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June 28, 2023

What should a new Sixers contract for James Harden look like?

What would the ideal James Harden partnership with the Sixers be?

If you wrote a story every time someone reported on James Harden's future over the last two months, you would have used roughly as much computing power as Bitcoin farmers. Everyone has had a stance, a take, or a detail on what direction things are headed, and we will reach a merciful conclusion soon enough. 

To reiterate what we've reported here many times, the Sixers want to be in the Harden business and are hopeful of bringing him back, but the structure of that partnership still seems to be up in the air. As we await Harden's big offseason decision, let's take a look at the different deals that are likely to be considered here and the relative advantages/disadvantages of each.

Two-year deal: Big cash value, lower risk

At this point, it seems clear that James Harden will not be getting a full max from anybody, which is part of why he won't be getting a full max from the Sixers. Without the threat of Houston offering the full boat over four years, they can avoid the possibility of bidding against themselves.

However, if you are bringing Harden back on a shorter-term deal and hoping to contend in the immediate future, you do have to try to keep the mercurial star happy. Perhaps the best path, then, is to simply pay Harden a truckload of money over the next two years and then see where they're at after 2024-25. Harden is still a valuable contributor right now, and it seems unlikely that he would completely go off the cliff over the next two seasons.

The Sixers will not have functional cap space this year in basically any scenario thanks to the contracts of Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, one of which is slightly more problematic, so a two-year deal for a truckload of money doesn't change much of anything for Philadelphia this summer. While having Harden on a big contract next season would eat into any theoretical space they could have in the summer of 2024, having Harden back at all is already basically conceding that battle, especially once you factor in Tyrese Maxey's presumed extension that would begin next year. 

There is some downside to this approach — any deal at or approaching Harden's max in the short term is going to push Philadelphia toward the second apron danger zone. They got $2.8 million in relief when Montrezl Harrell declined his player option for next season, but Harden's max salary value on a projected $136 million cap next season would be approximately $47.6 million, pushing the Sixers over the estimated $165 million tax line with his salary alone, at roughly $169.7 million committed to just nine players. They would have under $3 million in breathing room under the first apron, but more importantly, they would have six roster spots to fill and slightly under $13 million in space under the second apron. Bringing back even two of their free agents would likely push them close to that number, and if they cross it, they lose access to team-building tools like the taxpayer MLE.

(As if this needs to be any more confusing or punitive — the taxpayer midlevel exception has been reduced to $5 million a year for no longer than two years.)

Even with those downsides, I think this is the clear best deal for the team, even if the cost goes up to or approaches maximum dollar value. I think fans will be mad if Harden gets a two-year deal in the neighborhood of $90 million, but it's better than many if not all of the alternatives.

Two plus one deal: The middle ground

So let's say Harden isn't down with that sort of approach and wants to feel some sense of power without being completely unreasonable. A two-year deal with a player option for a third year would appear to be the pathway to achieving that, with the caveat being that you'd have to figure out how to price that sort of deal.

A two-plus-one deal is a good-faith follow-up to Harden taking less money last season, but short of the all-in deal he has been after. It gives him a decent opportunity to win and (presumably) a good chunk of change in the short term, while providing him with options in the third year for whichever path he wants to take. If he wants to keep making a good deal of money, great, you have that. If he wants to coast toward retirement or take less money to play a smaller role on a real-deal threat to win it all? He can make that happen, too.

If I had to guess, and this is strictly a guess for the time being, I would say this is where these two sides land. Shocking — reporter predicts two parties with separate but related interests choose the middle-ground option.

Long-term: More years, lower cap hit

A long-term commitment has been the stated goal from the Harden camp dating back to the first Harden-to-Houston rumors we heard last Christmas. You can understand any player wanting as many years and dollars as they can get, but especially so in Harden's case. He has felt his body betray him in the not-so-distant past, and if he's honest with himself, knows he only has so many years left at close to peak performance level. Can you risk playing on prove-it deals right now?

But for those same reasons, teams are going to be reluctant to commit to him over those four years if it requires going up to the max dollar amount to make it happen. As far as we can tell, based on our reporting here and the work of plugged-in reporters elsewhere, the max dollars, long-term contract option isn't out there. So maybe a four-year deal comes with some appeal to the Harden camp. Could you convince Harden to come back at four years, $160 million, about $50 million under the max you could give him? More importantly, would you want to? And what is the cutoff for a four-year deal becoming too costly?

In the opinion of this writer, the years on this upcoming Harden contract are much more important than the dollars, even with the ramifications of the second apron looming. Being in the Harden business is a precarious enough as a short-term plan with his notable playoff highs and lows, and you marry the organization's long-term future to him, you add additional risk on multiple fronts. You're more exposed if Harden's body breaks down or Harden grows unhappy with the situation here, locked into a long-term deal at a time when those appear harder to get off of than ever before. Even if he remains healthy, it's not clear you can win anything of consequence with the Embiid/Harden duo spearheading the program, and you could be locking yourself into that future when many would say Embiid needs a more youthful, explosive partner to push him forward.

You could probably get a dollar discount on this sort of deal, but to what end? If Harden's next contract starts at or around his current salary number with yearly raises, he's still taking up over a quarter of your salary cap in the most optimistic scenario. 

What if Harden picks up his option?

A curveball option has been floated as a possibility, if a remote one, in the days leading into free agency. What if James Harden were to simply opt into his current deal and set himself up for free agency next summer?

The upside for Harden is that he would re-enter the marketplace next summer while hoping there's some sort of adjustment in how teams are operating with a year of new-CBA reality under their belts. With another season of strong play from a guy with a decorated resume, it's not out of the question he could get a long-term deal for considerable money next summer. Maybe he is just in a stage of his career where he'll have to accept one-year deals (or more likely, 1+1 deals with an option) in perpetuity, exerting maximum leverage on his current team to keep upping the ante each offseason.

Frankly, the Sixers should be thrilled if Harden decides to take this path. It would set them up for a 2024 summer with a plethora of options ranging from a retool to a full-scale teardown if everything goes wrong this season. They get another year of competitiveness, assuming everyone is healthy, without being committed to him and assuming the risk of a long-term partnership. Maybe you finally break through in the 2024 playoffs, you win a title, and everyone is happy no matter what the outcome is next summer — no one will care that much about an overpay or Harden walking if they get the job done. If they don't win and Harden disappears in a big game late in a series again, great, you have an easy way to appease the fanbase by letting him walk and seeing how you can reshape things in the summer.

I wouldn't bet on it happening, but it's an option that isn't off of the table yet.

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