When the Philadelphia 76ers traded for James Harden in February, the plan was to keep him in a Sixers uniform long-term, and that hasn’t changed. While speaking to media members at a press conference on Friday following Philadelphia’s season-ending Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey made it clear that the team intends to retain Harden, despite his current contract situation. Harden, 32, has a $47 million player option for next season that he could pick up, and he’s also eligible for a monster extension this offseason.
“That’s the plan is to have him back. That’s been the plan since the trade,” Morey said of Harden. “Obviously, we have to work with his representation and that’ll be between us to figure out how that works… He’s an incredibly talented player just like Joel [Embiid], just like Tobias [Harris], and I’m excited for Doc [Rivers] and his staff to have a whole offseason, work with the players, and come up with the best plan for the roster.”
Now, the question becomes what kind of financial agreement will Harden and the Sixers come to. The best case scenario for the Sixers, probably, would be if Harden simply opted into his player option for the ’22-23 season, and delayed a potential extension until next offseason. That way, the Sixers could see how Harden looks physically after an entire offseason of training — after all, Harden was dealing with a hamstring injury last offseason, so he didn’t get much of an opportunity to train as hard as he would have liked. Plus, then they’d have a larger sample size to judge how well he fits alongside Embiid. At that point, if the organization likes what it sees, it could opt to extend Harden at that point.
Harden, however, will likely want the added financial security that would come with an extension, so the two sides might ultimately end up meeting somewhere in the middle. While discussing his future in Philadelphia following Game 6 on Thursday night, Harden made it clear that he doesn’t plan to go anywhere. “I’ll be here,” he said.
When asked if he would potentially take a pay cut in order to help the team build out the rest of the roster, Harden had this to say: “Whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow, and put us up there with the best of them… We’re trying to win a championship. That’s the goal. Whatever that looks like.”
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Given his performance in the postseason, it’s somewhat tough to gauge Harden’s market value at this point in time. He’s still extremely effective as a playmaker and a floor-spacer, but he doesn’t appear to be the same lethal scorer that he once was when he was a perennial MVP candidate as a member of the Houston Rockets. That Harden would command a maximum extension, no questions asked. With the current version of Harden, it’s tougher to tell exactly how much he is worth.
Overcommitting to a player with a diminishing skill set could prove very costly for the Sixers in the long-run, as it could severely limit the team’s financial flexibility. And if Harden is unable to raise the team’s collective ceiling as he advances into his mid-30s, then the Sixers would be stuck. That’s why the decision that the Sixers face regarding Harden is such an intriguing one.
Harden’s contract discussions will be just a part of what promises to be an interesting summer in Philadelphia. Assuming that he ultimately remains with the Sixers one way or another, the front office will have to find a way to build a better — and deeper — roster around the duo of Embiid and Harden, because the roster that they had this season clearly wasn’t good enough.