When Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey reached out to Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks on Jan. 11, they started with the usual pleasantries of basketball executives still a month away from Thursday's NBA trade deadline.
Who do you like on our roster? Here's who I like on yours.
Eventually, Morey spoke up on the true intention of his call.
"What about James?"
"James who?" Marks responded.
The Nets do have two Jameses -- Johnson and Harden.
"No," Marks said flatly.
That exchange four weeks ago represents the single, direct communication between Morey and Marks this season, sources told ESPN. However brief the conversation, messages were delivered in each direction: The Sixers planned a pursuit of Harden, and the Nets had no intention of surrender.
With three days to go until the trade deadline, this is where the dialogue has remained. Yes, Morey could still pick up the phone and call Marks this week. The Sixers' ownership group has a strong relationship with Nets owner Joe Tsai, so communication can happen on that level, too.
For now, the lack of clarity centered on Harden's intentions represents the axis on which the circumstances could shift in the Nets' murky partnership with him. Harden can become a free agent after this season, and although he has continued to tell his Nets teammates, the coaches and the front office that he is committed to winning in Brooklyn long term, his actions on and away from the court suggest some ambivalence.
Harden hasn't had an agent in several years, but he does have a business manager, Lorenzo McCloud. When Harden wanted out of Houston before the 2020 season, he commissioned agents Jason Ranne and Chafie Fields at Wasserman to work with the Houston Rockets and rival teams to facilitate a trade. They played a key role in getting Harden to the Nets, and then the working relationship ended in March 2021, sources said.
Once again, sources told ESPN, Harden and his manager have been searching for an agent with whom to partner and navigate the situation -- whether that's free agency, a trade to leave the Nets after the season, staying on a new deal or even a trade before Thursday's deadline.
When Harden considered signing an extension last summer, he handled it the way he had for his past two deals in Houston: Discussing the pros and cons of different contract iterations with the National Basketball Players Association. That's why he didn't want to pay an agent's commission; he was a superstar player who needed no negotiation. He could pick his preferred max contract on a menu the way someone else might choose an HMO plan.
Ultimately, Harden did not sign an extension with the Nets, and at the end of September, he told ESPN's Malika Andrews he was looking forward to becoming a free agent for the first time in his career. Before then, he insisted he was focused on winning a championship with Brooklyn.
So far, the season hasn't lived up to those expectations. Kyrie Irving's COVID-19 vaccination status has made him a part-time player in New York, Kevin Durant has been out for nearly a month with a knee injury, and Brooklyn has dropped to seventh in the Eastern Conference after an eight-game losing streak.
Harden has sat out the past two games with a hamstring injury after a listless four-point performance in a loss to Sacramento his past Wednesday.
Brooklyn is trusting that the injury is a legitimate hindrance to Harden playing now -- an MRI on Saturday confirmed there was tightness -- the way it is trusting his word that he wants to remain with the franchise, sources said.
Even so, saying he's committed isn't nearly as convincing as showing it -- and that's something Harden has barely done lately. At times this season, Harden has played dispassionate and disappointing basketball -- perhaps injury-related in some instances, perhaps pouty in others.
Harden's private grousing about Nets coaches, teammates and the organization has made its way throughout the league, but those who've worked with him in the past understand that's how it goes in troubled times with him. Almost anyone who has spent considerable time with Harden in the NBA concedes that he can be quick to blame others -- and seldom himself.
Nets leadership is banking on the momentum of the season to change once Durant returns -- perhaps after the All-Star break -- and the load is lessened on Harden and Irving. Durant has significant sway with the organization, but he isn't telling Tsai and Marks what they ought to do at the trade deadline, sources said. Durant still wants Harden, sources said, but wants a committed Harden.
The Nets and Sixers privately believe they each have significant leverage when it comes to Harden. The Sixers would want to offer a spartan trade package beyond exiled star Ben Simmons because they believe the Nets risk losing Harden for nothing in the summer. The Nets would want a massive package beyond Simmons, because Philadelphia cannot acquire Harden without unloading significant talent and draft assets to create the salary-cap space for free agency. The Sixers have $133 million on the books for the 2022-23 season, and creating the room to sign him would take the unloading of several players and draft picks.
"Why would Brooklyn accept anything less now than the assets it would cost Philly to unload contracts and create the space this summer?" one NBA GM wondered to ESPN.
The Sixers' (32-21) strong play behind MVP candidate Joel Embiid seems to have bolstered their resolve to wait on Harden -- if not at the trade deadline, then in the offseason. Because even as Harden tells the Nets that he wants to stay long term, two people with significant history and relationships with him -- Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin and Morey -- believe Harden is interested in playing in Philadelphia, sources said.
These are high-stakes games of leverage between teams, and flinching first can obliterate an edge. Three days until the NBA's trade deadline, and the question remains: Does Philadelphia place another call and truly push the Nets to consider a surrender on James Harden?