In many ways, the James Harden conundrum is tailor-made for this era of Sixers basketball.
A little over a year ago, Harden had a stake in the 2021 MVP conversation. One poorly managed hamstring injury later, Harden signing a max contract threatens to hamstring the franchise that offers it to him. 5 years ago, the Sixers were helmed by a 23-year-old Joel Embiid and a rookie Ben Simmons. The future was so promising; now, after a fistful of bad decisions that seemingly run together as time goes on, the Sixers are maneuvering every which way to give themselves more bites at the apple.
Both Harden and the Sixers, in their respective current states, are meant for each other. The question is, can they win a championship together?
The decisions they make this summer, in tandem or in exclusion of one another, will go a long way in determining just how realistic such a possibility is.
What are James Harden’s options? What are the Sixers options? How much money might Harden make, in Philadelphia or elsewhere?
Those are the questions to be answered in this chapter of my Sixers offseason guide.
Harden walks for nothing
It exists as the most unlikely scenario, but there is a possibility that Harden leaves the Sixers, outright, in free agency this summer. First and foremost, of course, Harden has to decline his $47,366,760 player option for the 2022-23 season to sign with another team, outright.
Should Harden go that route, the most he could command is a 4-year deal worth $200,063,443. But the likelihood of Harden finding such a max deal away from Philadelphia is small beyond the simple reason that his play this past season didn’t warrant such a significant market. As Derek Bodner noted in his commentary on the Harden situation, only the Pistons, Pacers, Spurs, Blazers, and Magic project to have cap space this summer. That doesn’t mean they’ll have enough space for a max contract, though.
None of the 29 other teams can sign Harden to a max deal, outright, should he elect free agency this summer. Of the teams that should have cap space, none offer a clear fit or an immediate path to contention to make signing a contract significantly below the max worth Harden’s while.
We can also look at this from the perspective of those teams with cap space. All five will select in the lottery of the 2022 draft. Given the immediate directions of those teams, what exactly does signing a soon-to-be 33-year-old James Harden do? Sure, it’s an investment that will generate some ticket and paraphernalia revenue. But as it pertains to the basketball court, the whole reason we’re even having this dialogue is that Harden appears no longer capable of being the fulcrum of a one-man offense.
Ultimately, any team that can sign Harden outright has more holes than he can plug, anyway. Signing Harden would figure to be the only significant move those cap-space teams can make, ostensibly taking them over the salary cap. At that point, the only flexibility they’d have left at their disposals would be the $5,329,000 room Mid-Level exception afforded to teams that start the offseason with cap space and make additions that take them over the cap. So, if those teams aren’t good to begin with, and they go into training camp with their 2022 draft picks, James Harden, and whomever they use the room MLE on as their offseason additions, they certainly aren’t changing their immediate trajectories.
There is something to be said for the Sixers’ side of Harden leaving as a free agent after opting out, too. As Forbes’ Bryan Toporek noted in a column on the situation, letting him walk would give Philadelphia a little less than $18 million in cap space and the Room Mid-Level exception. Should they find someone willing to take on the rest of Tobias Harris’ contract, the Sixers can open up approximately $55 million in cap space. As desirable as that sounds, though, you have to wonder whether the Sixers would get Joel Embiid to buy into yet another significant roster shuffle that leaves Tyrese Maxey as the only teammate with which he has any real pre-existing sweat equity.
The best reason the Sixers would have to let Harden walk for nothing, should he decline his player option, would be an internal belief that they can attract a premier free agent this summer. Letting him walk for nothing would bring Philadelphia under the cap. They’d have some work to do still, but that departure would have the Sixers on their way to creating a max slot for their preferred free agent target.
So, none of the teams capable of signing Harden outright are good fits for him. You could even make the case that none of the teams capable of signing Harden would even make him an offer given that signing a 33-year-old ball-dominant guard exhibiting signs of advanced aging doesn’t move their needles, either. If he knows he’s not getting anything close to his player option value in free agency, logic says Harden would simply opt in and bet on himself to rebound in 2022-23 in hopes of signing a more lucrative deal next offseason. The benefit of picking up the option goes beyond the year of inflated salary. Harden would also avoid the backlash of opting for another new home after requesting trades in back-to-back seasons.
