The James Harden contract conundrum

Daryl Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers held their nerve longer than most reasonable GMs would have during the whole Ben Simmons saga. Very few folks thought they’d land a player anywhere near James Harden’s caliber. It took more than a little madness and devotion in order to wind up with this deal of all deals. But lately, many of those same folks are now second guessing the move in part because of Harden’s shaky playoff showing and pending (possibly record breaking) contract situation.

What’s going to happen there? Morey and Harden’s relationship has often been described as a marriage. But if marriages are about compromise and sacrifice then both sides may have to get uncomfortable in order to make this work long-term. (Suppose in this metaphor Joel Embiid is the newest bride in a modern situation.)

Harden and Embiid became the best pick-and-roll duo in the sport before Embiid got injured, then got injured again. By the end, the war of attrition that an increasingly uptempo league has become ground the Sixers down, chewed them up, and spit them out. But it wasn’t just that, they also lacked competitive fire.

Harden himself was one of the biggest culprits of all, proving some of his haters right by fizzling (or being sneakily more injured than they let on?) when the team needed him most.

So in light of the way Harden looked down the stretch the subject of the seven-time All-NBA player’s next contract is not a simple one.

“Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said following the team’s Game 6 elimination. “But that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.”

Joel may have tried to temper expectations and steel his teammate from unfair criticism. But what he’s saying might also happen to be the Sixers company line during negotiations this offseason. And Harden’s camp might contend that a full offseason of proper rehab, working with resident hamstring expert and VP of Athletic Care, Simon Rice, he should regain pre-hamstring issue form:

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Harden ranked third on the NBA’s KIA MVP ladder as recently as April 2021. If Houston James was an MVP, then pre-hammy Nets James was still All-NBA caliber. But is it possible that even that guy could be gone for good?

One big option

Harden has options. Frankly, one massive option. He can opt into the final year of his current contract, and net himself $47M for the 2022-2023 season. If he did that, he could open up a new fork in the road: a) see what he can get via extension from the Sixers or b) test unrestricted free agency come summer of 2023.

The alternative to that two-pronged path would be he declines that $47M option and becomes an unrestricted free agency this summer, marking the first time he’d experience UFA in his storied 13-year career.

Try substituting “It’s fun to be wooed” as an upbeat alternative to Avenue Q’s “It sucks to be me.”

If he could command a full max, he’s theoretically eligible to make upwards of $270M whether he opts out or not. Bryan Toporek of Forbes broke down some ways it might look:

Harden’s point of view

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six

Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Put on your beards for this one.

Back in Houston, not long after the small ball Rockets lost to the eventual champion Lakers, Harden received an offer to extend his deal. Already on a super max by 2020, with $133M remaining he reportedly turned down a “two years and $103 million on top of the remaining three years,” to stay put. He wanted to win a title, not continue on that very clearly sinking ship.

That decision was part of his strategy for making his way to Atlantic Ave. Brooklyn where he then eventually turned down a $161M extension by Oct. of 2021. He said no thanks to an extension with Houston that would have paid him more than $50M per season for his age 34 and 35 seasons. Then he turned down a deal that would have paid him upwards of $50M through his age 36 season in Brooklyn.

He’s said thanks but no thanks to a lot of money that doesn’t merely jiggle jiggle, but rather folds:

(The totals here are more accurate than the yearly salaries, use those as ballpark figures).

As Ramona Shelburne put it back in Feb.:

“When Harden considered signing an extension last summer, he handled it the way he had for his past two deals in Houston: Discussing the pros and cons of different contract iterations with the National Basketball Players Association. That’s why he didn’t want to pay an agent’s commission; he was a superstar player who needed no negotiation.”

He may have been thinking “OK, the ship is sinking in Houston, Mike D’Antoni is gone, Daryl is gone, I’ll turn down the money here and force a trade, maybe I’ll win a ring or two with Brooklyn or Philly before finally getting to see what free agency is all about, ‘cause by Summer of ‘22 I can command $270M anyway. I’ve never had a serious injury, this is the right call for me legacy-wise.

But oh those most carefully laid plans… Harden has now battled hamstring injuries (ranging from tightness with strength deficit to Grade 2 strains) off and on for the past 13-14 months. The Sixers admitted the issue “still wasn’t [healed]” by late March.

Fast forward to mid May and….

Yeesh.

So now you can imagine how he’d feel if the Sixers approached him with an offer which isn’t even half of the amount he recently hoped for, and far less than the sums he’s already turned down.

How much would you be willing to haggle?

Is there even a small chance here that the Sixers promised him the moon back in February but now have cold feet and after some unproductive negotiations he may decide he’d rather be elsewhere after all? If negotiations went south Harden could opt out if he has an offer from another team he prefers or he could opt in defiantly, absorb all the team’s flexibility while playing out the season on “borrowed time” playing not to get hurt while eyeing a bigger pay day in a warmer climate next summer, going through the motions during another year of Embiid’s prime.

So despite their very reasonable concerns, the Sixers probably don’t want to play too much hardball here. The whole marriage thing….

