The 76ers will be in a weird position this summer.
Even before Daryl Morey was named president of basketball operations on Nov. 2, 2020, the team had been in pursuit of James Harden. The Sixers unsuccessfully tried to trade for him in January 2021 before the Houston Rockets sent the guard to the Brooklyn Nets.
They finally got their man on Feb. 10 in a blockbuster deal with the Nets. And he hasn’t exactly made the impact that was expected for a Sixers squad that suffered a disappointing exit in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Harden was a ghost as they were eliminated with Thursday’s 99-90 Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat.
The perennial All-NBA selection has had some moments. But for the most part, he hasn’t looked like the guy who won the 2018 MVP and three scoring titles with the Rockets. The 32-year-old has lost some quickness and can’t get past defenders like he once could. Harden is not getting to the foul line as much these days either as a result of the loss of speed and officials swallowing the whistle on players who were once called for fouls.
Harden did look good against the Heat in Game 4 of this series. He knocked down his patented step-back three-pointer on that night, but he failed to produce outside of that one game.
In Thursday’s elimination game, Harden had 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting to go with nine assists in 43 minutes. He did not score a point after intermission while attempting only two shots.
Harden is certainly a good player, but having him as one of your two best performers doesn’t come without drawbacks. He has lost a lot and is not a good defender. And he’s not playing at a maximum-salary contract level at this stage of his career.
That’s why the Sixers will be in a weird position this summer.
Harden has said that he’ll opt into his $47.3 million player option for next season. If he picks that up, he’ll be eligible to sign a four-year, $233 million contract extension with the Sixers that would pay him $61.7 million in the 2026-27 season.
It would make a lot of sense for Harden to pick up that option instead of testing free agency this summer. There aren’t many good teams that can offer him that type of money and he could only land with another contender through a sign-and-trade situation.
Give Morey, who served as Rockets general manager during Harden’s tenure, credit for delivering Harden to the Sixers. But while he coveted him at the trade deadline, it’s hard to imagine Morey will mortgage the franchise’s future after what we’ve seen this season.
Asked if he’s willing to take less money in an extension, Harden said he’s willing to do “whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them.”
The 21.0 points Harden averaged in 21 regular-season games as a Sixer marked his lowest scoring average since he produced 16.8 points as a third-year reserve guard with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2011-12 season.
He shot 40.2% on field goals and 32.6% from three-point range, the worst percentages of his career.
The 13-year veteran averaged 19.0 points and 10.2 assists in the opening-round series against the Toronto Raptors. He averaged 18.1 points and 7.0 assists in the series against the Heat. Harden has mostly played a facilitator role as a Sixer.
“For me, personally, this has been a long year,” Harden said. “But since I’ve been here, it’s been great. We’re just trying to build something so fast. We’re trying to build a championship contender team so fast, which I still think we are. We’re just missing a few pieces.”
Asked to evaluate Harden’s play as Sixer before Game 6, Doc Rivers declined.
“I’m not doing that right now,” Rivers said. “We’re in the middle of a series, you know? We’re going to play to win tonight. That’s all we’re going to focus on. The evaluations come later.”
Rivers still declined to evaluate Harden’s play following the game.
“I’ll do that later,” he said. “I’m not going to do that after the game. We all showed up to the win the game. Not one of us didn’t, all right?
“I know how this goes. Whenever a team loses, we all look for blame. That’s what we all do. I don’t know when that started, but we do.”
The Sixers’ best bet is to pick up Harden’s option at a fair rate for a shorter-term deal.
They gave up Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks for Harden and Paul Millsap. The Sixers had less than half a season with Harden. You don’t want that type of investment to walk out the door. But you don’t want to pay a guy already in decline $61.7 million five seasons from now.
He’ll probably opt into the final year of his deal under the assumption that the Sixers will give him an additional two or three years.
But one has to assume the two sides came to some type of agreement before the trade.
It wouldn’t make sense to give Brooklyn all those assets for a player only to let him walk at season’s end. At the same time, it’s going to be tough to rationalize giving him a $233 million extension.
“I’ll be here,” Harden said, “whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”