Here's What James Harden and Sixers Should Do This Offseason

Eric PincusFeatured Columnist IMay 6, 2022

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY - FEBRUARY 15: President of basketball operations Daryl Morey responds during a press conference at the Seventy Sixers Practice Facility on February 15, 2022 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
Tim Nwachukwu

Many around the NBA anticipate Joel Embiid to be named the Most Valuable Player, so it should be no surprise that the Philadelphia 76ers are struggling without him against the Miami Heat. 

But why isn't James Harden, the 2017-18 MVP, putting the team on his back as he did in Houston with the Rockets? Has he slipped that far? If so, why would the Sixers reinvest max money in what might be an over-30 fading star?

"Harden isn't the same guy who won the scoring title every year, but he's still a helluva player," one former Western Conference executive said. "This team [in Philadelphia] is built around Embiid. They don't have the personnel to do what James did in Houston. He's still an elite guard in this league."

Who and what Harden will be over the next few years is paramount to the future, especially as he nears a new contract. 

The Sixers need to reinvest, but not with a blank check. Harden can do whatever it takes to find the highest payday. Or he and the franchise can find a reasonable compromise that gives the team some financial flexibility while providing Harden with a sizable but not egregious new contract.

If Not Philadelphia, Where?

Harden, 32, has to decide on his $47.4 million player option before July 1. The NBA's current salary-cap projection of $122 million would typically set a max of $42.7 million for a player with Harden's years of service. But since he's earning above the league max this season, he's entitled to a 5 percent bump on his current $44.3 million to $46.5 million.

Provided he opts out, what kind of leverage would he have to push the Sixers to max him out at that figure?

Only the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs project to have notable cap space this offseason. The Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers may choose to go under the cap but may have more flexibility operating above.

The Blazers or Spurs could be near the cap space needed to start a bidding war, but there's no buzz around either team having any interest. Portland would be able to keep Anfernee Simons, but a bid on Harden would start with parting ways with Josh Hart, Jusuf Nurkic, Joe Ingles and others. San Antonio would need to let Zach Collins and Lonnie Walker IV go and then shed another approximately $7 million in salary.

When the cap climbs the following season (to about $128.1 million), a much larger pool of teams projects to have cap room. Since Harden would lose almost $1 million by opting out and may have no leverage based on the tightest market in at least a decade, it would seem that the safest bet is to opt in for his final season.

That may be why Brian Windhorst's intel on ESPN's First Take indicated that it is "extraordinarily likely" that Harden will opt in and "then negotiat[e] with the Sixers on what sort of deal it's going to be."

Taking Less for Longer

While opting in seems to be the most likely answer, should it be?

Philadelphia might want to offer a different approach similar to the Phoenix Suns with Chris Paul last summer. Paul opted out of his $44.2 million option to re-sign on a four-year, partially guaranteed $120 million contract. In doing so, Paul took a pay cut of roughly $13.4 million for 2021-22 but locked in at least $75 million in guaranteed salary over the first three years of his deal.

The Suns, with a healthier set of books, were able to invest in Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet and JaVale McGee—and presumably Deandre Ayton this offseason.

A similar compromise may be ideal for Harden and the Sixers. The franchise would reduce its 2022-23 tax bill if Harden re-signed at a $30 million starting salary for either four ($134.4 million) or five ($174 million) years. Is that enough for Harden to forgo free agency next summer? 

Harden could be eligible for a five-year $288.5 million maximum salary if he hits the market following the 2022-23 season, but will he be worth that price to any team?

The rules stipulate that Harden cannot opt out before July to then extend at a figure below his declined $47.4 million option. If earning the most money possible next season is his priority, then it's a nonstarter.

But If he can help the franchise save in luxury taxes by opting out, the Sixers may be willing to reroute that money to Harden over a lengthier new contract. Following in Paul's footsteps could lock in a realistic, long-term number, but is that the path he's willing to take?

He should, as it would give him long-term security and the Sixers more pathways toward a championship. 

Other Factors

Harden can opt in and extend (between July 6, 2022, and June 30, 2023) for up to four additional seasons with a first-season salary of $49.7 million and a four-year contract value of $228 million. He'd have to hit free agency in 2023 to be eligible for the aforementioned $288.5 million figure.

As great as Harden has been throughout his career, the Sixers should not be spending that kind of money on the aging star. It's just too limiting for a team trying to build a championship first and foremost around Embiid.

Finally, the collective bargaining agreement itself may expire after the 2022-23 campaign. Both the NBA and National Basketball Players Association can opt out of the current deal by December 15.

The Sixers (and Harden) may want to wait and see how the economic landscape evolves under a new arrangement. While there’s no reason yet to expect a substantial shift, a full understanding of any changes could lead either side down a different path. 

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.