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James Harden doesn't want to ask the Brooklyn Nets for a trade, but he hopes that they will send him to the Philadelphia 76ers before Thursday's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Harden arrived in Brooklyn in a January 2021 blockbuster because of a trade request, after spending nine years with the Houston Rockets. He has played just 80 regular-season games with the Nets -- and just 10 alongside both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving -- and reportedly fears the public backlash that would come with asking out again. 

On Wednesday, ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported that Brooklyn and the Philadelphia 76ers were in "the deal zone" on a trade centered around Harden and Ben Simmons. On Thursday morning, Wojnarowski reported that Sixers president Daryl Morey and Nets general manager Sean Marks have not seriously discussed a deal, but that the teams are expected to talk before the deadline. On Thursday afternoon, Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes reported that the two sides had talked in the morning. 

From ESPN:

A trade may hinge on Morey's willingness to include assets, beyond exiled guard Ben Simmons, needed to convince the Nets to unload Harden against the cost of creating the salary cap space to sign Harden in summer free agency. Philadelphia could re-engage the Nets on an opt-in and trade strategy in the offseason, too.

There's risk for the Nets, too: After trading key players and draft picks to acquire Harden from the Rockets a little over a year ago, they risk keeping a disgruntled player to attempt a championship run this season -- and the specter of losing him for nothing this summer.

The Sixers have largely retreated on trade deadline deals involving Simmons until they've got clarity on their ability to include him in a deal for Harden, sources said.

Nets ownership and management want to win a championship this season and believe that a season revival awaits once [Durant returns] after the All-Star Break. Brooklyn is resigned to the possibility that Harden may want to leave, but wants his best route for a title this season and is willing to treat Harden like the Raptors did Kawhi Leonard in 2019 -- championship or bust.

There are differences between the Nets' situation with Harden and Toronto's situation with Leonard. The key players and draft picks mentioned above included Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, three first-round picks and four pick swaps for Harden, who, unlike Leonard, had multiple seasons remaining on his contract and approved of the destination. The Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and one top 20 protected pick for the most successful one-season rental in NBA history.

The similarity is that Brooklyn reportedly believes that, with Harden on the roster, it can win the title. Maybe Joe Harris will not need a second ankle surgery, and, when he and Durant get healthy, the Nets' spacing issues will be a thing of the past. Maybe they'll trade Harris -- they're exploring the market, per Windhorst -- for another difference-making role player. Maybe New York City will relax its vaccination regulations and Irving will be available to play in home games before the playoffs. Maybe, since Harden initially appeared to be all-in on this Big 3, he wouldn't leave a championship team like Leonard did. Maybe, as strange as this is, everything can still work out.

The Nets are 29-25, eighth in the Eastern Conference, severely shorthanded and on a nine-game losing streak. If Brooklyn elects to keep Harden despite his reported desire for a trade, it will illustrate the front office's belief in its talent when that talent is healthy, available and committed. But there are obvious downsides to marching forward with a disgruntled superstar who can be a free agent in July. Will Harden change his tune and ask out before 3 o'clock? Will the Sixers offer Tyrese Maxey and/or Seth Curry and/or Matisse Thybulle and/or draft compensation along with Simmons, thereby giving the Nets more incentive to break up a championship-caliber trio that has barely shared the court? These are the questions hanging over this increasingly awkward situation. With the trade rumors ongoing, 76ers coach Doc Rivers opted to cancel Thursday's team practice.

Speaking of awkward: On Instagram, Durant liked a graphic posted by The Score featuring an excerpt of ESPN's report.