July 20, 2022
James Harden has agreed to a new deal with the Sixers, with Harden expected to sign a two-year, $68.6 million contract to return to Philadelphia, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported on Wednesday evening. He will have a player option on the second year of the deal.
Harden is set to make $33 million in 2022-23, a paycut north of $14 million from the deal he opted out of this offseason. That's around a $600k difference from reporting that suggested he would take a $15 million hit this year, but in any case, Harden has given up a significant sum of short-term money.
What has he gotten back in return? A 1-plus-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. Harden has conducted a decent number of interviews already this season — mostly to promote a new wine venture — with Harden vocalizing optimism about his health and his ability to return to form in nearly all of them. Scattered videos have shown him in the gym or in parts unknown working out, whether with friends or Sixers teammates.
The best-case scenario for both parties is that Harden looks like an MVP-caliber player again (which he was his first year in Brooklyn), and the two sides meet again next summer to reach a long-term agreement. Though there will still be concerns about how Harden will hold up as he enters his mid-to-late 30s, a resurgent season would likely push the Sixers further up the NBA hierarchy, and would quiet concerns about decline that have popped up over the last year or so.
The short-term benefits are almost all on the team's end. For the Sixers, a 1-plus-1 deal adds 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. If Harden never recaptures the old magic, the hope is that Maxey has progressed enough to be first lieutenant to Joel Embiid, and that you can find a way to put the right guy(s) next to them in the years that follow.
We have also already seen the Sixers benefit from a roster-building standpoint as a result of Harden's contract. 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. Signing P.J. Tucker likely would have been impossible if not for Harden’s decision, and the same can be said about the Danuel House Jr. reunion. As recently as this week, Harden indicated in interviews that he told Philadelphia's front office to use whatever they needed to in order to improve the roster, and to simply give him whatever is left.
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.
Now that the numbers for the Harden deal are in, we can also start doing a bit of projecting for what's left to do and what they have left to offer. Napkin math says the Sixers have a little under $4 million in space under the apron, which gives them wiggle room on two fronts: trades and minimum signings. On the trade front, things are effectively where we assumed they would be all along. As a taxpaying team, the Sixers can bring back a maximum of 125% of the outgoing salary in a trade plus $100k, with the additional limitation that they need to remain under the apron as a hard-capped team. Franchise-altering trades are not likely to be in the cards this year, though you never say never.
In theory, the Sixers are going to have room to sign a player to a veteran minimum contract without going over the cap, though they would need to clear roster space in order to make that happen (and a second veteran mimumum deal gets more complicated). Keep a close eye on the guys with non-guaranteed money as we approach the start of next season — Isaiah Joe's deal is non-guaranteed unless he's on the roster as of October 23rd, Charles Bassey has just $74k of his $1.8 million guaranteed until January 10th, 2023, and Trevelin Queen has a partial guarantee of $300k. If the Sixers ultimately decide they need some veteran depth, either behind Joel Embiid or elsewhere on the roster, those are the guys who make the most financial sense to look long and hard at. Paul Reed is also on a non-guaranteed deal, but he's by far the safest bet to stick and play a role this year. As it stands, the Sixers already have 16 rostered players and will need to cut down by one before the season starts regardless.
(As a refresher, while there is a salary scale for minimum contracts dependent on years of experience, scaling from zero to 10-plus years, any one-year, minimum contract for players in at least their third season is partially reimbursed by the league. A player on such a deal will count on the cap sheet for the equivalent of the veteran minimum for a second-year player, currently estimated at around $1.8 million.)
Soon enough, we will get to hear Harden tell his side of the story once again, once he and his new teammates make their first appearance in front of the media this summer. The pageantry aside, this mostly puts the bow on Philadelphia's offseason, one we will discuss and debate in the weeks ahead.
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