James Harden picks up player option, forgoes free agency
James Harden has picked up his player option with the Sixers for the 2023-24 season, a league source confirmed to 97.3 ESPN.
The option will pay the star point guard $35,640,000 in the second and final season of the one-plus-one deal he signed with Philadelphia last summer.
The prevailing reports are that the Sixers and Harden will work together to find a trade for the guard.
The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers are among the teams likely to discuss trades for Harden, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Since the first few days following the Sixers' Game 7 loss to the Celtics, sources maintained that Philadelphia's goal was to keep Harden around, with one source suggesting that a good outcome would've been a multi-year deal that checked boxes for both sides.
But, sources familiar with the Sixers' thinking also expressed that Philadelphia wasn't interested in simply signing Harden on whatever terms he desired, be it a max or something else.
That he elected to pick up his option instead of pursuing a multi-year deal indicates that, whether it be in contract terms or basketball situation, the market didn't present something suitable for what Harden wanted. Not even from his beloved Houston Rockets.
As for what happens now, there are a few options. First, the more unlikely one. The Sixers could salary-dump him to a team that has cap space.
At nearly $61 million, the Rockets loom as the team with the most cap space in the league. But, if they aren't interested in his services, the teams that have significant cap space either don't need another guard or aren't on a timeline to help Harden contend for a title immediately.
Given Harden's history with Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey, a salary-dump trade seems unlikely.
The other option would be to trade him to teams that don't have cap space. In that scenario, a trade partner could take back 125 percent of what they send out in a Harden deal as long as they aren't over either tax apron. Teams that are over either tax apron can only take back 110 percent of what they send out in a Harden deal.
But, the Sixers would want to move on that type of deal quickly. The quicker teams spend money when free agency opens, the quicker they'll be over the tax aprons, and the more the Sixers' pool of potential trades shrinks.
In that scenario, of course, the Sixers are doing some bargaining to bring back assets that can help Joel Embiid compete for a championship right away.
Free agency opens at 6 p.m., Eastern time, on June 30. As odd as it sounds, Harden opting in actually makes the Sixers' moves a bit more interesting for all the reasons we've just outlined.
If we assume there is no Harden trade before the opening bell of free agency on Friday evening, the Sixers will enter the sweepstakes more than $7 million below the luxury tax line. Simply re-signing their own free agents would put Philadelphia over the tax line, if not have them flirting with going over the first apron. Any additional signings would likely have to be done using the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5 million), almost certainly putting them over the first tax apron. That means they would only have the remainder of the taxpayer mid-level exception (if there is anything left at that point) and veteran minimum deals at their disposal through the rest of free agency.
But, with a Harden trade now ostensibly in the works, so many possibilities are suddenly on the table.