O’Brien: I’m (not entirely) out on the Sixers

All of the major players in the blockbuster trade. - Image via Clutch Points

He did it again. On Oct. 31, the Philadelphia 76ers traded James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers.

And, wow, what a sad, stupid trade that was. What weakness it exposed for all involved. 

What a total disaster for Daryl Morey. A sincere career low-point. This has all been outlined a million times by other outlets, but just so we’re all on the same page: Daryl ghosted James, which deeply angered him. It was not necessary to do this at all. They wanted to offer him a contract but didn’t plan on communicating with him until the day free agency started, to avoid tampering charges. They couldn’t have any official correspondence, but they decided not to send even a wink or a nod. The NBA straight-up doesn’t enforce tampering rules most of the time, everybody is doing it. The only reason we got in trouble for it last year was because it was too blatant and clumsy not to punish. 

If Harden had just waited a day, he would have gotten a respectable contract; 2 years, $60 million or something. Or a 1+1 deal like he got in 2022. We wanted him here, he wanted to be here, but both sides were too shortsighted to make it work. 

The trade itself is whatever. I don’t think it makes sense for the Clippers. This will surely make them a tier better in the regular season, but they are in ring-or-bust mode this year, and James Harden has proven who he is time and time again. This does not raise their playoff equity at all. On the other side, the clear intention is for the Sixers to flip these assets into another all-star – the obvious names are Zach Lavine and Pascal Siakam. By the time you read this, something close to this may have already happened. But honestly, who cares? 

I’m not entirely out on this team. I wrote in a piece this past June that we blew our best shot to win a championship, but not our last. I’ve done almost a complete 180 on this in the months since. You could tell me that literally anything happens in the next few years – we win three championships, Tyrese Maxey is voted MVP, Ben Simmons comes back and starts shooting 60% from three – and I wouldn’t be surprised. But I’m not holding my breath. 

We look good! At the time of this writing, we’re 8-1 in the regular season. The players we got in return for Harden (particularly Nicolas Batum) have made real contributions so far. But this is not a championship team. 

In other words, it’s over. 

I hate the revisionist history people engage in whenever something like this happens. Trading for James in the first place in Feburary 2022 was so obviously the right move that I’m not even going to relitigate it. But it is still embarrassing that it ended like this, with the one notable player-executive relationship in the league ending like a messy middle school breakup. 

This drama is actually a fitting way to frame my new attitude towards this team. I am no longer seriously invested in them as a competitive organization that is trying to win a championship. Instead, I am watching it purely for entertainment. It is a reality TV show. I’m tuning in every week for some dumb fun. I will treat the playoffs as a binge-watch of a new boring, trite Netflix series. 

I privately compared this current era of Sixers basketball to the last couple of seasons of the cult classic NBC sitcom “Community:” still good, but half the cast is gone and it’s kind of sad now. Who knows, though. Maybe the real championship was the friends we made along the way. 

That would certainly suck, considering how many people we’ve had to say goodbye to in the past few seasons. I know every team goes through roster churn, but the Sixers kick it into overdrive. Jimmy, Ben, Harden, Shake, Thybulle, Georges Niang, Tucker, Danny, and Seth, are all fan favorites at one point. All gone.

I am mentally preparing for this list to expand. Analysts are treating a Joel Embiid trade request as a foregone conclusion, and I don’t think that’s as concrete as they’re making it out to be, but I am still bracing for it. We know how these things go by now, and Joel leaving is a real possibility. Kelly Oubre has quickly become a pleasant surprise in his brief Sixers tenure so far, and I fully expect to trade him at the deadline. Patrick Beverley has been one of my favorite players for a while now, and I was unironically ecstatic when we signed him. He’ll be waived by the all-star break.

I know it’s just a game, and I know it’s not that deep. But I once heard analyst Colin Cowherd say that “the only things that can make strangers high-five are music and sports.” It doesn’t often bleed into real life, but there is serious emotional resonance to the act of fandom. I would be lying if I said this didn’t all seriously make me sad. 

And that’s the word I keep coming back to: sad. This isn’t worthy of a fancy, scholarly word to describe it. It’s not morose, dour, or doleful. It’s not even melancholy and doesn’t even come close to saturnine. It’s just sad. 

It’s so, so sad to see one of the forty best players of all time destroy his career like this. I sincerely believe that James Harden will go down as the best player to never win a ring. His 2018 Houston Rockets were probably the greatest non-title team of all time. He was a legendary offensive player and manipulated the rules of basketball like no one else ever could. But he has become such a loser. Three trade requests in three years expose such a weakness in his soul and it’s insane that he keeps getting what he wants. He wants a huge contract and no NBA team in their right mind will give it to him. So if summer 2024 rolls around and he’s still unsigned and a rep from China calls him and says “We’ll give you fifty million yen to play for the Shanghai Sharks,” will he say no? There’s a real chance he could be out of the league soon. 

But who cares? He’s not our problem anymore. Goodbye, James. And good riddance.

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