Originally found on Fox Sports:
National Basketball Association
Oct. 27, 2023 1:51 a.m. ET
Moral victories aren’t really a thing in professional sports, but the Philadelphia 76ers‘ 118-117 loss Thursday night in Milwaukee, against a Bucks team which is widely viewed as one of the league’s three best, certainly comes close.
The Sixers, after falling behind by 19 in the second quarter, stormed back and even took an eight-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. If not for Joel Embiid looking very much like a man who only suited up for one preseason game — seven turnovers, five fouls and just 9-for-21 shooting — and some typically brilliant crunch-time exploits from Damian Lillard in his Bucks debut (39 points on 20 shots), the Sixers just might have pulled off the upset.
It’s not that they looked like they could be in the same class as the Bucks. The team’s decision-makers know that, with the lineup they ran out Thursday night, they’re not. What the Sixers’ debut did illustrate is why Daryl Morey, the team’s president of basketball operations, is in no rush to deal James Harden. Yeah, the Sixers need him — or another star — to compete for a title. In the meantime, though, they have enough talent on the roster to hang in the playoff picture.
“I understand there’s a lot of things to figure out,” Morey told reporters in September on media day. “Give us time for me to work in the front office and get the players here that will help us win.”
Nearly a month has passed since then, yet not much has changed. The Sixers and Harden remain at odds. Harden is furious at Morey for how Morey treated him over the offseason and wants to play for the LA Clippers. Morey refuses to deal Harden to the Clippers simply because that’s what Harden wants.
The Clippers, according to people familiar with their thinking, think Morey is being unreasonable with his demands, mostly because they’re the only ones making any offers. Morey, according to people familiar with his thinking, would send Harden to the Clippers if they offered their two unprotected future first round picks or one pick and Terance Mann.
The Clippers don’t want to part with two of those assets and, because no one else is calling Morey about Harden, don’t feel the need. Both sides feel like they have the leverage. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that the Clippers were “stepping back from (those) trade talks.” And so the game of chicken continues.
But Morey’s belief, and his bet, has always been that things change once the games actually start. It’s simple math. There are 30 teams but only 12 non-play-in postseason slots. Every game has a winner and a loser. The games alter the landscape and that alters the marketplace. The start of the games also means that players started receiving game checks. Harden is scheduled to earn a little less than $430,000 per game this season. Would he be willing to risk that money by holding out?
Well, the games started this week. After being away from the Sixes for 10 days — Harden told them it was for a “personal matter;” the Sixers accepted that reason and, according to team sources, did not issue any fines — Harden returned to the team’s Camden, New Jersey, facility on Wednesday morning. The Sixers were scheduled to practice and then fly out to Milwaukee for their Thursday night matchup with the Bucks.
According to people familiar with the conversations, Harden met with members of Sixers management, the coaching staff and medical team at the team’s facility before practice. He told them he was ready to rejoin the group, but the Sixers, concerned about the impact of the lay-off on his body, wanted him to stay back and train in their building, where he’d have full access to their equipment, tracking technology and staff. Harden said he wanted to join the team on the road trip — they play in Toronto on Saturday — and ramp up in the facility next week when the Sixers returned. The Sixers said that wouldn’t work, that they wanted him back on the court as soon as possible. Harden agreed to the plan and then participated in practice.
“He’s been gone for 10 days, so we’re in ramp-up phase again,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse told reporters afterward. “So, like we would normally do, he will stay and get on-court work with our staff and with our players from the [Delaware Blue Coats, Philadelphia’s G-League team] and two-way guys and things like that and try to get him ramped up as soon as we can.”
Nurse added that Harden was “fine” with the decision. “He understands he’s got to get ramped up,” he said.
After practice, however, Harden changed his mind. He didn’t want to stay back. He wanted to join the team on the road. He drove to the airport, where he spoke with general manager Elton Brand and head coach Nick Nurse. According to Bleacher Report, Harden “was stopped by a security official who notified him that he was not permitted to accompany the team;” a Sixers source denied this claim. The Sixers once again explained their preference and left for Milwaukee without him. On Thursday, Harden reported to the team’s facility.
So where are we at now? The Sixers say they want Harden back on the court. Harden and his camp either believe that this is a lie, that the Sixers want Harden to stay away from the team until a deal is completed, or at least want the public to think this is the case. Who’s telling the truth? We should have our answer sometime next week, when the “ramp-up” period comes to an end. When it does, will the Sixers clear Harden to play? If they do, will Harden suit up?
In the meantime, Morey is content to sit back and wait. Soon, Embiid will be rounding into MVP form. And maybe Tyrese Maxey pops like he did Thursday (31 points, eight assists). And maybe the Clippers get off to a slow start. And maybe Tobias Harris, who’s talked all offseason about how excited he is to have been granted more offensive freedom by Nurse and connected on eight of his nine shots Thursday night for 20 points, picks up some of Harden’s scoring load. And maybe Kelly Oubre Jr., who exploded for 27 points Thursday night and averaged 20.3 points per game with the Charlotte Hornets last season, chips in, too. Against the Bucks, the Sixers looked like a playoff team. They’ll be able to hold the line against Harden as long as that continues to be the case.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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