James Harden unexpectedly picked up his $35.6 million player option on Thursday and is working with the Sixers to explore trades, a source confirmed to Liberty Ballers’ Paul Hudrick. The Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat have all emerged as potential landing spots for him, according to multiple reports.
As the Sixers navigate the trade market for Harden, they’ll also have to weigh whether to re-sign any of Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels, Shake Milton, Montrezl Harrell and Paul Reed (restricted), all of whom are set to become free agents. Unless the Sixers trade Harden prior to 6 p.m. Friday, it’s fair to wonder how that uncertainty will affect their ability/willingness to re-sign the likes of Niang and McDaniels in particular.
Those aren’t the only decisions the Sixers will have to make this offseason. Tyrese Maxey and De’Anthony Melton each become eligible for extensions on July 1, and the Sixers will have to weigh whether to trade Tobias Harris, whose agent/father appears to be angling for a fresh start.
Overhanging all of that is a new collective bargaining agreement which contains harsh penalties for the league’s highest-spending teams. While the full set of restrictions won’t go into effect until 2024-25, a few do begin this offseason, which could affect the sort of external additions the Sixers are able to make.
From the run-it-back plan to the gap-year strategy, the Sixers could go in a wide array of directions this offseason. Here’s an overview of where they stand heading into free agency and their options over the coming weeks.
The Sixers’ financial outlook heading into free agency
With Danuel House picking up his $4.3 million player option and Montrezl Harrell (mercifully) declining his $2.8 million player option, the Sixers are currently projected to have roughly $122.1 million on their books for next season. That is still subject to change, as Joel Embiid is heading into the first year of his four-year supermax extension, which means his salary will be 35 percent of whatever the salary cap winds up being.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the NBA gave teams updated salary-cap and luxury-tax projections of $136 million and $165 million last week. Prior to that, the cap was projected to be $134 million and the tax line was projected to be $162 million.
If the cap does land at $136 million flat rather than $136,021,000—the most it can increase by under the new CBA—Embiid will earn $47.6 million next season. That means the Sixers will be less than $13.9 million below the salary-cap line with only eight players under contract. In other words: Regardless of what happens with Harden they’re likely to operate as an over-the-cap team this offseason.
Even if Harden had opted out and they renounced the rights to all of their other free agents, the Sixers would have less than $9.5 million in cap space after factoring in four incomplete roster charges ($1.1 million each). They’d be far better off retaining the cap holds for Niang, McDaniels, Reed and Milton even if Harden walks. Doing so would give them access to the $12.4 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception rather than the $7.7 million room mid-level exception, which they’d have if they fall below the cap.
We’ll delve further into the MLE nuances later, as the new CBA impacts which one—if any—that the Sixers will have this offseason. That ultimately comes down to Harden, though.
Where the Sixers stand with Harden
In the days leading up to free agency, it seemed as though Harden was likely to opt out and re-sign with the Sixers. But on Thursday, he decided to pick up his player option, which made him immediately eligible for a trade.
Sources close to Harden told Sam Amick of The Athletic that he was “extremely upset at the way in which the Sixers handled his possible free agency and has made his dissatisfaction clear to the organization.” With the Houston Rockets seemingly pivoting away from their reported interest in him in recent days, the Sixers suddenly had all of the leverage in contract negotiations.
“There isn’t a strong market for James Harden right now,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said Friday on Get Up. The Sixers were positioning themselves to try to force him into a disadvantageous position, and so he elected to opt into his contract.”
According to both Amick and John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia, the Sixers didn’t want to begin negotiating with Harden and his agents until free agency officially began since the league office already punished them for tampering last offseason. That reportedly rubbed Harden the wrong way.
“The understandable concern for Harden, sources say, was that Philadelphia was preparing to offer him the kind of short-term, team-friendly contract that wouldn’t come close to reflecting his stature in the league or the level of his current play,” Amick wrote.
A league source told Hudrick that the Sixers had originally hoped to re-sign Harden “on a contract that adequately compensates [him] but doesn’t hurt their flexibility moving forward.” The new CBA is likely among the reasons why the Sixers weren’t eager to hand Harden a blank check.
The impact of the new CBA
The current CBA contained only one salary-cap apron, which teams could not exceed in a given league year if they used the non-taxpayer MLE or the bi-annual exception to sign a free agent or received a free agent via a sign-and-trade. The Sixers were subject to that hard cap last year after signing P.J. Tucker with the non-taxpayer MLE and House with the bi-annual exception.
The new CBA features a new second apron, set $17.5 million above the luxury-tax line, with even harsher restrictions. Beginning this offseason, teams above the second apron will lose access to the taxpayer MLE, can’t take back more than 110 percent of the salary they send out in a trade, and can’t sign players on the buyout market whose salaries were higher than the non-taxpayer MLE.
