Report: James Harden chose Nets over 76ers with Rockets trade

James Harden and Ben Simmons in Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers’ potential plan of keeping Ben Simmons through the trade deadline to use him to acquire Nets star James Harden this offseason is rife with complications:

  • Philadelphia would be forgoing roster help this season, when Joel Embiid is playing at an MVP level. With a better supporting cast, the 76ers could advance deeper in the playoffs.
  • With Tobias Harris and Embiid on big contracts and several other players signed to multi-year deals, Philadelphia will have a tough time clearing max cap space next summer.
  • Signing-and-trading for Harden would hard-cap the 76ers, who already have a high payroll.
  • An opt-in-and-trade (a la Chris Paul from the Clippers to Morey’s Rockets in 2017) might make most sense. That wouldn’t hard-cap Philadelphia and would allow Harden multiple pathways to higher salaries. But such an arrangement would have to be agreed upon before free agency officially opens, and the NBA is cracking down on tampering. Selectively. Still, this would be the type of complex early transaction more likely to set off alarms with the league.
  • Harden (32) is significantly older than Embiid (27) and has already shown signs of decline. A large contract for Harden might not age well.
  • If Simmons is unvaccinated, he might not be eligible to play Brooklyn home games. There’s no end in sight for New York City’s vaccine mandate. The Nets obviously wouldn’t as highly value a player eligible only part-time. Multi-team trades are more difficult to execute.
  • Of course, Harden would have to agree.

On that front, we have a clue that ought to concern the 76ers. Harden preferred Brooklyn to Philadelphia just over a year ago, when the Rockets traded him.

Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic:

With both final offers in hand on the morning of Jan. 13, 2021, sources say Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta approached Harden about which destination he preferred: Brooklyn or Philadelphia. The choice was his — sort of.

It remains unclear whether Fertitta would have been willing to follow through on the Sixers deal if Harden had opted for Philadelphia. At the time, sources say, the Rockets also strongly preferred the Nets proposal. The Sixers were unsure at the time if they were truly in the running, as Morey had abruptly resigned from the Rockets less than three months before and landed with the Sixers just two weeks later. They feared the personal dynamics relating to their recent history would play a part in the Rockets’ final choice, though Rockets officials have denied that was the case.

There was a sense of relief from Fertitta, sources say, that Harden had picked the Nets. It made the deal that much easier and less problematic to complete. Houston finalized the Nets’ blockbuster, which included four first-round picks and four draft swaps.

Yet a year later, sources say Morey still has some optimism that he can finally find a way to bring Harden his way. More specifically, he believes that the nine-time All-Star and 2018 MVP sees the Sixers’ situation in a positive light. And while it may be counterintuitive, Embiid’s MVP-caliber play this season has inspired more patience among Sixers officials to make the right deal than it has pressure to get something done by the deadline.

There’s a fascination with whether Fertitta would’ve traded Harden to Morey. The way Harden was acting at the end in Houston, why wouldn’t the Rockets have just taken whichever offer they deemed better? They didn’t necessarily owe it to Harden to send him to his preferred destination.

But the bigger question moving forward: If Harden chose Brooklyn over Philadelphia in 2021, would he feel differently in 2022? What will have changed in such little time?

That said, Harden reportedly always wanted to join the Nets for two years but not necessarily longer. Perhaps, his recent preference of Brooklyn over Philadelphia just won’t mean that much a year-plus later. Harden might view playing for the Nets as just a chapter, not the coda, of his career.

Embiid looks like an appealing sidekick. But so does Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving is incredibly talented, too.

Morey believing Harden views the 76ers positively might be wishful thinking. It also might be the type of intel an experienced executive well-versed in star pursuits can gain, especially considering his connection to Harden. Though Morey’s fine for tampering with Harden came from a benign tweet, the NBA tends to levy tampering penalties only when teams complains. Teams are more likely to complain when they actually feel threatened.

Ultimately, Harden’s experience in the 2022 playoffs will go a long way in shaping his decision this summer. The postseason will be his final impression of the Nets and important one. It’s difficult to predict how that will play out.

But it seems significant Harden so recently preferred Brooklyn to Philadelphia.