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July 08, 2022

Report: James Harden expected to take $15 million pay cut to re-sign with Sixers

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James-Harden-Sixers-Heat_050822_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

James Harden was an absolute beast Sunday night in South Philly.

James Harden will reportedly take a $15 million pay cut on a deal to return to the Sixers, according to a new report from Shams Charania of The Athletic. While a Harden contract has not been fully agreed to or finalized, according to sources, it's a move that would provide both sides with benefits regardless of whether they remain together moving forward.

A $15 million pay cut would put Harden in the neighborhood of $32 million this season, which is in line with some of the rumors that have been floated up to this point but still a more significant downgrade in pay even beyond that. If we take Charania's reporting on its face, it would leave the Sixers with a salary sheet roughly $4 million under the cap apron. At this point, it's not super meaningful beyond slightly more trade flexibility and a (potential) opportunity to sign vet minimum guys, but every little bit counts when you're up against the hard cap.

A 1+1 structure gives both Harden and the Sixers an opportunity to run this back for a year and see where they're at. If Harden returns to form next season, it leaves him with the chance to opt-out again next summer and chase long-term security on a bigger deal, whether that's in Philadelphia or elsewhere. For the Sixers, a 1+1 deal would add some short-term stress if Harden has eyes on the exit, but it also puts them in a spot where their worst-case scenario is paying Harden for the next two seasons and then heading into the summer of 2024 with both Harden and Tobias Harris' contracts off of the books, gobs of cap space at their disposal to build a better group around Joel Embiid.

The first order of business is to note, even with the caveat that he is getting long-term money as a result, that Harden’s willingness to take less in the short term is an impactful decision for everyone else with the organization. If we're measuring up who the biggest winner is here, it's the Sixers. Had Harden simply decided to take the $47 million and change that was his right to claim, the Sixers would have had fewer avenues to improve the basketball team. At a bare minimum, their paths to getting better would have at least been more complicated. As it stands, Harden’s pay cut has allowed them to dangle the non-taxpayer mid-level exception in the marketplace, not to mention the bi-annual exception. The first domino of that decision came in the form of PJ Tucker, who the Sixers likely would not have been able to sign if not for Harden’s decision, and the same can be said about the Danuel House Jr. reunion.

Before we canonize Harden as the Patron Saint of Philadelphia, it should be said that whatever short-term sacrifice he is making financially comes secondary to what he has left to offer on the floor, max money or not. The reason a pay dip is meaningful is that the Sixers have committed to an immediate future of Embiid and Harden leading the way for the franchise and Tyrese Maxey in a giant supporting role, and all the rest of the pieces need to fit around that basic idea. In the case of Embiid, we can see clear as day that he can deliver MVP-caliber basketball on a semi-regular basis. Harden reaching that sort of level at all, let alone regularly, is not exactly a given.

Harden’s 2021-22 season, even the stint with the Sixers, is one whose value is hard to put in a neat little box. Philadelphia’s offensive improvement with Harden in the lineup was profound, and perhaps the most important thing we re-learned down the stretch is that Embiid is capable of being a high-level partner in a pick-and-roll attack. At their best, and with Embiid healthy, Harden proved more than capable of creating easy buckets for Embiid while capitalizing on the attention Embiid drew in the painted area. As a creator, I would imagine the Sixers came away from the season more than happy with Harden’s output, certainly noticing the number of open threes that clanged out for role players in big moments.

But, it should be noted, that you go out and acquire players like Harden because you can’t typically rely on role players to win you games when things slow down in the playoffs. Harden, in possession of one of the greatest regular-season scoring resumes of all-time, only approached his old self in short bursts and one-off performances last year. On nights where he looked to have some of his old burst, Harden was dangerous, capable of manufacturing free throws and providing Philadelphia with a steady drum beat. Too often, however, Harden was wholly reliant on the success of his stepback jumper to manufacture points, and as a result, fans were left wanting more from the Harden experience.

The end of Philadelphia’s season crystallized that struggle. A vintage Harden performance in Game 4 pushed the Sixers right back into a 2-2 standstill with Miami, only for the Sixers to turn in two straight putrid performances en route to a six-game defeat. With old friend Jimmy Butler putting the Sixers and their fans to bed in the final game of the season, Harden was MIA, drawing scrutiny for effectively disappearing in the biggest half of the season.

Early reports and rumors have been complimentary of Harden, noting his early start to the offseason program and Harden’s own end-of-season comments about being excited to get back to his old self. However he spends the summer, Harden is ultimately tasked with proving that his slide as a player last season was tied heavily to the hamstring issues he deal with a year prior in Brooklyn. There’s no way of knowing if this even comes down to the work — Harden’s body may or may not respond the way he wants, and the Sixers will be left to move forward as best they can either way.

A player who can average 21-7-10.5 while noticeably removed from their peak, a player who can manage that while actively making life easier for the team’s best player, that is a guy you want on the team and who is worth a good chunk of money. It is good to have Harden here for the short-term, and that should be said out loud. But the question for Philadelphia isn’t so much about the money or whether he’s productive as it is his fitness to be a title-driving star next to their alpha. Embiid may be their best player, but Harden will at times be more important as the guy organizing and running the team from the perimeter, determining the paths of crucial possessions. He must buy in further as a catch-and-shoot option, commit harder on the defensive end, and find ways to maintain or improve his effectiveness as he builds up more reps with his Philadelphia teammates.

For whatever excitement or concern you have about Philadelphia’s offseason moves up to this point, know that it is ultimately still up to Embiid and Harden to be franchise-driving forces. The ability to go out and pay full sticker price for Tucker is only as valuable as the stars can make it.

What does Harden have left? That’s what we’re going to find out, so long as there isn't a final hour failure that renders all this reporting moot.


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