The Philadelphia 76ers, after another second round playoff exit, are left with many questions about the roster moving forward into this offseason. At the top of the list is the future of James Harden: Will he stay in Philadelphia? If he does, what will his next contract look like? What version of Harden will the Sixers be getting if they do re-sign him? A lot of what the Sixers do this offseason will be determined by what president of basketball operations Daryl Morey chooses to do with Harden.
Harden has some options for how his next contract can play out. He has a $47.3 million player option for next season. If he picks that up, he would then be eligible for a four-year, $233 million contract extension that would have the Sixers paying him $61.7 million in the 2026-27 season. If he does not pick up the player option, Harden would hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career.
It would make sense for Harden to pick up the player option since there are not many other good teams who would be able to give him that type of money. Harden, after the Sixers' season ended in the Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat, did verbally commit to accepting the player option.
"I'll be here [Philadelphia]," Harden said. "Whatever allows this team to grow and get better and do the things necessary to continue to compete at the highest level."
However, will he be willing to take less money in a contract extension to help the Sixers be able to construct a more well-balanced roster? "Whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them," Harden said.
In 21 games as a member of the Sixers, he averaged 21.0 points while shooting 40.2 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from 3-point range. That was his lowest scoring average since he was a guard coming off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder back in the 2011-12 season. His scoring numbers dipped even lower this postseason when he averaged 18.6 points per game.
The history between Morey and Harden is well known, but it would be hard to believe he would be willing to fork over a max contract to Harden after the down performance he put together in Philadelphia.
The Sixers and Harden have multiple options for how to play this out. The first option involves Harden declining the player option, making him eligible for a five-year, $269.9 million max contract extension. This is presumably the worst option because of all the risks involved with Harden's play continuing to decline and strapping the team up against the cap for the next few seasons.
The second option, more of the wait-and-see approach, involves Harden accepting the $47.3 million player option for next season and not giving him a long-term extension this offseason. At this stage, the team would get an extra year of information to calculate into their decision about Harden's future with them moving forward. While playing it safe in the long term, going this route would cap the amount of other moves the Sixers would be able to make this offseason while also having them avoid paying big money long term to a player who has shown he is clearly not the dominant player he was in his days with the Houston Rockets.
The other option, and this is where things begin to get interesting, involves him taking a big pay cut to work out a team-friendly contract extension. This, depending on the size of the pay cut, could potentially when combined with some other cap-saving moves (namely trading away Tobias Harris) lead to the team opening up enough cap space to bring in another star player. The Sixers, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, are in the market for another star player to pair with Harden and Joel Embiid.
"I promise you that Daryl Morey has big, giant plans to acquire another star," Windhorst said back on May 16. "Whether he's going to execute it, I don't know. But part of getting that done is to require Harden to take some sort of pay cut."
Harden previously said he would be willing to take less money if it meant putting the Sixers in a better position to be able to compete for a championship. Also, after the performance he put together, the Sixers giving him a max contract would be a major overpay especially as he heads into his late 30s.
The 32-year old has been battling through multiple hamstring injuries throughout the last two seasons. Harden spoke after the Game 6 loss to the Heat about his struggles battling through not being 100 percent and being able to use the offseason to get healthier.
"Honestly, it's been a long two years for me. I'm finally starting to feel OK again," Harden said. "It will be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind though."
It became clear over the past few months of the season that Harden is not the player he once was. He did not possess the same explosiveness he once was able to use to blow by his defender in one-on-one matchups, something greatly hampering his offensive game. His scoring struggles could be a sign he is beginning to lose a step as he gets deeper into his 30s or it could be stemming from his hamstring not being 100 percent. Only time will tell the reason behind his drop in scoring.
Harden insists he is fully healthy and looking forward to having a full offseason to work on his game instead of having to focus on rehabbing an injury.
"I'm excited," Harden said. "I've been trying to get right through the course of a basketball season for two years straight and that's not it. You know what I mean? All last summer, I was rehabbing, and it was a little frustrating because I'm not used to going through something like that. It is what it is, I'm just happy to be healthy now. I've got a full summer to be straight and to do the things necessary to come back even better next year."
Will Harden, with a full offseason of being healthy and able to work on his game, bounce back to something more resembling his usual form next season? It is much more likely the version of Harden seen moving forward is one slightly better as a scorer than what he showed last season. He will have to rely more on running the offense and being a facilitator, something he has proven capable of doing when he averaged 10.5 assists per game over the last two seasons.
When the Sixers traded for Harden at the trade deadline, there was not much question to whether or not the team would elect to give him a long-term contract extension. However, his play over the past few months opened up a ton of question marks about his abilities moving forward. The days of the Sixers basically giving Harden a blank check for however much he wants should be over. It will be interesting to see how the negotiations play themselves out between Harden's camp and Morey in the coming weeks.