James Harden is saying all the right things, but talk is always cheap.
Actions always speak louder than words.
James Harden offered many words in a six-minute media availability after practice on Friday, his first since opting into the final year of his contract and requesting a trade from the Sixers at the end of June.
If Harden's actions follow his words, the Sixers might not have to worry about salvaging a lost season before it even begins.
All you needed was a keyboard or a microphone to eulogize the Sixers over the last few months, many casting loud assumptions that Harden would refuse to play for the Sixers, fake an injury to be excused from playing, or show up and poison the product they're building.
He did things on that spectrum to get out of Houston and Brooklyn, they contended. He would surely do the same thing to get his wish granted for a third time, right?
Well, those two situations involved dissatisfaction with the colleagues with whom he shared the court on a night-to-night basis. This situation, according to Harden, involves dissatisfaction with a single colleague with whom he doesn't ever take the hardwoods.
Harden claims that that dissatisfaction cannot be reversed. But, he might also realize that the team has a chance to win if he buys in. What does it say about him if he stands in the way of that?
So far, Harden sounds like someone who is going to zig after supposed pundits expected him to zag.
"Like I said, I can control what I can control. I take it one day at a time. And focus on every day is a new day. But, my plan is to play basketball, for sure," Harden revealed.
A lot of guys can step on the court. A select few move the needle like Harden does when he's totally bought in and engaged. Harden says he loves the game of basketball. You don't get as far as he has - at the level he has at his best - without loving the game.
But, Harden made it clear that his heart will only carry so much of the weight while he remains in Philadelphia.
"You know, I got to make a decision for my family. I understand this is a business. So, it's just as simple as that. I come here today and work my butt off and do the things necessary as a professional as I would do and as I've been doing for 15 years," the bearded guard said.
I think Houston and Brooklyn might have something to say about the last half of the last sentence, especially as it pertains to Harden's trade requests. But, Harden's words portray someone who understands and has come to grips with his situation.
He just put together the best regular season by a point guard in Sixers history. He's still almost certainly one of the 30 best players in the league on his average night. Yet, the years of playoff flameouts, the off-the-court lifestyle and how it affects his aging curve and influences younger players on the team, and the trend of him becoming dissatisfied with his current team and using any means necessary to get out have all sent his value crashing from the sky to the depths of the ocean.
The lack of interest in Harden should have nothing - nothing - to do with his current abilities on the basketball court. A slim trade market for the former MVP should be rooted in the fear of Harden's history repeating itself.
And as long as Daryl Morey is the president of basketball operations for the 2023-24 season, Harden knows he's most likely stuck in Philadelphia. At least for the time being.
With no one coming close to meeting Morey's asking price, Harden ultimately faces three roads.
One road is to compartmentalize his grievance for the betterment of the team and give his best effort every night. The second road is to catalyze drama and chaos in hopes of getting his way. The third is to refuse to play in hopes of getting his way.
The risk of the first option is that his value to the Sixers eclipses the value of their best trade return through the February deadline, keeping Harden in a place he doesn't want to be for the whole season. His Bird rights are then only valuable to the Sixers next offseason. He might get a max contract elsewhere next summer. It just won't be for the most money possible unless the Sixers offer it and he accepts it. That seems far-fetched, at least right now.
The risk of the second option is that Nick Nurse and company are comfortable giving the keys to Tyrese Maxey and send Harden home for manufacturing toxicity. Sure, he might eventually get traded somewhere. Sure, he might get a long-term contract next offseason. But, it won't be a salary that reflects Harden's true value on the court.
The risk of the third is he gets fined, hemorrhaging money on his current salary, and wounds the market on his next contract.
For a man talking about business and making the best decision for his family, risking dollars doesn't currently appear to be an option.
So, playing and giving his best effort is the path he appears ready to take.
"I'm still ramping up. I'm still ramping up, trying to get myself in the best shape. I feel really, really good. But, there's another level I feel like I can get to, and I am going to get to," Harden told reporters on Friday.