On the Sixers’ side, they didn’t trade assets (overstated assets, at that, in this writer’s opinion) for less than half of a season of James Harden. Beyond that, there is the well-documented relationship between President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey and Harden. Morey’s bet on a young Harden restricted by a Sixth Man role in Oklahoma City catapulted him into the top tier of basketball executives. Morey’s bet also accelerated Harden’s ascension, a rise that perhaps would’ve never come behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Their relationship is forever cemented by a surprising trade consummated in the opening week of the 2012-13 season.
And thus, for reasons both financial and personal, the most unlikely outcome is that Harden signs elsewhere as an outright free agent this offseason.
If either or both parties feel that a long-term union isn’t in the cards, there is another option. Just as they did with Jimmy Butler, the Sixers could trade Harden to one of the 25 teams currently over the salary cap. Given the limitations a team acquiring Harden would face, the return market for Philadelphia, and the fact that he and the Sixers appear content with each other, it remains unlikely — albeit, more likely than a simple walk-away — that trading Harden is the final destination.
But in exploring all scenarios for both the player and the team, there are two options pertaining to trades. The downside for Harden changes based upon the scenario. A trade parter takes on relatively similar risk regardless of the path the Sixers and Harden travel. You could argue the Sixers’ downside is fixed regardless of the path taken.
Harden could pick up his option as part of a trade. That scenario poses far more risk for Harden than it does for his new team. Both the benefit and the risk increase the longer Harden waits to sign. Should he sign before 6 months pass from the time of the trade, that new contract would have to be for just 2 additional years (beyond the current opt-in year) and include raises of up to only 5%. Should Harden wait the 6 months to sign an extension with his new club, he’d be eligible for a 4-year (not including the option year) deal with annual 8% raises.
The 6-month period implies that he could stand to lose out on significant long-term income if his play continues to show advanced aging in the early months of the 2022-23 season.
The downside for his new team is that, should the two parties fail to come to an agreement on a long-term deal, Harden could decide he’s unhappy again and want to leave. Harden walking away from that next club outright is entirely feasible given that more teams are likely to have cap space in 2023, too.
In that scenario, the team to which the Sixers send him winds up with nothing in the end, or has to try to salvage trade value on a 34-year-old Harden after giving something up to get him in the first place. His new team also assumes the burden of figuring out how much money and time it wants to commit to a mercurial, sometimes-erratic featured player beyond the 2022-23 season.
In the end, Harden has more to lose in an opt-in-and-trade scenario than would his new team. His gamble on the player option could theoretically cost him hundreds of millions of dollars in future cash flow, regardless of whether or not he settles down with that new team beyond the 2022-23 season. While the worst-case scenario for his new team is that they lose Harden and whatever they gave up to get him for no long-term return, they would theoretically walk away from the relationship with a much more flexible salary sheet.
Hence, when all is said and done, Harden would have far more downside to consider in an opt-in-and-trade than would his new team.
That brings us to the other end of the spectrum, where the Sixers sign-and-trade Harden to a team that is ostensibly over the salary cap. In that scenario, Harden has to decline his player option for 2022-23. He would agree to a long-term contract with the new team as part of the trade. Because a sign-and-trade involves a departure from his current team, the most Harden could get is the 4-year max worth $200,063,443.
The downside inverts in this situation. Harden is given the security of a 4-year deal and gets the max salary that perennial All-Stars typically warrant. But, life gets substantially more complicated for his new employer.
A sign-and-trade automatically hard-caps Harden’s new club, which means they cannot exceed the $155,668,195 tax apron at any point during that new league year. If we assume that Harden signs a max deal with his new team, he’d be entitled to earn 105% of his 2021-22 salary, which was $44,310,840, in the first year of that deal. If, in practice, we assume that Harden is the only player on his new team’s roster after the sign-and-trade, simple subtraction says that that team has $109,141,813 left below the apron to fill out the rest of the roster.
