Not pursuing James Harden is Mat Ishbia’s biggest win

Devin Booker, James Harden, Phoenix Suns (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Devin Booker, James Harden, Phoenix Suns (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

If there is one thing the Phoenix Suns do not need heading into the 2023-24 season, it is more offensive firepower. With a trio of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, scoring is not going to be a problem for this group.

To supplement that with 3-point marksmen like Yuta Watanabe and Eric Gordon, means that this Suns roster will have an embarrassment of riches with which to hurt opponents next season. Despite all of this, there was a period a number of weeks back where the organization were somehow linked with James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers.

With Harden coming out and condemning current 76ers president Daryl Morey publicly, Suns’ owner Mat Ishbia has never looked smarter not pursuing Harden.

The video in question of Harden verbally bashing one of his staunchest defenders in Morey was posted on X by Shams Charania of The Athletic in the early hours of Monday morning. Harden is currently in China as part of an offseason tour of the country ahead of the new season.

The public outburst likely coming off the back of the 76ers formally ending trade discussions for the player. Harden had been more heavily linked with the L.A. Clippers after the brief Suns news went away, and the prospect of teaming with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in his hometown of Los Angeles was surely appealing.

With the Suns having turned Chris Paul into Beal, and with Deandre Ayton a player who has been in trade talks for years now, it is likely Ishbia could have added Harden if he had really wanted to. Be honest, did you see the Beal deal coming? How about the Suns managing to get all manner of free agents (eight in total) to agree to minimum contracts to play for them?

With the 76ers having reigning league MVP Joel Embiid, their need for Ayton was zero. What many seem to forget though, and is one of the key reasons that the Suns should always stay well clear of Harden, is because up until the end of June, he could have walked away from the 76ers on his own terms.

Instead he opted in to the final year of his current deal, picked up his $35.6 million, and immediately wanted the 76ers to look for options to get him out of there. Not only options, but destinations where he could contend. With an attitude like that, you can forget about what Harden once said about Durant and Kyrie Irving during the trio’s time together with the Brooklyn Nets.

This is not about the choke jobs that Harden has put forth in the postseason in the past. In fact if you look beyond that preconceived belief that many have about him, you’ll see that he has had some stellar playoff moments. In all likelihood, Harden is one day going in Hall of Fame.

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Harden the player, if the Suns could have added him at the expense of Ayton and a couple of other pieces, would have been amazing. Harden instead of Beal, again purely from a playing standpoint, would have at least been a conversation. But that means adding Harden and the baggage that comes with him, and that is just not worth it.

This is a player who forced his way out of the Houston while with the Rockets, a franchise helmed by Morey where he was beloved. He then went to the Nets, and while the failures there aren’t all on him, this video in China certainly isn’t helping his opinion that it was more about Irving and Durant.

To then push for a move to the 76ers, get it — then want to leave after two seasons and not even have an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals to show for it — is not good enough. Morey not only gave him a fellow MVP in Embiid, but rosters that were capable of competing at the higher end of the East.

Harden also flirted with going back to the Rockets this summer, a franchise that gave him the ball for nine years and got out of the way. In 2018-19, Harden had a ridiculous usage of 40.5 percent while there. Once he was reunited with Morey on the 76ers, he was literally greeted off the plane like the prodigal son.

If Harden can publicly slam an individual who has given him so much and backed him to the hilt, imagine the ructions he could have caused in The Valley if he became unhappy. Which, judging by the last three years, is something that would have happened sooner rather than later. Approaching his 34th birthday later this month, the line for his services is now small.

Ishbia and GM James Jones, one of the franchise’s six worst starters of the Steve Nash era, are doing a masterful job of creating the right culture to go with the star players they have. Coaches like Frank Vogel, David Fizdale and Kevin Young have been secured in part to make sure the stars don’t run away with themselves.

On top of that, defensive-minded players like Keita Bates-Diop, Chris Eubanks, Toumani Camara and Chimezie Metu have been added to instill a work-rate and accountability on the other end of the court that it is hoped will make Booker, Durant and Beal work even harder on that end.

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James Harden does not factor into any of this. We had plenty of proof before this video that this was the case. Not getting his own way mere weeks after opting into the last year of his deal, and saying he’ll never play for Morey again, is player empowerment gone horribly wrong.

Building a winner is as much about picking the right players and coaches to fulfill a vision as it is avoiding the ones that will bring you down. We always knew this to be the case, but the front office are doing the right thing by avoiding Harden at this critical point in their journey to win a first championship.