James Harden is in limbo. Last season, he was all in on taking a pay cut in an effort to give the Philadelphia 76ers cap flexibility to sign glue guys who would put them over the edge come playoff time. A year later, he’s the acetone on their franchise continuity. His constant bellyaching stemming from Daryl Morey’s reluctance to bestow him with a massive contract extension matches the most effort he’s ever put into basketball. Typically, he gets his way, but the market has soured on him.
Before Harden took a late summer hard pivot to demand Morey ship him to the Clippers, one of his off-ramps from Philly was pursuing a reunion with the Houston Rockets two and a half years after he initially burned that bridge. Throughout the year, he’d dropped easter eggs about his interest in the Rockets, who had the NBA’s most cap space. However, it never felt mutual. Ultimately, Houston ended up dropping their money bags on Dillon Brooks and Fred Van Vleet instead of Harden.
In comments published by Zach Lowe Thursday, Rockets head coach Ime Udoka confirmed they preferred a guard who would also be comfortable playing off-ball to Harden.
“Nothing against James,” Udoka told ESPN, “but Fred is just a better fit. I coached James in Brooklyn. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around. The words ‘Ime doesn’t want James’ never came out of my mouth. It was, ‘Let’s look at the best fit.’ If we want Jalen and the young guys to take the next steps, we need them to have the ball. As for me saying I don’t want James, that was never the case. It was about fit.”
Udoka is being gentle. Once Houston hired Udoka, who emphasizes accountability among his players, the Rockets were looking for any reason to ignore a former MVP who just led the league in assists. Udoka was just suspended for a year by his previous employer and Harden was toxic to him. That really says something about Harden’s stock.
Harden was oblivious enough to believe that Morey would blow up Philly’s roster to acquiesce to his demands. Paul George or Kawhi Leonard weren’t coming over in a swap. What else did the Clippers have to offer a team that needs to win now? They don’t have any young talent and future picks won’t satisfy Joel Embiid.
The Clippers are incapable of signing Harden outright. Harden needed Morey’s cooperation as much as he needed his. Houston didn’t want him coming in there with a diva mentality for his basketball equivalent of a basketball residency.
If Stephen A. Smith’s sources are accurate, Harden was tired of riding in the passenger seat for the reigning NBA MVP. Smith alleges Harden talked himself out of a max contract by implying he was returning to reign again as a scoring champion for a fourth time. That tracks with what was previously suggested. For Harden, Houston was a vehicle for him to relive his greatest hits.
The Beard is one of the most creative ball-handling wizards of his generation, but he’s also obsessed with driving the offense and a ball-stopping fiend who can dribble the air out of your offense. Houston didn’t need Harden stunting the development of their Nickelodeon roster so that he could beat the air out of the ball on his way to 30 points and brick a dozen threes against Boston or Milwaukee.
At least Damian Lillard wanted to escape a franchise that didn’t fit his timeline. He spent a decade trying. He even shrank his ego to admit he was playing with a better player for the first time in his career. Harden is in the midst of his fourth trade request. He doesn’t want to play for the contender he asked to be traded to for his twilight years. He clashed with Chris Paul when he was his best shot for a ring. You know what you’re getting with The Beard.
He’s also a flawed mentor for younger stars. Who’s going to showcase what grit looks like to a slew of silver spoon lottery picks between Harden or an undersized former undrafted free agent point guard in his prime who still feels like he has something to prove? Harden’s emotional development was stunted when he was a 23-year-old malcontent who wanted out of Oklahoma City after they lost in the Finals because the Thunder fell $6 million short of his demands.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the Sixers keep spawning Ben Simmons types. There are some differences, but for the most part, the parallels and the similar effect they have on everyone are uncanny. Harden doesn’t play inspiring defense, he won’t stop firing long-distance treys when he hits a rough patch, he’s in and out of shape, dating Khloe Kardashian instead of Kendall (Kylie?) Jenner, has a positive relationship with Embiid, won the public relations war with Doc Rivers that Simmons lost, but made himself a pariah by going to war with the front office.
Where is Harden’s place in the modern NBA? He doesn’t belong on a rebuilding team and contenders have noticed he’s too high-maintenance. He won’t land in ClipperLand. That was always 10 times more implausible than Lillard’s affinity for the Miami Heat. Harden’s career is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and he has no one to blame, but himself.
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