June 13, 2024

THE SUMMER OF 2018 is not an easy time for Daryl Morey or James Harden to reflect on. They’d just come achingly close to dethroning the Golden State Warriors at the peak of their dynasty, losing in seven games as Chris Paul’s hamstring withered and the team astoundingly made just 7-44 threes in the loss.

But rather than compartmentalize those feelings, Morey has quite literally dwelled in them ever since.

Every day he walks into his home in Philadelphia, Morey looks at a life-sized portrait of Harden he commissioned from Croatian artist Filip Peraic after the 2018 season. It is a stunning piece of art: Harden towering over a basketball court, his hair ablaze in oranges, reds and yellows to reflect how monstrous his offensive output had been the year he won the league’s MVP award. Along the 3-point line is the formula for true shooting percentage – a favorite metric of Morey’s – to reflect Harden’s historically great (60.9, fourth-all time among guards) output. His eyes, heart and iconic beard are all in shades of blue to reflect the calm, almost surgical way Harden dissected defenses and controlled games at the apex of his powers.

This version of Harden was the validation of everything Morey believed in and built his career in the NBA upon. And in many ways, he’s spent every season since trying to recreate it, hoping Harden would break through for the ultimate validation, winning a championship.

Morey posted a photo to Instagram of the portrait hanging in his home in Houston in 2019 and 2020 and then again from his home in Philadelphia in 2022.

He’s had months to reflect on why their basketball marriage fell apart and what it means for both of their legacies. Their offenses broke records. Their style of play changed the game and the way offenses and defenses are formulated. They never won a championship, though.

And now their public, messy separation, after a cold war summer of name-calling and uncomfortable silences, leaves both men with new paths to forge – alone.

On Tuesday morning, Morey had had just hours to reflect on what his life and franchise look like now that Harden is not a part of it. If there are hard feelings, he’s not indulging them yet.

“James changed my life,” Morey says. “He’s one of the all time greats. As time goes on, people will think about him in much more historic terms. What he did to change the game and change the NBA will get recognized more as the Twitterverse and the people who don’t understand how good he is, fade away.”

HARDEN FEELS VERY differently about the dissolution of their basketball marriage. He hasn’t spoken to Morey in months, sources told ESPN. He’s told associates he doesn’t intend to speak to him ever again.

“This is not even about this situation,” Harden told reporters in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, his only public comments during his short-lived stint in Sixers training camp. “This is in life. When you lose trust in someone, it’s like a marriage. You lose trust in someone.”

Harden has only alluded to what caused the irreconcilable differences between them, but like so many divorces, the problems began over money.

According to league sources, Harden and his camp became convinced Morey only intended to offer him a two-year deal, with a team option on the second season, if he declined his $35.6 million player option and became a free agent at the end of June — essentially, turning Harden into a year-to-year player.

The Sixers insisted to him they would make him a strong offer as soon as they were allowed to, and to not mistake their caution over tampering rules for disinterest.

Harden didn’t buy it, and didn’t want to take the chance of losing his Bird rights and leverage in free agency, so he opted into the final year of his contract and asked for a trade instead.

Morey told him he’d look for a deal, but would only do it if it would help the Sixers stay in championship contention.

Harden believed it would happen quickly and grew increasingly frustrated when it did not. By August, he was calling Morey a “liar” during promotional appearances in China and strategizing how to make the Sixers as “uncomfortable as possible,” one source says, until they granted his request.

None of this was good for team-building. New head coach Nick Nurse had a previous relationship with Harden – from when Nurse coached the Rockets’ D-League affiliate – and was able to keep the lines of communication. General manager Elton Brand and majority owner Josh Harris also were able to speak directly to Harden throughout the stalemate.

But Morey never could.

Harden instructed Morey to run all of his communications through his agent, Michael Silverman, sources say. Each day that Harden missed camp to attend to what he and the team called a personal matter, Morey and Silverman would discuss whether Harden would be excused from team activities or not.

It is not uncommon for superstars to run their communication with front office personnel through a representative. But in this case, it is shocking considering how often Morey and Harden spoke during their 10-year basketball marriage.

“Me and the front office had a very, very good relationship for a decade,” Harden said of Morey, without referring to him by name. “There was constant communication.

“[But] there was no communication once we lost.”

Harden returned to practice on Oct. 25, but Morey and Silverman had not spoken the day before, which meant the absence would be “unexcused” if Harden didn’t show up. When Harden did show up, no one knew what to make of it, sources say. Was he back and ready to play for the team? Or was this a stunt to exert pressure on the team to re-engage the Clippers?

The Sixers asked Harden to do his training back at their facility in Camden, New Jersey, rather than accompany the team to Milwaukee for its regular season opener. When he later showed up at the airport for the team flight, security informed him he was not on the manifest.

