In an epic Friday night news dump, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the NBA has opened an investigation into the Sixers “for possible tampering” in the wake of their free-agency moves.
“One of the central elements of the league’s probe includes questions on Harden’s decision to decline a $47 million player option for 2022-23 and take a pay cut on a new two-year, $68 million deal,” Wojnarowski added. “Around the league, there have been questions about whether there’s already a handshake agreement in place on a future contract—which would be in violation of collective bargaining rules.”
To which the Sixers should reply:
If Tucker was the primary tampering complaint, that would be one thing. Team officials aren’t allowed to have contact with free agents or their representatives before free agency begins at 6 p.m. on June 30, yet Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported a full week-and-a-half earlier that the Sixers planned to offer Tucker a three-year, $30 million contract. Two days before free agency began, Pompey added that Tucker was expected to sign with the Sixers.
There was just one problem: If Harden picked up his $47.4 million player option, the Sixers wouldn’t have enough space under the luxury-tax apron to offer Tucker that contract.
After their draft-night acquisition of De’Anthony Melton, the Sixers would have had roughly $151.7 million committed to 13 players if Harden opted in. Although the salary cap and luxury-tax threshold both came in slightly higher than expected—nearly $123.7 million and $150.3 million rather than $122 million and $149 million, respectively—they would have been only $5.3 million below the apron. That means the Sixers would have needed to shed $5.2 million to gain access to the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which they used to sign to Tucker) and an additional $4.1 million to get access to the bi-annual exception (which they used on House).
None of this was hard to foresee. In the weeks leading up to free agency, it was clear that Harden opting out and re-signing for less than his max salary would give the Sixers more financial flexibility to round out their roster. Otherwise, they would have been limited to the $6.5 million taxpayer mid-level exception, which likely would have taken them out of the running for Tucker.
In mid-July, Harden explained that he declined his player option and took $14.4 million less for next season specifically so the Sixers could add more help around him and Joel Embiid.
“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,” he 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.”
Perhaps the Sixers implied to Harden that they’ll give him a max contract next summer if he has a bounce-back year in 2022-23, but he’s a 10-time All-Star and a former league MVP. That implication likely goes without saying. The number of years on his next contract is what matters the most. And given how hard the league cracked down on the Minnesota Timberwolves for Joe Smith back in the day, there’s little chance the Sixers formalized such an agreement. (If they did, they deserve every bad thing coming their way.)
Even if the Sixers do plan to max Harden out after this year, they still can’t make up for the $14.4 million he gave up this season. Based on the current $133 million cap projection for 2023-24, Harden’s max salary next summer will be $46.55 million, which is still less than the player option he turned down this year. Had Harden picked up his option, his max salary next summer would have been north of $49.7 million.
Harden went to the Western Conference Finals with both Tucker and House in 2017-18 with the Houston Rockets. It’s entirely feasible that he was willing to take a sizable pay cut to bring in both of them and maximize his chances of finally winning a championship. Besides, with nearly $270 million in career earnings and an additional $30 million in endorsements this year alone, per Forbes, Harden isn’t exactly hurting for money.
While team officials can’t legally contact free agents, there was nothing stopping Harden from recruiting Tucker and House on his own. Even though it’s technically prohibited, the league hasn’t dared to wade into investigating player-to-player tampering. (DeMar DeRozan had two in-person meetings with LeBron James before free agency began last summer, according to Bill Oram, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic.)
Even if the Sixers did tamper with Tucker and/or House, they certainly weren’t the only team to touch base with a free agent before June 30. Charania reported the Denver Nuggets reached an agreement with DeAndre Jordan right when free agency began (which remains hilarious, by the way). Are we to believe that the Nuggets reached out to Jordan’s agent, agreed to terms and leaked the news to Charania all within the first 60 seconds free agency? What about Malik Monk, whom Charania also reported was “finalizing a deal” with the Sacramento Kings at 6 p.m. on the dot?
Meanwhile, the New York Knicks’ pursuit of Jalen Brunson was one of the NBA’s worst-kept secrets in the days leading up to free agency.
“Actual negotiations aren’t supposed to start until after 6 p.m. ET on Thursday evening, but league sources say there was a growing sense of surrender in Dallas on Tuesday to the idea that Brunson indeed wants all those opportunities in New York — essentially that he wants to be a Knick,” Substack’s Marc Stein reported on June 28.
The NBA has docked a few teams for tampering in recent years—the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls in particular—but all three were for sign-and-trades announced either before free agency began or shortly thereafter. The league stripped all three teams of second-round picks for those respective infractions.
If it begins more stringent enforcement of any tampering with soon-to-be free agents, the NBA draft will only be one round from here on out. Good luck finding a team that doesn’t tamper! (Former Memphis Grizzlies executive John Hollinger has heavily implied as much during his tenure at The Athletic.)
Luckily, the worst-case scenario for the Sixers isn’t all that bad. If the league finds them guilty, it will likely take away their 2023 second-round pick, which figures to end up in the mid-to-low 50s. The Sixers are also owed the most favorable second-round pick from the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets or Brooklyn Nets, so they still should have one second-rounder either way.
If the league does penalize the Sixers, it should also investigate any other team whose signings leaked either before free agency or right after it began. (Especially the Nuggets, because docking them for a second-round pick for signing DeAndre Jordan would be comedy gold.)
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.