Daryl Morey and James Harden

An Open Letter to Daryl Morey: Just Trim the Beard

I had a friend in college who liked to get thrown out of bars. Now, to be fair to him, I’ll never know for sure if he actually liked getting thrown out of bars, but he did it so consistently and with such tactical grace that it had to be on purpose. There were several bars in my college town of Morgantown, West Virginia. If I put a giant map on the wall, labeled and highlighted each bar on that map, took you, blindfolded you, spun you around, and told you to pin an area, my buddy was kicked out of the bar closest to where you stuck your pin. It was impressive and almost like a game. And my friend always won.

He specifically liked to get kicked out of this one bar. It had just opened our senior year of college, way back in 2019. I remember watching Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers beat Alabama in the College Football National Championship game there with my friends. The bar owner gave us over 50 chicken wings for free. It was a veteran move because he made up for what he lost in those wings in our loyalty to that bar. I won’t say we went every day, that’s, like, absurd, but we went a helluva lot. 

My friend was cautious at first. He didn’t want to ruin a good thing. We drank and ate for cheap at the bar. It was close to our house, had a dozen TVs, and the games were always on. We thought we had it all, and for a bunch of idiot college seniors, we actually did. 

I want to say that it was around the time that the Ja Morant-led Murray State Racers beat Marquette that my friend felt comfortable enough at the bar to get kicked out for the first time. He made a spectacle of it– always one devoted to his own showmanship. He knocked over drinks and held a pool stick like a sword, begging people for a duel. It’s easy to say that he was kicked out of the bar to roaring cheers, the way a heavy-weight boxer enters their fight. This was his arena, and so began a game of cat and mouse. 

What seemed like every time we went to the bar, my friend would get kicked out. Soon, he was banned, but then he’d show up again. There was no getting rid of him. It was as if he’d teleport right next to us in the booth; we’d ask how he’d gotten in, and he’d ask the same question. But if him showing up somehow in a bar he wasn’t allowed in always happened, then him getting the boot always did, too. There was never fighting, never any animosity between him and the bartender. He’d get told to leave and not come back, and he’d follow the first command. Breaking the second one almost daily. 

One day, we asked the bartender just how the hell he always got back in. How, despite everything being against him, he always got his way. The bartender shook his head in exasperation as if he pondered the same question we had, took off his University of Texas baseball cap, itched above his eyebrow, and laughed, telling us, “Sometimes people are just better at this than we are. Some people always get their way.” 

Now, you might be wondering what this stupid anecdote has to do with Daryl Morey, and honestly, I don’t blame you, but it’s reasonably simple and calls to how he’s trying to manage his players. Let me be clear: Daryl, you can’t stop James Harden from coming in. No matter what you do, no matter what you throw at him, he’s better at this than you, and he’ll get his way. 

That’s why I’m writing this open letter to you, Daryl Morey, president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers. I appreciate anyone else who reads this (really I do; how ‘bout you follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my substack, too), but I’m afraid this letter is for Daryl. 

It’s always comically tragic when someone gets burned by their own flame. A flame they love, a flame they cultivated and built around, one that won an MVP, and one that you thought was your BFFL. A flame you let go only to go out and get again. You were on top of the world then, and now your feet are back on the pavement with the rest of us. The problem with this flame, Daryl, and like all flames, is that they’re hot, they’re fire, they’ll burn your face off and leave you with nothing but the nagging thought of, ‘How the hell did it come to this?’ 

Well, Darryl, you’re there now. James Harden went to China and called you a liar. He called you a liar and said he’d never be part of an organization you’re with. Did it hurt? When he said that, unprompted, to a bunch of Chinese children, not once but twice. It hurt me. Don’t worry. You don’t have to say anything now. That’s what this is for; I’m saying something and hoping you’ll listen. 

I want to make myself clear now: You’ll lose this petty-off, Daryl. This is not something you win. Hell, Harden might lose, too, but you won’t win. It’s tough to swallow, I know. It was so easy with Ben Simmons. The NBA world was on your side. Simmons exposed himself as a nobody. Embiid was over him, and Philly fans were over him. Everyone championed you for handling it like you did, and they should. It was a masterclass in player movement. Bravo. 

Only James Harden is not Ben Simmons. James Harden is the best to ever do it at whatever the hell it is that James Harden does. You got lucky that one time. James Harden is Bobby Flay; he’s always going to win. 

