It’s an NBA tradition to make big news on the Fourth of July, but the Sixers apparently won’t be doing that this year with James Harden. During a performance on sports CenterESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the Sixers “would still love to keep [Harden] in Philadelphia for the season” after he unexpectedly picked up his $35.6 million player option last week.
“Daryl Morey, their president, he has a long history with James Harden,” Wojnarowski said. “And certainly, I think if there’s a way the summer goes to try to convince him that they can still make it work together, that he has a chance to compete for a championship.. .”
(Sorry, I blacked out from giving myself a concussion.)
Wojnarowski added that the Sixers are also talking to teams about a Harden trade, including the Los Angeles Clippers, who remain “very interested” in him. However, he said the Harden saga “could play out over the summer, there may not be a quick fix.”
Wojnarowski noted that the Sixers tried the same approach with Ben Simmons, who requested a trade during the summer of 2021 and never suited up for them again, though he remained on the roster until the following February. “But they didn’t have the relationship that this group has, especially Morey has, with Harden,” he added.
While the Sixers can hope to reconcile with Harden, it appears to be a long shot. Sources close to Harden told Sam Amick of The Athletic that he is “extremely upset with the way the Sixers handled his potential free agency and has made his displeasure clear to the organization.”
The Sixers reportedly refused to discuss contract terms with Harden before free agency officially began Friday, fearing more tampering penalties from the league office. It raised concerns on Harden’s end that they were “preparing to offer him the kind of short-term, team-friendly contract that wouldn’t come close to reflecting his stature in the league or the level of his current play,” Amick wrote.
Seeing how the opening days of free agency went should have been eye-opening for Harden. Kyrie Irving settled for a three-year, $126 million contract with Dallas Mavericks, which was nearly $30 million less than he could have received. Fred VanVleet got a maximum three-year deal from Houston Rocketsalthough the third year is reportedly a team option, according to Jackson Gatlin of Locked on rockets. These two are the only free agents who signed contracts worth $40 million or more annually.
Harden’s anger toward the Sixers may therefore be somewhat misplaced. Although he averaged 21.0 points and a league-leading 10.7 assists per game No team is likely to give him the kind of long-term max or near-max deal he’s seeking, especially given the new collective bargaining agreement’s financial restrictions on the league’s most expensive rosters.
However, it doesn’t appear that Harden is open to reconciliation just yet.
“When I essentially asked the question, ‘Is there a small percentage chance that you find a way for James to settle down, a la Kevin Durant last summer, and just get him back on the court at the start of the season ?” That door, I was told, was closed immediately,” Amick added Good word with good will podcast (h/t Liberty Ballers’ Dave Early). “The Sixers understand that’s not happening.”
The Sixers are likely issuing this message to revoke leverage in trade negotiations. If teams think he’s played his last game in Philly — like Wojnarowski originally wrote after Harden’s decision to sign up — they’ll likely try to cut a bargain on the Sixers in trade talks. It may be what is happening at the moment, which Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports reported that the Clippers “are expected to show resistance by including any prized young player, such as Terance Mann or Bones Hyland.”
If the Sixers act like they’re open to keeping Harden, that could put more pressure on the Clippers or other interested suitors to increase their offers. Granted, other teams could try to call their bluff given Harden’s history of apathy when he wants to force himself away from a team. Do the Sixers really want to begin the Nick Nurse era with a Harden circus during training camp?
Meanwhile, the uncertainty surrounding Harden’s future could affect the rest of their offseason business. The Sixers signed Patrick Beverley to a one-year, $3.2 million veteran-minimum contract, but they’ve already lost Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton in free agency, and most of the top targets are now off the table. “Run it back with a worst supporting cast” seems like a cool strategy, especially when other contenders around the East have made notable upgrades this offseason.
Until they resolve the Harden saga one way or another, the Sixers likely won’t make a big free-agent move. It’s hard to sell players on joining a team when they aren’t sure who else will be there or what their roles will be. The Sixers may also not want to use their mid-level exception for now, as they would be limited to the first $172.3 million cap if they use the non-taxpayer MLE and the second $182.8 million cap if they using the taxpayers. MLE.
If the Sixers convince Harden to amicably return and re-sign Reed, they will still have their top seven players from last year’s team. Add in Beverley and a few other free-agent signings to round out their bench, and they might not be significantly worse than they were last year. The upgrade from Doc Rivers to Nurse cannot be ruled out either.
However, that may be wishful thinking. Based on Amick’s reporting, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before the Sixers ship Harden elsewhere.