About an hour after the Philadelphia 76ers season ended in dispiriting fashion, James Harden was asked whether he would take less than his $47.4 million player option for 2022-23. In many situations, the answer would be an easy no. But in leaving that door open, Harden said he will be in Philadelphia next season.
“Whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them,” Harden said.
The other part of that question, and the reason Harden might be willing to take less money for 2022-23, is the idea of more long-term security in the form of a contract extension. President of basketball operations Daryl Morey was asked a similar question the day after Harden spoke.
“That’s the plan to have him back; that’s been the plan since the trade,” Morey said. “We have to work with his representation, and that’ll be between us to figure that out, how that works.”
There are many reasons the Sixers lost to Miami in the second round of the NBA playoffs, but three loom larger than the rest. The first is that Joel Embiid was unavailable for the first two games and appeared to be exhausted by the last two. That bit of misfortune deserves to be separated because there isn’t much a team can do to overcome a fluky injury to its star player. Embiid certainly isn’t going anywhere.
The other two reasons will inform the Sixers’ offseason, though. The roster’s depth and general toughness paled in comparison to Miami’s. And outside of some incredible shot-making at the end of Game 4, Harden wasn’t up to the task against a team that made the Sixers tap out.
We are getting closer to finding out what the Sixers’ path is. And how the front office chooses to proceed with those issues is how the offseason should be viewed.
Unlike the top of the Philadelphia Phillies batting order finally getting on base so Bryce Harper can mash, the Harden contract is the table-setter for the Sixers’ offseason. Everything else this summer — and much of what the Sixers will be able to do in future years — will be informed by what happens with Harden.
Some of the importance is necessitated by Harden’s contract. The deadline for Harden to opt into his player option for 2022-23 is June 29, a few days before free agency starts. Even so, the constraints of the Sixers are under attempting to bolster their depth, as a team operating above the salary cap depend on how much money Harden is making next season. But a long-term extension also brings long-term consequences.
Let’s dig into some of the potential ripple effects, without getting too deep into the minutiae of the collective bargaining agreement.
To opt in or not opt in
The first variable is that Harden could just opt in to his contract. That could be for one season or to set up an extension, as Danny Leroux discussed. But what would Harden’s $47.4 million salary mean for the Sixers this season?
With Harden opting in and Danny Green getting waived, the Sixers would have 12 players under contract and the No. 23 pick in the draft. If the pick is also kept and rostered, the numbers would total 13 players and about $146 million. But that could change depending on other moves (for example, using the pick and a young player to move Green’s salary).
When thinking about filling out the roster, the salary cap is not the most important number. It’s all about the apron.
The apron, which is currently projected to be at $155.6 million for the upcoming season, acts as a hard cap for the upcoming season if the Sixers execute a sign-and-trade or use the larger midlevel exception (MLE). Yielding the larger MLE in free agency, with a starting salary of up to $10.3 million, would allow the Sixers to shop for better players as they search for badly needed depth.
But the Sixers wouldn’t have the money to hand out that contract in the current scenario, and even if they could wiggle into the larger MLE neighborhood with some moves at the back end of the roster, being right near that hard cap is restrictive during the season. Once one of those moves gets made, teams can’t go over that $155.6 million number all year. They call it a hard cap for a reason.
The easiest way to create some breathing room under the apron is for Harden’s cap hit to change from $47.4 million to something less than that. How far might he be willing to go? That is of massive importance, and there is a good chance we could learn that in the coming weeks.
Perhaps the Sixers decide that the larger midlevel exception and the potential of being hard-capped aren’t worth the hassle. Maybe another major move is made to clear some money off the books. In those cases, Harden’s 2022-23 salary would mean less for filling out the rest of the roster. But these details all matter because the Sixers are trying to win now. Embiid has finished second in the MVP race for two consecutive years, and he is very much in his prime and deserves to play for an organization trying hard to win the 2023 NBA title.
There also are future considerations, as well. Let’s go over them briefly.
If Harden opts in and doesn’t extend, this becomes a crucial year for him. With a good season, he could secure a contract from the Sixers or elsewhere in what should be a more favorable market. Alternatively, the Sixers could move on from him if this season goes poorly and Harden’s play continues to deteriorate. That would be a rough outcome after attaching two first-round picks with Ben Simmons to get Harden.
If the apron and the larger midlevel exception are what could be crucial this season, Tobias Harris’ current contract and Tyrese Maxey’s next contract are the ones to watch. Harris has two seasons left at a combined $77 million, a contract that expires after the 2023-24 season. That dovetails with the last season of Maxey’s rookie contract and, likely, a hefty extension for the explosive young guard starting in 2024-25.
As of now, the only realistic salary on the Sixers’ books for the 2024-25 season would be Embiid, Maxey’s qualifying offer and Jaden Springer, if he’s still around. That is only $64 million, which opens quite a bit of potential space under a salary cap that could be around $130 million. The same goes for 2025-26, when, as Derek Bodner has pointed out, the new league television deal kicks in.
Why does this all matter? If Harden were to take less money for more long-term security on a multiyear extension, his salary cuts into some of that space in future seasons when he could potentially be, um, a tad overpaid. That affects how the Sixers could potentially build around Embiid in his 30s and an ascendant Maxey, even if “potentially” is the keyword there in a league that changes daily.
The dollars are all that matters for the Sixers this season, but the years also are critical and a tricky balancing act. And as much as the Sixers need to equip Embiid with a championship-level roster this upcoming season, Morey gets paid to look toward the future, as well.
The Sixers potentially could make a big splash with other areas of the roster outside of Harden. A medium-sized splash, a jackknife compared to the full cannonball, could even change some of the calculus when it comes to maximizing both short and long-term gain.
For the Sixers to compete next season, Harden likely will have to be a more consistent player than he was this past spring. But another avenue the team could take toward improvement is bolstering the depth, which, as we’ve gone over, Harden plays a part in.
Soon, we will learn what “whatever it takes” means.
(Photo of Harden: Bill Streicher / USA Today)