The craziest thing in all this is that you know James Harden. You’re literally the James Harden guy. So, I don’t know if it’s denial, delusion, or some gross confidence that you’ll come out on top, but you should see how this will all go down. 

In fact, Daryl, let’s take a little look at days since past to see all the stops James Harden can make to ensure that his time with Philly will be messy, chaotic, and detrimental to the team. Did you think dealing with the whole Simmons-saga was terrible? Just wait.

 We don’t even have to go that far back! You don’t have to look at a case study to speed yourself up to his ways because you were a part of his first masterpiece. Ah, yes, I love looking back at it. 

For now, let’s not get carried away. Let’s just look at how James Harden got out of Houston.

Some claim there’s no easy way to demand a trade and get it, and yet, I see players get their wishes all the time. NBA players are very good at leaving teams that people say, “Uh uh, no way they get traded.” I can’t think of any time an owner or team did not look completely fucking stupid for not giving in to a player wanting a trade. It never works. 

If you had traded him when he requested, you could have gotten the best deal, but every day you don’t, the return on him worsens because Harden will never play for the Sixers again. It’s over. So you can either trade him now and know the team going into the season or play the game. You will have a disconnected team and have to bring in new guys in the middle of the season and look stupid at the trade deadline when you inevitably deal Harden. It’s your choice. Either way, Harden will put pressure on management to trade him.

There are many strategies at a player’s disposal to get their wish. Most are conventional. James Harden is not. His bag of shenanigans in rotation to get traded is not only deep but magnificently creative. 

In 2021, James Harden was over his Houston Rockets gig. Maybe he was bored with Club Onyx; repetition gets old. Strip clubs can get played out when you (James Harden) can walk into one blindfolded and know which one you’re in based on the musk alone. Perhaps Harden’s favorite talent left for Miami; maybe he just got tired of the routine. 

But probably, he didn’t view the team as a contender and wanted a change of scenery. No, not that scenery, real basketball scenery. Early in the NBA season, he began training with ex-OKC-teammate and Brooklyn Net Kevin Durant. By mid-November, Harden was completely done with the Rockets, telling teammate Russell Westbrook that he wanted to be traded to Brooklyn. This led to Westbrook asking out, too. A couple of days later, Harden and Durant believed the trade to be good as done.

It didn’t happen that way. The Rockets felt they weren’t getting a good enough return for Harden and basically shelved the deal from getting done. The Nets and Harden weren’t expecting a team as down and out as Rockets to hold out for a better deal. Harden couldn’t believe the franchise that gave in to his every last whim wouldn’t do him a solid and just trade him for the fuck of it. 

So Harden took matters into his own hands, the only way a guy like him could think of doing so. He went on a bender of magnificent proportions. Now, James Harden and living life to the fullest in places like Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Cabo was nothing new. The guy likes to have a good time, even during the season. But he was always a private guy, or at least tried to be. But when the Rockets wouldn’t trade him to Brooklyn, he decided to air out his partying and to make it more public.

Not only did Harden choose an unorthodox route of moving teams, but he also used a reliable one. He showed up late to training camp. Harden must have believed that using a mix of public partying and no-showing to team functions would anger or embarrass the Houston brass enough to get rid of him. 

As good as Harden is on the basketball court, he might be even better at partying. Instead of being at Rockets camp, he was “training” in Las Vegas and celebrating rapper Lil Baby’s birthday in Atlanta (he gifted Baby a Prada bag filled with cash; how sweet). All of which were captured on film and somehow leaked to social media. 

Soon, after a parade of partying, Harden did return to Rockets camp but instantly became a problem for the team. He reportedly got into a skirmish with teammate Jae’Sean Tate and threw a ball at his head. Still no trade. The Rockets were staying strong.

A month later, in early January, Harden decided to trash the team in a media session. Saying that, “They just weren’t good enough,”– which is a massive N-O in sports. Players can do a lot, but trashing their team publicly, as Harden did, crosses a line and throws the locker room in flames. Sometime around then, he showed up to a game, let’s say, physically transformed. The fat suit is just a rumor, but one this blogger is choosing to believe. 

Shortly after his comments (and the weight gain), Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets (where he magically became skinny again). 

