The latest twist in the James Harden saga arrived Wednesday afternoon when the beleaguered point guard reported to the Philadelphia 76ers' practice facility in Camden, bags packed, ready to join the team's flight to Milwaukee for opening night.
After a 10-day hiatus to attend to a personal matter, Harden's arrival came out of the blue. The Sixers, in their fervent commitment to unearthing the most uncomfortable possible methods of handling adversity, told Harden to stay home.
One could not be blamed for likening the Sixers to a circus.
James Harden to miss Sixers' first two games after returning to team
The actual reason for Harden staying behind is not difficult to understand. He spent 10 days away from the team and out of practice. He's simply not ready to go for the game Thursday night. Nick Nurse told reporters Harden will train with G-League and two-way players to "ramp up" for the Sixers' return home. Philadelphia's first home game is Sunday, when the Portland Trail Blazers come to town.
Harden's mysterious 10-day absence was not attributed to a specific reason, only a personal matter. With the Sixers taking the All-Star guard at his word, this snafu was unavoidable. There's no way Harden, who was already behind his teammates in terms of game-play readiness, would suit up opening night after over a week off.
Still, the way this news dropped was not favorable from an optics standpoint. Harden came back with his bag backs only for, as Shams reports it, the Sixers to "ask him not to travel." ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Harden and the Sixers talked further after practice, but the plan remains. He is going to ramp up away from the team during Philadelphia's two-game road trip to open the season.
With no reports of progress made between the Sixers and the Los Angeles Clippers in trade talks, Harden could be stuck in Philly for a while. All signs, at the moment, point toward him playing basketball for the Sixers in the near future. His effort level is yet to be seen, but it wouldn't be entirely shocking for Harden — in a contract year, with no real trade market for his services — to play prove-it basketball. He was a top-20 player last season. It shouldn't take long for NBA teams to remember that if he wants to remind them.
Of course, there is also a chance Harden invokes the Houston/Brooklyn approach of playing truly terrible basketball until the Sixers can no longer bear it. Daryl Morey has a stronger resolve than those general managers, but Harden has the ability to ramp up the ickiness of this situation. Especially with a new head coach in Nick Nurse, who is trying to establish new principles.
The next update on Harden will probably come in the form of a team press release or injury report ahead of Sunday's game with the Blazers. Until then, the Sixers will face Milwaukee and Toronto without Harden to begin the season.