Just like most (all?) of us, Sixers legend Charles Barkley is ready for the latest James Harden Trade Saga to be over.
“I think it’s time for the Sixers to move off of James Harden,” Sir Charles told Amy Fadool Kane of NBC Sports Philadelphia last week. “I think it’s time for them to make that trade and turn the team over to Joel [Embiid] and [Tyrese] Maxey. … James has been a heck of a player for a long time, but I think it’s time for them to make the best trade possible.”
In one sense, Barkley is spot on. The Sixers should be leaning more into Maxey this season regardless of whether Harden does end up returning. New head coach Nick Nurse already seems to be planning on doing so.
But while it’s natural to want the Harden trade saga to be over, rushing a decision and settling for a suboptimal return could further complicate the Sixers’ already uncertain future.
The treasure trove of assets that Sam Hinkie built up during his three-year tenure leading the Process Sixers is long gone. The Sixers owe two of their next four first-round picks elsewhere, and they have only one second-round pick (via the New York Knicks) over the next three seasons. Maxey is their lone remaining blue-chip prospect, too.
At the moment, the Sixers have set themselves up for significant financial flexibility next offseason. If Harden’s $35.6 million salary comes off the books along with Tobias Harris’ $39.3 million, the Sixers could feasibly be looking at $50-plus million in salary-cap space before they sign Maxey to an extension. That’s likely the last time they’ll be able to create that much cap room for the rest of Embiid’s tenure in Philadelphia.
That’s why the return they get in a Harden trade matters so much to the Sixers. They already have a dearth of assets from previous trades, but they’re now looking poised to be a potential player in free agency next offseason. Whether they use that cap space on a star free agent, a few role players or to take on unwanted contracts to replenish their draft capital, they should have options.
But if they whiff on the Harden trade and strike out with their cap space next summer, that could be the beginning of the end for Embiid’s time in Philadelphia.
“I just want to win a championship,” Embiid told Maverick Carter on Thursday at the UNINTERRUPTED Film Festival. “Whatever it takes. I don’t know where that’s gonna be, whether it’s in Philly or anywhere else, I just want to have a chance to accomplish that.”
The Los Angeles Clippers still seem like Harden’s most likely landing spot. The sticking point appears to be compensation. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described the Sixers’ asking price as “exorbitant” and said teams “are not engaging the Sixers with the kind of asks that Daryl Morey is asking for James Harden.” However, he did note that Morey often starts unreasonably high in trade talks and begins compromising from there.
Barkley suggested Harden’s long-term future is perhaps complicating those negotiations.
“Well, I think nobody wants to give James a long-term contract,” he told Fadool Kane. “I think that’s the real reason. And I hope the Sixers don’t give him a long-term contract. But I think he wants a long-term deal, and I don’t think at this stage in his career—because he’s only gonna get older—and so, I personally think that’s the holdup.”
It’s hard to argue with Barkley here. Since Harden is only on a two-year contract, he’s guaranteed to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason. He is ineligible to sign a contract extension before then with either the Sixers or any team that trades for him. The possibility of him being a one-year rental could decrease how much other teams are willing to offer in trade talks.
The Sixers have little choice but to treat him as a star in those negotiations, though. They could point to his league-leading 10.7 assists per game last season and how he’d fill the Clippers’ long-term need for a high-end playmaker. He could slide in as a complementary scoring option alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George but could scale up if (when) one of them misses time. He genuinely might be the missing piece for the Clippers’ title hopes.
The Clippers don’t appear to be treating him that way, though.
“The Clippers, from what I’ve heard, they have been reluctant so far to offer (Terance) Mann, picks, maybe even (Norman) Powell,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast. “And I don’t know that the two sides have really even had super significant dialogue.”
The Clippers have the expiring contracts of Marcus Morris ($17.1 million), Nicolas Batum ($11.7 million) and Process legend Robert Covington ($11.7 million) to offer, which would help the Sixers maintain their financial flexibility for next offseason. But if they aren’t even willing to offer Mann, who’s starting a two-year, $22 million contract, or Powell, who’s entering the third year of a five-year, $90 million deal, it’s nowhere near enough.
Beyond Powell and Mann, the Clippers could offer some combination of Kobe Brown, Bones Hyland and KJ Martin, along with two first-round picks and/or two first-round pick swaps. They have the assets to cobble together a legitimately interesting package for Harden if so desired. But if they aren’t certain of whether it’d be a one-year rental or a long-term partnership, they’ll likely aim to keep as many of those assets out of the deal as possible.
The Sixers appears poised to drag this out until at least training camp if the Clippers don’t up their offer. As miserable as that could make the next few months, it’s probably the right call. Pressure will likely ramp up on both the Sixers and Clippers to make a deal at some point. And since Harden is heading into a contract year, he (theoretically) can’t afford to mope through a half-assed season until the Sixers trade him.
That could mean another few months of non-updates on the Harden trade front. (He still wants to be traded! The Sixers aren’t going to give him away! Round and round we go!) But given the stakes for the Sixers, it’s arguably their only realistic option.
My deepest apologies to the “trade him for a washing machine” crowd. We all hate it, too.