In a pair of interviews Sunday, James Harden explained why he declined his $47.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season and plans to re-sign with the Sixers for far less than that.
“I had conversations with [team president Daryl Morey], and it was explained how we could get better and what the market value was for certain players. I told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over,” Harden told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. “This is how bad I want to win. I want to compete for a championship. That’s all that matters to me at this stage. I’m willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that.”
Harden echoed that notion to Beth Harris of the Associated Press.
“Taking less money this year to sign as many players as we needed to help us contend and be the last team standing was very, very important to me,” he said. “I wanted to show the organization, the Sixers fans and everybody else who supports what we’re trying to accomplish, what I’m trying to accomplish individually, that this is what I’m about.”
Had Harden opted in, the Sixers would have had $151.7 million committed to 13 players. They would have been roughly $5.3 million under the $157.0 million luxury-tax apron, which is the line that teams can’t cross at any point in a given league year if they use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($10.5 million this season), bi-annual exception ($4.1 million) or acquire a player in a sign-and-trade.
The Sixers wound up using both the non-taxpayer MLE and bi-annual exception to sign P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., respectively. Had Harden opted in, they would have needed to shed at least $5.2 million in salary to gain access to the former and an additional $4.1 million in salary, or $9.3 million in total, to have access to both.
The problem is, the Sixers didn’t have many bloated salaries to dump. Even if they had shipped out Furkan Korkmaz ($5 million), Matisse Thybulle ($4.4 million) and Georges Niang ($3.5 million) and received no salary in return, they would have replaced them with players on minimum salaries ($1.8 million). Doing so would have left them $2.0 million above the apron if they wanted to use both the non-taxpayer MLE and bi-annual exception, which would not be allowed.
Had Harden opted in, their only realistic pathway to get both the non-taxpayer MLE and bi-annual exception would have been a Tobias Harris trade in which they took back significantly less salary. Otherwise, they would have been limited to the $6.5 million taxpayer mid-level exception and veteran-minimum salaries to round out their roster.
Had the Sixers not cleared enough room under the apron to gain access to the full non-taxpayer MLE, it might have cost them a shot at Tucker. According to Alex Schiffer of The Athletic, the Atlanta Hawks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls were all prepared to offer him the full non-taxpayer MLE as well, while the Sixers would have been limited to a three-year, $20.4 million offer at most with the taxpayer MLE.
The Sixers could have offered House the same two-year, $8.5 million contract with a portion of their taxpayer MLE, but they would have had only $2.4 million left over to offer to another player. It’s unclear whom they might have been able to lure with that amount of money, especially since it wouldn’t even cover the full cost of a minimum contract for anyone with seven or more years of NBA experience.
“I think we have a much deeper team,” Harden told Haynes. “That’s something we wanted to address. If you look at our team now, we’re positioned to go a lot further. I like how we stack up with the rest of the top teams.”
Harden also spoke with both Haynes and Harris about his mental and physical state at this point of the offseason. He made it sound as though he’s over the lingering hamstring injury that hampered him throughout the 2021-22 campaign in both Brooklyn and Philly.
“I wasn’t able to get in my spots and get to where I needed to get to without thinking about it, so that right there slowed my confidence down,” he told Harris. “It was craziness, but I’m finally back. I’ll be a lot more aggressive scoring-wise just because my body allows me to.
“Coming back and being the aggressor, the scorer first and then the playmaker, is something that I need for myself,” he added.
If the Harden of old makes his triumphant return next season, the Sixers might have two legitimate MVP candidates on their roster. That could help them earn their first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals since the 2000-01 season.
In the meantime, Sixers fans have Harden’s sacrifice to thank for the additions of Tucker and House this offseason.