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If Harden opts in, could it mean Sixers prioritized future flexibility over Embiid’s prime?

Should the Sixers go all in during the next three seasons of Joel Embiid’s prime, even if it means offering James Harden a five-year deal?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly lost in an avalanche of NBA bombshell updates, De’Anthony Melton has arrived after a splash NBA Draft day trade.

Where do things stand with the Sixers now? The next massive domino to fall will be James Harden’s contract decision. He has until this coming Wednesday, June 29, to decide whether to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his 13-year career or pick up his gargantuan $47.4M salary for 2023.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

What should we expect?

Almost every reporter says Harden is likely to opt in. Jake Fischer was ahead of the curve on the scoop. Keith Pompey, Adrian Wojnarowski, Marc Stein, Kevin O’Connor echo the sentiment, and the outcome even started to feel like a mere formality... but the incentives (finding a way for Harden to take just enough of a pay cut to make room for P.J. Tucker) still have some of us wondering.

Then Stein left breadcrumbs pointing in another direction for slop-starved Sixers fans:

And Kyle Neubeck added to the mystery: “Harden is going to be back, and I think what form that takes has been and will continue to be fluid.”

Deal structure

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The most Harden can earn is north of $270M spanning five seasons.

Fischer for B/R back in mid-June reported on the potential for a Harden opt in, followed by a two-year extension in August that could potentially come out to a very specific number: “$150.8M.”

In the same report Fischer noted that ownership was reluctant to offer Harden a four- or five-year max deal. Woj mentioned a possible three-year, big-money deal, shy of a max as well.

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor said that he was told Sixers’ ownership actually wants Harden to opt in and that Morey wants it to be a three-year deal in total.

Why would ownership want Harden to opt in? We’ll get there.

Keith Pompey sounds like he’s expecting the same thing and speaks for many of us when he says “but for this upcoming season, it would be great if [Harden] said ‘I’m not gonna opt in, I’m opting out of my deal and I’m not gonna pick up that money.’ I think that would be better.”

On the same subject, Daryl Morey, speaking hypothetically after the NBA Draft, couldn’t give specifics but offered “as you guys have heard, it’s a mutual lovefest, so we feel like we’ll work it out.”

It’s a little confusing but still, lovefest is a far cry from outright acrimony:

So using a combo of Spotrac, Basketball-Reference, and Bobby Marks, the Sixers cap sheet could roughly like this in a few days:

(The more precise number comes in just below $151.7M.)

And if they wanted to use a Taxpayer’s Mid-Level exception and a vet min, maybe like....

All in for Joel Embiid’s prime or a balanced approach in case things go awry?

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The choice is The Beard’s to make, but the proverbial ball sounds like it’s in the Sixers’ court. There had already been speculation starting back in March that Harden could give Philadelphia a discount in free agency to help the roster.

“I’ll be here,” Harden said when asked about his future in Philadelphia following the team’s embarrassing home loss to Miami, ending the season. “Whatever it takes to help this team grow.”

Those words triggered a frenzy of speculation from a handful of the top reporters (Brian Windhorst, Ramona Shelburne, Woj, Zach Lowe) that Harden could take less cash and let Morey add win-now help.

By mid-May, Bryan Toporek of Forbes Sports, who’s been an invaluable resource lately, whipped fans into a frenzy when he outlined a scenario where Harden could take $10M less in the first year of a long-term deal which could allow the Sixers to sign and trade for a talent like Bradley Beal, while also finagling a $10M and $4M exception to offer a pair of free agents! His latest thoughts on the cap sheet and more realistic scenarios post-Melton dropped Monday:

So what happened to all that? And what’s going on with Michael Rubin? Just last week Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman reported Rubin was selling his 10 percent ownership stake in the team and that might, somehow, vaguely help the 76ers?

Per Weitzman:

“...according to multiple sources, the league office recently told Harris that Rubin, freed from the constraints of the league’s collective bargaining agreement and anti-tampering laws, will be able to help the Sixers more than ever.”

Woj’s update on the same news sounded similar:

“Rubin can now enter outside financial partnerships with players that were disallowed as a part-owner of the teams, an avenue that could prove beneficial to the Sixers as they work to re-sign Harden.”

So Harden’s maybe open to taking a discount on a long-term deal, yet we hear the team wants him to opt in. They have power players who might be able to help somehow, yet all Embiid is getting are assurances that when he’s 31 and Harden comes off the books they’ll have max cap space?

Can’t you hear the ESPN tirade coming?

