The James Harden situation has made many of you reading this roll your eyes over and over and over. And yet, as Sixers fans, there’s this morbid curiosity we occasionally feel compelling us to make sense of everything that went down.
This time we’re rounding up some of the speculations about what type of offer (if any) the Sixers would have made to Harden had the former MVP opted out to hit unrestricted free agency, instead of what he did which was opting into his one-year, $35.64M player option while requesting a trade to the Clippers, after the Houston Rockets set their sights on Fred VanVleet instead.
Apparently, the Sixers chose to obey the now-defunct anti-tampering rules forbidding them from communicating with their top free agent, and that led to Harden’s decision.
The way things have played out, the Sixers got the second-most votes among league insiders for worst offseason in the league. And that was before Milwaukee and Boston both made major strides via trade adding Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday, respectively.
Mr. Troel himself directed his arrow at them:
This off-season was fun lmao— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) October 1, 2023
And on media day, Embiid said all of the right things but appears to have left them with one mildly ominous warning: “There should never be any lost seasons and I hope that they understand that and I think they understand that so like I said, the goal is to win a championship every single year. We should always do whatever it takes to put us in that situation.”
So no gap years guys, got that?! Joel has spoken.
Like I said, this is roundup is for the depraved, morbidly curious fans only.
Let’s start with HoopsHype. According to HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto, back on Aug. 5:
“Some with the Sixers were a little bit surprised James Harden opted into the final year of his player option. To my understanding, the best the Sixers would’ve considered was something along the lines of a two-year deal, which would’ve included a team option, and that type of short-term commitment wasn’t going to appeal to Harden.”
A team option, from Harden’s point of view, is really just a one-year deal. But James certainly couldn’t bank on the team picking up said option for 2024-2025. If he really balled out this season, positioning himself for a big-time multiyear deal, Philadelphia would be glad they didn’t have to offer one and simply exercise that option — that is, if they couldn’t upgrade on the open market, splurging on a player like say Toronto’s OG Anunoby.
So Harden would have obviously been wise to opt in rather than face the type of offer Scotto’s intel hints at.
But now we have a difference of opinion on the issue from another pod.
Windy and Bontemps
The duo of Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps seemed to feel the Sixers, had Harden opted out, would have offered substantially more than Scotto’s version above.
This nugget came from “Brian Windhorst & the Hoop Collective” pod, from Aug. 14:
Brian Windhorst: “I think Philly wanted to keep [Harden], they just didn’t want to give him a five-year max.”
Tim Bontemps: “Here’s the other part, we don’t know what Philadelphia woulda done because he opted in. If he had opted out of his contract and become a free agent the Sixers didn’t have a choice really. They had him sitting there they probably would’ve had to come to some sort of a long-term agreement or longish term agreement with him if he wanted to make one....
Windhorst: “....Is it unreasonable to think Harden couldn’t have gotten that (something similar to Kyrie Irving’s three-year $126M deal)?”
Bontemps: “Absolutely not. Absolutely, totally reasonable. Philly was gonna be over a barrel, if he had opted out, he would have had the leverage. Him opting in, and all of the stuff that’s happened, him opting in, is the thing that doesn’t really make any sense. ‘Cause then he seizes all control in the situation to the Sixers.”
Windy and Bontempts sound like they think the Sixers might have offered Harden some type of two-plus-one, where he gets essentially a three-year max like Kyrie Irving received from the Dallas Mavericks.
I don’t understand why, with the Rockets out of the picture, Harden would have had the Sixers over any barrels. In that instance, Morey could have “lowballed” James (something in the $23M-$28M range, possibly seeking to skirt the luxury tax and open up a larger MLE) and still dared him to walk for another contending team’s mid-level exception in the $5M range.
But if Windy and Tim are right, and the Sixers wanted to offer Harden basically a three-year two-plus-one, somewhere near $100-125M, maybe it would have been sufficient to get him to sign and feel content *enough* to play hard this season.
But it would have wiped out their 2024 cap space optionality dreams.
In this case, if getting James signed to a three-year deal was the Sixers' intention and first priority, then they realllly messed up by obeying the tampering rules to the letter of the law.
But I don’t buy that idea as we’ll look at.
Zach Lowe and Ramona Shelburne
Next to weigh in on the subject was ESPN Senior Writer, Zach Lowe.
Lowe hosted ESPN capologist Bobby Marks back on Sept. 5 on The Lowe Post pod:
Lowe: “[Had Harden opted out]... I think [the 76ers] were gonna offer him a good, something good and big. I don’t know if it would’ve been as long as he would’ve wanted or as much as he would have wanted but there was gonna be something....”
It sounds like Lowe would guess they’d have offered significantly less than the three-year max the Hoop Collective group speculated about. But he might guess something significantly more than what Scotto’s intel suggests since a one-year team option wouldn’t fit both “good and big.”
If Sixers want to contend this year they need Harden. If they want to make a big splash in free agency, they can’t have him under contract. Moralizing and gossip aside, the only path to both involves alienating him and convincing him to get over it— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) September 7, 2023
Now we’ll fast forward to Sept. 15, when Lowe hosts ESPN Senior Writer, Ramona Shelburne.
