For all the drama surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard this summer, it may pale in comparison to the standoff between the Philadelphia 76ers and discontented superstar James Harden.
Following Harden’s public lambasting of 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey in China on Monday, the NBA has launched an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the feud, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne.
The NBA office is investigating whether Harden was threatening a 2023-24 holdout in violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement or was referencing past contract discussions with the franchise that might constitute salary cap circumvention, Wojnarowski and Shelburne reported.
At a publicity event in China on Monday for his Adidas shoe line, Harden called Morey a “liar” and said he would “never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.” The comments followed a report Philadelphia had stopped looking to trade Harden this summer and expected him to report to training camp. Harden opted into a $35.6 player option on his contract this summer with the expectation he would be traded, preferably to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Last summer, Harden re-signed with the 76ers on a two-year, $68.6M deal, including the player option. The deal was much cheaper than expected, enabling the franchise to sign better bench depth through free agency. At the time, the nature of the one-plus-one deal prompted an NBA investigation into whether Harden and Philadelphia made an illegal handshake agreement on a future contract. The investigation uncovered premature conversations with free agent signees Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — which stripped Philadelphia of two future second-round picks — but found no evidence of Philadelphia and Harden agreeing upon a future contract.
Now, the NBA is again questioning whether there was a handshake agreement in place. The current investigation is probing whether Harden’s comments in China were in reference to Philadelphia backing out of a previously promised deal for the 10-time NBA All-Star.
Harden privately indicated his public comments calling Morey a “liar” were only in response to Morey ending trade discussions for Harden, Wojnarowski and Shelburne reported. The 76ers also have continued to deny the suggestion the franchise ever agreed on an illegal future deal with Harden.
On Thursday, KHOU 11 television reporter Jason Bristol in Houston asked Harden whether his relationship with Philadelphia was “beyond repair.”
“I think so,” Harden responded.
Last season, Harden averaged 21 points and 10.7 assists per game over 58 appearances for Philadelphia. Despite championship expectations and an MVP season from center Joel Embiid, Philadelphia lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinal in seven games.