When James Harden entered the NBA in 2009, the league’s highest-paid player, Kobe Bryant, made just over $23ma year. Now, there are 50 players making more than that sum, and the highest-paid among them, Steph Curry, will make a hair over $48m in 2022-23.
But when Harden declined his player option of $47.3m next season to sign a new two-year contract (with a player option in Year 2) worth $68.6m that will see him take a $14m discount next year, he became the first star player to take a pay cut of that magnitude in the modern history of the league. After all, this isn’t Dirk Nowitzki taking a team-friendly deal at 39-years-old or Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh losing out on a couple million in the prime of their careers. Harden took a big pay cut with the aim of helping his Philadelphia 76ers build a championship contender around himself and co-star Joel Embiid, reportedly telling Sixers’ president of basketball operations Daryl Morey “to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over.”
That pay cut helped the Sixers sign veteran forward PJ Tucker to a three-year, $33m contract, prying him away from the rival Miami Heat, who beat the Sixers in the 2022 playoffs. Embiid specifically mentioned Tucker as someone who plays with the kind of toughness and physicality that the Sixers lacked, saying, “since I’ve been here I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those type of guys… we never had [a] PJ Tucker.”
The Sixers also signed Daniel House Jr to a two-year, $8.4m contract and Trevelin Queen, the 2021-22 G League MVP. The Sixers added depth, athleticism and shooting to a team that could have gone to the NBA finals last year had Embiid not suffered an orbital fracture and torn ligament in his thumb during the playoffs. They wouldn’t have been able to add those players – and improve their title chances – if not for Harden’s pay cut.
Harden is a former MVP, a 10-time All-Star, and a three-time scoring champion who has every individual accolade possible, but he has never won an NBA championship. You would think that his willingness to do everything in his power to compete for a championship would be commended.
But instead his decision to take a pay cut has been met with cynicism by pundits and fans – at least those outside of Philadelphia.
ESPN’s Max Kellerman echoed a lot of peoples’ sentiments when he said: “The reason I’m being cynical is because … it’s doing two things at once: it does help them sign guys and everything, House and PJ Tucker – but really what it also does is get him an extra [guaranteed] $27m and another year [on his deal]and maybe what he’s feeling now is: ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get that in two years.’” Others have speculated that Harden will make the money back in some mischievous way, either off the books or in the form of a secretly promised long-term extension next offseason.
But that’s all just speculation, and nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, as one injury at age 32 could significantly impact Harden’s future earnings. This was possibly his final opportunity to cash in – especially with his skills apparently on the decline. But instead of opting into his $47m player option next season or taking the maximum amount as a free agent on the open market – which the Sixers would have likely had to match, since they have such little leverage and couldn’t watch him walk for nothing – he took a discount. That is what we know.
“[I’m] cynical only because people a lot of times frame things as if they’re not self-interested, and they’re almost always self-interested,” Kellerman added, in the same breath acknowledging that Harden turned down long-term extensions from both his previous teams, the Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets, because he didn’t like the direction the franchises were headed. So yes, it is a self-interested move, but not speaking monetarily — maybe the idea that people can have self-interests outside of money is too hard for some people to understand.
Aside from speculating about Harden’s hidden agendas, what jars is that the same people who criticize players such as Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal for taking the most money possible to stay with their middling franchises – ones that have failed to build championship-caliber teams around them time and again – also criticize Harden for taking less money to try to win a championship. The same people who laugh at Chris Paul and Charles Barkley for never winning a title will laugh at Harden taking a pay cut to try to do so.
Perhaps it’s because of Harden’s past that he’s criticized in this way. After all, this is the same player who forced his Rockets to trade a prime Chris Paul for an ill-fitting Russell Westbrook because he grew frustrated with the partnership. It’s the same player who forced his way from the Rockets to the Nets after showing up unfit to play, and then from the Nets to the Sixers after growing frustrated with the Kyrie Irving situation, all within the span of one year. Not to mention the same player who, um, enjoys a good party. But is it fair to attack Harden for learning from his past and finally hunkering down with one team and doing everything he can to help them win?
Harden seems to be at a point in his career where he is willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team and, most importantly, for his first NBA championship. After making $269m in his career on the court and more than $200m from Adidas (plus more from other sponsorships) off it, Harden is willing to leave a significant amount of money on the table in order to achieve a lifelong dream of winning a champion. And that’s somehow seen as a bad thing.
The real reason that so many people seem to be upset with Harden’s decision is either because they don’t like Harden based on what he’s done in the past, or because they are simply jealous that the star player is on their favorite team won’t do the same. That isn’t to say that other star players should feel pressure to take a discount like Harden did – only that if they do, they should be lauded, not questioned.
After all, it’s decisions like these that make a salary-capped league like the NBA more competitive. The Sixers could now realistically compete with the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Milwaukee Bucks in a playoff series, and that makes for good television if nothing else.
When it comes to creating a healthy working culture – something that the Sixers have been unsuccessful at over the course of Embiid’s tenure – a move like this could help foster a lot of goodwill among the rest of the roster, with other players more likely to sacrifice on and off the court for the greater good of the team.
The Sixers probably won’t win the championship this coming season, but sometimes the method matters just as much as the results. And by giving them a slightly better shot at winning a title when depth is more important than ever and when most stars seem to be more focused on maximizing their earnings than winning, that’s commendable. And more than that, it could be inspirational.
Harden could set a new precedent in the NBA for other superstars to follow. Even if the Sixers don’t win it all, Harden could show the next generation that once you’ve gained enough individual accolades and made enough money, you can go for it, regardless of what the talking heads say. Plus, if Harden does win a championship or even two, there’s no telling how much more money he could make in sponsorship deals and post-career opportunities due to his success, like Garnett starring in Uncut Gems.
Harden could have taken the easy way out and cashed in, but instead he did what few superstars were willing to do before him and put his money where his mouth is. Now we wait and see what impact that decision will have on the future of the NBA.