Yes, Steve Nash vowed that the Nets aren’t trading James Harden, and ESPN reported they rebuffed the 76ers’ inquiries a month ago and haven’t talked since. But don’t presume that a potential deal is officially dead.
Despite Brooklyn GM Sean Marks rejecting 76ers president Daryl Morey’s initial call on Jan. 11, the expectation amongst league sources is they’ll circle back before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. Where there’s this much smoke, something is definitely burning. And it very well could be bridges.
Marks predictably didn’t want to sabotage his own leverage; but if Harden’s relationship in Brooklyn isn’t frayed, it’s certainly not flawless. And with a deal built around 76ers guard Ben Simmons having long been mooted, Harden has connections in Philadelphia even beyond Morey, who built the Rockets around him.
Harden is friendly with 76ers CEO Tad Brown (formerly the Rockets’ CEO) and co-owner Michael Rubin (CEO of Fanatics), and close pals with Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill. Marks has a good working relationship with Morey, while there are links at the ownership levels as well, with Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai having also co-founded the REFORM Alliance with Rubin and Mill.
The dots connect so thoroughly one can picture a straight line heading down I-95.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported it’s unlikely that the 76ers move Simmons by the deadline because they think they can get Harden in a sign-and-trade over the summer, but added that league personnel feel the deal could trigger a tampering investigation. That’s why they’ve been feeling each other out through back channels.
While the Big 3’s 13-3 record together keeps the Nets confident they can win a title if they can get Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant all healthy for the playoffs, it’s also clear they haven’t been on the same page of late. Harden and Irving are minus-12 in their 172 minutes together this season without Durant.
While Nash said Harden told the team he wants to stay in Brooklyn, saying and showing are different things. Harden refused to sign the three-year, $161 million contract extension this past summer, and has reportedly been disgruntled over the course of the season. His complaints and attitude have vexed some within the team.
When Harden wanted out of Houston, he and business manager Lorenzo McCloud hired Wasserman agents Jason Ranne and Chafie Fields to facilitate a move. Now ESPN reported that they’ve been looking for an agent again to help — whether that’s a deadline deal, a sign-and-trade this summer or leaving in free agency.
And with both Harden and Irving able to bolt in free agency this summer, the former can proclaim his commitment but his internal complaints, rejection of a max contract and inconsistent effort all raise questions. As does Harden’s dip in form, which could be his hamstring woes or simply age.
It’s obvious why Marks would and should at least pick up Morey’s expected follow-up calls.
“I think James could speak better to that than I can,” Irving said. “The few conversations that we’ve had, he’s been really committed and we just hold him to his word… So we’d love to have him in the lineup, but we want him at his optimal healthy self, version of himself, and then we let the rest take care of it. But who knows? Who knows what’s gonna happen?”
That might be the most accurate statement any Net has made on the situation.
Morey has been demanding a king’s ransom for Simmons, posturing that he’d hold the wantaway guard for years if need be. And the 76ers will contend Brooklyn could lose Harden for nothing as a free agent, so would keep any offers beyond just Simmons fairly modest.
But Marks knows Philadelphia is committed to $133 million in salary next season, and would have to purge a significant chunk of the roster to be able to actually sign Harden in the summer. That would presumably embolden Marks to extract a host of sweeteners for the MVP, if he decides to deal.
The Nets have lost eight straight to fall from first place into the play-in entering Tuesday’s tilt vs. Boston. Two days later comes Washington – and the deadline.
“First things first is getting healthy,” said Irving, “and then setting our team up for the rest of the season post this trade deadline.”
Who knows what’ll happen then?