The Philadelphia 76ers might be stuck between a rock and a hard(en) place this offseason.
If James Harden heads back to the Houston Rockets as a free agent, the Sixers won’t have much financial flexibility to retool around reigning MVP Joel Embiid. That could incentivize them to pony up for the soon-to-be 34-year-old, although the specter of the NBA’s punishing new collective bargaining agreement will loom large over those negotiations.
But if Harden does walk, the Sixers figure to explore ways to retool around Embiid this summer before perhaps making a bigger splash in 2024.
In mid-May, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the “belief among NBA executives” is that Harden will indeed rejoin the Rockets this summer. The Rockets are projected to have more than enough salary-cap space to sign him outright, so there’s no guarantee that the Sixers could talk them into a sign-and-trade that would net them a massive trade exception. (The personal dynamics between Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta and Sixers president Daryl Morey might complicate those negotiations, too.)
The Sixers already have $117.1 million on their books in guaranteed salary for next season against a projected $134 million salary cap. If Danuel House Jr. ($4.3 million) and Montrezl Harrell ($2.8 million) pick up their respective player options, the Sixers would be up to nearly $124.2 million, which would leave them less than $8 million from going over the cap. Even if Harden walks, they’d have to renounce the rights to all of Paul Reed (restricted), Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Jalen McDaniels to have any cap space whatsoever.
The Sixers would be far better off operating as an over-the-cap team after Harden left, which would give them access to the $12.2 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception. If House and Harrell do pick up their player options, the Sixers would have roughly $38 million in wiggle room before crossing the projected $162 million luxury-tax line.
The Sixers likely won’t be willing to go into tax territory if Harden walks, as it’s difficult to imagine them being a legitimate title contender next season without him. Staying below the tax for a second straight year would reset the clock on the punitive repeater tax, which kicks in after teams are above the tax line for three seasons in a four-year span. The Sixers were taxpayers in 2020-21 and 2021-22, but they dipped below the line at this year’s trade deadline in part to give themselves more financial flexibility moving forward.
They could go a few different ways if Harden walks this summer, starting with using Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris (as the salary filler) in a trade for a second star. But regardless of whom the Sixers acquire, it’s difficult to imagine they’d advance further with that player in place of all three of Harden, Maxey and Harris from this past season.
Instead, the Sixers figure to continue building around Maxey and Embiid. In that scenario, they’d likely explore trades for Harris, as they have for the past few offseasons and trade deadlines.
Harris is entering the final year of his five-year, $180 million contract, which makes him a $39.3 million expiring deal. Teams looking to get off longer-term money before the punitive new CBA takes effect in July could be angling to make a move between now and the draft in late June.
Shams Charania of The Athletic reported in mid-November that the Sixers had “begun their usual check-ins with teams around the league,” and Harris had “come up in the 76ers’ conversations with clubs so far.” They opted to keep him through this past season’s trade deadline, but their disappointing collapse against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals could prompt calls for significant change this offseason.
Particularly if Harden leaves, the Sixers shouldn’t be giving up any of their few remaining assets to get off Harris’ contract. They can’t trade a first-round pick until 2029 at the earliest, and they have only one second-rounder between now and 2026. Besides, depending on what other moves they make between now and next offseason, they could have a significant amount of salary-cap space (if not a max contract spot) once Harris’ deal comes off the books. There’s value in that.
However, the easiest path to a max slot in 2024 is convincing Maxey to hold off on signing an extension this summer. If the Sixers aren’t comfortable with that approach and extend Maxey ASAP, they’d potentially be closing the door on a big free-agent splash in 2024. In that case, they’d be better off flipping Harris this summer for a few smaller contracts to round out their depth and give themselves more trade flexibility later in the 2023-24 season.
Teams have gotten smarter about handing out onerous long-term contracts, so there aren’t many obvious salary-dumping candidates these days. The Sixers also could use Harris’ contract as the return in a sign-and-trade with a team that didn’t want to lose a free agent for nothing. That would hard-cap them, which means they couldn’t cross the first salary-cap apron (around $169 million) at any point next season, but that likely wouldn’t be an issue with Harden off the books.
Outside of Harden, Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton, Draymond Green, Freed VanVleet and Brook Lopez are among the biggest names set to become free agents this offseason. For those interested in more dogs on the roster next year, imagine a team with both Green and P.J. Tucker. The mental collapse on display late in the Celtics series would have no place on next season’s roster. Meanwhile, signing Middleton could simultaneously bolster an area of weakness on the Sixers and weaken the Milwaukee Bucks, although he showed some concerning signs of decline amidst an injury-ravaged 2022-23 campaign.
A starting five of Maxey, Melton, Tucker, Harris and Embiid still has plenty of talent, but the Sixers would be light on bench depth unless they re-sign some combination of Reed, Niang, McDaniels and Milton. Add in a non-taxpayer MLE signing and this team might not have championship upside, but it should be in the play-in tournament mix at worst. The Sixers might not need to make major changes even if Harden walks.
But if they elect for a bigger shakeup, the Game 7 loss to the Celtics is likely to be Harris’ last appearance in a Sixers uniform.