When James Harden exercised his player option for the 2023-24 season on June 29, it came with a caveat, one that has become familiar for the 10-time All-Star during the most recent stage of his career — a trade request.
Harden expected the Philadelphia 76ers to trade him this offseason, the third time he has requested a trade since Jan. 2021, when he left the Houston Rockets. And when Harden focuses on finding a new team, he does not sit idly by in the interim.
The beginning of another Harden trade saga has started to play out during the past month. Harden voiced his displeasure about still being a member of the Sixers during a recent appearance in China, calling out Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.
“Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said during an Adidas media event in China. “Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”
The NBA fined Harden $100,000 for that statement, which has been challenged by the National Basketball Players Association, which announced last week that it intends to file a grievance against the league. Yet, Harden’s unhappiness in Philadelphia has followed a similar pattern to his previous stops around the league.
Harden has already been traded three times in his career and is seeking a fourth, so here’s a look back at his trade history and the factors that got him out of town:
Coincidentally enough, the Harden era in Houston began with a trade. Harden was named Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12, helping the Oklahoma City Thunder reach the NBA Finals. Entering the final year of his contract, he was eligible to sign an extension. The Thunder offered him a four-year, $55.5 million deal, less than the max he was eligible for. Not willing to take that deal, Harden was traded to Houston, where Morey, then Houston’s general manager, believed Harden had the tools of a future superstar. To back up his belief, Morey signed Harden to a five-year, $80 million extension days after completing the trade.
Harden delivered on that deal, racking up All-Star appearances, three scoring titles and the 2017-18 Most Valuable Player award while the Rockets became perennial contenders, never missing the playoffs during his first eight seasons with the team.
Things went south, however, once the relationship between Harden and Chris Paul began to deteriorate after their run to the 2018 Western Conference finals. After the following season, Harden insisted the organization trade for Russell Westbrook, sources told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, saying he’d demand a trade if the Rockets didn’t find a way to do so. But their lone season together ended with an early playoff exit, and both stars no longer wanted to play together.
After eight years, Harden had started to feel doubts about his future in Houston. His split with Westbrook before the 2020-21 season effectively marked the end of his tenure, and Morey stepped down from his position on Oct. 15, 2020. By November, Harden was focused on forcing his way to Brooklyn.
Harden delayed his arrival to training camp for a week, hanging out instead with rapper Lil Baby in Las Vegas. Days before the team’s season opener, Harden violated the league’s health and safety protocols by attending a private indoor party, which resulted in a $50,000 fine by the NBA.
Yet, he played in the Rockets’ season opener and dropped 44 points. He put up at least 30 points in his next two games before he was a late scratch in his fourth game because of an ankle injury. After months of trade speculation and reports about his unhappiness, Harden’s production during his final five games in Houston plummeted — 17.4 points on 37.8% shooting while the Rockets dropped four of five games. After their loss on Jan. 12, Harden told reporters the Rockets were “just not good enough.”
Harden’s tenure with the Nets is one of the NBA’s biggest what-ifs in recent memory.
The Nets traded away a pair of promising young players in Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert as well as four first-round picks and three pick swaps to acquire Harden and pair him with Durant and Irving to form a title contender in the East.
However, both Durant and Harden had their availability limited by injuries. Harden played 36 games with the Nets the first season after the trade, missing 21 of the final 24 regular-season games because of a strained hamstring. He returned for Brooklyn’s first-round win over the Celtics but reinjured the hamstring in Game 1 of the second round, causing him to miss three games. Harden clearly wasn’t himself when he returned for the final three games of the seven-game loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Nets GM Sean Marks spoke of a plan to ink Durant, Harden and Irving to contract extensions in the summer of 2021, but only Durant signed on. The next season, Irving’s decision not to take the COVID-19 vaccine made him ineligible to play in New York City and limited his availability during the 2021-22 season. The trio ended up playing just 16 games together across two seasons.
Just 13 months following his trade request from the Rockets, Harden was seeking another trade near the deadline in February 2022. He resisted making a formal request out of fear of public backlash for asking out once again, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but he wanted a trade to Philadelphia to reunite with Morey.
Harden missed his final four games with Brooklyn leading up to the deadline because of a hamstring injury before the Sixers, eager to move on from Ben Simmons and their own monthslong saga, made the deal to swap guards on Feb. 10, 2022.
The Sixers hired Morey as their president of basketball operations in November 2020, a month after he left the Rockets, and when Simmons let it be known he wanted out, Morey set his eyes on Harden.
When Harden became unhappy in Brooklyn, the Sixers were ready to place the former MVP alongside future MVP center Joel Embiid. Harden took on more of a playmaking role in Philadelphia, with Embiid the centerpiece of the offense, and even as the 76ers were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs (with Harden averaging 18.2 points per game on 40.5% shooting against the Miami Heat), the partnership seemed solid.
Harden even declined his $47.4 player option with Philadelphia last offseason in order to sign a two-year, $68 million contract, a pay cut that gave the Sixers salary-cap flexibility to bring P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., both of whom had played with Harden in Houston. According to Wojnarowski, Harden told Morey that he wanted to do his part to fortify the team’s roster and give it a chance to compete for a championship. The contract included a player option on the second season, which would give Harden the opportunity to negotiate another free agent deal this summer.
After another second-round exit in which Harden disappointed in losses in Games 6 and 7 (a combined 22 points on 7-of-27 shooting with 10 turnovers), Harden had the chance to opt out and test the free agent market. However, he decided to opt in to protect his $35.6 million salary. Sources told Wojnarowski that Harden and the 76ers would work together on finding a trade, with the LA Clippers as his desired destination. Philadelphia and LA had periodic conversations but no traction on a deal, and sources told Wojnarowski on Aug. 12 that the Sixers informed Harden they ended trade talks and planned to bring him back for the start of the season. Harden’s recent comments toward Morey in China were considered a result of the Sixers’ inability to find a trade partner for him after he opted in as Harden believed they would.
The Sixers are scheduled to report for training camp on Oct. 2, something Harden plans to do, sources told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. However, executives in Houston and Brooklyn first believed they could live with an unhappy superstar before quickly finding the situation untenable. With more than a month until training camp, Harden’s future in Philadelphia remains unclear as another trade request saga continues to play out.