Of course, they’re going to have other pieces remaining after the sign-and-trade. Those players will eat at the remaining pool of available money.
In addition to any cap space left over after the sign-and-trade, the team will still have some of the league’s built-in measures of financial flexibility at its disposal to use on free agents. But, those resources amount to the $10,349,000 Non-taxpayer Mid-Level exception and $4,050,000 Bi-Annual exception. That is, at most, $14,399,000 of league-provisioned resources (not including veteran minimum contracts, which are unlimited as long as you have the roster space) without considering the fact that that figure decreases depending on how close the roster already is to the tax apron for that league year.
If Harden’s new team is within approximately $6.3 million of or above the apron after acquiring him, they will be limited to just the $6,392,000 Taxpayer Mid-Level exception and veteran minimum contracts to fill out the rest of the roster.
The reality is that any team that engages in a sign-and-trade for Harden likely will not be able to field a roster capable of both covering up his decline and contending for much beyond a playoff berth. And with that being the ceiling, it’s hard to imagine that there are teams that both find it worth their whiles to take on a guy with a reputation for checking out at any given moment and are willing to part with assets commensurate with Harden’s value to the Sixers.
We can debate which of the opt-in-and-trade and the sign-and-trade poses more value to Harden’s market. But, the player and the money are still massive risks in either scenario. The Sixers simply are not likely to field a title-contender with the immediate return on a Harden trade in either case. And if a seismic move isn’t pushing Joel Embiid closer to a championship, it’s a dangerous bet against the superstar big man requesting a trade.
So if splitting up isn’t a direct avenue for either the Sixers or Harden to inch closer to their respective goals, that brings us to the only symbiotic outcome.
All signs pointed to this being the only outcome anyway. “I’ll be here, yeah. I’ll be here,” Harden said in the immediate aftermath of the Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat — a game in which he took just 2 shots in the entire second half — that knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs in the second round once again when asked about whether he still planned to opt into the final year of his deal and stay in Philadelphia.
“Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level,” he continued.
That’s a pretty straightforward answer; one that should’ve hushed those who believed Harden would bolt to a new employer. Of course, Harden has a recent history of verbalizing a commitment to a team, only to force his way out of the situation soon afterwards. It probably doesn’t help Sixers’ fans trusts in the situation that the last time a star ball-handler was traded to Philadelphia and expressed a desire to stay, he left for the Miami Heat in what stands as one of the three biggest “what if’s” of the Joel Embiid era.
Nonetheless, this stay in Philadelphia appears close to a lock. It just seems to be a matter of years and dollars. In Harden’s best-case scenario, he’d be in line to sign the biggest contract in NBA history this summer; and the Sixers would likely be content offering it because that contract would mean he was exactly what they had envisioned and served as a fixture in their getting past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the Iverson days.
But, that didn’t happen. And now the bearded one has a decision to make.
He must choose to pick up or decline his $47,366,760 player option for the 2022-23 season prior to June 30, according to league documents obtained by The Painted Lines. Harden must inform the Sixers of his decision by 5 P.M., Eastern time, on June 29, according to a league official.
If Harden declines the option, he is eligible for a 5-year deal worth a maximum of $269,853,016 with Philadelphia.
Because Harden has more than 10 years of NBA experience, the starting salary on that max contract would be determined in one of two ways. The first year of the contract would take up, at most, 35% of the cap; or, Harden would be eligible for a 5% raise on his salary from the 2021-22 season. Because Harden’s 2021-22 salary was larger than the figure representing 35% of the cap for the 2022-23 season would be, the 5% raise — the second method — would be used to calculate the starting salary on his next max.
With a 2021-22 salary of $44,310,840, the first year of a new max contract would pay Harden $46,526,382.
