James Harden is no longer the perennial NBA MVP candidate he was during his prime. On the brink of his 34th birthday, Harden is still capable of performing at an All-Star level if not a superstar level. He remains one of the better playmakers in the league — he led the NBA in assists per game last season — and a deadly three-point shooter off the dribble, but the burst that once made him unguardable at the point of attack is all but gone.
While aspects of Harden’s game have changed over the years, his ability to create a firestorm in an attempt to force himself to a new team has not.
Harden has requested a trade for the third straight year. The veteran guard asked to be traded from the Philadelphia 76ers on June 30 at the start of free agency after picking up his one-year player option for $35.6 million, but remains with the team as the offseason drags on. Sixers lead executive Daryl Morey initially said he would accommodate the veteran guard’s wish, but over the weekend leaked a report to ESPN that he has taken Harden off the trade market.
Harden responded by repeatedly calling Morey a liar during a trip to China with adidas. Harden has vowed to make things as uncomfortable as possible for the Sixers, to the point where they have to trade him eventually. This is just the start of it with training camp more than a month away.
If Harden has any leverage, it’s in attempting to disenfranchise his MVP teammate Joel Embiid with the organization. On Tuesday morning, the NBA world woke up to Embiid removing Philadelphia from his Twitter bio, and removing the word “Processing” from his account.
Normally I think this isn’t worth paying attention to at all but Joel Embiid is too online and calculated that I think it is worth mentioning
Embiid removed “Processing…” and the location “Philadelphia, PA” from his Twitter bio pic.twitter.com/P1dBLLtckf
— Sean Barnard (@Sean_Barnard1) August 15, 2023
Maybe it’s nothing, but Embiid is so media savvy that it’s hard to imagine he does anything like this by accident.
Embiid is really the main character of Harden’s trade request. If you don’t believe Embiid’s future in Philadelphia is potentially in question, you simply haven’t been paying attention to how NBA superstars operate over the last decade.
Embiid has accomplished everything a player can accomplish with the Sixers … save for playoff success. As he readies to turn 30 years old in March, Embiid has still never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Part of that is because the Sixers have failed to put a championship team around their stud big man. Part of it is because Embiid’s play always seems to slip a bit in the postseason, usually because of injuries.
Weeks ago, with Harden’s trade request hanging in the wind, Embiid said “I just want to win a championship, whether that’s going to be in Philly or anywhere else,” during a public appearance.
Was not expecting Joel Embiid to say “or anywhere else” when talking about championships… He’s close to his breaking point here in Philly. pic.twitter.com/0MqXX1rnrT
— AJ Torres (@ajtorres1230) July 17, 2023
Embiid has been synonymous with the Sixers since the organization drafted him with the No. 3 overall pick out of Kansas in the 2014 NBA Draft. His rise to superstardom has coincided with the Sixers annually becoming one of the league’s best teams — Philly has won at least 62 percent of its games in five of the last six seasons — but it’s possible the Harden saga could help him lose faith in the organization. Embiid might not have many years left of his prime, and he sure doesn’t want to waste one of them playing on a team with no title shot if Harden decides to sit out.
There comes a time for every superstar to take stock in their team’s outlook and decided they have to do what’s best for themselves. Chris Paul once did it in forcing his way to the Clippers. Anthony Davis did it in forcing his way to the Lakers. Harden did it in getting out of Houston, and Damian Lillard is currently trying to do it in an attempt to leave Portland for Miami.
While it’s speculative to believe Embiid could be the next superstar to request a trade, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Teams around the league are likely preparing for it.
“This is certainly a situation for Philadelphia that they don’t want to domino into Joel Embiid’s future… That clock is always ticking on what it means for your best player and that clock is ticking now for the Sixers and Joel Embiid.”
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) August 15, 2023
Embiid already played most of the 2021-2022 season without his best teammate when Ben Simmons held out wanting to be traded from Philadelphia. Morey somehow found a way to flip him for Harden when Harden decided he didn’t want to be in Brooklyn anymore. That move was supposed to give the Sixers a championship-worthy team, but instead Philly fell short in their two postseason tries.
If Harden returned to Philly and was fully engaged, the Sixers could talk themselves into being on the fringe of the title picture once again this season. At the same time, Harden’s trade request completely limited the Sixers’ ability to improve the team over the offseason, with Philly losing two rotation players in Georges Niang and Shake Milton and replacing them with Patrick Beverley, Mo Bamba, and a few undrafted rookies.
If Harden either sits out or follows the same path of not trying he once took to get out of Houston, Embiid knows he has no chance to win this year. The Sixers will try to sell their superstar center on the team opening up two near max salary slots in free agency. They will tell him veterans free agents — including Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and DeMar DeRozan — will line up to play with him.
Will Embiid continue to be so patient with the organization in his 30s, or will he come to the same realize that Lillard did this summer?
Harden wants out because he believed the Sixers gave him a wink-wink promise for a long-term contract when he took a paycut of $15 million last season. In reality, Harden has given up way more money than that ever since he first decided to pass on a max extension from the Nets and force his way to Philly. The ultimate revenge to Harden would be leaving the Sixers and getting Embiid to force his way out, too.
Embiid requesting a trade would be a seismic event around the league. It’s not going to happen in the next few weeks or next few months, but history tells us it might not be far off if Harden gets his wish.