That inflamed the situation on both sides, sources said, and became what one source described as a “final straw” in the team’s efforts to reincorporate Harden. Two days later, trade discussions with the Clippers picked up again and a path to final separation began to emerge.

IN 2021, MOREY commissioned another portrait from Peraic. This time he asked him to portray Sixers center Joel Embiid. When that work was finished in February 2022, Morey posted a photo on Instagram of both pieces in his living room with the caption: “It takes two. Thought one was enough, It’s not true. It takes two of us.”

This marked an evolution for Morey, not only in recognizing another premier talent alongside Harden’s, but in publicly acknowledging his previously singular faith in Harden might not have been correct.

After initially pairing Harden with Dwight Howard in Houston, Morey had pivoted to a smallball strategy — Moreyball, as it became known, with an extreme focus on 3s and free throws, and a complete abandonment of the midrange — with Harden as its centerpiece. It was wildly successful – a smash hit in an actual musical Morey produced called “Smallball” where one of the songs is entitled “We Were Small/ Pass Me The Ball.” Now he was pivoting again.

Morey recognized Embiid’s importance from the moment he took over the Sixers in the fall of 2020, elevating him in stature almost immediately, and began trying to shape the team around him.

When disgruntled point guard Ben Simmons asked to be traded in the summer of 2021, Morey honed in on Harden as the trade target to play alongside Embiid – prioritizing him over players like Bradley Beal or De’Aaron Fox, league sources say.

It was also a pivot point for Harden, both personally and professionally. He went from attempting more than a dozen 3-pointers a game to playing more of a distributor role, with Embiid as the team’s focal point. After the 2022 season, he was asked to sacrifice and take a $13 million pay cut from his $47.3 million player option in the name of winning. This was difficult to stomach after he’d passed up maximum salary extensions in both Houston and Brooklyn. But Harden didn’t have much choice – or leverage – at the time, so he went along with it and went on to lead the league in assists in 2022-23. And he trusted in his relationships with Morey and then-team minority partner, Michael Rubin.

Rubin, who sold his shares of the Sixers around the same time to focus on his company, Fanatics, has said publicly he thinks the situation would have ended differently if he’d still been involved.

“Everyone knows James is family to me,” Rubin said on a podcast with Sixers guard Patrick Beverley. “This thing was just not handled well. It’s a little messy. It’s not the outcome that I would’ve wanted to happen.”

It is the outcome Harden wanted, however. The Clippers have been his preferred destination throughout. He grew up in Los Angeles, starring for Artesia High in the same era Russell Westbrook starred for Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Paul George for Knight High in Palmdale and Kawhi Leonard for King High in Riverside.

This will be his third go-round with Westbrook as his teammate. The first was at the start of their careers in Oklahoma City, which included Harden’s lone trip to the NBA Finals in 2012. The second was the season they spent together in Houston (2019-20).

As the trade came together Tuesday morning, Harden flew across the country and went straight to Crypto.com arena to greet his new teammates before their game against the Orlando Magic. Most withheld comment while the trade was awaiting official completion. The pregame hug between Westbrook and Harden, however, spoke volumes.

“You hate to see a situation get messy,” Silverman told ESPN. “But it worked out great for James. He’s back home in LA with a chance to compete for a championship.”

LIKE EVERYONE IN the basketball world, Peraic has watched the relationship between Harden and Morey degenerate with a mix of shock and bewilderment.

“Of course I followed it,” Peraic told ESPN from his home in Croatia. “It was shocking because they’ve been around each other from the start of their careers. It’s been years and years of great collaboration.

“I assumed something very serious must’ve happened because it’s rare to see a player say something like [Harden] did about a GM.”

Peraic began drawing Harden in 2013 as a personal challenge. He says he was drawn to him because of his unorthodox style on and off the court.

Like Morey, he saw something special in him that others missed while he came off the bench in Oklahoma City.

“He was like an up and coming star, about to become a superstar,” Peraic says. “And I definitely chose him because his beard created a cool angle for me to experiment with.”

Peraic’s portraits of Harden became iconic. Adidas commissioned him to create designs for Harden’s apparel. The work was featured in The New York Times and exhibits like Art Basel in Miami. In all, he created 36 portraits.

“The project turned out to be a very big thing for my career,” he says. “People tie his name to mine. And it was such a joy to work on because I’m such a basketball fan. Whether it’s playing on the court here in Zadar, Croatia. Watching the games or checking the box scores first thing when I get up in the morning. It’s been quite the experience and it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Would he portray him differently now, after Harden’s third trade request in four years?

“I’m not sure,” Peraic says. “The original concept wasn’t tied to the events in James’ life. It was more my creative expression of him and his play.

“But I’ve changed. He’s changed. The time went by. So the art will evolve.”

The divorce is final. But Morey says he’s keeping the painting of Harden – on his living room wall. “

It’s one of my prized possessions.”

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