It's been weeks since we've heard any news on the ongoing feud between Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey. The last time we heard from them, Harden had been fined $100,000 for calling Morey a "liar" during a trip to China and saying he'd never play for the Sixers again as long as Morey was there.
It doesn't seem like anything has changed between them since then, but we may have some valuable insight into why and how the relationship between Harden and Morey has come apart after the two have worked together since Harden was a third-year player with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Morey traded for him as the general manager of the Houston Rockets.
According to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, the lengthy tiff between them is mostly the result of hurt feelings that built up over time, and a lack of honest communication.
Shelburne reported that the first cracks began to show in the lead-up to the 2023 NBA All-Star Game. Harden, who had been voted into the All-Star Game for 10 straight seasons, finished a distant fourth place and was left out for the first time since 2011. NBA commissioner Adam Silver had reportedly planned to offer Harden a spot as an injury replacement as long as he promised he'd show up and play.
Harden apparently didn't get back to Silver right away. He reportedly didn't call until days later, after Silver had moved on and named a different player as an injury replacement. Harden had missed his chance to play in his 11th straight All-Star Game. So why did he wait to tell Silver that he wanted to play?
According to Shelburne, Harden was "pouting."
Doc Rivers makes things worse
Doc Rivers, then head coach of the Sixers, reportedly didn't help the Harden situation throughout the season. According to Shelburne, Rivers rode Harden pretty hard behind the scenes, leading to "flare-ups" between the coach and player throughout the season.
One example she gave came in late February, when Harden was given permission by the Sixers' front office to travel to Miami separately from the team before they faced the Heat so he could soak in some of the nightlife. Since the Sixers had just dropped two straight to the Heat at home, that reportedly didn't sit well with Rivers and a few other players.
Nothing is unusual about this. Traveling separately for personal reasons (like having fun) isn't uncommon in the NBA, and Harden has done it before. And it's not unusual for the coach and players to feel a certain way about it if their team has performed badly. But what Rivers did next took a simple situation and turned it into something deeper. He brought up Harden's separate travel in a team meeting and named names. From Shelburne's reporting:
"Days later, Rivers brought it up in a team meeting, sources said, specifically mentioning several of the players who expressed concerns about Harden's actions.
"The whole episode was 'uncomfortable,' one team source said. Even if they agreed with the substance of Rivers' message to Harden, and the idea of holding him accountable, it was awkward for the players who were named."
The final blows
The Morey-Harden situation mutated into its current form after the Sixers' season reached its disappointing end. Rivers was fired two days after Philly was again tossed out of the playoffs in the second round. Shelburne reported that, unofficially, the change was made because the Sixers knew Harden didn't want to play for Rivers again.
With that out of the way, Morey was reportedly focused on offering Harden a contract, but there were internal discussions on how much the Sixers should offer him. And over in Harden's camp, he was reportedly expecting a four-year, $210 million contract since he'd chosen to leave so much money on the table when he turned down extensions with the Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets.
Harden had been expecting to hear from Morey in the lead-up to the July 1 deadline, but reportedly heard nothing. According to Shelburne, Harden felt like Morey was "ghosting" him, and took that personally. So without warning, Harden told his agents to pick up his $35.6 million player option and ask for a trade out of Philly. Morey and the Sixers had no idea this was coming, and had reportedly been preparing to offer him a contract, but didn't want to reach out too soon for a very good reason.
"The Sixers were stunned at Harden's decision, sources said, insisting to him and his representatives that they had been distant only because they were just hit with the largest tampering fine in NBA history and that they had every intention of re-signing him, as soon as the rules allowed.
"But Harden was already too far gone.
"'James takes things very personally,' another source close to Harden said. 'When he feels like he's been wronged, he can be very stubborn.'"
After that, the rest is history. Morey shopped Harden around, especially to his preferred team (the Los Angeles Clippers), but what interest there had been in acquiring Harden had evaporated, especially in light of Morey's massive asking price. So Morey reportedly took Harden off the trade market and decided to hold onto him. Then Harden traveled to China, called Morey a "liar" and subsequently got handed the largest fine the NBA is allowed to give.
While this is all cloaked in the trappings of basketball, what we're seeing with Morey and Harden is quite simple: it's the long, painful dissolution of a formerly successful relationship. It's a basketball divorce, only they're forced to remain on the same team together like a divorced couple that has to keep living in the house they bought together because they can't afford to live separately.
The next chapter in this saga has yet to be written, but we're not too far from seeing it play out. Training camp starts at the end of September. With a new head coach on board (Nick Nurse), we could see some change. But as long as Harden and Morey remain at loggerheads, it could be a very uncomfortable season in Philadelphia.