Reports: James Harden Opting Out of 2022-23 Player Option, Freeing Up Sixers for Free Agency Moves

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly 76ers Editor

According to multiple reports, Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden has decided to opt out of his $47.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season. The Athletic's Shams Charania was first to report the news.

Harden is eligible to receive up to $46.5 million next season on a new contract for either the Sixers or another team. He can sign up to a five-year, $269.9 million deal with the Sixers or a four-year, $200.1 million deal with another team. According to Charania, Harden "intends to return on a contract in free agency that gives the team financial flexibility to bolster the roster." Harden opting out and taking less money on a presumed contract extension vastly opens things up for the Sixers heading into free agency.

One important thing to note moving forward regarding the salary cap is the reports from earlier Wednesday afternoon of a projected raise in the NBA's salary cap for the 2022-23 season. Previous projections had the salary cap being at $122 million and, for the Sixers' purposes, the apron threshold at roughly $155 million. The reported salary cap raise will move those numbers to $123.655 million for the salary cap and $156.983 million for the tax apron threshold, according to Spotrac's Keith Smith. This will also raise the value of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (NTMLE) to $10.49 million. All of those numbers are projections, the NBA will send out the official salary cap numbers for next season at some point before Thursday's 6 p.m. start of free agency.

Harden opting out of his contract and taking less money on a presumed contract extension will very likely result in the Sixers having access to the $10.49 million NTMLE. The team's interest in veteran P.J. Tucker, who declined his $7.35 million option with the Miami Heat, is well known. Keith Pompey of the Inquirer reported on Tuesday night the Sixers are expected to use the NTMLE to sign him to a three-year, $30 million contract with $27 million guaranteed once free agency begins.

The Sixers, depending on how much of a pay cut Harden takes, have multiple paths forward to clear enough space to use the NTMLE. The team currently has $5.293 million of space under the tax apron threshold. If Harden were to take a starting salary of $38 million next season, the Sixers would have enough space for both the NTMLE and the bi-annual exception (BAE) which is valued at $4.105 million. According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, Sixers' president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was telling player's agents he expected to have access to both the NTMLE and the BAE. This option would leave the Sixers with no breathing space under the tax apron and a full 15 players on the roster. If the Sixers signed Harden to a three-year contract, this would limit him to a maximum of roughly $128.3 million with the standard 8% raise per season.

The most Harden could make next season with the Sixers still having room for both the NTMLE and the BAE is $41.236 million, according to Bryan Toporek of Liberty Ballers. This would result in, if he signed a three-year extension, him making a total of roughly $134 million. In this scenario, the team would have to clear about $3.2 million. This could be done by trading away Furkan Korkmaz ($5 million cap hit) for either future draft picks or someone on a minimum contract (a veteran minimum contract is worth $1.8 million). The Sixers would be right up against the tax apron in this scenario, leaving them no flexibility for other moves mid-season. The tax apron would act as a hard cap since the team is using the NTMLE.

However, Windhorst reported on ESPN that Harden will reduce his salary down to the "mid-30s." This would fall in line with the first option presented above, which would be by far the most beneficial outcome for the Sixers this offseason. How low Harden goes on his starting salary for next season will likely determine if the Sixers will have any breathing room under the tax apron. While his starting salary on an extension with the Sixers is becoming clear, the remaining big question is the length of the extension.

In terms of Harden's play on the court, he is coming off a down year for his standards. In 21 games with the Sixers last season, he averaged 21 points, 7.1 rebounds and 10.5 assists while shooting 40.2% from the field and 32.6% from 3-point range. It is unknown how much his hamstring ailed him, but there is hope that a full offseason of working out will help him come into next season healthier and in better shape.

There was never a doubt about Harden returning to the Sixers after coming to Philadelphia via a blockbuster trade at last season's trade deadline. He said after their season-ending Game 6 loss to the Heat he would be back and that he would do what it takes to help put the Sixers in a better position to win a championship.

"I’ll be here, yeah," Harden said. "Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better — and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level."

Harden had this response when asked if he would take less money to give the team more flexibility:

"Whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them."

Heading into free agency, it appears he is staying true to his word by opting out of his player option and presumably taking less money on a contract extension. Free agency negotiations begin on Thursday at 6 p.m.

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