James Harden’s future with the franchise is the most pressing issue facing the Philadelphia 76ers this offseason. Harden, 32, has a $47 million player option for next season that he could pick up, and he’s also, so there are several ways that his future in Philadelphia could play out financially.
The Sixers could sign Harden to an extension just to trade him — also known as a sign-and-trade. Or, the team could cut ties completely, if he turns down his existing option. Neither of those options seems especially likely, though, given Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s affinity for Harden, and the steep price they paid to acquire him. When the Sixers traded for Harden in February, the plan was to keep him in a Sixers uniform long-term, and that hasn’t changed, according to Morey.
“That’s the plan is to have him back. That’s been the plan since the trade,” Morey said of Harden following Philadelphia’s postseason loss to Miami. “Obviously, we have to work with his representation and that’ll be between us to figure out how that works… He’s an incredibly talented player just like Joel [Embiid], just like Tobias [Harris], and I’m excited for Doc [Rivers] and his staff to have a whole offseason, work with the players, and come up with the best plan for the roster.”
So, assuming the Sixers plan to hold on to Harden, they still have a couple of options, depending on what he decides to do regarding his option. If he opts in to the option, the Sixers could add additional years after the ’22-23 season with an extension, or they could give him an entirely new deal if he declines the option. However, the best-case scenario for the Sixers would probably be if Harden simply opted into his option and delayed an extension until next offseason.
Given his performance during the postseason, the Sixers should have some reservations regarding Harden’s long-term outlook as an impactful player. He’s still extremely effective as a playmaker and a floor-spacer, but he doesn’t appear to be the same lethal scorer that he once was when he was a perennial MVP candidate as a member of the Houston Rockets. That Harden would command a maximum extension, no questions asked. With the current version of Harden, it’s not so clear-cut.
If Harden were to opt-in and delay an extension, it would give the Sixers an opportunity to see how he looks physically after an entire offseason of training. After all, he was dealing with the hamstring injury that he suffered as a member of the Brooklyn Nets throughout last offseason, so he admittedly didn’t get as much of an opportunity to train at a high level as he would have liked.
“I’ve been trying to get right through the course of a basketball season for two years straight,” Harden said after the Sixers were eliminated from the playoffs by the Miami Heat. “And it’s like, that’s not it. You know what I mean? All last summer I was rehabbing. It was a little frustrating because I’m not used to going through something like that, but it is what it is. I’m just happy to be healthy now. I’ve got a full summer to be straight and do the things necessary to come back even better next year.”
Additionally, in that scenario, the Sixers would have a [much] larger sample size to judge how well Harden fits alongside Joel Embiid. The early returns on the pair were promising, especially in the pick-and-roll, but it never hurts to have a larger sample size to base a major decision on.
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Overcommitting to a player with a diminishing skill set could prove very costly for the Sixers in the long run, as it could severely limit the team’s financial flexibility. And if Harden is unable to raise the team’s collective ceiling as he advances into his mid-30s, then the Sixers would be stuck. Thus, the Sixers could protect themselves by playing out next season and waiting to commit to him long-term.
If the organization likes what they see next season, it could opt to ink Harden to a new deal at that point. Or if they don’t, they could walk away from the situation without mortgaging their future. But, while that situation would be a best-case scenario for the Sixers, Harden very likely will want the added financial security that comes with an extension as he ages in the league, especially after opting against signing an extension in both Brooklyn and Houston.
There aren’t going to be too many big paydays left for Harden, so he could look to cash in now. Eventually, the two sides might end up meeting somewhere in the middle — where Harden does get an extension, but not a max one. Perhaps the years and/or total amount will be limited. After all, Harden did say that he wouldin order to help the Sixers build out the roster around him and Embiid.
It’s tough to overstate just how important the decision regarding Harden’s financial future is for the Sixers. If executed well, Philadelphia’s championship window could remain open for the foreseeable future, but the wrong move could set the team back in a major way. What the Sixers ultimately decide to do with Harden will go a long way towards shaping the team next season, and beyond.