How James Harden calling Daryl Morey a 'liar' could be used as leverage

James Harden could face penalties for not fulfilling his contract, but Sixers also could be in trouble if prohibited deal was made

James Harden called Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey a
James Harden called Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey a "liar" and is threatening to hold out on the team. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) (Tim Nwachukwu via Getty Images)

OCT. 31 UPDATE: The Philadelphia 76ers reportedly traded James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers early Tuesday morning, according to multiple reports.

When the footage of James Harden calling Daryl Morey a liar made its way from China to every smartphone in the world early Monday morning, a few questions sprung to mind.

Wait, what?

Hold on: This isn’t a deep-fake or something, right?

And then, perhaps most importantly:

OK … so what’d he lie about?

That’s the one where most of the intrigue would seem to reside in this square-off between the 76ers’ starting point guard and the team’s president of basketball operations, who’ve been tied together as closely as any player and executive in the NBA for more than a decade. What specific thing is Harden accusing Morey of deceiving him about — and what’s he hoping to achieve by publicly and directly calling it out?

It’s not surprising Harden would shake the table after Morey reportedly ended talks this weekend on a trade to send him away — preferably to the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden’s one-and-only favored destination when he requested a trade more than six weeks ago. The latest non-development in a story marked by persistent stagnation seemingly frustrated the 10-time All-Star and former NBA Most Valuable Player. Shortly after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Philly was pulling the plug on negotiations, intent on taking another shot at title contention with Harden alongside reigning MVP Joel Embiid, Sam Amick of The Athletic delivered the view from the opposite side of the standoff: Harden “no longer wants to play for Philadelphia and has no plans of taking part in training camp.”

The problem: Harden didn’t really seem to have any leverage to use to get what he wants.

As the only team on Harden’s “list,” the Clippers don’t really have any incentive to bowl Philly over with a monster offer. Since there don’t appear to have been any other teams rushing to pony up boffo trade packages and lucrative long-term deals for an about-to-turn-34-year-old with a, shall we say, checkered postseason résumé, why should LA bid against itself?

And if what the Clips were willing to put in the middle — maybe some combination of Norman Powell, the expiring contracts of vets like Marcus Morris Sr. or Robert Covington, maybe some scratch-off-ticket youngsters like Jason Preston or Brandon Boston Jr., some second-round picks, maybe a protected first — wasn’t enough to keep Philly in position to compete in the East, then why would Morey agree to a trade? Better to hold onto Harden, diamond-hands this deal into the season, and see if a more advantageous set of circumstances presents itself — as it did two years ago, when Morey hung onto the famously and very publicly disgruntled Ben Simmons until the trade deadline … and wound up coming away with Harden.

If Harden doesn’t like the idea of that particular bit of history repeating itself, well, he’s welcome to follow through on his threat to hold out. But as he remains under contract with the Sixers, having picked up his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season before immediately requesting a trade, traveling down that path would put him face-to-face with some stiff penalties.

The Uniform Player Contract lays out the services that NBA players are expected to provide their teams: stuff like reporting to training camp, attending “practices, meetings, workouts, and skill or conditioning sessions conducted by the Team during the Season” and appearing at all scheduled games. When you violate team rules, breach the provisions of that contract, or engage in “any conduct impairing the faithful and thorough discharge of [your] duties,” you become subject to escalating fines for each missed practice and game-check-docking suspensions, as laid out by the collective bargaining agreement.

A player in that situation could also put himself in line for additional discipline from commissioner Adam Silver. Article 35 of the NBA’s constitution and by-laws gives the commissioner broad powers to suspend and/or fine players whose actions are judged to be “detrimental to the best interests of basketball or of the Association or of a Member” of the league — like, potentially, opting into a contract, immediately demanding a trade and then refusing to report to camp.

That’s not all. Under Article XI, Section 3 of the CBA, any player “who withholds playing services called for by a Player Contract for more than thirty (30) days after the start of the last Season covered by his Player Contract shall be deemed not to have ‘complet[ed] his Player Contract by rendering the playing services called for thereunder.’”

That’s where the Sixers could swing the heaviest hammer; if Harden doesn’t complete his current contract, they could keep him from going out and getting another one. The language from that “Withholding Services” section reads: “Such a player shall not be a Veteran Free Agent and shall not be entitled to negotiate or sign a Player Contract with any other professional basketball team unless and until the Team for which the player last played expressly agrees otherwise.”

(For what it’s worth, this is not a new provision just included for the 2023 CBA. It’s been in place for years; I wrote about it when Jimmy Butler decided it was time to force his way out of Minnesota back in 2018.)

TL;DR: If Harden’s really committed to not sharing an organizational roof with Morey ever again, to the point where he’ll refuse to show up and suit up, he could be putting his $35.6 million for this season in jeopardy and jeopardizing his chance to enter unrestricted free agency next summer. That, pretty clearly, wouldn’t seem to be in his best interest.

So: If you want to force the Sixers’ hands, how can you get your Jane Lynch on in a way that might actually convince Ol’ Mr. Comfortable Being Uncomfortable to just take whatever he can get and move on?

Well, maybe you insinuate that the reason you took that $15 million pay cut last summer — which, now that we mention it, was how much the Sixers needed to open up to land the two players they got dinged for tampering after signing! — was because your pal Daryl had agreed to make you whole with a long-term deal on the back end, only to renege on that agreement after things once again went up in smoke against Boston in the second round of the playoffs. That sort of wink-wink, handshake deal is expressly prohibited by the CBA (check Article XIII, Section 2, “No Unauthorized Agreements”) and, if proven to have taken place, is punishable by multimillion-dollar fines, forfeiture of draft picks and suspension of team personnel involved (do your homework on Joe Smith, youngbloods).

And maybe, in so doing, you take a very public and direct shot across the bow aimed at whatever other stars Morey might be targeting to play with Embiid and the not-yet-extended Tyrese Maxey with the significant financial flexibility that Philly’s in line to have next summer. Because any star thinking about signing somewhere in free agency wants to be sure he can trust the exec he’s negotiating with, right? And if, in the course of negotiations, said star hears a voice in his head saying, “Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” … well, maybe that star decides discretion is the better part of valor, and moves on to the next interested suitor.

And maybe, if you poison the well enough to sow chaos this season and reduce the likelihood of that would-be third star coming to town next summer, you get the Doomsday Clock — Embiid deciding to think a lot harder about the “or anywhere else” part of his July comments about wanting to win a title — to tick a little closer to midnight.

That, I will grant, is a whole lot of “maybe.” It also might overcomplicate this by a non-trivial amount: Maybe (there’s that word again!) this was less Harden trying to isolate Morey at the top of the key and play chess master, and more an unvarnished emotional response from someone who feels blindsided and cast aside by the one guy he thought he could trust. Either way, Harden’s comments raised the temperature of a situation that has been sitting on simmer for nearly two months. We’ll see if he’s successful in getting things to boil over, or …

… if Morey’s really as comfortable being uncomfortable as he lets on.