Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

Sixers guard James Harden declined his player option just after Wednesday’s 5 PM, Eastern time, deadline. His intention is to take less money to return to the team as a free agent.

The momentum favored Harden picking up the $47,366,760 option and signing a 2-year extension off of that 2022-23 salary for weeks. But in recent days, reports from the NBA’s leading insiders suggested otherwise. Momentum began to build toward Harden declining his option to help facilitate sufficient moves ancillary to Philadelphia’s core.

Bleacher Report insider Jake Fischer reported earlier on Wednesday that the league’s salary cap is projected to increase beyond previous estimates, adding to the benefit of Harden’s decision. According to Fischer, the cap is expected to see a 10 percent raise from 2021-22’s figure of $112,414,000. 

That math says that the salary cap for 2022-23 projects to be roughly $123,655,400. That’s only roughly $1,655,400 above the previous estimation. But the domino effect benefits the Sixers, who are over the cap regardless.

The previous salary cap estimate for the 2022-23 season saw a tax apron of $155,668,195. Following the acquisition of De’Anthony Melton, Philadelphia sat a little less than $4 million below the apron with the assumption being that Harden was opting into the last year of his deal. In other words, the Sixers had next to no flexibility heading into the free agency craze.

In the money

The apron for 2022-23 projects to be $156,981,884 after Wednesday’s news. A little more than $1 million in space, by itself, doesn’t seem like a material difference. But, it helps change the calculus for the Sixers given the news that came next:

The magic number is $15 million. That represents a little more than the estimated total of the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level and Bi-Annual exceptions for 2022-23. The Sixers will have full access to both exceptions if they can create that space below the apron on their salary sheet.

Harden willingly accepting a double-digit pay-cut would go a tremendously long way towards paving that space below the apron. 

Finding the middle ground

Some guess-and-check math creates boundaries of $35 million and $38 million on the first year of Harden’s deal.

Harden could agree to a first-year salary of $35 million. The Sixers would have approximately $17,658,979 of space under the apron. That’s enough for both exceptions and some wiggle room to make a midseason trade without going over the apron.

Harden could agree to a first-year salary of $38 million. Philadelphia would have approximately $14,558,979 of space below the apron. That’s enough for both exceptions, but any trades the Sixers make throughout the season will likely have to match salary down to less than $200K.

But, it doesn’t really matter where the exact figure sits within that spectrum. Harden’s decision to opt out and take a discount will facilitate what has widely been reported up to this point — PJ Tucker signing in Philadelphia on the full Non-taxpayer Mid-Level exception.

Harden’s decision is admirable and speaks to character qualities that some doubted he had. There is a demographic of fans who won’t be moved by Harden’s team-first move. Regardless of your net worth or other income streams, money always talks in the end. And Harden seems prepared to put the money where his mouth is. 

He won’t and shouldn’t be pardoned from criticism if he underperforms. But, Harden’s display of selflessness should earn him a bit of equity with those who entirely soured on him after his flame-out in the 2022 playoffs.

Time (according to Kyle Neubeck, we’re looking at hours, really) will tell what the official numbers on his next contract look like. But, it all sets the Sixers up nicely to take action when free agency opens at 6 PM, Eastern time, on Thursday.


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