The last time someone in a Sixers uniform had as low an approval rating amongst fans as James Harden seems to right now was 2021.

The player of the guys the Sixers traded to get Harden.

The last time anyone had seen Ben Simmons, Trae Young stood as the only physical obstacle preventing him from a dunk in the closing minutes of Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks. The intangible obstacle, of course, was Simmons' mind.

He was booed off the court as the Sixers choked away a 5-vs-1 playoff matchup, their third second-round demise in four seasons.

The last sighting of Harden in Philadelphia was eerily similar, the Sixers logging just one field goal in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter en route to squandering an opportunity to close out the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of their second-round series.

Harden scored 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting; dished nine assists; reeled in seven rebounds; recorded three steals; committed five turnovers.

He and his teammates were booed off the court as it sunk in that Game 7 in Boston was inevitable.

Still, another chance to be a hero. Another chance to prove that the 2022-23 season was different than all the others. That all of the people who penciled them in as a second-round exit were wrong all along.

9 points on 3-for-11 shooting, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals, five turnovers.

On one hand, you get where Sixers fans are coming from.

Harden has never led a team to the NBA Finals. He's repeatedly come up small in big playoff games. His style of play is characterized by significant boom-or-bust extremes.

"How many times can a player come up small in the same ways before failure becomes the expectation?," Harden critics will pose.

On the other hand, Harden just put together arguably the best point guard season in Sixers history.

He single-handedly powered the Sixers to victories in Games 1 and 4 of that Boston series. If he deserves criticism for doing little more than clocking into work in Games 6 and 7, Harden deserves credit for giving the Sixers a 1-0 series lead and later tying it up at two games apiece to trigger a best-two-out-of-three.

You might say that Harden did his job, stepping up to deliver a pair of victories in the series; that Joel Embiid deserves most of the blame for Philadelphia going out with a whimper without him having a signature performance despite being crowned league MVP early in the series.

There is truth to that.

Why should Harden be cast off for not stepping up in two close-out games when he was never even the best player on the team? Why should Harden draw the ire when Embiid is the one who never had a signature moment in the series? Isn't the guy who won MVP supposed to lead the way in the biggest moments?

It's more than fair to expect Harden to win the team a game or two as the second best player on the roster. It doesn't make any sense that he's expected to step up and lead the charge en route to all four wins; not when there's someone in front of him in the pecking order.

The rumors connecting Harden back to his old southeast Texas stomping grounds were widespread well before the Sixers met their mid-May demise. A disappointing playoff exit was only going to stimulate the buzz.

But, even since the days immediately following their elimination at the hands of the Celtics, those debriefed on Philadelphia's thinking have felt that the Sixers have projected confidence that they'll be able to re-sign Harden on more team-friendly terms than those that the point guard was believed to want.

"Scenario A would be to bring James back," President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey said at his end-of-season press conference. "Scenario B, if he's not back, will be we'll have to get creative. And we feel good about the tools available to us if that happens."

The messaging privately has consistently backed that sentiment Morey expressed at his press conference. The goal has always been to bring Harden back, a team source told 97.3 FM ESPN.

And whether you like Harden or not, that's ultimately the correct priority.

The decision to retain or part ways with a player of Harden's caliber in free agency boils down to simple economics.

No, not the approximate $47,600,000 maximum salary he'd be eligible for in the 2023-24 season should he decline the player option on his current deal.

Rather, the opportunity cost. There is an opportunity cost of letting Harden walk to Houston.

The Sixers acknowledge the Rockets as a legitimate suitor for Harden's services, league sources say. But, there hasn't been a sense that letting Harden turn to Houston without a max contract offer from Philadelphia would mark the last time they'd be in touch with the free agent guard.

For quite some time, Philadelphia's outward messaging has been that a good outcome would be a multi-year arrangement that checks boxes for both them and Harden, sources say.

And short of that multi-year contract being a max deal, keeping Harden around is the best outcome for the Sixers. The only alternatives available to the Sixers are the "gap year" concept that has been floated around publicly, and trying to add an above-average point guard elsewhere.

Informed conversations suggest that the "gap year" idea -- willingly letting Harden walk, with eyes on next summer's draft and free-agent classes -- is not an option the Sixers are considering.

That leaves the other free-agent options this summer - Kyrie Irving and Fred VanVleet, to name a few - as the other alternative. Of course, that is to say, when you're a team definitively closer to the luxury tax line than you are to the salary cap. the other option is ostensibly a sign-and-trade.

Irving, you might argue, is the best player on the market. Even ahead of Harden. Still, as mercurial as Harden is, Irving has proven to be a more risky investment in recent years. Armed with the reigning MVP in the middle of his prime, Irving's day-to-day presence at work being a question isn't a risk the Sixers can afford to take.

Perhaps the next best option is VanVleet. His better assist-to-turnover ratio and shot selection make VanVleet perhaps a less extreme boom-or-bust point guard. He certainly won't experience the lows that Harden can on any given night. There's also the pre-existing comfort with new Sixers head coach Nick Nurse. But, when the chips are down, your ceiling with VanVleet is lower than it is with Harden, and it's not particularly close.

"How can the Sixers possibly sell the fanbase on simply 'running it back' with Harden?," you might ask.

Well, it's simple. Philadelphia's immediate goal is to do what it takes to maximize its chances of winning, both now and in the future.

Perhaps Harden will never be a fixture on a title-winning team. But, relative to the other options as of late June, he gives the Sixers the best chance of accomplishing the goal.

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