The Philadelphia 76ers’ season ended on Sunday, as the Boston Celtics beat them 112-88. in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Celtics will now advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will face the Miami Heat, while the Sixers must now begin sorting through the wreckage of another lost season.
That starts with finding out if James Harden has a long-term future in Philly.
On Christmas Day, ESPN Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden is “seriously considering a return to the Houston Rockets in free agency” if he decides not to sign with the Sixers. Wojnarowski added that “Harden and his inner circle” have “openly weighed in on Houston in recent months,” and those rumors have only gotten louder since then.
early March, Sam Amick and Kelly Iko The Athletic confirmed that the Rockets were “widely expected” to pursue Harden if (when) he declines his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season to become a free agent. “More surprisingly, sources familiar with Harden’s perspective say he is now as serious about a possible return as he was when he left town” in a January 2021 trade to the Brooklyn Nets, they reported.
Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports recently published that many NBA figures are treating Harden’s return to Houston “as a foregone conclusion.” However, others think “it’s all leverage to hold onto the Sixers’ decision makers,” which Wojnarowski also recognized as a possibility.
After three consecutive seasons near the bottom of the NBA standings, the Rockets they made it clear that they are ready to accelerate their rebuild and get back to the playoffs. Armed with a high league 64.2 million dollars in the projected salary cap space this offseason, the Rockets have enough room to fit Harden to a max deal that starts at $46.9 million without having to negotiate a sign-and-trade with the Sixers.
Losing Harden to the Rockets in free agency would be a devastating setback for the Sixers, who acquired him last February for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two future first-round picks. They already have $117.1 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season, so they won’t have enough salary cap space to adequately replace him if he walks.
With Paul Reed (restricted), Shake Milton, Georges Niang and trade deadline acquisition Jalen McDaniels also set to become free agents, the Sixers will likely operate as a multi-play team this offseason regardless of Harden decide do. If Harden leaves, they would be limited to the $12.2 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception as their primary way to sign an impact player in free agency.
Harden led the NBA this season with 10.7 assists per game, along with 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.8 three-pointers and 1.2 steals. He’s the main reason why Joel Embiid averaged 33.1 points per game in the league en route to his first MVP award. There isn’t another player like him who would be a free agent this summer, especially one who would settle for an annual salary in the low-teens.
Since the Sixers have the rights to Harden’s Bird, they would typically be able to offer one more year on his contract than any other team. However, the rule for those over 38 years old it limits them to offer no more than the value of four years’ maximum work spread over four or five years. In other words, their max offer is around $210.1 million, while other teams can offer him a four-year contract worth $201.4 million. Only Texas’ lack of state income tax could help Harden make up the difference between signing with the Rockets and re-signing with the Sixers.
If Harden intends to sign with the Rockets and they are willing to offer him a four-year max contract, there may be nothing the Sixers can do. The Rockets probably won’t agree to a sign and trade either. If they hope to package some of their young lottery picks for another star, like Fischer recently published, they will need larger food contracts to pay salaries. (The circumstances surrounding Daryl Morey’s departure from Houston may not prompt Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta to rush to help him out of the doldrums.)
However, if the Rockets aren’t willing to give Harden a four-year max deal, the Sixers could significantly outbid them. However, they will have to consider the draconian penalties for expensive teams under the new collective bargaining agreement when weighing how much to offer Harden this summer.
The new CBA introduces a second salary cap apron set at $17.5 million above the luxury tax cap. Starting this offseason, teams above that threshold will not have access to the mid-level taxpayer exemption and will be limited to returning no more than 110 percent of the salary they send in any trade. Next summer, they will be limited in terms of draft picks they can trade, unable to aggregate salary for a higher-paid player in a trade, unable to send cash in trades or “acquire players under existing contracts by signing and trading their own free agents,” it said. Yossi Gozlan by HoopsHype.
If the Sixers sign Harden to a max contract, they would be over the luxury tax threshold with only eight players under contract. Once they re-sign Reed, Milton, Niang and McDaniels and round out the rest of their roster, they will likely be above the second apron, which would limit the trades they could make around Harden, Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.
Unless Harden is willing to stay in Philly on another friendly deal like he did last year, there may not be an easy answer for the Sixers in these negotiations. He was a huge factor in their success this past season and nearly carried them in Games 1 and 4 against the Celtics, but he also shot at or below 25 percent overall in five playoff games.
With Harden turning 34 in May, it’s reasonable to wonder how he will view the end of a contract that would see him make nearly $60 million in the final year. If teams become more reluctant to hand out huge contracts under the new CBA for fear of a second apron, the final year or two of Harden’s contract could come back to haunt the Sixers.
Then again, it might as well let Harden walk. They might be able to land another star in 2024 after Tobias Harris’ big contract expires, but in the meantime, they’d be risking a down year during Embiid’s prime. It’s fair to wonder how much patience he would have with the new tool if the Sixers couldn’t find an adequate replacement for Harden in the next year.
The rest of the Sixers’ offseason direction will likely hinge directly on Harden’s decision. How they deal with the fallout from that decision either way will determine whether they stay in the championship hunt next season or take a step back.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via NBA.com, PBPStats, Glass cleaning or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotter or RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.
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