The Sixers’ unraveling did not start with James Harden
By Sopan Deb
For Philadelphia 76ers fans, this is The Bad Place.
“Disgust among Sixers fans is at one of the highest levels I have ever seen here in Philadelphia,” Joe DeCamara, a Philadelphia radio host, said in a recent interview.
A confluence of misfortune and bad strategy has almost left the team where it was in the mid-2000s at the end of the Allen Iverson era: adrift with no path to contend for a championship. Whatever plans Daryl Morey, the team’s president of basketball operations, had when he took over in 2020 seem to have unraveled.
“We feel like people are underrating the Sixers right now,” Morey told reporters at his introductory news conference, “but we need to go out there and prove it.”
What has been proved, in fact, is quite the opposite, punctuated recently when James Harden, the team’s second-best player, publicly trashed Morey as part of his quest to force a trade to another team.
Discontent is not new for star players, but in the Sixers’ case it has become very public at a moment when their fans are at their wits’ end. The broader public has developed an appetite for this brand of superstar drama because it pops up every summer, but the Sixers, perhaps more than other NBA teams, are poorly positioned to plead for patience because the organization has put its fans through a decade of stops and starts, including the rebuilding plan known as The Process.
Harden’s relationship with the Sixers became a Good News-Bad News situation this summer. The Good: Harden, a 33-year-old guard, opted into the last year of his contract. The Bad: It was on the condition that the Sixers trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers, according to two people familiar with the request but not authorized to discuss it publicly. To make matters worse, videos that emerged on social media this week appeared to show Harden disparaging Morey while speaking to reporters at an Adidas event in China.
“Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said in the videos. Harden’s agent and Adidas did not respond to requests from The New York Times seeking to confirm the authenticity of the videos. A Sixers spokesperson declined to comment.
The exact nature of Harden’s anger at Morey is unclear, but his displeasure is an extraordinary setback nonetheless. Harden is one of the greatest offensive players ever, and few defenders can guard him alone because of his combination of ball handling and size. He is one of a small number of players who can will a team to victory by himself — when he chooses.
Harden and Joel Embiid, the star center who is Philadelphia’s best player and the reigning Most Valuable Player Award winner, share some of the responsibility for the Sixers’ lack of success. They often underperform at crucial moments in the postseason, and did so again this spring, when the Sixers lost to Boston in the second round.
This has brought even more pessimism to Philadelphia, where sports-related despair is as essential to the city’s identity as the hoagie.
“As a fan, it’s simple: I want the team to win,” said Amos Lee, a folk singer-songwriter and avid Sixers fan. “I want them to spend all of the money and get all of the best players and put the coolest people on the team and that’s it. But I don’t know what this franchise is.”
Lee added, “It has been for a long time really poorly managed.”
The Sixers have not made it to the Eastern Conference finals since 2001, and Doc Rivers, who was hired as head coach a few weeks before Morey joined the team, had a history of falling short in the playoffs. Still, Morey kept him for three seasons. And after Ben Simmons, the star point guard drafted two years after Embiid, demanded a trade out of Philadelphia, Morey resisted before swinging a trade for Harden, who was trying to force his way off his second straight team. Now Philadelphia is his third.
According to a person familiar with Morey’s thinking, the plan remains to bring Harden back after the Sixers ended trade negotiations with the Clippers when they could not reach what they believed would be a suitable deal.
That is not a plan — that’s unjustified hope. Harden has shown that he is willing to hold out or loaf on the floor if he does not get the trade he wants. And even if Harden returns, the team did not make any real improvements this offseason and, in fact, lost several rotation players to free agency. If the 76ers could not get out of the second round last year, how will they do next season with a less talented team and an unhappy Harden?
If Harden does go, he will be the latest in a string of Sixers stars who have left the team under acrimonious circumstances, stretching back to Charles Barkley in 1992. Before Simmons and Harden, Iverson was frustrated with the franchise when he was traded in 2006, as was Andre Iguodala when he was traded in 2012.
Morey has long shown little interest in fielding a struggling team. When he was an executive in Houston in 2019, he traded Chris Paul and multiple first-round picks for Russell Westbrook after the Rockets lost in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Before that, Morey dismantled a middling Rockets team that included a young Kyle Lowry. Those moves allowed the Rockets in 2012 to acquire the star who would push them toward true contention: Harden.
If Morey decides to hit the eject button on the Embiid and Harden era in Philadelphia, after less than two full seasons, he has shown a willingness to make hard choices. But that requires patience Sixers fans do not have, and asking the team’s ownership to accept a near-term regression and financial hit while they are planning for a new arena.
But the clock is not just ticking on what to do about Harden. It is also ticking on Embiid. He said recently that he wanted to win a championship whether it was in Philadelphia “or anywhere else.” He later suggested that he was not serious, though that has not eased the anxiety of some Sixers fans.
On one hand, fans could understand his restlessness. He has endured several different front office heads, a coaching carousel and unhappy stars without even a conference finals appearance to show for it. But on the other hand, those same coaches, executives and teammates have had to endure his disappointing playoff performances, too.
“They have not done a great job around him,” said Spike Eskin, co-host of “The Rights To Ricky Sanchez,” a Sixers fan podcast that is unaffiliated with the team. “The organization has been a mess for the entirety of his career. But he is as much to blame for their lack of success in the playoffs as anybody is.”
For now, Morey does not have many options. That is partly on him. The best option in a sea of bad ones may be to engage in some wishful thinking: Maybe Harden shows up to camp in great shape and reconsiders his desire to leave. Maybe Embiid puts together another MVP-level season and does not get hurt, as he so often has.
Maybe they can even get out of the second round.