The Sixers are facing a team-defining decision in the next few weeks. James Harden is set to become an unrestricted free agent if (when) he declines his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season, and his reported interest in a return to the Houston Rockets has been arguably the NBA’s worst-kept secret this year.
If Harden is using the Rockets just to leverage the Sixers into paying him more money, as some around the league suspect, they might be able to get him back on a multi-year, below-max contract. But if he’s legitimately interested in returning to Houston, the Sixers might be forced to offer him a four-year max or near-max deal.
If Harden does head back to Houston, it might be a death blow to this iteration of the Sixers.
Even without factoring in Harden’s next contract, the Sixers already have $117.1 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season against a projected $134 million salary cap. They aren’t likely to have any salary-cap space unless they let all four of Paul Reed (restricted), Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Jalen McDaniels walk in free agency as well. They’d be far better off operating as an over-the-cap team by keeping all of those cap holds on their books, which would give them access to the $12.2 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception.
The Sixers aren’t likely to find anyone who could replace Harden’s league-high 10.7 assists per game last season for an annual salary in the low teens. Russell Westbrook might be the lone exception, but team president Daryl Morey has already been down that road before. Fred VanVleet would make sense as a priority target, but he figures to land more than double what the Sixers can offer per year.
The Sixers could instead prefer a quiet summer ahead of a potential max-contract splash in 2024, although taking a step back might be a tough sell for Joel Embiid in particular. Fresh off his first-ever MVP followed by yet another playoff injury and postseason flameout, Embiid is likely to come back more well-rounded and hungry as ever to win a championship. If the Sixers strike out in free agency and can’t get him to buy into their potential plan for next offseason, the two sides might reach a breaking point.
Before we go further, let’s make two things clear:
1. Joel Embiid deservedly won MVP this year and is one of the NBA’s most dominant stars on both ends of the court, playoff collapses be damned.
2. This should not be interpreted as “the Sixers absolutely have to trade Joel Embiid this summer.” He is under contract for four more seasons and is unlikely to change uniforms anytime soon.
With that said, there’s an argument that no one should be safe on the Sixers roster if Harden leaves this summer, including Embiid.
Barring a major free-agent splash in 2024, the Sixers likely don’t have the assets to acquire a third star if Harden departs. They already owe their protected 2025 and 2027 first-round picks to the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz (via the Brooklyn Nets), which means they can’t trade another first-rounder until 2029 at the earliest. They also forfeited their 2023 and 2024 second-round picks and already owe their 2025 and 2026 second-rounders to other teams, although they did acquire a 2024 New York Knicks second-rounder and a 2029 Portland Trail Blazers second-rounder in the trade-deadline deal for McDaniels.
The Sixers could try to cash in their few remaining chips—whatever picks they have left to offer along with Tyrese Maxey as the centerpiece and Tobias Harris as the salary filler—but making that deal for someone like Bradley Beal isn’t likely to put them any closer to a championship. In fact, it might push them further away from legitimate contention.
Running the same group back sans Harden and with a non-taxpayer MLE pickup—someone like Bruce Brown Jr. might be the best-case scenario—isn’t likely to result in more success than this year’s team had with Harden. Unless they land someone like Kawhi Leonard or Paul George in 2024, it’s fair to wonder how they’ll surround Embiid with enough talent to vault them back into legitimate title contention.
That leads to an inevitable conclusion: It might be in both Embiid and the Sixers’ best interest to at least explore trade opportunities this offseason.
To be clear: The Sixers should not settle for anything less than the haul that the Brooklyn Nets got for Kevin Durant at the trade deadline or the Utah Jazz got last summer for Rudy Gobert. Embiid would be the first player since Moses Malone in 1982 to get traded immediately after winning the MVP. Players of his caliber rarely become available via trade or free agency.
That’s why trading him could help kickstart their post-Embiid era. Otherwise, the Sixers run the risk of treading water without making meaningful steps forward for the remainder of his prime.
Many of us have spent years making fun of teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards for desperately clinging to their stars even though their title windows had clearly slammed shut. The Sixers might be on that same precipice now. We’d be hypocrites if we weren’t open to the Sixers at least entertaining offers on Embiid.
Embiid hasn’t issued a trade demand like Ben Simmons once did—at least to the public’s knowledge—and he very well never might. But he didn’t completely shut the door on the idea of playing for a team other than the Sixers at some point.
“I’ve always said that it would be nice to play for one team for your whole career,” Embiid told Andscape’s Marc J. Spears in late March. “It would be fun, but sometimes you also want new challenges and all that stuff. But it would mean a lot. I’ve been here for such a long time, but it would just validate all the suffering and all the hard work that we put in.”
If there comes a point where Embiid loses confidence in the Sixers’ ability to validate that suffering, he might be open to moving to a team closer to title contention. There aren’t many teams that could give up the haul they’d need to for Embiid and still remain in contention, but a few might be able to thread that needle. The Oklahoma City Thunder jump to mind in particular—are you at least listening if they offer a package that includes Chet Holmgren and Josh Giddey?—while the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers are seemingly desperate to make a big upgrade this offseason.
The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement hovers over all of this, too. With the implementation of a second salary-cap apron set $17.5 million above the luxury-tax line, first-round picks—and their cost-controlled rookie-scale contracts—could become more valuable than they were in recent years. The days of trading three first-round picks for fringe All-Stars may be coming to an end, so teams might become more protective of their picks in general. If the Sixers ever plan on trading Embiid, it would behoove them to get ahead of that rush than lag behind.
The thought of trading Embiid might be a non-starter for most Sixers fans. I don’t blame anyone who feels that way. He’s been the shining beacon of the past decade of Sixers basketball. No matter what happens from this point forward, he has already cemented himself as one of the best players in franchise history.
Because of that, some fans might be OK with trading him if it means giving him a better shot at a ring elsewhere. Even if he doesn’t get that validation in Philadelphia, some fans might prefer to see him retire without being known as one of the best players from his generation never to win a championship. (Ask Charles Barkley about how that goes.)
The Sixers shouldn’t necessarily be calling around and shopping Embiid if Harden leaves, but they also shouldn’t necessarily hang up if other teams call to inquire. Whether it’s this year or in future offseason, it’s OK to admit when a relationship has run its course. The teams that pull the trigger earlier then later tend to benefit (the early 2010s Boston Celtics and early 2020s Orlando Magic), while those that drag their feet wind up in NBA purgatory (the Blazers and Wizards).
If Harden leaves and another team offers a blockbuster trade package for Embiid, the Sixers shouldn’t automatically shoot it down. They’ll have to evaluate whether they believe in their ability to maintain a championship contender around Embiid or if it would be best for both they and Embiid to go their separate ways.