In case you hadn’t heard, the Philadelphia 76ers have quite the decision on their hands as the NBA calendar whirls towards free agency. The team is once again faced with the decision to try to run back a squad that fizzled out in the playoffs, or re-tool around Joel Embiid with limited assets.
The first domino of the summer will be the decision of James Harden, who will likely opt out of the second year of his $68 million contract in search of a long-term deal. The Houston Rockets are the only other suitor who seems to be assuredly in on Harden at the moment, as rumors of him returning have been swirling since Christmas Day.
Despite the persistence of that rumor, it is still yet to make sense from a basketball perspective, as Harden is entering the twilight of his career without a championship and the Rockets are still trying to figure out an intense rebuild.
The Phoenix Suns were recently rumored to have some interest as well as they move on from Chris Paul, but the majority of reports suggest that Harden’s decision will come down to the Rockets and Sixers.
And while Philly’s non-Harden options are not the most appealing, bringing him back would be a mistake that could close this team’s window for contention.
The first reason against re-signing Harden is the easiest to dismiss, as it is the hardest to quantify: He just doesn’t have the mentality to get this team over the hump. After no-showing for Game 7 in the second round in Boston, Embiid now has the reputation of a guy that can’t get it done in the playoffs.
Fair or not, both stars are seen as guys who do not have that dog in them when games matter the most, and the only thing that can change this narrative is a championship. With Nick Nurse being brought as the new head coach, the franchise clearly wants a voice that will challenge its franchise stars. From the outside looking in, it’s not hard to see why Harden would want to walk away from that.
The Sixers should also be mindful of the fact that they’ve already gotten the best possible version of Harden they could get. His first half-season in Philly was spent nursing a hamstring he injured in the playoffs in 2021, clearly limiting his athleticism.
After having a full offseason to heal, Harden certainly looked more capable as a scorer in 2023, though he still looked like a very different player than the Harden that was averaging 35 points per game as a Rocket.
He fit in well as a facilitator, as his 10.7 assists per game led the league, while still turning back the clock with two 40-point-plus games in the Celtics series. While that type of production is exactly what the Sixers have been searching for to supplement Embiid, Harden may already be sick of playing the sidekick.
Harden, as well as his teammates, spoke often this past season about the sacrifice he made in accepting this role.
After the Sixers swept the Nets, James Harden said "This year, man, I'm all big on sacrifice. Whether it's the money or my role, just letting everything go and just sacrificing and seeing what it gives me." [1/2]— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) May 15, 2023
Sure enough, one of the reasons the Rockets are enticing to Harden is the opportunity to have an offense revolve around him again. While he may believe he can still carry an offense like he did five or six years ago, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
In seven regular season games he played without Embiid, Harden’s numbers were hardly any different from his season averages. Per StatMuse, Harden averaged 20.6 points and 9.4 assists per game in seven games without the big fella, when he averaged 21 and 10.7 with Embiid playing.
Both his field-goal percentage and his three-point percentage were each four percent lower in games Embiid didn’t play.
He’ll turn 34 in August and is notorious for the fun he likes to have off the court, making it fairly reasonable to be concerned about how much high-level basketball his body has left. It wouldn’t be a shocker if his game-winning three to even the Boston series at 2-2 was the last great playoff moment he has.
No matter what decision the Sixers make on Harden, the financial ramifications will be huge. You can read more about the specifics of the new CBA here, but essentially, teams that dole out max contracts to multiple players will be significantly limited.
It’s hard to see Harden taking a discount two years in a row, especially as this is really his last chance to get a big contract. Embiid will be entering the first year of a large extension this year, and the team will have to make a decision on paying Tyrese Maxey shortly.
With those two large contracts in place, the team will essentially be locked in to that core with hardly any flexibility going forward. Not only will the new CBA make it difficult on teams in the luxury tax to move money, the Sixers have already sent out a handful of their upcoming first-round picks.
Re-signing Harden would basically handcuff the Sixers to this core, a core that has yet to reach a conference finals with the most parity the league has seen in quite some time.
Trading for Harden was a worthwhile swing. The player they gave up for him has turned into one of the worst contracts in the league and he definitely elevated his teammates with his elite playmaking ability.
But if him and Embiid haven't gotten it done by now, it feels unlikely that they ever will together.