Watch out for the Kawhi Leonard scenario with James Harden. Is there a fair deal?

Daryl Morey’s only lever is the impression that he is already dying.

The Sixers won’t be able to compete with the Celtics or Heat and probably not the Bucks. It makes no difference to them if they trade James Harden or not. Worse comes to worst, he gets $35 million and they get his salary off the books. Anyone who wants it to happen a year early will have to pay for the privilege.

The longer it goes without that happening, the more leverage Morey has. Harden is getting closer to the point where it’s worth playing for someone over no one. The Sixers are getting closer to the point where he is officially a sunk cost. Everyone else is getting closer to a point where they are the team they are instead of the team they could be with Harden.

That’s the Sixers’ leverage. That is the reason to hope that the current debacle will end in positive value. That is not much. But it’s something.

Chances are the outcome is already decided. Morey may not be ready to admit it. The mystery team might not be ready to admit it. But there’s a pretty good chance that everyone on both sides knows what’s going to happen. Sixers will insist on Terrence Mann. The Clippers will insist he will not be traded. Both teams will know there is a deal that will get a deal done: Norman Powell, another kind of inflated salary, some kind of draft compensation. The Sixers walk away with a player who isn’t that good, but who makes them better than they would be if they signed Harden for anything else, plus something for their trouble. The Clippers walk away with a chance to make the last half-decade worthwhile.

YOLO, as the kids say.

»READ MORE: James Harden needs a look in the mirror. But he gave the Sixers one out.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend the obvious doesn’t end up happening. There’s a price where the Sixers are just as comfortable letting Harden rot on the vine for a year than giving him away. There’s also a price where Harden is just as comfortable spending a year in a city where he doesn’t want to play for a team he doesn’t want to play for.

It’s the Kawhi Leonard scenario.

In many negotiations, there comes a point where it makes sense for both parties to do something that would have made no sense at an earlier point in the negotiations. For Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, that point came in July 2018, about a month after the then-Spurs star asked to leave San Antonio. Conventional wisdom said Leonard would end up with the Clippers or Lakers. He was determined to play in his hometown of Los Angeles. He was one year away from free agency. But in the end, the Spurs held his rights.

It was a fascinating case study for game theory enthusiasts. The more predetermined an outcome appears, the less traction there is towards an agreement. Why would the Clippers (or Lakers) sacrifice anything of value if Leonard was going to play for them anyway?

Enter the Raptors.

Toronto was not a destination team. Pretty much the opposite of that. But Toronto had the ability to offer the Spurs a deal that made the most sense for both sides: Leonard and defensive stalwart Danny Green for All-Star scorer DeMar DeRozan, starting center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick. Not only did the Spurs go 48-34 the next year, they later included DeRozan and Poeltl in deals that gave them a total of three future first-round picks.

It all worked out.

Leonard ended up spending a year in Toronto and winning a championship with the Raptors, though both sides went into the arrangement acknowledging they would be perfectly content if it only lasted one year. The Raptors have been competitive since Leonard left. The Spurs missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, but ended up with an (allegedly) transcendental prospect plus a young base of talent despite never fully embracing the idea. They also have a potential six first-round draft picks over the next two years, and more in future drafts.

The Sixers are in a place that reminds me of where the Spurs were with Leonard. It’s not quite the same. Leonard had more incentive to play somewhere, anywhere in 2018-19 because he barely played the year before. He needed to show that he was healthy and worthy. He did that and more. With Harden, there is much less mystery. He has shown who he is, for better or for worse. He has a lot more wiggle room up front, as if he wanted to sit out a season rather than play in a less-than-ideal situation. At the same time, there really isn’t an ideal situation for him right now.

»READ MORE: Damian Lillard would be a good fit for the Sixers, but not if he doesn’t want to play here

Wherever Harden goes, he will go there, mostly because he doesn’t want to be where he is. That’s why the opt-in was so strange: he’s essentially taking the same year off that the Sixers will likely be forced to take now that he’s leaving. Everyone is in a holding pattern.

It is interesting. The only thing you can pretty much rule out in a situation like this is Harden returning to the Sixers. There comes a point where everything else is on the table.

Take the 2023 Spurs, for example: they have enough first-round picks over the next two years that they’ll likely end up wasting some. They’re also the (alleged) most transcendental draft pick since LeBron James, plus an exciting base of young talent, plus a 74-year-old coach who isn’t getting any younger, plus $30+ million in cap room. They also happen to be close to Houston, if that really matters to Harden.

Or take the Timberwolves, who could easily talk themselves into a one-year championship window if they paired Harden with Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert while trading away Karl-Anthony Towns for additional pieces.

Could the Pelicans fool themselves into thinking a Harden deal makes sense?

In terms of probability, I don’t think any of this will happen. Conventional wisdom exists for a reason. The Rockets, Clippers and Suns have always been the three teams that make the most sense beyond the Sixers. The point is, these teams don’t make enough sense for a deal to happen yet. And that creates room for something unforeseen to happen.

It’s already clear the Sixers won’t win in the offseason, with Damian Lillard potentially ending up in Miami and the Celtics acquiring Kristaps Porzingis. They can easily get to the point where their biggest lever is that they have nothing left to lose.

» READ MORE: James Harden deal for dummies: What option means, what Sixers can expect in trade and more

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