James Harden publicly called his boss a liar and swore he would never again play for the Philadelphia 76ers.
So he won’t — the 10-time All-Star with a history of trade demands only slightly shorter than his signature beard is on the move to his fifth NBA team, chasing his first championship, this time in his native California.
Even though the trade is not finalized, Harden arrived in Los Angeles before Tuesday’s night’s game against the Orlando Magic. He was greeted by owner Steve Ballmer when he arrived at Crypto.Com Arena and then met with his new teammates in the locker room. He hugged Russell Westbrook and Paul George upon seeing them. Harden’s No. 1 blue jersey was ready and waiting for him at his locker.
When asked by a reporter if he was excited about coming to the Clippers, Harden said “you don’t understand.”
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who did his pregame availability 45 minutes before Harden’s arrival, had no comment about the imminent deal.
The 76ers are simply trying to move on from the Harden Headache and continue their own long shot bid at a championship behind reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid and star-in-waiting Tyrese Maxey.
The final haul was yet to be settled on Tuesday — coach Nick Nurse and Maxey danced around the topic of the trade following practice — but the key parts were this: the 76ers sent Harden, P.J. Tucker and Filip Petrušev to Los Angeles for Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Nic Batum, K.J. Martin, a 2028 unprotected first-round draft pick, two second-round picks, a 2029 draft-pick swap and an additional first-rounder from a third team, a person familiar with the trade told The Associated Press.
The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the final details of the trade were not yet official.
Maxey texted the 34-year-old Harden when word of the deal broke overnight — Nurse said he slept through the trade call — and thanked his former teammate for his contributions in 79 total regular-season games with the 76ers.
“I told him I loved him, told him I appreciated him,” Maxey said. “One thing he really installed in me was confidence. I’ve always been a confident person. He made me be even more confident than I already was. All I can do is appreciate him for that.”
Maxey turns 23 on Saturday and has improved his numbers in each of his first three seasons — 8.5 points per game to 17.5 to 20.3 to 30.3 and his first Eastern Conference Player of the Week award in a small sample this season. That improvement has the 76ers finally believing he can be the star to pair with Embiid and remain contenders. Not Ben Simmons. Not Harden.
“Everything’s been going well, the flow’s been well, the organization’s been great, the team believes, the coach believes in himself,” Maxey said. “Everything’s been great.”
Still, the longer the Harden melodrama lingered in Philly, the greater the chance the situation would eventually implode. Harden — now traded by Houston, Brooklyn and the 76ers in each of the past three seasons — had long wanted to play in Philadelphia.
Harden and team president Daryl Morey, who was not available Tuesday for comment, were first allies when they were in Houston. Harden was a league MVP and had scoring titles for the Rockets. But when the Rockets went into a rebuild, Harden issued his first ultimatum and forced his way to Brooklyn in 2021. He joined Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in a “Big Three” that was never very big. The trio was socked by injuries and other controversies and played only 18 games together before Harden wanted out.
So it was off to Philly at the 2022 trade deadline in a deal for Simmons.
He was reunited with Morey and seemed comfortable in his role as a playmaker while the offense ran through Embiid. Harden even declined his $47.4 million option in June 2022, saying he wanted to give the 76ers financial flexibility to improve their roster and compete for a championship. He signed a below-market deal worth slightly more than $68 million, paying him about $33 million last season with a $35.6 million player option for this one.
Harden led the NBA in assists last season with 10.7 per game, but it was his 22 total points in Games 6 and 7 losses that doomed the Sixers when they lost to Boston in the second round of the playoffs.
Part of Harden’s complaint with the Sixers stemmed from his belief he should have earned a long-term contract. When he didn’t, Harden was determined to sever ties with the Sixers, and called he Morey a liar at an August promotional 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 at the event. “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.”
While Eastern Conference powerhouses Boston and Milwaukee made bold pickups in the summer, the 76ers instead learned that Harden desired a trade to the Clippers.
He was a late arrival to training camp and continued to practice with the 76ers until he was told to stay home for the team’s first two road games in the wake of the trade demand. The lone time he spoke at practice, Harden said that his fractured relationship with Morey could not be repaired — comparing it to a broken marriage. Nurse insisted Harden would not play until he met certain conditioning requirements. Harden wore street clothes and watched Sunday’s home opener from the bench.
Harden had been scheduled to practice with the 76ers on Tuesday.
Instead, he was on his way to California.
The 76ers are off until Thursday’s home game against Toronto. The Clippers play Tuesday night against Orlando. There was no immediate word when all the traded players would be available to their new teams.
“I’m not sitting here thinking it’s a big relief,” Nurse said. “These guys are focused. Other than spending a few minutes a day answering questions about it, or having a few meetings maybe that I wouldn’t have about it, it really wasn’t that cumbersome or bothersome or taxing for me.”
Harden and Westbrook joined Bob McAdoo as the only league MVPs traded four times in their careers. Harden and Westbrook will play together for a third time.
This may be the Clippers’ last chance to win a title with this group of players.
Both Leonard and George are eligible for extensions and the Clippers will have to decide whether it’s worth keeping the injury-prone duo together, along with their other aging stars.
The 76ers get draft picks down the road, but the short-term win — besides shearing themselves of “The Beard” — is a glut of salary cap space next season.
While the Sixers failed to get prized guard Terance Mann in the deal, Batum, Covington (making his second stint with the 76ers), Martin and Morris all have expiring contracts at the end of the season. That leaves just Embiid, Paul Reed and Jaden Springer as the only players on the books for 2024-2025. For now, the Sixers are expected use some of the cap space to extend Maxey next summer.
“This kid is really good and this is a tremendous opportunity,” Nurse said.