James Harden is now four months removed from picking up his $35.6 million player option and immediately requesting a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. While the Sixers have held off-and-on talks with Harden’s preferred destination, the Los Angeles Clippers, they appear nowhere near pursuing the offer.
The first week of the 2023-24 NBA season proved why.
The Sixers started their season with a more than expected road loss to the new-look Milwaukee Bucks, but responded with back-to-back wins over the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers. Harden missed all three games when he came up after a 10-day absence from the team, and the Sixers went winless in his absence.
Beyond the Harden trade question, the Sixers’ biggest question entering the offseason was how fourth-year guard Tyrese Maxey would fare on the ball and in a playmaking role. They only have a three-game sample to draw from — and maybe Harden made his season Thursday against the Raptors — but the early returns are bright.
Maxey opened the season with 31 points, eight assists, four rebounds, a triple-double, two steals and zero turnovers against the Bucks and finished with 34 points, seven assists, seven three-pointers, six rebounds and one turnover in Toronto. He wasn’t as prolific from a performance standpoint against the Blazers on Sunday—he finished with a season-low four assists and two steals—but he did add 26 points, 10 rebounds and four treys.
However, the Sixers haven’t put Maxey in the same role that Harden was last season. Under new head coach Nick Nurse, they are running a more balanced offense where anyone can move the ball up and start possession. That allows Maxey to be armed both on and off the ball, but Harden has been unwilling to fly off screens or fire a high volume of shots and threes.
Replacing Harden, who led the NBA with 10.7 rebounds last season, instead of doing it solo, the Sixers have taken a committee approach. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid has had at least six assists in the first three games of the season, marking the fifth time in his career that he has done so in three or more straight games. De’Anthony Melton had four assists in the first two games and a team-high eight dimes Sunday. Tobias Harris is averaging 2.0 assists per game.
The Sixers also haven’t missed much of Harden’s scoring ability yet. Maxi Harden stepped up as a scorer in his absence. Harris is quietly averaging 19.7 points per game on 66.7% shooting. And late-summer free agent signing Kelly Oubre Jr. is a vision off the bench, averaging 19.0 points per game on 50.0% shooting.
Aubrey and Harris are bound to cool off at some point. Maxey won’t continue to shoot 56.0% from deep. But after a rusty start against the Bucks, Embiid already looks to be nearing the midseason. He had 34 points, nine rebounds and eight assists against the Raptors and followed that up a night later with season-highs in points (35) and rebounds (15) with seven assists, six blocks and two steals in 29 minutes.
It’s only been three games—small-sample-size alert again!—but the Sixers are currently running the league’s fifth-best offensive rating at a league-average pace. They had the third-best offense last year, but ran it at the fourth-lowest pace, thanks in large part to Harden’s methodical style as a ball-handler. They have incredible ball and player movement without him this early in the season.
That’s undoubtedly a testament to Nurse, though it remains to be seen how (if) that will change when Harden returns. In the meantime, the Sixers will happily use this opportunity to expand the playing roles of Maxey, Embiid and Melton to see how all three respond. The answers to those questions will help inform some of their long-term team building decisions.
While the Sixers are off to a great start, the same can’t be said for every team in the NBA. For example, the Chicago Bulls held a players-only meeting after losing their first game of the season, and Zach LaVine is discussing the need to “figure out how to do this thing” between himself and DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan said he and LaVine “want to click so bad that we can compensate for each other,” but that’s an interpretation of the Bulls’ disappointing start to the season. The reality is that their core has never been the same since Lonzo Ball suffered a knee injury that kept him sidelined since January 2022.
In August, Bulls general manager Mark Eversley told The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry that the Bulls could have gone “either way” this past season. “We could have demolished it,” he said. “We could have rebuilt. Or we could have rebuilt. And we chose to rebuild.”
Even after a loss to the rebuilding Detroit Pistons, it’s hard to imagine their plan has changed significantly after three games. But if the Bulls continue this way, they could start considering a major shakeup before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, especially since DeRozan is currently set to become a free agent next summer.
A straight Harden-LaVine swap would be a pipe dream, and a Harden-DeRozan swap wouldn’t meaningfully improve the Sixers’ championship chances. Perhaps there is a three-team framework where Harden lands on the Clippers, LaVine comes to Philly and the Clippers send their proposed package to Chicago, although the Bulls may want more for LaVine. (And if that’s the case, why don’t the Clippers just trade him for LaVine?)
Other teams will face a similar bill as regular season action begins. Theoretical improvements made during the season can soon be exposed as desperation, which teams scramble to fix on the fly. Injuries will inevitably force some teams’ hands. And on Dec. 15, most of the players who signed with teams this summer will be eligible for trades, expanding the horizons of players who could be included in Harden’s contract.
For now, patience is a virtue for the Sixers. Harden’s return will be the next entry point. The Sixers will have to weigh how much patience they have to put up with before they step in if it ruins their season’s chemistry. In the meantime, they’ll have to hope Harden expands his list of acceptable trade destinations or jumps into the bidding, even if not another team.
Until that happens, the Sixers figure to continue to bide their time on Harden’s trade request. With a relatively uneventful skid over the next few weeks—home games against the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics as their toughest tests—they should have the luxury of seeing how the early season plays out in terms of Harden’s future.
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