It gets even worse next offseason, according to multiple reports. Teams above the second apron in 2024-25 won’t be able to aggregate salaries in trades, can’t trade first-round picks seven years in the future, can’t use cash in trades and will be subject to a higher luxury-tax rate.
The Sixers need to remain mindful of those restrictions as they weigh who to take back for Harden and whether to re-sign their other free agents and give extensions to Maxey and/or Melton. All of those decisions will be inherently interconnected because of the new CBA.
The non-Harden free agents
While the impending Harden trade is by far the most impactful decision that the Sixers have to make this offseason, he isn’t the only one. Niang, McDaniels, Milton and Harrell (lol) are all set to join him in unrestricted free agency, while Reed will be a restricted free agent.
Since Reed is an RFA, the Sixers can match any offer sheet that he signs with another team. The new CBA shortened the matching window from 48 hours to 24 hours, according to Wojnarowski, but given the importance of having a reliable backup center behind Joel Embiid, the Sixers should be inclined to keep Reed around either way. An annual salary in the $7-8 million range—in line with what Kevon Looney and Isaiah Hartenstein are earning—seems like a reasonable compromise for both Reed and the Sixers.
Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice described both McDaniels and Niang as being in a “wait-and-see bucket,” as both players “are generating interest from other teams” but have “some playoff-adjacent flaws that could keep their final contract numbers in check.” The Sixers have full Bird rights on McDaniels and Early Bird rights on Niang, so they can exceed the salary cap to re-sign both, but it sounds as though they’ll be cautious about overpaying either player.
Neubeck reported that Milton is the “least likely” of the Sixers’ free agents to return next season, as he’s looking “for a potential opportunity for more minutes.” It’s unclear whether Harden’s imminent departure changes that calculus at all, although he’ll still have to battle with Maxey, Melton and third-year guard Jaden Springer for backcourt minutes either way.
The price point will be the biggest question for Reed, McDaniels and Niang. Much like last summer, when the Sixers convinced Harden to decline his $47.4 million player option and re-sign for less ($33 million) to carve out enough space under the first apron for the non-taxpayer MLE and the bi-annual exception, they might try to stay far enough under the second apron this offseason to give themselves access to the taxpayer MLE.
If the Sixers trade Harden for roughly equivalent salary and they don’t trade Harris—more on that in a bit—they’re likely to have the taxpayer MLE at best. If they can’t stay below the $182.5 million second apron after trading Harden and re-signing some combination of Reed, Niang, McDaniels and Milton, they won’t have any mid-level exception at all.
If the Sixers outright salary-dumped Harden, they would likely have the $12.4 million non-taxpayer MLE at their disposal. Using it would hard-cap them at the first apron, which means their payroll could not exceed $172 million at any point between July 1 and June 30, 2024. That shouldn’t be a huge concern, as the Sixers would likely aim to stay under the $165 million tax line—thus entirely resetting the clock on the repeater tax—if they went that route.
Harden is the biggest domino to fall regarding the MLE, but the Sixers’ other free agents could influence their list of targets as well. If they lose Niang and/or McDaniels, they’ll likely prioritize adding another wing/forward. If (when?) they lose Milton, they might want to add more backcourt depth. And with Harden seemingly on his way out, they’ll likely aim to add a playmaker to help reduce Maxey’s burden.
If/when Harden does leave, the non-taxpayer MLE won’t be enough for Kyrie Irving, Fred VanVleet or D’Angelo Russell. Their best bets from a playmaking perspective might be Russell Westbrook or Tre Jones (restricted). Gabe Vincent, Coby White (restricted), Dennis Schroder, Jordan Clarkson (player option) and Donte DiVincenzo may be more realistic backcourt targets in that price range.
As for wings/forwards, Bruce Brown Jr. should be atop the Sixers’ list of non-taxpayer MLE targets after seeing how he contributed to the Denver Nuggets’ championship run. If they strike out there, Harrison Barnes would be an optimal replacement for Harris. Draymond Green, Cameron Johnson, Kyle Kuzma, Jerami Grant and Khris Middleton will be out of the Sixers’ price range, but Dillon Brooks, Grant Williams and Kelly Oubre Jr. could be on their radar.
If they’re limited to the taxpayer MLE, it’ll be difficult to land an impact forward at that price. Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green might be among their best bets in that regard. We can’t rule out a reunion with Danny Green or Seth Curry, either. If they’re shopping for backcourt help, Jevon Carter, Hamidou Diallo and Lonnie Walker IV all may be of some interest.
