How James Harden’s standoff with Daryl Morey impacts Celtics’ problems at hand

Players calling the GM or a coach a liar happens more frequently than one might think. Whether they’re upset over playing time or trades, it’s not unheard of for athletes to feel like they can’t trust the organization that signs their checks.

NBA stars and reserves alike can grumble privately about how they aren’t getting the role the coach promised them or how they were blindsided to be packing their bags after the GM said they weren’t going anywhere.

But it rarely ever goes down like this…

“Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” James Harden said in China Monday. “Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”

It’s wild seeing these comments a little more than 18 months removed from Morey greeting Harden on the tarmac with a big hug as the former MVP landed in Philadelphia. After Morey reunited so many of Harden’s former Rockets teammates — and was hit with a tampering penalty as a result — to make the Sixers feel like home to his longtime star partner. But things fell apart, Harden wanted out, and as soon as reports emerged Morey was shutting down trade talks, Harden eviscerated his GM publicly in a way that just doesn’t happen in the NBA.

Philadelphia and Boston have long been juxtaposed as two contrasting paths to a rebuild over the past decade, and this offseason has set up a fork in the road for both franchises. Harden started out the Sixers’ recent playoff series against the Celtics with one of the best performances of his career, then petered out over the course of the series. Despite another all-timer in Game 4, he was a disaster in a Game 7 loss for the second straight year as the Sixers blew the 3-2 lead.

Had Harden played well in either of those last two games, maybe the Sixers win, Joel Embiid’s health improves, and they march on toward the Finals. Now his relationship with a team counting on him to help keep Embiid in Philly has blown up in the public eye.

It’s a lesson in the perils of roster construction, which can be just as much about timing and personalities as it is a matter of talent. The Sixers went from Jimmy Butler to Ben Simmons to James Harden as their star partner with Embiid, as the chemistry became progressively more combustible as time went on. Butler is a fitting starting point for understanding the paths of these two franchises, considering how differently things could have gone if Danny Ainge made the big move.

In a clip released by the Knuckleheads pod host (and former NBA player) Quentin Richardson, Ainge opened up about the time he nearly traded the picks that turned into Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum for prime Jimmy Butler.

“Some of the best trades I ever made were the ones I wasn’t able to make,” Ainge said. “I was trying to get Jimmy Butler from Chicago when I was in Boston. But they wanted a lot, so we didn’t do it. Because it ended up, it would’ve been Jaylen and Jayson, both those draft picks we got Jaylen and Jayson with.”

Whether it was Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, or Anthony Davis, the early years of Ainge’s rebuild out of the Nets trade was defined by the endless chase for a superstar ready to win now. As the Sixers looked to draft a superteam in the making, Ainge was always on the verge of going all-in on a vet and hoping they would deliver extended prosperity. As close as he was to giving it the green light, he never did and the Celtics eventually became perennial contenders as the Jays approached their primes.

The Harden standoff serves as a reminder of why Ainge never crossed that line. Maybe if Anthony Davis’ father didn’t trash him publicly over the Isaiah Thomas trade, things would have gone differently. After all, Leonard delivered Toronto a title before heading to LA, Davis won a championship with the Lakers, and Butler has become one of the Celtics’ greatest foes in the East.

But Philadelphia’s situation doesn’t just come down to Harden being a letdown in the playoffs. Doc Rivers was fired and he still wanted out. His relationship with Morey, who has gone to bat for him more than any GM has for their star in recent memory, has shattered to a shocking degree. It’s yet another example of a player wanting out from Philadelphia after Ben Simmons, Al Horford, and Markelle Fultz before him.

The Celtics have generally been able to keep their players — aside from Kyrie Irving — bought into the program and that has given them an edge over the years. Building around Tatum and Brown meant their top players had a history with the franchise and saw it as their NBA home. It means that while their star partnership could always grow stale due to longevity, it is also rooted in a deep history together. This all keeps Boston on stable ground going forward, while the Sixers are approaching that scary terrain where the Embiid trade rumblings start permeating if he feels alone in carrying the franchise.

Yet the Celtics have their issues to sort out as well. Malcolm Brogdon and then Marcus Smart were blindsided by the Kristaps Porziņģis trade. When asked about trade rumblings in the week leading up to the deal, team sources around both players, who were granted anonymity so they could speak freely, felt confident the players weren’t going anywhere.

Meanwhile, the organization has admitted it has work to do to repair the relationship with Brogdon after the original version of the Porziņģis deal that would have sent him to the Clippers fell through. The relationship could have publicly deteriorated like we are seeing with Harden now, but Boston has prioritized bringing in players known for their professionalism for a reason.

Even when there is chaos behind closed doors, the Celtics have generally been able to keep things quiet on the outside. It’s why even when things blow up for the whole league to see, they’re able to limit the fallout and say the right things.

“I think anytime you are in a situation like that and you are in a relationship, you just have to take some small steps into it,” Joe Mazzulla said of the Brogdon situation late last month. “There is a healing process, there is a listening process and to see where we are at and where we have to get to. We’ve had some conversations as an organization but at the same time, we understand the situation that it was, and as the healing process goes on, we will move forward as well as you can.”

While getting Brogdon to buy back in might be an uphill battle, it’s at least achievable. Much like with Harden, the Celtics can’t just trade Brogdon for a mediocre return. Especially after the Smart deal, they need him.

Morey’s tenure in Philly has been marred by a Simmons holdout and now potentially one from Harden as well. He was able to come out on top the first time and certainly could do it again. The Brogdon situation is much less consequential to the future of the franchise, but it’s an important moment in Brad Stevens’ tenure.

Stevens has been aggressive in making trades throughout his time at the helm, but by moving Smart, Stevens showed he has the stomach to make the drastic business decisions it takes to win. Breaking the trust of the people you’ve supported the most is going to happen eventually when you’re in charge. It’s the hard part of the job.

Now Stevens has to navigate the consequences of this offseason and come out the other side with the trust of the locker room. Can Morey keep everyone’s trust when the player he’s attached his career to is calling him a liar? Both of these GMs have time, but they’re going to need an answer by the time training camp starts.

Morey has long embraced the purported villain role, but that doesn’t really suit Stevens. A peaceful resolution to the Brogdon situation, whether he stays or goes, will be crucial to upholding his strong reputation.

Though becoming the bad guy is inevitable in this league, the GMs who last don’t only win. They’re loved and trusted.

(Photo of James Harden and Malcolm Brogdon: Eric Hartline / USA Today)

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