Here is how the entire contract unfolds:
|Season (age)||Annual Value|
Alternatively, Harden could pick up his option and subsequently sign a 4-year max contract worth $222,813,239. He would be eligible for annual raises of up to 8% if he signs the deal on or after August 10. If he and the Sixers agree to terms between June 30 (first hours of free agency) and August 10, Harden is only eligible for annual raises of up to 5%.
August 10 serves as the threshold date because it marks 6 months from the Sixers’ acquisition of Harden from the Nets.
If we assume the two parties wait until August 10 and agree to the full 8% annual raises, here’s how the 4-year max breaks down:
|Season (age)||Annual Value|
The salary in the first year of the max is based on a 5% raise off of the option. Years 2 through 4 are based on the maximum 8% raises off of the first year of the new contract.
- Alternatively, Harden could choose to gamble by opting into the final year of his current deal, and play without the certainty of future cashflow, with the intention of becoming a free agent in 2023. In doing that, he’d set himself up to hit free agency during an offseason in which more teams are likely to have cap space.
Given Harden’s concerning decline this past season and tendency to pack for Cancun before his team is eliminated from the playoffs, the best-case scenario for the Sixers is Harden declining his player option and re-signing for less than max money, while affording Morey the liberty to structure the years of the deal to ascend or decline according to what is most conducive to improving the team at that time.
Taking a discount
According to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, that best-case scenario may not be too far off from reality, either.
“Two weeks from the beginning of NBA free agency on June 30 at 6 p.m. ET, all signs point toward All-Star guard James Harden returning to the Philadelphia 76ers on a shorter-term contract extension, league sources told B/R,” Fischer reported on June 16.
In any scenario, Harden is expected to pick up his player option for the 2022-23 season, sources said, but the Sixers’ further financial commitment to him remains to be seen once the legal negotiating period begins. Since Philadelphia acquired Harden in a trade in mid-February, it would behoove him financially to wait until August 10 before signing an extension, more than six months after the Sixers sent Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks to Brooklyn for the 32-year-old former MVP.
Until that six-month benchmark, Philadelphia would only be allowed to offer Harden 105 percent of his 2022-23 salary in the first year of a two-year extension, followed by a 5 percent raise for the second year, for a rough total of $149.3 million through 2024-25. If Harden waits until Aug. 10 to sign his extension, he could receive an 8 percent raise on the second year of the extension, which would net him a total of $150.8 million, according to cap calculations provided to B/R. If Harden opts out, the maximum he can earn on a new three-year deal would be $150.7 million.
There has also been plenty of talk among league personnel of Harden potentially taking less than his maximum salary to amplify Philadelphia’s efforts to build a championship-contending rotation around Harden and Embiid. [Bleacher Report]
Let’s break down those dollars.
If the contract is signed before August 10, this is what Harden and the Sixers would ostensibly be looking at:
|Season (age)||Annual value|
- If the contract is signed on or after August 10, it figures to look like this:
|Season (age)||Annual value|
- The last part of that excerpt from Fischer’s report is immensely important. If we assume that Harden opts in, Philadelphia sits at $151,689,665 in salary after acquiring De’Anthony Melton on draft night. That’s a little less than $30 million over the cap, with the tax apron merely feet away.
Harden’s salary in future years is a critical variable in whether the Sixers project to have the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level and Bi-Annual exceptions, or just the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception and veteran minimum contracts in those years. If teams use the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level exception, Bi-Annual exception, or acquire players via sign-and-trade, they cannot go above the tax apron in the same league year.
- Should Harden’s deal contributes to the Sixers being within $6.4 million of or exceeding the tax apron of $155,668,195 for 2022-23, they are only entitled to use only the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception for the upcoming season. If Philadelphia can bargain it down or make other moves that give them approximately $14.5 million of space under the apron, the Sixers can use the full Non-taxpayer Mid-Level and Bi-Annual exceptions.
