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.
Harden and Sixers leadership are aligned on one clear directive, sources said: The franchise's best opportunity to compete for a championship starring Joel Embiid, as well as Harden's optimal opportunity to earn his first NBA ring, resides with Harden playing in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future.
Sixers ownership, though, has been resistant to the idea of giving Harden a full four-year maximum contract extension beyond his 2022-23 option season, sources told B/R, or the five-year deal that Harden would be eligible for if he chose to decline his $47.4 million player option for next season. Signing perhaps a two-year extension after his option season to create a new three-year framework would also provide Harden with greater optionality for his own career.
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 Aug. 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.
To do so, the Sixers are exploring various trade scenarios revolving around the No. 23 pick, Danny Green's $10 million contract and 25-year-old wing Matisse Thybulle, sources said. To move Green, who suffered a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee during the playoffs, the Sixers would have to guarantee the $10 million on his contract for the 2022-23 campaign. The veteran two-way wing said on his Inside The Green Room podcast that he's hoping to return by the All-Star break, and Green has been adamant about that prediction in conversations with close confidants.
Philadelphia refused to part with Thybulle during the trade deadline conversations with Brooklyn that landed Harden. The Sixers are valuing him as the two-time All-Defensive team selection that he is. There's a belief that Thybulle's struggles in the postseason were perhaps due to his being in and out of the lineup in accordance with Toronto's vaccination ordinance, which made it difficult for him to get into a rhythm during home games.
For the Sixers to actually part with Thybulle, it seems Philadelphia's front office would need to find a significant upgrade to their rotation, such as a starting-level player, similar to what Andrew Wiggins has provided to the Golden State Warriors during this postseason run.
There's also a scenario where Philadelphia holds onto Green and Thybulle beyond the draft and uses the No. 23 pick on a player, or the Sixers trade down to add players or future draft capital. After sacrificing two first-rounders for Harden, Philadelphia could certainly benefit from restocking its cupboard of draft ammunition moving forward.
Tobias Harris will continue to be mentioned in trade scenarios for Philadelphia as well. The veteran swingman now has only two seasons remaining on the five-year, $180 million contract he signed in 2019. The Sixers appear more than open to Harris returning next season. He has received rave reviews from staffers for his team-first mentality and locker room presence, but the Sixers are exploring all options to improve their roster around Harden and Embiid, as well as rising combo guard Tyrese Maxey.
Should Harris remain in Philadelphia, there's an argument to be made that the soon-to-be 30-year-old would be greatly positioned to perform in a championship-contending environment ahead of his next contract, much like Wiggins in Golden State. But Harris' representation has made it known that the veteran would like more on-ball opportunities within the Sixers' offense, particularly in pick-and-roll action.
Other notes from around the NBA:
- Portland does not appear to be a legitimate landing spot for restricted free agent Deandre Ayton, sources said. The Trail Blazers are expected to retain starting center Jusuf Nurkic, and they are prioritizing Toronto Raptors swingman OG Anunoby in any return for the No. 7 pick in next week's draft, sources said. But there has been increasing talk about Portland potentially targeting the seventh selection to Oklahoma City for No. 12 and a package that could include Lu Dort.
- Ayton's most realistic landing spots outside of Phoenix appear to be Atlanta, Detroit and Toronto, which all would present intriguing sign-and-trade opportunities for the Suns. League personnel have also whispered in recent days about a potential sign-and-trade of Ayton to Indiana for Myles Turner. Turner and Ayton share the same representation.
- One early candidate to fall in the lottery: Shaedon Sharpe. After not playing at Kentucky, Sharpe has been said to underwhelm multiple teams in pre-draft workouts. His range may begin with the New Orleans Pelicans at No. 8, but Sharpe could also feasibly be the target for any team that trades with Portland for the No. 7 pick.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.