Harden would only play 80 games for the Nets. Remember that? The Big Apple’s Big Three of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Harden? It seems almost like a fever dream now. If I squint and think hard, I can even remember that the team was a Kevin Durant big toe away from going to the NBA finals. Wow, aren’t sports crazy? 

Harden did play well in his first season with the Nets. He averaged a double-double, fit nicely next to Durant, and showed up in the playoffs, playing through an apparent hamstring injury. 

But that Nets team was always an experiment. Steve Nash was an unseasoned head coach who, according to his best players, was really just there for the image because Kyrie and Durant would also do some coaching. The Nets were constructed almost exclusively off vibes, and unfortunately, a team constructed off vibes can destruct when bad ones come in. 

Post Covid was weird. It took the NBA to figure out how to handle the virus, its players, and the vaccine. New York state took some of the command out of the NBA’s hands, enforcing a vaccine-to-work mandate, which impacted Kyrie Irving, who decided he wouldn’t get it. Irving’s decision caused problems, obviously. It’s hard to do your job when you can’t. Kyrie essentially became a part-time employee of the Brooklyn Nets. 

The team was underachieving, the locker room was a mess, and the vibes were off. All things that wouldn’t sit well with Harden, someone who has no problem cutting ties and bolting elsewhere. 

And so he did what he’s good at, making it impossible for the Nets to keep him. His Nets strategy was a little different than in Houston. Instead of going on a bender or calling out

teammates, Harden just gave up. It was honestly jarring seeing a professional athlete– a professional competitor– give up on the court like Harden did. He was done, and the Nets were in an odd predicament. They had to keep not just Kevin Durant happy but Kyrie Irving (even through all his shit), and so instead of having three headaches to deal with, the Nets decided to cut ties with Harden and trade him to Philly for some solid players and Ben Simmons.

In hindsight, with Kyrie and Durant in new locations, Harden might have been ahead of the curve. 

And now, Daryl, I do hope you’ve been paying attention to all this. It’s your turn (again) for the Harden-Wants-Out Wammajamma ride. Even after seeing all this and knowing his history and commitment to leaving, you’re standing tall on your pride. You think, Hey, this time is different. You think you have leverage, that you can convince him to stay, you think he can change. It’s sad, really, because you can’t. Any power you think you have is a fantasy because this is a different James Harden wanting out scenario. Much different.

The most problematic part of this instance in the James Harden saga is his motive. He isn’t just bored or wants to leave to go to a contender or wants to leave because he doesn’t like his team. No. This is a Harden that feels slighted, that knows you and the suits of the Philadelphia 76ers played him and fucked up his money. Money in the millions of dollars range. There was a handshake deal, and you’re not paying up. This is new, a fresh gripe that Harden has with a team. It’s one thing to rebuild, one thing not to pass Harden’s vibe check, but it’s a different beast to fuck with his money. 

You thought you had seen it all with him. You’re like, ah jeez, partying, playing hooky from the team, not trying, whatever! And maybe you could deal with all that, except he threw that out. He’s much more determined now. Harden went to China and slandered you, Daryl. I have literally never seen an active player do that.  And that was just his first move! He hasn’t even been backed into a corner yet. Harden can, and most likely will, make things very uncomfortable. Maybe not even publically, but locker-room cancers are dangerous, and I do not doubt that Harden can be an elite locker-room cancer. Do you think you can win and have him on your team? Good luck.

Because with Harden and the Sixers, you can’t only think about him. You have a looming seven-foot NBA MVP you must care for, and you think he wants to deal with all this. Again? How long will it be until Embiid realizes that Philly is the problem? I’m not sure, but with James Harden spinning his web of toxicity, it will be sooner rather than later. Would you rather play this game with Harden, lose him (which you will,) and then lose Embiid? Or just cut ties with Harden, get him as far away as possible, and focus entirely on Embiid? The answer should be simple. James Harden is not worth losing your locker room. It’s not worth losing Embiid. He’s not worth losing your job. 

So, for the last time, and I know this hurts. Honestly, I do, just trade Harden. You, the Sixers, Embiid, the city of Philadelphia, and the greater northeast PA region will all be better. If you think pennies on the dollar aren’t worth it for James Harden, how do you feel about watching your house burn down?

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Walsh was born and raised in New York, but now calls the Mile High City home. He writes about basketball, both the play on the court and the reality tv-esque off the court drama that surrounds the league. Follow him on Twitter for dumb tweets: @_Dannboii.