Sixers point of view

Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The best thing the Sixers have going here is that not many teams look like they’ll have oodles of cap space to pursue Harden. Sure, some teams might make some abrupt pivots to their plans and free some up if he were to hit the market. But as of now, no team will have the cash to straight up max him. That helps. But still, it would only take one team to talk themselves into and muster up a four-year $175M offer sheet and that could change everything.

Could Miami find a taker for Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson or others and make a splash? Might the Lakers find a home for Russell Westbrook somehow while selling The Beard on playing for his hometown L.A.?

James himself mostly cleared up ideas he could leave by saying simply “I’ll be here“ upon exit interviews. “Whatever it takes to help this team grow,” Harden said, adding “I’m in a really good situation in Philadelphia,” our Paul Hudrick reported.

Still, if Harden won’t cut them a break, those all-in sums are terrifying.

But if the alternative is simply not having him at all, letting him walk, or taking a crummy sign-and-trade return, then that’s scary too. How would Embiid feel having nothing to show for their Simmons trade return cause management changed their mind about paying Harden like they once did with Jimmy Butler?

If you’re the Sixers, your concerns are very real. But could there be a middle ground?

Middle grounds

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers

Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Ramona Shelburne, back on May 13, ventured:

“There are some very creative options that they can play with. If he does not pick up that player option, they can do a deal that’s more like four [years] for $120M, which is still $30M a year… they’d have to get creative, but there is an option where they could create a second or third max slot deal if he were willing to work with them on a much shorter or less expensive deal.”

If Harden would go for something like that, it would allow the Sixers to get really frisky in free agency.

We looked at how Bradley Beal might fit into an equation like that, parting with Tobias Harris (if not Tyrese Maxey) but now The WashPo reports Beal is leaning towards staying put. Zach LaVine might be on the move, could they lure him?

There are plenty of less pricey role players they could look at as well if they were suddenly flush.

Back on May 4, Sam Amick, on The Athletic NBA Show, said: “When the Sixers got him, their intel was that [Harden] would potentially be willing to take less. And obviously, you know, nobody knows him better than Daryl (Morey).”

Brian Windhorst was a little more specific, on a segment of First Take from early May, Windy said “It is extraordinarily likely that Harden will opt in to his $47.4 million salary for next season and then will negotiate with the Sixers on what sort of deal it’s going to be beyond the 2022-23 season.”

Jake Fischer put forth around the same time that there was no buyer’s remorse on Philly’s end and that they might back up the brinks here:

Here was a proposal Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer laid out when talking about some scenarios the Sixers should try for:

“A pragmatic outcome for all sides involved would be some type of like two-plus-one deal where he gets a max on short term money which would pay him well over $100M dollars so he gets a bag, he gets to still hold his max-salary status which is important to a lot of guys in the league and that’s a win.”

So crowdsourcing some of the suggestions we’ve seen throw out there, here are a few ball-park proposals:

I wasn’t precise on much above, so apologies if that’s not what they actually meant. I didn’t calculate the corresponding raises for Shelburne’s idea. Fischer didn’t explicitly state if his two-years with an option idea included the opt in but I guessed it did not, since he also discussed the Sixers’ interest in adding more help. Danny Leroux, The Athletic’s resident cap wiz, gave a must-read primer on this subject where those proposals from him were pulled.

And of all the ideas I’ve seen, I find Leroux’s “idea 1,” where Harden makes about $175M total, but “only” $30M for the upcoming season appealing in its compromising, and seemingly realistic nature.

I think Shelburne’s idea would be ideal from a Sixers standpoint but may not be terribly likely given some of the conversations that may have taken place back in February.

There might be a part of Harden that is tempted to “bet on himself” and simply opt in and play the season out trying to avoid signing a long-term deal when his value is at an all-time rock bottom. But after what he called a whirlwind two years, he may have sensed his own basketball mortality with all of these soft tissue injuries. It might simply be tempting to cut losses on past bags not grabbed and bank $175M through your age 37 season.

Morey, Elton Brand and Doc Rivers would probably enjoy any of these outcomes where Harden “only” makes about $30M in year one, because that would allow them to increase their chances in 2023 by adding more help now. Daryl often notes that the current year is the most vital year.

Ownership (and Harden) might prefer the Leroux “idea 2,” where Harden opts in and gets a front-loaded bag which then decreases over time. That path presents all kinds of cost-cutting functions down the road in terms of luxury and repeater tax fees, and lets them prep for Tyrese Maxey’s next, likely expensive contract.

There are tons of things to think about here. We didn’t get into the stuff where Harden simply walks, and they also trade Tobias Harris and pursue a handful of role players, or the iterations where they plan for a big summer of 2024 splash instead of one in 2023.

They need to keep Harden, but they need him to be flexible so that he can pursue a title. That was ultimately why he left money on the table back in Houston in the first place. Just one championship ring would force even Harden’s ardent haters to recognize one of the few greatest guards in NBA history. So what’s that magic number that gets them there?

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