Syndication: USA TODAY Tori Lynn Schneider / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Philadelphia 76ers, still reeling from choosing to let Jimmy Butler, who knocked them out of the playoffs, walk, and now because they have cold feet on committing long-term to Daryl Morey’s white whale James Harden, they can’t get Joel Embiid the help he needs? The runner-up MVP calls P.J. Tucker by name and you’re going to tell him what, that you can’t afford P.J. but don’t worry ‘cause when Harden comes off the books, when you’re 31, we hope to lure Brandon Ingram or Giannis Antetokounmpo to Philadelphia?! That’s your grand plan, play hard ball and prioritize the years James Harden isn’t even under contract for!?!!?!!?

We could be weeks away from one of these and we’ll wonder what they couldn’t iron out.

Guess work

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps by “willing to help” Harden meant something like: offer me a $200M plus, five-year deal where I take a big pay cut now, so you can bolster this team around Joel and I... I’m very flexible. Hell, I’ll even take $50M less than you promised you’d pay me last Feb. Pay me $37M now, $215M total through 2027. Once the cap spikes my final years won’t sting much.

And maybe Morey, on a contract himself through ‘24-‘25, actually likes that idea, who knows? He may not (currently) be quite as worried about the final two years of Harden’s career until his own future is settled.

But it’s ownership’s money and they may care a lot (and in some ways their incentives may actually align more with a fan-for-life than a GM on a short-term deal).

So perhaps ownership said something like: we’re hesitant to commit to a contract extending beyond the 2024-2025 season, as we’re expecting that cap spike you noted, when $300M salaries could become the new normal for stars. We absolutely need to be flexible for that splash summer, with Tyrese Maxey’s deal still pending, and in case your hamstrings limit you, so we want to compromise and pay you every penny you can make on a three-year max, and revisit this subject down the road. By all means, opt in it’s the least we can do.

And maybe Rubin has actually been working tirelessly to keep The Beard content on a three-year max, rather than umm...acrimoniously pursuing deals in warmer climates via UFA. Maybe the Sixers understandably reneging on hypothetical February discourse following Harden’s embarrassing playoff showing requires more than a little assuaging from an influential billionaire.

And even if Harden is a shell of himself by summer ‘25 he may still get a hefty payday on a future deal so he’s become comfy-in-coral with the compromise:

So if we learn Harden has opted in, I’d venture some very loose version of those imagined events and conversations took place.

But I would also not be surprised if things took a pivot in the final hours and Harden did opt out, granting Philly a hint of wiggle room in year-one of an eventual three-year deal. If they want Tucker, without sacrificing too much, that could really help.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If Harden opts in, will it mean the Sixers prioritized the future too much, costing the team the chance to help Embiid during his prime?

So this is our multibillion dollar question. If the Sixers could persuade Harden to opt out and take a deal that begins at $36.9M in 2023, they just might be able to open up those juicier $10 and $4M roster spots instead of their default, let’s say a $6M exception and a vet min.

Here might be an “all in for Embiid’s prime” scenario, where Harden takes a hefty cut now, but gets a long-term deal:

But in versions like this, if ownership insisted on keeping it to a three-year deal, then Harden would only make about $120M in total, nearly $30M less than in our status quo, $150.8 framework. I’m not sure they could make that worth his while, even by kicking in a coral colored New-Phila throwback.

And if the team does use their full Non-Taxpayer’s MLE on Tucker they’d be hard-capped, and that’s especially limiting during the year for a creative exec like Morey.

So if they instead pursued salary-dumping multiple players like Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton (we’ve reported they probably won’t), replacing them with Tucker and vet min players, while hard-capping themselves, they’d need to be so supremely confident that Tucker is better than Thybulle plus a dude you could get with a $6M roster spot.

After reading Jackson Frank’s top-notch Tucker break-down I’m not sure they could feel quite that confident in P.J.T.

The difference between Tucker and someone who makes $4M less than Tucker isn’t worth dumping solid role players and isn’t worth committing fourth and fifth years to Harden either.

Derek Bodner provided an indispensable analysis of the differing incentives which forecast for us how things have played out so far. I doubt Stephen A. will read it, but if he did he probably wouldn’t deliver that rant I made up.

So what’s next?

My guess is that the Sixers have worked round the clock trying to find ways to get Harden to take at least a tiny discount in year one of a three-year deal. If he’d forgo another few million bucks (beyond what he feels he’s already sacrificing) then perhaps they could unlock the MLE they’d need for Tucker without dumping multiple helpful role players. (Maybe just one?) There probably wouldn’t also then be room for that $4M Bi-Annual exception.

And while they’re working on all that, they’re probably also checking in on possible Tobias Harris deals which could make all of this even easier, regardless of Harden’s choice.

A long way of saying, it makes sense the Sixers are holding firm on a three-year deal. It doesn’t seem to me like they’re truly closing any vital doors on Embiid’s prime by doing so. But since they’re probably honing in on a three-year deal in the $140M-151M range, it could still benefit them for The Beard to opt out and make targeting Tucker (or surprise names) that much easier.