Sunday, July 14, 2024

The 76ers’ James Harden-Daryl Morey tug of war is real, and it’s showing no signs of being over any time soon

As the Philadelphia 76ers’ president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey should keep these three numbers in mind while he navigates the awkwardness created by James Harden: 65, 5 and 0.

65: That’s the number of days since Harden, Morey’s one-time friend and former attached-at-the-hip superstar, lambasted him in China, saying, in part, “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”

5: The number of days since Harden, after having arrived at the Sixers preseason camp, doubled down with his response to reporters who asked if his relationship with the team’s front office could be salvaged. “No.”

0: The amount of credit Morey will have with his boss if the proper pieces don’t come back to Philly in any Harden trade and this team doesn’t compete for a championship this season.

Yes, things are ugly in Philly. But drama is one thing. Losing — and losing your hold on whatever legitimate hope you had — is something else entirely.

So while the Clippers may be interested in trading a first-round pick, a pick swap and expiring contracts for Harden, convinced they are Morey’s only way out of this soap opera, Morey’s best move is to stay stubborn.

Because this isn’t a soap opera. It’s a competition — between teams, yes, but also between Harden and Morey, each of whom want drastically different things. On one side is Harden, wanting out of Philly, no matter the cost and consequences to the Sixers. On the other is Morey, surely wanting to remain in Philly longterm.

Which is exactly why the best advice Morey can take is this: Hold your ground. Don’t budge. Don’t swerve. Get the return you want for your disgruntled star or, if need be, play him to the bitter end — and force Harden to sit, be the bad guy, look like the “liar” in this fiasco. Make him continue to stay away from team activities, including team scrimmages and, so far this preseason, actual games.

Let the Beard explain to the reigning MVP why he’s jeopardizing their title hopes. 

Morey is not in a particularly envious spot. His window to win is now, and moving Harden on for pieces that do not allow him to compete this season is untenable, at least from his point of view. 

Embiid is viewed as a potential problem-in-waiting — a star who, if things go sour, could be the next Sixer to want to play elsewhere. But Harden has been fickle with so many teams, and unreliable in so many postseasons, that finding a buyer at the price Morey needs is seen as a stretch, if not impossible.

The Miami Heat have not engaged in serious talks for Harden, the Clippers, as the lone interested party, are unlikely to bid against themselves. Few other teams have so much as tipped their toes in the water. And so Morey has neither leverage nor a good alternative.

Yet a general consensus has emerged in other front offices, where a view holds sway that Morey, faced with all bad choices, can’t buckle. That his counterparts, if they were him, would use that most powerful of words: “No.”

“If you’re Philly … you have to walk away with something that’s competitive,” one rival GM said recently. Daryl has to win now.”

Said another league executive with experience negotiating with Morey: “How is trading away all that equity to get James only to take a first-round pick in the 20s going to help Daryl succeed? I’d rather die on that hill with James still there.”

Harden has spent considerable time upping the pressure on Morey, hoping to force a move, the price be damned. 

Morey’s best course of action is simple to do if also difficult to execute: Understand that if he’s going to fail, it’s best to fail with the most talented team possible — even if that means holding firmly to a disgruntled, toxic and insult-flinging James Harden.

The OKC move that was not OK

Just because you can, Sam Presti, it doesn’t mean you should.

On Tuesday, the news broke that the Thunder had acquired disgraced Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. You may remember Porter Jr. was arraigned earlier this month on allegations he assaulted his girlfriend, the latest in a series of alleged moments that seem to make his clear talent not even remotely worth the trouble.

The Thunder immediately waived Porter Jr. They unloaded some players, brought in a trade exception and landed two future second-round picks. A good bit of business, maybe, but an ugly one, too.

Yes, this is within the realm of the rules of the NBA. And sure, Porter Jr. and the ugliness attached to him will never actually touch down in Oklahoma City, let alone will he ever play for the Thunder.

But there’s a distastefulness of stark opportunism here that just feels … wrong. 

The Rockets get rid of a problem. The Thunder get more picks loaded into their collection for down-the-road moves. And we get reminded that sometimes even excellent executives lean too heavily into an opportunity at the cost of remembering even a symbolic acquisition just doesn’t sit right.

My preseason MVP ballot

We’re going to try something different in this space this season. As a long-time voter for NBA awards, including Most Valuable Player, we’ll occasionally post a running rankings for this writer’s MVP vote.

To kick that off, here’s a preseason version — an educated guess of where the MVP race likely starts, and could end, before next week’s opening night.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Perhaps this gives the Bucks too much credit for bringing in Damian Lillard, but Giannis and the Bucks feel primed for a big season.
  2. Nikola Jokic. He’s most everyone’s favorite, and last year’s playoff run added insult to injury for many who thought he should have won the award over Embiid. 
  3. Luka Doncic. He has to win it eventually. Right? 
  4. Jayson Tatum. The Celtics have recalibrated with a new, very different roster. If it works, Tatum will be its catalyst — and perhaps the best player on the game’s best team.
  5. Kevin Durant. The Big 3 Phoenix Suns are a high-risk, high-reward basketball team. Durant’s individual greatness could certainly shine if things tend toward success.

A word on the Bucks, Tyler Herro and the Thunder

  • The conventional wisdom is that the bromance with and toward the Milwaukee Bucks’ new dynamic duo is pretty high, but not everybody is convinced. “Sure, the Bucks got Dame,” said one interested party, “but there’s no guarantee it works. And no guarantee Giannis signs an extension next summer. I wouldn’t …”
  • Just how much is Tyler Herro revered by the Heat? For the answer let’s look to a response from a source familiar with Miami’s thinking. “He’s played well … People look at these things backwards and say the team’s trying to move Tyler. [They’ve] had lots of people call about him. But there’s only two names he’s been attached to, legitimately, and they are Durant and Lillard, a Top 10 player and maybe scorer of all time. So [they] value him. A lot.”
  • No one is saying that the 2023-24 edition of the Thunder will be the first to win a playoff series since the spring of 2016, but as one scout put it: “I think OKC is gonna be good.”

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