It’s an NBA tradition to break major news on the Fourth of July, but the Sixers seemingly aren’t likely to do so this year with James Harden. During an appearance on SportsCenter, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said the Sixers “would still love to keep [Harden] in Philadelphia for the season” after he unexpectedly picked up his $35.6 million player option last week.
“Daryl Morey, their president, he’s got a long history with James Harden,” Wojnarowski said. “And certainly, I think, if there’s a way as the summer goes on to try to convince him that they can still make this work together, that he has a chance to compete for a championship…”
(Sorry, I blacked out from giving myself a concussion.)
Wojnarowski did add that the Sixers are also talking to teams about a Harden trade, including the Los Angeles Clippers, who remain “very interested” in him. However, he said the Harden saga “may play out over the summer, there may be no quick resolution.”
Wojnarowski noted the Sixers tried this same approach with Ben Simmons, who requested a trade during the summer of 2021 and never suited up for them again despite remaining on the roster until the following February. “But they didn’t have the relationship that this group does have, especially Morey has, with Harden,” he added.
While the Sixers may hope to reconcile with Harden, it appears to be a long shot. Sources close to Harden told Sam Amick of The Athletic that he is “extremely upset at the way in which the Sixers handled his possible free agency and has made his dissatisfaction clear to the organization.”
The Sixers reportedly refused to discuss contract terms with Harden before free agency officially began on Friday, fearful of more tampering penalties from the league office. That raised concern on Harden’s end that they were “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.
Seeing how the opening days of free agency played out should have been eye-opening to Harden. Kyrie Irving settled for a three-year, $126 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks, which was nearly $30 million lower than he could have received. Fred VanVleet got a three-year max deal from the Houston Rockets, although the third year is reportedly a team option, according to Jackson Gatlin of Locked on Rockets. Those two are the only free agents who signed contracts worth $40 million or more annually.
Harden’s anger toward the Sixers thus may be somewhat misplaced. Although he averaged 21.0 points and a league-leading 10.7 assists per game this past season, he’s turning 34 in August and has a long list of playoff letdowns. No team is likely to give him the sort of long-term max or near-max deal that he’s seeking, particularly given the new collective bargaining agreement’s financial restrictions for the league’s most expensive rosters.
However, it doesn’t appear as though Harden is open to reconciliation yet.
“When I essentially asked the question of: ‘Is there a small percentage chance that you find a way for James to settle down, a la Kevin Durant last summer, and just get him back on the court at the start of the season?’ That door, I was told, was shut right away,” Amick added on the Good Word With Goodwill podcast (h/t Liberty Ballers’ Dave Early). “The Sixers understand that’s not happening.”
The Sixers are likely putting out this messaging to wrest back leverage in trade talks. If teams think he has played his final game in Philly—as Wojnarowski initially wrote following Harden’s decision to opt in—they’ll likely try to lowball the Sixers in trade talks. That may be what’s happening at the moment, as Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports reported the Clippers were “expected to show resistance in including any prized young player, such as Terance Mann or Bones Hyland.”
If the Sixers act like they’re open to keeping Harden, it could put more pressure on the Clippers or other interested suitors to up their offers. Granted, other teams could try to call their bluff given Harden’s history of apathy when he wants to force his way off a team. Do the Sixers really want to begin the Nick Nurse era with a Harden circus during training camp?
In the meantime, the uncertainty about Harden’s future may be affecting the rest of their offseason business. The Sixers did sign Patrick Beverley to a one-year, $3.2 million veteran-minimum contract, but they’ve already lost Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton in free agency, and most of the top targets are now off the board. “Run it back with a worse supporting cast” seems like a bold strategy, particularly when other contenders around the East made notable upgrades this offseason.
Until they resolve the Harden saga one way or another, the Sixers likely won’t make a big free-agent splash. It’s hard to sell players on joining a team when they aren’t sure who else will be there or what their roles will be. The Sixers might not want to use their mid-level exception for now, either, as they’d be hard-capped at the $172.3 million first apron if they use the non-taxpayer MLE and the $182.8 million second apron if they use the taxpayer MLE.
If the Sixers do convince Harden to amicably return and re-sign Reed, they’ll still have their top seven players from last year’s team. Add in Beverley and a few other free-agent signings to round out their bench, and they might not be significantly worse than they were last year. The upgrade from Doc Rivers to Nurse can’t be discounted, either.
That might be wishful thinking, though. Based on Amick’s reporting, it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before the Sixers send Harden elsewhere.