Harden Threatens to Withhold Service: Legal Ramifications of Feuding with Daryl Morey & the 76ers
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National Basketball Association (NBA) point guard James Harden has gained a reputation for forcing his way out of teams through any means necessary. First, with the Houston Rockets, then the Brooklyn Nets, and currently, the Philadelphia 76ers (Sixers).
Harden’s History with Morey & the Sixers
In February 2022, Harden was traded to the Sixers. His interest in Philadelphia was influenced, in part, by their President of Operations, Daryl Morey.  Harden and Morey had a relatively successful seven-year run together with the Rockets, during which Harden won three scoring titles and an MVP award, and Morey won Executive of the Year.  However, they both left Houston during the 2020-2021 season after failing to accomplish their true goal of making a finals appearance.
After reuniting in Philadelphia, the duo negotiated a two-year, $68.6 million contract with a player option in the second year. In this agreement, Harden notably accepted a $14 million pay cut to give the Sixers salary cap flexibility for a hopeful 2023 playoff run. Despite this, the Sixers experienced yet another disappointing second-round playoff exit. Following the season, Harden could either explore free agency or exercise his $36.5 million player option.
Opting In & Requesting Out
On June 29th, 2023, Harden opted into his player option and subsequently requested a trade. This request stemmed from the expectation that Morey and Philadelphia’s front office would offer him a multiple-year, maximum contract in free agency. When he did not receive this deal and no other teams offered him a long-term contract Harden exercised his player option to guarantee his $36.5 million salary and then formally requested a trade.
Morey has been explicit that his and Harden’s history will not take precedence over what is best for the Sixers, and a trade will only happen if it is right for the team. Since the market for Harden has been limited, Morey has opted for a patient approach. However, waiting has frustrated Harden, and his frustration reached a peak in August when he called Morey a “liar” and publicly stated his intention to sit out of training camp. This action violated the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) on public trade requests, and Harden was fined $100,000. This fine represents the first of many penalties Harden will face if he holds out as the 2023-24 season approaches.
Language of the CBA
The CBA has provisions against withholding service, under which Harden risks jeopardizing two aspects of his contractual rights: his salary and his future free agency. Under Article VI, Section 1 (a)(i) of the CBA, Harden can face fines equivalent to 1/96.1 of his base salary per missed game including exhibition, regular season, and playoff games.That’s approximately $388,000 per game. Article VI, Section 2, (a) (i-iv), states that failing to patriciate in practice incurs fines as follows: $2,500 for the initial practice, $5,000 for the second, $7,500 for the third, and an “amount reasonable under the circumstances," for any subsequently missed practices. Therefore, between games and practices, Harden risks losing millions in fines for withholding until he is traded.
Additionally, according to Article XI, Section 3 of the CBA, if a player intentionally withholds their playing services as outlined in their contract for over 30 days, they will be considered not to have fulfilled their contractual obligations. Such a player will not qualify as a Veteran Free Agent and will be unable to engage in negotiations or sign with another professional basketball team unless the player's last team explicitly agrees. This clause of the CBA means that even after Harden’s player option for the 2023-2024 season expires, he will remain ineligible to pursue free agency or sign with another team without consent from the Sixers. Thus, the consequences of Harden violating the CBA and withholding service could also give the Sixers the power to veto Harden’s future signings.
Update - October 4th, 2023 – Harden Arrives at Training Camp
On Wednesday, October 4th, James Harden arrived and fully participated in day two of the Sixers training camp at Colorado State University. Harden made his appearance after he was absent for media day on October 2nd and the first day of training camp practice on October 3rd  He could potentially face fines for both of these absences, as noted that practices are obligatory according to Article VI, Section 2, (a) (i-iv) of the CBA, and media day is also mandatory as outlined in Article XX, Section 1, (a) of the CBA, which governs veteran players’ scheduled responsibilities during training camp.
Despite showing up to camp, Harden states his relationship with Morey is still “beyond repair” but he intends to remain professional and fulfill his contractual obligations to the team until a trade is made. However, this might take some time as the Los Angeles Clippers, his desired trade destination, and the sole team actively pursuing him, appear hesitant to offer a substantial package to the Sixers. While the ultimate outcome of this standoff remains uncertain, it is evident that Harden recognized the detrimental effect withholding service due to his feud with Morey and the Philadelphia front office could’ve had on his income and future in the league.
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