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What a James Harden opt-in would mean for the Sixers

It might not be a foregone conclusion that James Harden will decline his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

In mid-May, Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported that James Harden intended to decline his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season to become an unrestricted free agent. At the time, he was reportedly “seeking a four-year contract” and “would only entertain suitors that present a competitive roster and the basketball freedom for the star to be himself.”

But with less than 48 hours to go until Harden’s player-option deadline, it’s still unclear whether he plans to actually opt out. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden had “not made a decision yet” on his player option.

“For Harden, when he did that 1+1 deal last season with a player option, left some money on the table for the Sixers, the hope was that they would come back this year and do a longer-term deal,” Wojnarowski said. “For Philadelphia, they very much want James Harden back. They can’t replace him if he walks in free agency. But the question will be, as it typically is: At what price, and how many years?”

Harden opting in would not only relieve the Sixers from the uncertainty of those contract negotiations, but it would potentially open more offseason pathways for them to take.

If Harden opts out, the Sixers will have only three options: re-sign him, sign-and-trade him elsewhere, or lose him for nothing. The Houston Rockets, who’ve been widely presumed to be the biggest threat to sign him, have seemingly lost steam in that race in recent weeks. If they pivot to a Plan B such as Fred VanVleet, no other team has enough salary-cap space to offer Harden anywhere close to his $47.6 million max salary.

Harden could try to maneuver his way into a sign-and-trade, but the collective bargaining agreement limits his market in that regard. Teams can’t exceed the first salary-cap apron—projected to be $172 million next year—if they receive a player in a sign-and-trade. (No one tell certain Boston bloggers that.) A number of teams would be at or over that threshold after swinging a sign-and-trade for Harden.

If all else fails, the Sixers would likely be fine with re-signing Harden on a 1+1 deal starting at the value of his declined player option. That would give both sides flexibility next offseason depending on how the 2023-24 campaign goes for each. Still, that’s a far cry from the big-money, four-year deal that he was likely hoping to sign in free agency.

Harden opting out and re-signing with the Sixers appears to be the most likely outcome. But if he decides to opt in, it would open one additional pathway for the Sixers this offseason.

If Harden opts out and re-signs, he won’t become trade-eligible until at least Dec. 15. If he opts in, the Sixers could trade him right away. However, any deal would require his consent since he’d be on a one-year deal and the Sixers have his Bird rights.

Opting in could further expand Harden’s market this summer if he’s looking to part ways with the Sixers. Acquiring him via trade that way wouldn’t hard-cap any team, although teams above both the first and second apron ($182.5 million) can take back only 110% percent of the salary they send out rather than 125% for teams under both aprons.

It’s unclear which teams—if any—would have interest acquiring Harden this way. Might the Chicago Bulls entertain some version of a Harden/Zach LaVine swap, treating it as a get-out-of-LaVine’s-contract-free card while still receiving a star in return? Would the Atlanta Hawks consider trading two of Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic for him? What about the Los Angeles Clippers? Could Harden be the point guard they’ve been looking for in recent years? Would they give up Paul George for him?

Since Harden’s current contract is only a two-year deal, he wouldn’t be eligible to sign an extension if he does opt in. That could depress his trade value, as he might wind up being only a one-year rental. Still, in this financial environment, he’d have value alone as a $35.6 million expiring contract. Getting someone who averaged 21.0 points and led the league with 10.7 assists per game last season is only a bonus.

Between Harden and Tobias Harris ($39.3 million) alone, the Sixers would be armed with nearly $75 million in expiring contracts this offseason. That could give them the flexibility to buy low on players on long-term contracts whose respective teams are looking to cut costs ahead of the new CBA’s restrictive penalties for expensive teams.

Again, Harden would have veto rights over any trade, so it isn’t as though the Sixers could send him to a rebuilding team against his will. But if he’s looking to move on to a team that can’t realistically acquire him via a sign-and-trade, opting in will be his best path to get there this offseason.

If Harden opts in and stays with the Sixers, they’ll enter free agency with $157.7 million of salary committed to nine players. That would leave them roughly $7.3 million below the luxury-tax line, $14.3 million below the first apron and $24.8 million below the second apron. They’d be hard-capped at the first apron if they used the $12.4 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception, so they’d either have to relinquish the rights to all of their other free agents (Paul Reed, Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton) or shed salary elsewhere (a Tobias Harris trade?).

Depending on which of Reed, Niang, McDaniels and Milton they bring back (and for how much), the Sixers might have access to the $5 million taxpayer MLE if Harden opts in. However, they’d have to stay below the $182.5 million second apron if they used it, so they’d likely tend to their own free agents first before making that decision.

It’s worth repeating: The most likely scenario is that Harden opts out and re-signs with the Sixers on something shorter than a four-year deal. Whether it’s a 1+1, a 2+1 or a fully guaranteed three-year contract is anyone’s guess at this point, but the soon-to-be 34-year-old Harden is likely prioritizing long-term financial security in these negotiations. (This summer is probably his best remaining chance at a nine-figure contract.)

But given the additional flexibility that it would unlock for them, the Sixers likely wouldn’t be too upset if he opts in.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.

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