When James Harden picked up his $35.6 million player option at the end of June to work with the Sixers on a trade, it briefly seemed as though he’d soon be heading to his preferred destination, the Los Angeles Clippers. But nearly three months later, he’s still a member of the Sixers, and his presence is threatening to nuke media day, training camp and perhaps the start of the season.
Harden is hoping that whatever histrionics he has planned over the coming days and weeks will eventually force the Sixers’ hand and convince them to trade him. As of now, the Sixers appear to be hoping that cooler heads will eventually prevail and that Harden will realize they could be a championship contender if he buys into new head coach Nick Nurse.
That scenario seems unlikely for now, although plenty could change between now and the Feb. 8 trade deadline. There’s another factor motivating Harden’s desire for a trade, though. And that won’t be changing at any point.
When the Sixers acquired Harden from the Brooklyn Nets in February 2022, they also acquired his Bird rights. That’s what allowed them to go over the salary cap to re-sign him last offseason. If the Sixers didn’t have his Bird rights, they would have needed to trim a significant amount of salary to carve out enough cap space to sign him as a free agent.
If the Sixers keep Harden past the Feb. 8 trade deadline, that means they’ll head into the 2024 offseason with his Bird rights. Unless they’re willing to re-sign him to the long-term, big-money deal that he attempted to pursue this offseason, he could once again find himself devoid of realistic free-agent options outside of Philly.
For now, the Sixers are one of only seven teams projected to have any cap space in 2024, according to Keith Smith of Spotrac. The other six—the San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards—are all in some stage of a rebuild, which shouldn’t hold much appeal to a soon-to-be 35-year-old who’s pursuing win-now opportunities.
If the Sixers’ cap-space plan leads them away from Harden, his only two options next summer would be to sign with one of the other six teams with cap space or try to get the Sixers to facilitate a sign-and-trade. The latter won’t be as easy as it might sound, though.
Under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, any team over either salary-cap apron can’t receive a player via sign-and-trade. Teams over the second apron can’t even receive contracts in return for players they sign-and-trade elsewhere. Unfortunately for Harden, a number of contenders already project to be over one or both aprons next year.
The Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies are the two teams currently projected to be above the second apron, per Spotrac, while the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors aren’t too far behind. As other teams re-sign some of their own free agents, they could join the Suns and Grizzlies over the second apron.
Teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat (if they don’t acquire Damian Lillard) might have a bit more wiggle room under the apron to swing a sign-and-trade, but it’s unclear how many of them would offer Harden a better chance of winning a championship than the Sixers do.
That’s how you know that Harden’s primary motivation isn’t winning. It’s securing the bag.
If Harden successfully forces a trade—whether to the Clippers or elsewhere—the Sixers will be sending his Bird rights with him to his new team. Much like the Sixers last summer, his new team would then be able to re-sign him this summer even if it’s already over the salary cap.
In some respects, that might be complicating trade talks. The Sixers have to value him as though he’s a critical component to a championship-caliber team, whereas other teams may consider him a flight risk who’s now asked for trades from three different teams over the past four years.
Any team interested in acquiring Harden should at least inquire about the type of new contract he wants. If they aren’t willing to meet that price, they have to treat him as a one-year rental, which could affect how much they’re willing to offer the Sixers. Even if they are willing to re-sign Harden, they aren’t likely to meet Daryl Morey’s lofty asking price due to his age curve and recent history.
That’s what has Harden willing to go nuclear heading into training camp. He knows that if he’s on the Sixers as of Feb. 9, it’ll be difficult for him to join another contender next year in free agency. He could take after Russell Westbrook and sign a minimum contract anywhere, but he doesn’t seem like he’s at the stage of his career where he’s ready to forgo $30-plus million annually. (One could argue he’s in denial to some extent.)
More than anything else, Harden’s goal in the next four months to land on a contender that’s willing to re-sign him next summer. If he accomplishes that, he could have a Chris Paul-esque transition to the twilight of his NBA career. Otherwise, he might be stuck taking a major paycut or hoping for a sign-and-trade that may or may not materialize.