- Given Fischer’s report on Harden’s player option, it would seem that Morey and company will have to make some cost-cutting moves, instead of negotiating with Harden about his 2022-23 salary, to create enough space for the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level and Bi-Annual exceptions if they want to sign free agents commanding that level of money. Otherwise, they’re left with the Taxpayer Mid-Level, veteran minimums, and trades.
- Simply put, the less money Harden takes to stay in Philly, the more financial flexibility the Sixers will have at their disposal to smoothen some of the roster’s rougher edges, both now and in the long run.
I’ve preached this exhaustively — there is a ton of ground between what Harden once was and washed, the characterization people like to throw around when discussing his current state. He’s shown nothing to prove that he can get back to what he was in Houston. But, he still has the capacity to be a star-level player. You can fight that truth all you want. The reality is that his numbers, even in decline, line up with those that typically earn All-Star appearances. There’s also much still unknown about what the future holds for his battered hamstring. His ex-teammate, Chris Paul, needed more than a year to recover from hamstring problems. He has since healed, returning to All-NBA form in his late 30s. Whether Harden’s conditioning is the true issue at play is a different story. Even if we assume it is, conditioning is fixable.
- But at the end of the day, you get paid for what you did previously, not what you’re going to do in the future. And Harden’s struggles through the vast majority of his regular-season time with the Sixers and his listlessness in Games 5 and 6 of the Heat series left very bitter tastes in the mouths of everyone in Philadelphia. Morey certainly appeared at least a bit shaken by what he saw.
“We’re excited about what he can bring. Obviously, to coach’s point, a lot of this came together pretty late and a full offseason, a full training camp, a full time where everyone can learn to unlock like how good everyone can be together,” Morey said during his exit interview when asked how he evaluates Harden’s play since joining the Sixers in February.
When pressed on whether Harden is a facilitator or a scorer at this stage of his career, Morey then said, “Look, James is a great player. Like, he has the ability to score, pass. He’s a very good player. We’re excited for the future with him.”
- The indirection answers the question, folks. Morey’s indirect answer is certainly preferred over gaslighting his audience, but it’s at least telling that he didn’t deliver a confident attestation that the Sixth Man of the Year he helped turn into an MVP could rediscover the dominance he possessed not all that long ago.
- But, it’s incontestably encouraging that he’s not blinded by his own affinity for Harden. His most important player certainly didn’t appear overwhelmed by Harden’s capabilities, either.
- “I still believe we were good enough to go further and win it all. Maybe we didn’t have enough time all together to figure it out. Maybe we just weren’t good enough. But, I feel pretty confident that I’m going to get better and I’m going to come back even better and make sure that I do everything possible to accomplish what I want, ” Joel Embiid said after Game 6 against the Heat when asked if he and Harden can be the core of a championship team.
- “Obviously, I’m sure, since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden. But, that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought at times, as all of us, could’ve been more aggressive. And I’m not just talking about offensively; I’m talking about as a whole, offensively and defensively,” Embiid said after Game 6 when asked how much more the Sixers needed from Harden as a scorer.
- Embiid continued to err on the side of diplomacy when asked about projecting his future next to Harden. “Everybody’s gotta get better. It’s not just about me or him. From one through fifteen, there’s a reason why we lost to Miami. That means we all were not good enough. So, everybody just has to be better,” he remarked on how his partnership with Harden can grow into next season with a full summer to develop synergy.
- The Sixers would be wise to take a page out of how they structured the contract they gave Al Horford when negotiating the terms of Harden’s deal. In structuring it to descend, Philadelphia can soften the burden of Harden’s declining production as he gets older. The descending characterization could also forge some trade value should Embiid grow disgruntled with Harden or the marriage between the Sixers and the star guard fail.
- Ultimately, the best strategy in fitting Harden’s piece into the puzzle that is this offseason may be to work backwards. The Sixers might be best off identifying their targets to fill out the roster around the core; determining what they think those peripheral pieces are worth and what degree of flexibility they’ll need to pursue them; and then, from there, figuring out how Harden’s contract is going to be structured.
- With less than two weeks until free agency opens, we’ll soon know how the Sixers are going to play their cards.