simmons and Fultz and he watched the team return to the playoffs with savvy late-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Illyasova. Despite the playoff success, the Sixers were still drafting high enough to select Mikal Bridges before trading him for Zhaire Smith, the 16th pick and a future Miami Heat first-round pick.

Following a controversy involving fake Twitter accounts, Colangelo was stood down and the team promoted Elton Brand from within. In the Brand era, the 76ers made two major trades, one for Jimmy Butler and one for Tobias Harris.

In the following playoffs, it took a Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater hitting every part of the rim to knock the 76ers off in a pivotal Game 7.

At the time, this young Philadelphia 76ers team looked like they’d make the next ten Finals after learning some hard playoff lessons that all up-and-coming teams usually do. Instead, they decided to let Butler walk in free agency, take a gamble on signing Al Horford and they haven’t been that far in the playoffs since.

And with this recent news that Harden wants to leave, the Jenga tower might be toppling. Hinkie assembled a war chest of assets alongside legitimate superstars, but the presidents and general managers that succeeded him have sucked the resource pool dry and the team’s superstar centre might request a trade soon.

One silver lining is that Morey is one of the more analytically-minded basketball people in the NBA. He should recognise that there’s not much to be gained in treading water and see the benefit in tearing everything down to draft some premium talent with high picks.

Written by
Sean Carroll

Host of The Deep Two NBA Podcast and editor of thedeeptwo.com, Sean can often be found talking himself into whichever Golden State Warrior happens to be in their early 20s or unironically saying "light years"

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