As the NBA calendar approaches the Feb. 10 trade deadline, word has circulated around the league about James Harden's increased interest in testing the open market this summer and how his impending free agency is impacting the Philadelphia 76ers' asking price for Ben Simmons.
In his 13-year career, Harden has never been a free agent. By all accounts, the former MVP has clear intentions to reach unrestricted free agency for the first time, even if that would lead him back to the Nets.
Harden remains invested in competing for the title in Brooklyn this season, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. But Harden has recently informed several confidants—including former teammates and coaches—of his interest in exploring other opportunities outside of Brooklyn this summer, league sources told Bleacher Report.
"James isn't going to hold back," said a person familiar with Harden. "He's gonna tell you where he stands."
Harden has been vocal to Nets figures and close contacts alike about his frustrations regarding Kyrie Irving's part-time playing status. A recent injury to Kevin Durant has exacerbated the issue, leaving Harden to shoulder the majority of the offensive burden during Brooklyn home games.
Nets coach Steve Nash's fluid rotations have also disappointed Harden, sources told B/R. Nash has favored hot-hand closing lineups, rather than a fixed crunch-time unit.
His new city could also be an issue. According to multiple sources, Harden has not enjoyed living in Brooklyn, compared to his days as a central Houston magnate. Outside of the change in climate, the chasm between state taxes in New York versus Texas is quite obvious as well.
To be clear: There has been no trade request. A Nets-Sixers deal is highly unlikely to materialize prior to the deadline. Yet Harden's apparent openness to joining Joel Embiid and reuniting with Philadelphia president Daryl Morey will loom over the Sixers' trade conversations for Simmons these next three weeks. A potential sign-and-trade for Simmons this offseason, was noted by B/R back in early December.
If Harden were to reach free agency, teaming with Embiid in Philadelphia would present one of the few situations that could offer Harden a similar chance to capture the championships he desires. Since his Rockets days, Dwyane Wade's three titles have long been somewhat of a self-imposed benchmark for Harden's career. His connection to Morey is clear, and Harden is also known to hold a relationship with Michael Rubin, a Sixers limited partner who bought a minority share of the team in 2011.
Philadelphia is not necessarily holding onto Simmons to acquire Harden this summer, sources said. But it seems both the Sixers front office and Harden himself are viewing that potential marriage as a backstop for their respective futures. Philadelphia officials and executives across the league continue to monitor Bradley Beal's status in Washington.
Of course for any sign-and-trade to happen, Brooklyn would need to be a willing participant. If Harden ever does formally communicate his interest in playing elsewhere this summer, the Nets would likely be hard-pressed to find a greater return for Harden than Simmons, assuming Simmons can rediscover his All-Star form. Simmons, after all, was the Rockets' runner-up offer for Harden a year ago. And the Sixers have signaled a willingness to attach additional assets to acquire a player such as Harden or Lillard.
For Simmons to be dealt now, as his camp clearly hopes will materialize, Philadelphia has remained primarily engaged with Atlanta and Sacramento of late, league sources confirmed to B/R. The Kings have shown a willingness to take back Tobias Harris' contract in addition to Simmons. The Hawks, however, are uninterested in acquiring Harris in order to land Simmons at this time and have been searching for a third team to function as a trade partner, sources told B/R.
As the Sixers continue to hold firm in their lofty asking price, with that Harden-sized elephant always in the room, both Atlanta and Sacramento have emerged as strong suitors for Jerami Grant, sources told B/R. The Hawks and Kings join a long list of teams that includes the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Knicks, Jazz and Timberwolves among others. The Bulls have continued exploring avenues to land Grant without sacrificing prized swingman Patrick Williams, sources said.
While there's been no direct indication on particular trade frameworks for Atlanta's pursuit of Grant, the Hawks have grown more active in searching for a new home for John Collins, sources said, and Collins' salary works in a direct swap for Grant. The Kings are said to have removed De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton from any ongoing trade conversations, though Marvin Bagley III has consistently drawn interest from Detroit.
Executives around the league are still waiting for this NBA trade market's first major domino to fall. Simmons was recently labeled by one general manager as "the linchpin" of this deadline, but it seems as clear as ever that Philadelphia won't budge unless a rival offer can surpass a possibly bearded running mate for Embiid come July.