Column: This James Harden thing is weird, but is it even weirder?

Aug 18, 2023, 8:33 AM | Updated: 9:16 am

President of basketball operations Daryl Morey responds during a press conference at the Seventy Si...

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY - FEBRUARY 15: President of basketball operations Daryl Morey responds during a press conference at the Seventy Sixers Practice Facility on February 15, 2022 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

I’m not a fan of James Harden the NBA player. Never have been.

I don’t enjoy watching him. I don’t enjoy his hunting for fouls. But most of all, I don’t like the way he leaves franchises in his wake. I also think he’s a stat hunter who can’t win a title.

Those are all sports bar convos, but this thing with Philadelphia 76ers GM and, apparently, longtime friend Daryl Morey is intriguing. I love a great deep-dive conspiracy, and this one has me thinking a bit.

Disclaimer: This could all be folly and farce. Let the Capital J journalists figure it out. I’m simply going with a (insert Brian Windhorst GIF) big what-if. What if it’s just the money?

The big rumor about James Harden not that long ago was his interest in a reunion with the Houston Rockets, the one franchise he seemed to stick with and feel at home. He did spend nine seasons there. Seems like a strange spot to pick, homesickness aside, with where they are in their re-building phase. But maybe there’s more…

The NBA reportedly makes over $5 billion a year from its relationship with China, and that’s most likely a very conservative estimate. Team owners have reportedly invested more than $10 billion in China. That’s a lot of dough.

Keep following me here…

The epicenter of China’s interest in the NBA to this day is Yao Ming, and the solar system of money that came in with him when he played for the Houston Rockets. The market he helped open not only benefitted the NBA, but many of the players surrounding him.

Consider this, from a 2016 Yahoo Sports article that really bottom lines Yao and the China Effect:

Several of the last decade’s most visible endorsers for Chinese brands all had one common trait: They were Houston Rockets. Carl Landry, Ron Artest, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons signed above-market endorsement deals with Chinese brands, some even after Yao had retired in 2011. In Battier’s case, Peak became an official partner of the NBA, and every game that was aired in China went to commercial break with a Peak Battier ad.

Ok, keep following me here…

In 2019, a tweet from an NBA team executive rocked the NBA, and outside of the NBA, world. Morey tweeted an image that said, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” This created a seismic explosion that went all the way to the NBA offices in New York, the government offices in Beijing, Washington DC, and the politicians, and of course, the Houston Rockets.

One of the big nightmares of the NBA is having to comment on its relationships with China. Its… uncomfortable. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his challenger at the time Beto O’Rourke agree on anything, but they were both outspoken against the NBA’s milquetoast reaction to the Morey tweet.

Games were pulled off TV in China. Sponsorships were suspended or outright ended. Since then, the NBA has gone to great lengths behind the scenes to repair the relationship, hoping that the American media will forget and go to the next flavor of the month story — they did, by the way — and not bring up things like this:

In 2016, the NBA set up three basketball academies in China to develop elite prospects and give them an education and life skills. When ESPN launched an investigation of reported cruel and abusive treatment of the kids, including zero education, here’s how the NBA reacted: It ordered its NBA camp personnel to decline interviews with ESPN, and further instructed them not to say they had been instructed to keep quiet.


So now we get to the crux of it. When Harden said “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” and he said it TWICE, many understandably sussed out that perhaps he was referencing a rumored handshake deal between himself and Morey from a year ago.

Harden famously declined his $47.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season and took a pay CUT, which confused a lot of folks. Was James Harden taking a pay cut to help the franchise out somehow? There were eye rolls everywhere.

When he then signed a two-year, $68 million deal, the eye-rolls were so huge the NBA even eye-rolled and opened an investigation.

If you’re James Harden, you want out of Philly, but you also want to get paid. Perhaps you’ve figured out that the Clippers don’t really want you, and other teams also don’t want the headache. Maybe, along with the drama, they don’t want the giant contract as well. For a guy who loves Houston and considers it his adopted hometown, maybe Harden decided to take matters into his own hands and help his pal, Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta, bring him back.

Fertitta made his fortune in the restaurant business and came out of the COVID-19 pandemic somehow richer.

Let’s bring it all together.

When Morey’s China/Hong Kong post hit, he worked for the Rockets. Fertitta remained largely quiet but did say Morey didn’t speak for the organization with his comments. Fertitta also liked some social media posts saying Morey should be fired. And all those Yao Ming ad dollars that were still flowing into Houston? Gone.

All of them.

Li-Ning, Shanghai Pudong Bank….all of them.

Morey made these comments in October 2019. On Oct. 15, 2020, he left the Rockets to “spend more time with his family.” That didn’t last long because, on Oct. 28, he became the head of Basketball Ops for the Philadelphia 76ers and acquired his old buddy James Harden down the line.

So if you’re James Harden, and you want out of Philly, to go back to Houston, and simultaneously get revenge on the guy who promised you a sweetheart contract and make a ton of money? Become a Chinese National Hero.

Harden made his comments about Daryl Morey IN CHINA while promoting his wine. A wine that incidentally sold 10,000 bottles in the first 10 seconds it was available. This was of course after Harden’s comments.

Hong Kong being a part of China is not something they take lightly over there, at all. When Morey made those comments, it was like a dagger in the financial heart of the NBA, while also putting them in the spot of claiming to be a social leader, while also doing business with a human rights violator.

What Harden has possibly done is vanquish his foe in Morey, become a hero in China — not Yao levels of course, but someone over a billion people can cheer for from afar — and help repair some of the damage done.

Now he can go to Tillman Fertitta and say “Hey, bringing me here will more than pay for itself, let’s go get those sponsorships back.”

Harden gets to go where he wants, gets paid what he wants, makes even more dough in and from China, and takes out Morey at the same time — which I’m guessing the NBA doesn’t mind either because money IS money.

Is it farfetched? Yeah. Is it unlikely? Maybe.

But something here doesn’t add up, and I’m very curious to see where this goes next. Say what you want about James Harden, but anyone accusing him of being dumb just hasn’t paid attention.

He’s gamed the game.

Now maybe he’s gaming the entire system.

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Column: This James Harden thing is weird, but is it even weirder?