"So, I'll ramp it up and try to play the last [preseason game] just to get myself in game situations and get used to the physicality of defenders bumping me or whatnot. The speed, the tempo, all that good stuff. So, I think we have a good plan in place."
Accepting one's circumstances - no matter how desirable they may be in relative terms - after years of having everything bent to your desires takes humility. It takes looking in the mirror and coming to grips with the fact that you are no longer who you once were. It humanizes someone who once appeared to be a cyborg, making it easy to view them as the proverbial good guy and even feel some degree of compassion for them.
Neither Harden nor Morey has handled this situation perfectly. But, Harden looked worse after publicly attacking Morey's character in the middle of the summer. Now, there's at least something to understand on Harden's side.
"Me and the front office had a very, very good relationship for a decade. There was constant communication, you know what I mean? And there was no communication once we lost," Harden explained of his fractured relationship with the "front office".
Philadelphia's position all along was that they wanted to keep Harden. Conversations leading up to the free agency period led me to believe that the Sixers were interested in a multi-year contract, but not necessarily at the full max if the market didn't dictate it to be a requirement.
After Harden picked up his option and requested a trade, every story explaining the Sixers' side of the situation pointed to Philadelphia wanting to avoid any tampering penalties after losing picks in the aftermath of signing PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr. They intended to open conversations with Harden once they were permitted to under league rules, those stories insisted.
It's up to you to decide whether you believe that. What I can tell you is that Harden isn't the first Joel Embiid co-star to lose trust in Morey.
Ben Simmons felt like he was no longer a cornerstone of the team after Morey joined the Sixers late in 2020, according to a source familiar with that situation. Morey built a great relationship with Embiid, the crown jewel. Simmons felt Morey didn't make the same effort to bond with him.
It's a normal exercise of team-building and organizational change to view a star-level player as more expendable than the previous regime did. Morey is not at fault for regarding Simmons as closer to the rest of the roster than to the star that Embiid was and is.
Morey earned blame for failing to build a strong relationship with his second best player while building a great relationship with his best player. It appears to be the same mismanagement that fractured his relationship with Harden.
If Harden's words are any indicator, it was convenient to have a great relationship with the star guard while he was the best player on the team. Only when his rank amongst the top players changed did it become easy to neglect that personal equity as the team's season came to an end at the same hump it always has.
A great executive has to put relationships aside to make difficult business decisions. But, they also have to try to build and maintain relationships with everyone under their management.
If Morey has one flaw in his career as a lead decision-maker, it might be leaning too far into nurturing the relationship with his top player while - regardless of intention - not going to the same lengths to build and protect his equity with players down the pecking order.
Perhaps the relationship between Morey and Harden is totaled, but Nick Nurse seems to have a chance of building something with the disgruntled guard.
"Great. Nick is very versatile. He's a player's coach. Like, he understands it. I've known a little bit, when he was the G-League coach in Houston. But, obviously, he's won a championship. He just sees the game different. I'm a fan of him," Harden said of the new head coach.
"Just having conversations with him these last few weeks, it's been impressive. Just, he knows the game of basketball."
Harden is already seeing differences between the incumbent and the past, too.
"I think it's more spacing, more opportunities for everyone. Just unpredictable. He literally can change things up on the fly. Things in one, five, six, seven possessions aren't going right or in one quarter, he can change them and make an adjustment, which is very difficult to do. But, he's very, very good at that," no. 1 said.
If Harden's goal in all of this was to maximize future dollars, refusing to play for the Sixers, intentionally playing terribly, or being a disruptive force on the last year of his contract were likely never real options. As long as the Sixers were comfortable with some potentially choppy waters, the biggest concern should have been and should still be the degree of on-court adversity Harden will take before checking out.
For now, Harden is saying the right things. We'll see if that holds up in the throes of a playoff series.
If Harden is still here by then, of course.
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