The 76ers are at a precipice. They can do what it takes to retain James Harden, which would likely take a max level contract, spanning his age 34-37 seasons, or they can allow him to walk away leaving them empty-handed.
There is a world where a sign-and-trade is a possibility, sure, but you’ll recall when Jimmy Butler departed for Miami, teams tend not to recoup much value in those. The 2019 Sixers got Josh Richardson and cap space. Of course, they could offer Harden a max and get rejected; due to an age quirk in the CBA (teams can’t offer fifth years to older players) they can only offer roughly $8M more than rival bidders.
But are the Sixers and Rockets both willing to offer him a full max at this point? It makes a lot more sense for the Sixers to do so than Houston, but here we are.
With Joel Embiid’s supermax finally about to kick in this upcoming season, with a potential Tyrese Maxey extension looming, with the
merciful final year of Tobias Harris’ once $180M deal contract set to expire, there really isn’t any cap space for the team to work with, should James bolt.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN recently speculated that it ultimately may all be a “leverage play” from James, but Woj personally would not underestimate it as simply that. He thinks there is a “very real possibility” Harden is out.
.@wojespn says there's "a very real possibility" that James Harden returns to Houston— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) May 15, 2023
"If [the Rockets] win the lottery ... and they're the ones who can draft Victor Wembanyama, my sense is that would not necessarily change the Rockets' intentions to pursue James Harden." pic.twitter.com/TvIXpkYxD3
Our Bryan Toporek dove into the 76ers’ options in the scenario where Harden walks:
“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.”
And so there’s the rub. If James bolts, you could maybe let all of your free agent bench players go to muster up roughly $11.4 million to spend, along with the $5.9 million room mid-level exception. Good luck approximating the value of Harden, Reed, McDaniels, Niang, and Milton with that little to spend. The other way to play Harden’s departure would be to keep as many of your bench guys as you can, and duck the tax to target a $12M MLE.
In both instances, you’re coming up short for 2023-2024 talent wise, but more flexible moving forward.
Sixers’ James Harden expected to reunite with Rockets in free agency, sources say https://t.co/NFOB9pyxmc via @phillyinquirer— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) May 19, 2023
A new report from Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey adds that:
“The belief among NBA executives is that James Harden will rejoin the Houston Rockets this summer. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta “loves” the 76ers point guard. The franchise expects to reunite with him, sources say....
Sources have said his interest in returning to Houston is mutual and not a ploy to get a lucrative deal out of the Sixers. His mother still lives in the city. He has several business ventures there. And, as one source said, “he’s treated like a god in Houston.”
Pompey cites reporting that the Rockets asked their potential head coaches about acquiring Harden before they settled upon Ime Udoka.
But Udoka doesn’t sound like he is necessarily banking on the reunion.
We recently got a report that Harden was the driving force behind the Sixers moving on from Doc Rivers. So feel free to prep a “so dude really got Doc fired then bounced?” arrow in your quiver.
There are also some tea leaves worth reading from Daryl Morey’s postseason presser where he talks about a “Scenario A” involving The Beard coming back. But he also has some intriguing things to say about the alternative.
Ramona Shelburne recently speculated the Sixers could bring on Mike D’Antoni to help them keep James and finally get them over the top. Prep some “2018 Rockets reborn but with Embiid” arrows in your quiver.
We have a reported list of candidates. Now, let’s rank them. https://t.co/gVy3rSRWgg— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) May 16, 2023
So that’s the gist. It sounds like some executives around the league really do expect James to return to the team where he once recorded three consecutive scoring titles, an MVP and took the greatest team ever assembled to the brink. It sounds like he still has powerful familial ties to the area.
And we recall old nuggets like this one from Jake Fischer, writing back in January 2022:
“According to multiple sources, Harden has not enjoyed living in Brooklyn, compared to his days as a central Houston magnate. Outside of the change in climate, the chasm between state taxes in New York versus Texas is quite obvious as well.”
If Harden leaves we’ll wonder if maybe Michael Rubin wasn’t able to help James feel enough like a central magnate in Philly. Kidding.
At the end of the day, if you believe in Joel Embiid, then my leaning as of now, is that you should hope for Harden to return.
Embiid’s title window is the coming season, and likely a few more after that. Having read about the scenarios where James leaves and they’re left convincing a 30-year-old Joel to wait for the 2024 offseason to hopefully hit on a key free agent...sighs.... it just feels unlikely and far away.
And then even if you somehow landed a top-shelf star, they’d have to figure out how to play together on the fly, with the right role players. We know from Butler and Beard that’s not an instant thing. It all takes time. With Embiid’s injury history, they may not have much.
This story is ongoing, as every day seems to bring us one more detail as it pertains to Harden’s god-like status back in Texas, or his apparent conflict with Doc, or preference in a new coach.
They may not love the idea of rolling out the red carpet to keep a guy they have so many legit question marks about. But they may have to do it anyway to even stand a chance of running this back.
Part of me says “it’s just not worth it and will age terribly.” The other part of me says “heck, it’s not my money, if Josh Harris and co. are willing to pay to help extend an MVP’s title window, that’s what you have to do.” I lean towards the latter today.