More Sports:

June 28, 2023

James Harden opts into contract, Sixers working on trades for star guard

The Clippers are the most likely trade partner for Philadelphia, reports say.

James Harden will pick up his option for the 2023-24 season, a source confirmed to PhillyVoice on Thursday, a surprising decision that seems to rest on a disagreement between the Sixers and their star guard on how to conduct summer business. And the word from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski is that Harden will work with the Sixers on a trade to another team. 

Sources who spoke to PhillyVoice on the condition of anonymity said that the Los Angeles Clippers had reached out to the Sixers earlier this week in an attempt to gauge Philadelphia's interest in a deal for the veteran guard. 

A deal for Harden would have seemed like a remote possibility as recently as a week ago. Had Harden opted out, executing a sign-and-trade with the Clippers would have proved to be an extreme challenge — L.A. would have needed to let Eric Gordon go, dump one of Marcus Morris or Norman Powell for no incoming salary, and then renounce the rights to Mason Plumlee. All of this would bring the Clippers just a hair under the apron, with basically no wiggle room the rest of the season unless they managed to cut salary in that theoretical sign-and-trade. But with Harden opting into his deal, the Clippers now need to think primarily about matching salaries and putting together a proper offer. 

And the Clippers have begun to make moves in order to clean up their cap sheet, signaling that something bigger could be coming. Eric Gordon's non-guaranteed salary was declined by the Clippers this week, bringing down their cap sheet by roughly $20 million and getting them closer to a workable deal under the new CBA rules. 

Another wrinkle of the opt-in: Harden is eligible to be traded immediately, whereas he would be tradable no sooner than December 15th if he agreed to a new deal this offseason. In the Clippers example, a move sooner than later would bring some clarity to an organization that looks destined for a shake-up under the new CBA. They are currently scheduled to have eight different players making over $10 million, with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard leading the way at $45.6 million each.

A league source also confirmed that the New York Knicks have expressed interest in Harden, confirming reporting from Wojnarowski following Harden's opt-in on his deal.

The first question to ask would be a simple one — why? A source told PhillyVoice on Thursday that Harden was looking to play for a contender and make a lot of money, the subtext being that he wanted to play for a different potential contender and in a place where he could be making more money over the long term. The Sixers have been willing to give Harden a lucrative deal in free agency but have indicated throughout the free agency period that the full max for Harden was unlikely, perhaps steering us toward the point we arrive at today.

Could there have been a breakdown in the process leading into free agency, setting off this chain of events? The Sixers were hit with a huge fine and docked multiple draft picks as a result of tampering charges last offseason, after manuvering to sign P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. in free agency. The team was unable to formally exchange potential proposals and contract terms with Harden until this Friday, with Harden ultimately choosing the security/stability of that one year at $35+ million.

With Harden expected to pursue a long-term deal this offseason and the threat of a Houston Rockets reunion looming on the horizon, his return to Philadelphia looked like it could require an expensive, long-term pact at times throughout the last six months. That Houston threat appeared to fade over the last month or two, with the Rockets associated with other free agents this summer, namely Fred Van Vleet, Dillon Brooks, and Brook Lopez. And it brings us to this moment today, with Harden deciding to wield some leverage to potentially force his way elsewhere

At present, the Sixers and Harden are mutually working on potential trades, though the possibility remains that Harden could return in the right scenario. Based on how the Sixers have handled big trades under Morey up to this point, Philadelphia could end up waiting out the initial flurry of deals and let this play out further into the offseason. Stay tuned.

This story is developing.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports