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Shortly after the Sixers reportedly called off trade talks for James Harden, the disgruntled guard made his feelings about team president Daryl Morey known loud and clear.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Harden is unhappy with Morey “over the lack of a long-term, maximum-level contract offer,” which echoes previous reporting from Sam Amick of The Athletic. There’s just one problem: How many other teams are lining up to give him that kind of coin?
Harden spent six months leaking his interest in rejoining the Houston Rockets ahead of free agency, and the feeling was reportedly mutual. However, the Rockets changed course after hiring head coach Ime Udoka. They instead wound up signing Fred VanVleet to a three-year, $128.5 million contract.
“From everything we’ve gotten out of there, it was a matter that Ime didn’t want him,” a source told Steve Bulpett of Heavy Sports. “At the beginning, were they thinking about Harden? Yeah. But then they hired Ime, and Ime said, ‘It’s not going to work here.’”
Once the Rockets pivoted to VanVleet, Harden was out of realistic free-agent options. His only choices were opting out and re-signing with the Sixers or opting in and attempting to force a trade. He chose the latter, although that hasn’t panned out as expected, either.
In mid-July, Morey told 97.5 The Fanatic’s Anthony Gargano that he was “attempting to honor” Harden’s trade request, but he hedged before fully committing to trading him.
“If we don’t get either a very good player or something that we can turn into a very good player, then we’re just not gonna do it,” Morey said.
The Sixers’ decision to stop trade talks appears to be what prompted Harden’s outburst. That frustration is misplaced, though. If anything, he and his camp should be more annoyed with the Los Angeles Clippers, his preferred landing spot.
According to multiple reports, the Clippers were reluctant to part ways with Terance Mann in trade talks with the Sixers. Mann is a solid rotation player, but he’s turning 27 in mid-October and he averaged 8.8 points in 23.1 minutes per game last season. He is not the type of player for whom you typically draw the line in the sand when you’re trying to trade for a 10-time All-Star.
The Clippers “have been fairly unserious about what they’re willing to give up in order to acquire him,” Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice wrote in late July. “The prevailing sentiment seems to be that Harden is still valued, but on the team’s terms, which is a shift from the franchise-defining clout Harden had at his peak.”
That last bit is the point worth driving home. Harden seemingly still thinks of himself as one of the league’s best players, and therefore believes he deserves a long-term max deal. However, he’s turning 34 later this month, has now requested a trade from his third team in as many years and has a long history of playoff meltdowns. No team is likely to meet Morey’s asking price for a player with that track record, especially since Harden is guaranteed to become a free agent next offseason. (Since he’s only on a two-year deal, he’s ineligible to sign an extension with the Sixers or any team that trades for him.)
A Harden trade might be one of Morey’s last chances to retool the Sixers around Joel Embiid before the star big man issues his own trade request. That explains why they aren’t jumping at whatever the Clippers are offering, however underwhelming it might be.
“The Sixers really have not had any real interest in trading James Harden,” Wojnarowski said on Monday’s edition of NBA Today. “They can’t get value for him back that continues to allow them to be a contender.”
Still, the Clippers’ reluctance to move Mann in Harden trade talks—much less a star such as Paul George or Kawhi Leonard—speaks volumes about how they currently value him. Rather than seeing him as the missing piece to their championship puzzle, it seems as though they consider him a luxury rather than a necessity.
Harden is attempting to force a trade to ensure the team that acquires him will also gain his Bird rights. That will allow them to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him next offseason. Otherwise, he could find himself facing a similarly chilly free-agent market in 2024.
According to Keith Smith of Spotrac, the San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic are the only two teams that project to have enough cap space next summer to offer Harden anywhere close to a max contract. The Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons are the three other teams currently projected to have more cap space than the Sixers. Barring a drastic turnaround this season, none of those teams will put Harden closer to championship contention than the Sixers.
Even if Harden does eventually fat-suit his way into a trade, there’s no guarantee that whichever team acquires him—be it the Clippers or another franchise—will be open to offering him the long-term, max-level contract that he’s reportedly seeking. The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement contains stiff penalties for the league’s highest-spending teams, and we’ve already begun to see the effects of that this summer.
The Clippers waived Eric Gordon in late June, shortly before his $20.9 million salary for the 2023-24 season became fully guaranteed. In doing so, they trimmed their luxury-tax bill by roughly $110 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors traded Jordan Poole, whom they signed to a four-year, $128 million contract extension last fall, along with a future first- and second-round pick to the Washington Wizards for Chris Paul’s expiring contract.
“I think the biggest thing really is just financially we’re in a position where we had to make some decisions,” new Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic. “I think we were able to make a decision where we could free some of that while also still being highly competitive and having a chance to win a championship. It just ended up having to be a decision we had to make and so be it.”
Perhaps the Sixers did imply to Harden last offseason that they’d do right by him after he declined his $47.4 million player option and took a $14.4 million pay cut to give the Sixers enough space under the salary-cap apron to sign both P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. Granted, the league investigated whether the Sixers had a handshake agreement in place with Harden on a future contract, but it found no evidence of such a deal, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Either way, the new CBA might have changed that calculus. Maybe the Sixers were more amenable to giving Harden a big-money, long-term deal when the only penalty for going deep into the luxury tax was a higher tax rate and no access to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. However, the array of penalties that come with crossing the new second apron make it far more prohibitive for any team to sign Harden to that type of a contract.
Maybe Harden will have a huge contract year, break through in the playoffs and have suitors knocking down his door next summer. Maybe he’ll force a trade to a team that’s willing to give him a multiyear max deal regardless of how this year plays out. If not, he may eventually realize that type of offer is never materializing, whether from the Sixers or any other team.
It’s a tough lesson to learn, particularly when 38-year-old LeBron James is still fetching max deals from the Los Angeles Lakers. But he needs only to look at Russell Westbrook, his former teammate in both Oklahoma City and Houston, as a reminder of how quickly the NBA can change. Westbrook ended up settling for a two-year, $7.9 million contract with the Clippers this offseason after signing with them on the buyout market in February.
Harden likely could fetch at least the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception in free agency next summer, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll find a $30-plus million annual salary much less something closer to his max. That ship might have already sailed, in part thanks to the new CBA.
The sooner he comes to terms with that, the better off he’ll be for the rest of his NBA career.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.