“Lowe: ....and boy had James Harden just waited until then an offer of some kind — not what he wanted, probably shorter, maybe not as much financially, but there was gonna be something coming — so my question to you is what did the Sixers think they were accomplishing, by essentially obeying the rules of free agency and “ghosting Harden?” And was it really just the fear of a second tampering charge ‘like if we do this again the hammer is coming,’ do you buy that as a real, as the real reason or was there some negotiating strategy that they were doing by doing that, maybe it really is just like if we get caught doing this again, it’s gonna be a first-round pick this time?”
Shelburne: “Yeah, I buy it. I think both things can be true, right? Like there’s always ways to get information to somebody. You and I both know they weren’t giving him a max. He knew it. He wasn’t getting another max there, so why would you have a little birdie go whisper in James’ ear something. There’s a way that you can pass that information in if you need to and it’s not tampering, there’s always covert methods, right? I’m sure people are well familiar with those. He wasn’t gonna like what he was going to hear no matter what, so there’s no hurry to tell him that and get into that. And also I do buy the tampering thing, I really do. I think that the NBA was very clear with them and in this situation because it was so hot last year they really did have to be careful…..
So Shelburne sounds like she thinks that the Sixers really did fear the tampering penalties, buuuut that it was also a convenient negotiating ploy that improved the chances they got an outcome like this one — where Harden is disgruntled but on a short-term deal, preserving financial optionality moving forward. Because, as she makes clear, we all know they could have easily gotten a message to James while still avoiding any tampering paper trails.
Finally, Yaron Weitzman of FoxSports wrote a story with more intel on this fuzzy subject.
A few key quotes from this excellent story:
“Morey wanted Harden back, but not on a four-year, max deal, according to people familiar with the Sixers’ thinking. He and the organization as a whole agreed that such a deal could not be offered....
The plan, one person familiar with the team’s thinking has since insisted, was to “be at Harden’s doorstep” the moment free agency officially opened to discuss a future contract.”
“....Would they have taken such a stance [avoiding even impossible-to-trace tampering] if they believed the Rockets — or another team — were pursuing Harden in free agency? Even in private, the Sixers insist this was not a negotiation tactic, not that they would admit it if it was.”
It sounds like the Sixers are denying what Shelburne hinted at last month, that obeying tampering rules did serve in part, a negotiating purpose. Perhaps Harden opting in, was their first choice and they felt not engaging with him simply increased the odds he would do so; even if he did simultaneously demand a trade. Hey, at least we’ll get something!
“No, they maintain, what angered Harden the most, what hurt him the most, was that Sixers never actually made clear that they wanted him back. Harden’s position now is that if Morey had treated him and their shared history with the respect he and it deserves, especially considering the pay cut he took just one year earlier, a compromise of a deal could have been reached. It’s just that with Houston out of the picture, they say, Morey spotted an opportunity to apply some leverage and couldn’t help himself.
The Sixers, not surprisingly, see things differently, according to people familiar with their thinking. They most certainly did want Harden back, they’ve said, and planned on making Harden feel wanted — but only after 6 p.m. ET on June 30, when free agency officially began, and not by handing him a blank check.
The move stunned the Sixers. They knew Harden might grumble at their negotiation tactics, but never expected him to opt into the final year of his contract. And why did Harden pick up his option if he no longer wanted to play for the Sixers?”
That sourced intel about Harden received the proper respect implies he was thinking something like bruh, you don’t even tamper with ME? Get out of here with that shady ploy, pretending you were worried about losing more picks. I’m your guy!
By the way, the more you read, the more this idea the Sixers were “stunned” or “surprised” he opted in sounds like pure damage control.
Of course, they could have reasonably predicted he might opt in but be furious while they were “ghosting” him before FA, lol. If they were truly stunned, they should immediately hire a few of us Liberty Ballers writers, our Slack chat back in mid-June would have come in especially in handy.
It’s just my opinion, but I’m supremely confident of one thing: if this had been Joel Embiid, Morey certainly wouldn’t have feared the anti-tampering rules to the degree they’d let their reigning MVP wonder about his future feeling unwanted. They, like 29 other teams, would have found some way to “send the damn raven.”
If Scotto is right, and the Sixers had little interest in offering any sort of deal beyond one-season, (any two or three-year deal would have wiped away their current 2024 cap space dream) than the Sixers' decision to obey the letter of the tampering laws makes perfect sense.
Simply go silent in the days leading up to his decision, conveniently/simultaneously dodging the vicious tampering penalties, and pray he opts in so you don’t have to go to the negotiating table and risk locking yourself into a huge deal with an aging guard who may want a much, much bigger slice of the pie than he handled last season under Doc Rivers.
But if the Hoop Collective group is right, and the Sixers were truly prepared to offer Harden something like ~$125M over three seasons, then going silent on Harden looks like a “process” mistake; because obviously, a big splash next summer could wind up looking better than having Harden on a massive three-year deal.
Want my hunch? Aside from highly improbable scenarios where Harden accepts MLE-like terms, I bet the Sixers were hoping for an outcome like the one they got, even if they would have pivoted to offering Harden longer deals had he opted out. And no, they were never stunned or surprised about any of it.