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By Shams Charania, John Hollinger and William Guillory

James Harden is opting into his $35.6 million deal for next season in order for the 10-time NBA All-Star and the 76ers to work together on a trade out of Philadelphia, league sources told The Athletic.

The Clippers and Heat are expected to emerge as suitors for Harden, league sources say. Teams across the league who spoke with The Athletic understand that a player of Harden’s caliber will likely reach his preferred destination, especially considering Harden’s exit from Houston after the 2020 season. The 76ers have already begun the process of discussing deals for Harden with other teams, according to league sources briefed on the conversations.

The 76ers made it clear throughout the process that the franchise did not see a long-term future with Harden, sources said.

Harden, 33, averaged 21 points and 10.7 assists per game last season. He was traded from Brooklyn to Philadelphia in 2022 (along with Paul Millsap) for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks. Harden signed a two-year, $68,640,000 deal with the 76ers ahead of last season after accepting a pay cut of about $15 million in free agency.

Philadelphia finished 54-28 in 2022-23, falling in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Celtics.

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Why would Harden opt in?

First and foremost, it’s likely because there weren’t any suitors with cap room willing to pay him more than his $35.6 million this season. (Far be it from me to suggest that free-agent negotiations are happening before 6 p.m. EST on June 30; just call this a hunch).

However, it’s also his best pathway to get to a marquee destination. The fact that he opted into his deal rather than becoming an unrestricted free agent is initially surprising given his contract terms. Unlike some other players in this situation, Harden’s contract cannot be extended; he will certainly be a rental who will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and that potentially limits how much other teams might be willing to bid for his services.

Given those factors, arranging a sign-and-trade ahead of time that paid for him three years — the minimum required for a sign-and-trade — would have been a more ironclad way of assuring he got paid on a long-term deal.

Alas, a sign-and-trade deal had limits of its own because teams above the first tax apron cannot acquire a player in a sign-and-trade, and that designation includes most of the teams that Harden would plausibly wish to join.

The other key issue here is timing — the trade rules for acquiring Harden are much easier on tax teams, in particular, if he is dealt before June 30 rather than after, because once the clock hits midnight in New York on the night of the 30th, the new CBA is in effect and the outbound salary required to acquire him increases from $28.5 million to at least $32 million. — Hollinger

What would Philadelphia want?

The Sixers would likely be looking for a combination of players and picks that would help replenish the roster, even if it took more than one deal to pull off their eventual endgame. Given that the acquiring team for Harden would need to send Philadelphia at least $28.5 million, and that some partners may not have that quantity of expiring deals, there seems a high probability of a three-way transaction in the deal’s final stage.

In addition to draft picks and talent, the Sixers would also likely try to stuff the unwanted expiring contract of Furkan Korkmaz ($5.3 million) into a deal, and might also seek to pawn off the last two years and $22 million on P.J. Tucker’s pact. With the Sixers currently $7 million over the luxury tax line with just nine players under contract, they would need to cut considerable salary to get far enough beneath the tax apron to use their full nontaxpayer midlevel exception. — Hollinger

Who could bid for Harden?

The most obvious suspects are teams that were over the cap, because they’re the ones who couldn’t woo Harden with a free-agent deal.

By far the most obvious is the Clippers, who could acquire Harden by sending Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Bones Hyland, first-round pick Kobe Brown and a lightly-protected 2028 first-rounder to the Sixers for Harden and Tucker (let me emphasize that this is a hypothetical trade that I am proposing for illustrative purposes). The Sixers could stretch Morris’ money and have enough room left over beneath the apron to re-sign Paul Reed and use their entire midlevel exception.

The perennially star-hunting Knicks could put a similar package together by aggregating Evan Fournier, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley and one or more of their four 2024 first-round picks in a deal for Harden. Again, the Sixers could stretch the big expiring contract (Fournier) and build back with the younger arrivals.

By far the most hilarious scenario, however, is trading Harden to Phoenix for Bradley Beal, where he could reunite with Kevin Durant. Sadly, there are no indications as of yet that this idea has any basis in reality. — Hollinger

Does Harden fit “Heat Culture”?

If there’s anyone who doesn’t quite fit into the ideals of “Heat Culture,” Harden would be at the top of the list. He has a long history of late nights in Vegas, questionable fitness and lackluster defensive effort. But in the end, this league is all about talent.

And despite some of his shortcomings, Harden is still one of the most talented shot-creators in the game today. I still think Miami has Damian Lillard at the top of its wish list for this offseason, and there’s a big gap between him and everyone else. However, if Lillard’s intentions in Portland continue to look shaky, Harden could be a great candidate to provide the offensive boost the Heat are looking for.

I’m sure Harden wouldn’t mind life in South Beach either. If Harden does make this move, it would also be the second time in the last five years Joel Embiid would have to deal with a prolific guard leaving Philly to force his way to Miami. — Guillory

Required reading

(Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)