It’s become relatively apparent in recent days that Harris would be open to a change of scenery this offseason. The Sixers appear to be in no hurry to move him, though.
On Saturday, Pompey reported that the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz had all inquired about Harris’ availability in recent weeks. However, he said the Sixers “have been adamant that they’re not willing to trade him unless it drastically improves their team,” echoing what Hudrick reported leading up to the draft.
With Harris heading into the final season of his five-year, $180 million contract, he’s suddenly no longer an albatross. His $39.3 million expiring contract could be a lifeline for a team that’s looking to escape from long-term salary before the new CBA’s penalties fully take effect next offseason.
We already saw one such trade this offseason, when the Golden State Warriors sent Jordan Poole, a top-20-protected 2030 first-round pick and a 2027 second-round pick to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Chris Paul, whose contract is fully nonguaranteed in 2024-25. Not only are they gambling on Paul being a short-term upgrade over Poole, but they’re also looking at his contract as a get-out-of-jail-free card before they have to re-sign both Draymond Green this offseason and Klay Thompson next summer.
Although Pompey didn’t mention them among the teams that have already inquired about Harris, the Atlanta Hawks are worth keeping an eye on in that regard. They already have five players earning $15 million or more in each of the next two seasons, and Dejounte Murray, Onyeka Okongwu and Saddiq Bey all become eligible for extensions this offseason. Whether it’s this summer or ahead of the 2024 trade deadline, something has to give there eventually.
If no team bowls them over with an offer this offseason, the Sixers figure to begin the season with Harris and explore his market ahead of the trade deadline in February. They could always sign him to a far-more-reasonable extension next summer if all else fails, but some team will likely be desperate to shed long-term money within the next 6-7 months.
As the Sixers juggle their myriad free-agent decisions, they’ll also have to weigh whether to sign Maxey and/or Melton to contract extensions.
Although the NBA hasn’t released an updated salary-cap projection for the 2024-25 season yet, the Sixers should be able to offer Maxey a five-year max contract worth north of $200 million. They could also put designated-player language in his deal that would make him eligible for a 30 percent max rather than a 25 percent max if he’s named MVP, Defensive Player of the Year (lol) or to an All-NBA team next year.
Under the current CBA, teams had to offer max contracts if they wanted to give a fifth year to a player coming off a rookie-scale deal. Otherwise, they were limited to four-year extensions at most. The new CBA allows teams to offer five-year non-max extensions, though, which may give the Sixers and Maxey more room to negotiate a slightly-below-max contract.
The extensions that Tyler Herro (four years, $120 million) and Poole (four years, $128 million) signed last offseason figure to be the starting point for both Maxey and the Sixers in negotiations. Maxey’s agent, Rich Paul, will likely push for a five-year max, while the Sixers may note how quickly Poole’s contract turned him from an asset to a potential liability under the new CBA.
Now that Harden appears poised to leave the Sixers this offseason, Maxey might prefer betting on himself in a larger role next season before potentially cashing in as a restricted free agent in 2024. Otherwise, the two sides will likely come to an agreement on a five-year max or near-max extension before the mid-October deadline.
Melton isn’t nearly as straightforward, although the new CBA should help the Sixers in his negotiations as well.
Under the previous CBA, teams could offer a starting salary no greater than 120 percent of the player’s previous salary or 120 percent of the estimated average salary on an extension. With Melton set to earn only $8 million in 2023-24, the Sixers couldn’t offer him more than a four-year extension worth around $63 million under the old rules (based on an $11.8 million projection for the estimated average salary in 2024-25).
The new CBA allows teams to offer a starting salary no greater than 140 percent of the player’s previous salary or 140 percent of the estimated average salary. Using the same $11.8 million projection for the estimated average salary in 2024-25, the Sixers should now be able to offer Melton a four-year, $74 million extension. In terms of average annual value, that would put him in the same neighborhood as Eric Gordon ($18.9 million), Tim Hardaway Jr. ($18.75 million), Joe Harris ($18.75 million) and Norman Powell ($18.0 million).
Much like Maxey, Melton might decide to bet on himself and decline an extension now that he’s seemingly poised for a bigger role sans Harden. A career year in a full-time starting role could put him in line for an annual salary north of $20 million on a new deal. But if Melton remains a swing starter/reserve following a Harden trade, an $18.5 million AAV seems like a reasonable compromise for both sides.
If nothing else, brace yourselves for an eventful next few weeks. Between a Harden trade, their other free agents, a potential Harris trade, the mid-level exception and Maxey/Melton extensions, Daryl Morey and the rest of the Sixers’ front office will have their hands full over the coming days.