Inside the James Harden trade and what it means moving forward

James Harden’s monthslong trade request from Philadelphia, his perceived battle against 76ers president Daryl Morey, the back-and-forth between player and organization about his availability for game action, it all ceased early Tuesday after the Sixers and Clippers managed to finalize a blockbuster deal that finally lands Harden in Los Angeles.

“The war is over,” one source with knowledge of the situation said.

Two weeks ago, as Philadelphia stared down its last game of the preseason, Lawrence Frank’s front office reengaged the Sixers in trade negotiations for Harden, league sources told Yahoo Sports, where the Clippers presented turning their 2028 first-round pick into two future first-round selections from a third team — plus a pick swap with the Clippers. Philadelphia had made it clear that Los Angeles needed to include either Terance Mann or a second first-rounder in addition to the Clippers’ previous offer to get these talks over the finish line, sources said, but Philadelphia was not satisfied by the two picks that Los Angeles was putting on the table instead of its 2028 selection.

When the Clippers and Sixers resumed conversations this past weekend, Los Angeles brought an extra first from a third team into this equation, plus its unprotected 2028 pick, and both sides grew confident the deal was finally heading toward the finish line come late afternoon Monday, sources said. The final tally of draft compensation through a three-team deal with Oklahoma City nets the Sixers much more value than the package of Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris and K.J. Martin — four players on expiring contracts, which helps Philadelphia position itself for upward of $60 million in cap space next summer. The 76ers will now also receive the lesser of three 2026 first-round picks OKC holds, sources said, between the Thunder’s own selection in that draft, the Rockets’ top-four protected pick and the Clippers’ choice that will become protected, as well.

Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden, center, looks on from the bench in street clothes during the NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 126-98. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
James Harden's days on the Philadelphia bench are now over. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Whichever 2026 pick ultimately conveys, the Sixers now hold the type of trade capital Boston used to acquire Jrue Holiday from Portland, and make no mistake: Philadelphia will certainly scour the market between now and February’s trade deadline for a similar All-Star return that helps the Sixers compete with the Celtics and Bucks in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. The Clippers’ 2028 selection could prove to be an incredible lottery ticket with Harden (34), Paul George (33) and Kawhi Leonard (32) all playing in the final years of guaranteed contracts and all holding an extensive injury history.

But it seems far too early to guess exactly who that missing piece for the Sixers may be, even with that next domino emerging as the obvious sequential step for Philadelphia’s title hopes behind reigning MVP Joel Embiid. By all accounts, Embiid remains committed to Morey and the Sixers’ organization, awaiting what further tinkering will come this year or next summer. And yet rival front offices are surely curious to see how long Embiid’s patience will last. That has further led opposing personnel to expect Philadelphia will actively target reinforcements this season, as opposed to waiting to score in free agency after another of Embiid’s prime years has come and gone.

But there is no clear target who is clearly available. We’re not even five games into the regular season, roughly a third of the sample size most organizations require before making sweeping decisions on what needs to be tweaked up and down their rosters. For all the noise surrounding Zach LaVine’s availability in Chicago, the Bulls have explored his market for the same reasons Philadelphia likely wouldn’t be interested in obtaining him: questionable defensive chops and winning formula and his gargantuan contract. The Raptors’ soon-to-be free agents Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby have yet to be real, gettable players on the market.

But the Sixers will gamble and hope that plenty of talented needle-movers enter the fray as the season unfolds and more players become available for trade after Dec. 15. The Celtics were not exactly bracing for Holiday to become available this fall. This time last season, there was no guarantee Kyrie Irving, for another example, would get moved for the relatively low cost of one first-rounder. In this league, it’s a fair assumption there will be another All-Star-caliber veteran who’s suddenly for the taking.

In the meantime, Philadelphia will get to further evaluate its new offense under head coach Nick Nurse that has Embiid distributing better than ever and fourth-year guard Tyrese Maxey looking like an All-Star — all without the looming distraction of Harden. The plan was for Harden to join Philadelphia’s practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, sources said, with the hope he could make his season debut against Toronto on Thursday. But while Morey and the Sixers appeared adamant they would not be bothered by any off-court antics, the air of uncertainty surrounding Harden’s presence within the franchise became too much for Philadelphia to continue its patient approach, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Who’s to say whether Harden would go through both practices, seem ready for gameplay, only to jet back off to Houston or Los Angeles for what would be deemed another nondescript personal matter?

For that, Harden and his representation must feel vindicated. His camp long felt the Sixers underestimated its ability to force Philadelphia’s hand, and they do appear to have been successful in that aspect. Opposing agents and front-office executives around the league raised an eyebrow at Harden opting into his $35.6 million player option for this 2023-24 campaign if he truly wanted to play for the Clippers and the Clippers alone. Most looked at the standoff in Philadelphia and Los Angeles’ negotiations as something that would inevitably persuade Harden to dress for Morey’s franchise, which he loudly claimed this summer would never occur. And now Harden is indeed off to take part in the organization he preferred to join, all before the calendar flips to November.

The Clippers never appeared to waver much in their position either. Los Angeles wanted Harden. It wanted a creator and connective passer who could give Leonard and George their greatest chance to compete for a title since the duo teamed up in July 2019. The front office wanted a clear ceiling-raiser and a pure talent play, no matter the cost on the cap sheet, which holds the upside necessary to battle Nikola Jokić or Phoenix’s three-headed monster or anyone else.

It’s a pure zig from last season’s build, when the Clippers went in on depth and saw their 2022-23 effort pale in comparison to the true titans of the Western Conference. Now, Los Angeles has shaved all that frontcourt overlap in exchange for a bit of a logjam in the backcourt with Harden, Russell Westbrook and promising youngster Bones Hyland, who’s already flashed strong showings this season. Getting forward P.J. Tucker is certainly viewed as a salary dump from Philadelphia’s side, but the two seasons left of a three-year, $33 million contract for the grizzled veteran should at least add a versatile defender in the frontcourt that head coach Tyronn Lue has been seeking behind starting center Ivica Zubac, sources said. And the Clippers have always coveted players who provide the overt toughness Tucker brings, similar to Patrick Beverley long being a favorite of the team’s front office.

This trade also would not have been possible next season under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement; Los Angeles being above the second apron would have disqualified the Clippers from aggregating four players’ salaries to match Harden’s deal. We will continue to see more multi-team trades as the next CBA takes hold of the league. And we will continue to see franchises stocked with draft picks, like Oklahoma City, benefit from those machinations.

The Thunder traded a 2026 first-round pick for the mere chance that swapping 2027 first-rounders with the Clippers nets some greater return. That math may not math on its face.

Yet when the competition is competing for championships, in an ecosystem with more challengers and where currency and draft capital continue to hold higher stakes, teams have to make even shrewder calculations. Like the Clippers are with Harden, and like the Sixers are hoping with Harden’s return. When the margins truly become about winning the title or losing your job.