The NBA's Eastern Conference arms race has escalated to mutually assured destruction, with the Milwaukee Bucks adding Damian Lillard and the Boston Celtics happily collecting the exiled Jrue Holiday. Milwaukee was briefly the betting favorite to win the NBA title but has now been supplanted by Boston after the Holiday deal. No matter which angle you peer through the magnifying glass, the Bucks and Celtics are the clear favorites in the conference.
That means a frustrating summer for Philadelphia 76ers fans has become exponentially worse in the past week. They started the offseason with a disgruntled James Harden issuing a trade request, and here they sit on the eve of media day -- still rostering a disgruntled James Harden (who boldly in August), while also having lost two significant rotation pieces in Shake Milton and Georges Niang.
The 76ers were reportedly in the running for Damian Lillard ... who went to a conference rival. Then they turned their sights to Jrue Holiday ... who went to a division rival. All of this has happened amid rumors swirling about reigning MVP Joel Embiid potentially sniffing around for greener pastures, with teams like the Knicks and Heat looming like sharks in the water, ready to strike if and when the big man says he wants out.
So the Sixers organization couldn't have been happy when, about a half-hour after the Holiday trade was announced, Embiid took to X (formerly Twitter) and posted a sarcasm-dripped, punctuationless, five-word indictment of Philadelphia's lackluster summer.
"This off-season was fun lmao," Embiid posted.
This off-season was fun lmao— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) October 1, 2023
Morey was already under pressure to sort out the Harden situation. Now with Lillard going to Milwaukee, Holiday headed to Boston and an unhappy MVP publicly displaying his angst -- the stakes have risen exponentially.
The hope, according to multiple reports, is that Harden shows up happy and healthy, willing to give things another shot with the 76ers. ESPN reported in mid-August that Harden would be expected to report to training camp, which he planned to do.
That all sounds wonderful, but we've seen (twice), how Harden performs when he wants out of an organization. His final game with the Houston Rockets before being dealt to the Nets was a 5-for-16 showing. Then the next season, when he wanted out of Brooklyn, he finished with four points and six turnovers on 2-for-11 shooting against the Sacramento Kings, and was a minus-21 in his last game before being shut down and later dealt to Philadelphia. Harden also displayed the type of defense that could most accurately be described as sabotage.
If Morey and Embiid can somehow massage the situation enough to get Harden to play at maximum effort, the Sixers should be just fine -- during the regular season, at least. When Harden and Embiid shared the floor last season, Philadelphia put up a ridiculous 121 points per 100 possessions with a plus-nine net rating. And while losing Milton and Niang hurts, the potential contributions from offseason acquisitions Kelly Oubre Jr., Patrick Beverley and Danny Green could make up for that production.
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Expecting Harden to be happy after what he said this summer, however, is playing with fire -- so the reasonable course of action would be to trade him. The problem is, that the trade market for Harden seems to be drier than the Sahara, as ESPN reported in August that Morey had been unable to reach a suitable deal with Harden's preferred destination -- the L.A. Clippers.
If the Clippers are out, it's hard to find another team that makes sense for Harden, who is on an expiring $36 million deal after exercising his player option earlier this offseason. Perhaps Harden can be convinced that a productive first half of the season with Philadelphia will lead to more lucrative trade offers pouring in around the February 2024 deadline. At this point, that might be the optimal plan for both sides, but Harden has to fully buy-in.
Whether the 76ers end up trading Harden or keeping him, it's crucial that Morey and the rest of the organization finesse this situation properly. Or else they'll have to sit and watch as the Bucks and Celtics skyrocket while they flounder, all with the specter of an eventual Embiid trade request looming above their sweaty, exhausted brows.