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NBA executives have no need for a page-turning thriller to keep them entertained at the beach this summer — they’ve got the ongoing saga between shooting guard James Harden and Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey. No one is sure as of now how it might end, but the potential for something cataclysmic remains high.

“It could easily blow up,” one Western Conference executive said. “It could be a disaster.”

The conflict certainly has a soap-operatic storyline. Morey and Harden, once as close as any front-office executive and star player in the league, now appear to be staunch adversaries. They’ve been in a stand-off since late June, when Harden opted into the second year of the two-year contract he signed with the 76ers last summer that will pay him $35.6 million this season. He did so, however, with the caveat — and supposed understanding with Morey — that he would be traded, preferably to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Two weeks ago, reportedly after being informed that the 76ers planned to keep him, Harden called Morey “a liar” during a promotional tour in China for his shoe sponsor, Adidas, and said he’d never again be part of a team that included Morey. The league fined Harden $100,000 for making his desire to be traded public.

But rival scouts and executives contacted by FOX Sports were skeptical that Harden’s reason for calling Morey a liar stemmed solely from a broken promise to trade him. 

“I don’t know why he called him a liar,” one Eastern Conference GM said, “but I don’t think it’s because he didn’t trade him.”

At least one Eastern Conference executive suspected it had to do with a maximum-salary contract promised last summer, when Harden opted out of a contract that would’ve paid him $47.3 million last season for his current two-year, $68.6 million deal. Harden was supposedly willing to take $15 million less to allow the team to improve the roster — and its chance of winning — by also signing forward PJ Tucker, a Harden friend, and other pieces.

The other possibility is that Harden was told if he opted into this year’s salary of $35.6 million, he either would be rewarded with a hefty extension or a trade.

“I think Harden and Morey made a side agreement that encouraged Harden to opt in to his contract turning down his player option, and Morey agreed to either trade him or sign him to a max deal,” a Western Conference scout said. “He couldn’t find a trade, and ownership nixed a max contract. Ergo, Morey is a liar which encourages the NBA to investigate. Which gives Morey incentive to find a deal, even if it’s a s—– deal for the 76ers.”

James Harden calls Daryl Morey a ‘liar,’ says he will never play for him again | SPEAK

James Harden calls Daryl Morey a 'liar,' says he will never play for him again | SPEAK

Either way, if Morey promised Harden future compensation, it would be considered cap circumvention and a violation of league rules. 

“The problem James faces is that if he was part of a conversation that he would get a max contract down the line, he faces suspension as much as Daryl does,” the Eastern Conference executive said.

That, several executives said, is why they believe Harden told the league he called Morey “a liar” for not having his trade request fulfilled, rather than for reneging on a contract promise, which would be more likely to incur a more severe penalty.

This adversarial relationship between Harden and Morey is a striking sea change from what had been a remarkably symbiotic one. In 2007, Morey took over as the Houston Rockets’ GM, inheriting a 50-win team built around two future Hall of Famers, All-Star center Yao Ming and forward Tracy McGrady. Morey, hailed as an analytics vanguard, made 32 trades over the course of five years, but all that wheeling and dealing couldn’t stop the Rockets from devolving into a perennial lottery team after Yao’s injury-forced retirement. 

Morey went into the summer of 2012 having missed the playoffs a third consecutive year, with Kevin Martin as the team’s leading scorer and a starting lineup of Martin, Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola, Chandler Parsons and Sam Dalembert. But Harden was looking to get out of Oklahoma City, where he was sixth man of the year and a third wheel behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, eager to prove he could be a franchise player. When GM Sam Presti concluded he wouldn’t be able to re-sign Harden, Morey took advantage and struck a six-player deal that brought Harden to Houston on the eve of the 2012-13 season.

His arrival launched a run of eight consecutive playoff appearances for the Rockets and 14 consecutive All-Star appearances, seven All-NBA selections, three scoring titles, one assist title and a league MVP award for Harden. But several epic playoff collapses, by the team in general and Harden in particular, turned up the heat on both men. Morey added to the heat with a social media post supporting Hong Kong protests against the Republic of China, costing both the NBA and the Rockets several lucrative Chinese sponsorships. A year later, he stepped down and jumped to the 76ers. 

Harden then asked to be traded, hoping to rejoin Morey directly in Philadelphia, but having to settle for going to the Brooklyn Nets — temporarily. Morey eventually dealt Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks to be reunited with Harden midway through the 2021-22 season. Photos showed Morey on the tarmac, the first one to greet Harden with a handshake and a hug after he landed in Philadelphia.

That the relationship turned sour, though, should not have come as a surprise to Morey, a former Rockets player said. “It’s the trade-off with James,” he said. “Unbelievably talented as a player. But he’s never really grown up. And Daryl knows him better than anybody.”

Morey demonstrated remarkable patience two seasons ago when Simmons took a similar stand and refused to play for the Sixers, in part, after being blamed by Joel Embiid and head coach Doc Rivers for the team’s postseason failure. He allowed Simmons to sit at home until the February trade deadline, when the Nets, equally eager to be rid of Harden, came calling.

But he may not have that luxury with Harden. Calling Morey a liar in public was harsh enough, but that he did it while in China, considering Morey’s history with the country, “certainly added something to it,” the former Rockets player said.  

The possibility that Harden would expose a potential contract promise could be his leverage to getting moved to the Clippers in spite of what the 76ers have claimed they’re willing to do.   

“Harden is leveraging the issue of cap circumvention,” a Western Conference scout said. “The NBA collective bargaining agreement takes a hard line on side deals. There can be no agreements outside the four corners of the contract.”

There does not, however, appear to be a robust market for Harden. The Clippers, league sources said, aren’t opposed to acquiring him, they just aren’t interested in moving any major assets — and, in light of Harden’s history when he’s unhappy, no one else is, either. 

“All he’s doing is drawing attention to how much his value around the league has dropped,” a Western Conference team advisor said. 

‘Terrible loser intangibles’ — Skip reacts to latest with James Harden | The Skip Bayless Show

'Terrible loser intangibles' — Skip reacts to latest with James Harden | The Skip Bayless Show

“He can’t lead a team anymore, and he is bereft of the clutch gene,” the Western Conference scout said. “At best, he is the third player on a contender and the team must have a shot-blocker to accommodate his piss-poor defense. That’s not max money — $20 million to $25 million at best.”

Several executives said Harden would be best served by playing in Philadelphia this season, show how valuable he can still be and then move on next summer as a free agent, leaving the 76ers without compensation. But no one was confident that Harden would take that course.

“The most interesting thing is, what is next from a guy who has proved to be very unpredictable?” the Eastern Conference GM asked. “James has proved to be very volatile.”

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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