Mere minutes after the Philadelphia 76ers were vanquished by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals, James Harden was asked a simple question by a reporter: Would Harden, a pending free agent, take a pay cut in the short term in order to help the Sixers build out the rest of the roster around Harden and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid?
Harden answered the question diplomatically at the time, giving the following response: “I’ll be here. [I’ll do] 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.”
Harden’s comments sounded good at the time, but there were many who were skeptical that he would actually follow through with them. As we know now, though, Harden indeed lived up to his word by declining his $47 million dollar player option for the 2022-23 season and instead agreeing to a new two-year deal that will pay him $32 million next season and includes a player option for the second season. The deal isn’t yet finalized as negotiations are “still in progress,” according to Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, but the talks are in a “good place,” and will likely conclude in the near future.
By shaving $15 million off the amount owed to him next season, Harden, 32, created financial flexibility for the Sixers this summer — flexibility that the team used to bolster the roster with additions like P.J. Tucker and Danuel House. Such signings wouldn’t have been possible without Harden leaving some bread on the table. Plus, the organization was able to retain Harden while it simultaneously avoided making a long-term commitment to an aging player. For those reasons alone, the reported new deal for Harden should be considered a major victory for Philadelphia.
Given his performance during the postseason — 18.6 points, 10.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game — the Sixers likely had some reservations regarding Harden’s long-term outlook as an impactful player. Those reservations are shared by a plethora of pundits and a lot of fans. The former league MVP is clearly still extremely effective as a playmaker and a floor-spacer. His sheer presence out on the floor commands the attention of defenses in a way none of Embiid’s previous teammates has. However, he didn’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.
Harden was never necessarily an athletic high-flyer, but he looked occasionally sluggish during his first season with the Sixers, and at times he displayed a noticeable lack of burst. He had a tough time blowing past defenders on the perimeter, and a similarly tough time finishing over defenders around the rim. Without that burst as an offensive attacker that he displayed for a decade in Houston, Harden was forced to rely heavily on 3-pointers and free throws for his point production.
If the Sixers had signed Harden to a massive four or five-year extension, there’s a real chance that such a deal could become a liability on the back end. Overcommitting to a player with a [potentially] diminishing skill set could prove very costly, as it could hamstring the team’s ability to improve in the future. The team can hedge against that by signing Harden to a 1+1 deal, which will offer an extended opportunity to see how he looks physically after an entire offseason of training. It should help the team get a better gauge of just how much premium gas Harden has left in the proverbial tank. Remember, he was dealing with the hamstring injury that he suffered as a member of the Brooklyn Nets throughout last offseason, so he admittedly didn’t get as much of an opportunity to train at a high level as he would have liked and that may have impacted his performance.
“I’ve been trying to get right through the course of a basketball season for two years straight,” Harden said in May. “And it’s like, that’s not it. You know what I mean? All last summer I was rehabbing. It was a little frustrating because I’m not used to going through something like that, but it is what it is. I’m just happy to be healthy now. I’ve got a full summer to be straight and do the things necessary to come back even better next year.”
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In addition to seeing how Harden looks physically, the Sixers will now also get a [much] larger sample size to judge how well Harden fits alongside Embiid. The early returns on the pair were promising, especially in the pick-and-roll, but they were limited. So, instead of locking Harden in as Embiid’s sidekick for the foreseeable future, the Sixers can evaluate the duo over the course of next season and then go from there. If things work well, the Sixers can re-sign Harden again next summer (or the following). If not, the two sides can part ways along the same timeline. In this situation, the Sixers are positioned well for any eventuality.
While the reported deal is solid for the Sixers, it makes sense for Harden, too. Sure, he would lose money in the short term, but he can secure more overall income over the life of the contract if he picks up his option for the ’23-24 campaign. Plus, the deal basically would give him a chance to boost his own stock. If he comes out and has a stellar season and shows that his skills aren’t declining, he’ll put himself in a position to secure another big payday next summer. If not, he’ll at least have the security of an additional season at a hefty price point to fall back on.
Sure, Harden could probably have squeezed more money out of the situation, but there are other reasons why the deal is beneficial for him — namely the fact that the Sixers give him an excellent chance to continue to contend for his first title — and Harden, who has already banked over $250 million in career earnings — has made it clear that’s what’s most important to him at this point in his career. Also, putting the team first, as Harden appears to have done here, helps combat any lingering “he’s selfish” narratives.
Time will reveal how good Harden’s new deal truly is, but for now it certainly appears to be a prudent one for both sides.