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A cynic would say James Harden, Daryl Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers have agreed to an under-the-table, multiyear plan to skirt the rules to try to build a championship contender. An NBA optimist, recognizing prearranged deals are illegal, would suggest that all sides are simply working together toward a common goal.
Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Harden has agreed to re-sign with the Sixers on a “two-year, $68.6 million contract, including a player option for the 2023-24 season.”
Harden will undoubtedly opt out of his final year at $35.6 million to sign at a new max salary starting at $46.6 million—at least that’s what more than one competing executive expects.
The perception, to some, has the Sixers rewarding Harden for helping Morey, president of basketball operations, “bring the band back together,” as an NBA agent termed it—referring to the former Houston Rockets players recently added to the Philadelphia roster.
That’s where Morey seems to be looking back maybe more than he’s looking ahead.
Harden, declining his $47.4 million option, amounts to a projected $14.4 million pay cut, allowing Morey to use the team’s non-taxpayer mid-level exception on PJ Tucker and bi-annual exception on Danuel House (who both played with Harden, under Morey , in Houston).
But did the 76ers go far enough with a one-plus-one? Why didn’t the team want a long-term arrangement at a cheaper price?
Had Harden opted in or re-signed at the max, the 76ers wouldn’t have had the flexibility to sign both former Rockets. But Tucker is 37. House is a role player. Harden will be 34 by opening night in 2023, presumably re-signed at the max if the cynic is correct.
The move was close to the B/R recommendation from May that Harden should opt out to sign a cheaper but still substantive multiyear deal in Philadelphia. The move would save the franchise significant luxury taxes, of which part could be kicked back to Harden via a longer deal at a lower price.
Harden once again holds leverage as he did in Brooklyn with the Nets before he forced his way to Philadelphia.
The Sixers could have used the opportunity to lock him in on a longer deal near $35 million per season—similar to what Chris Paul did in Phoenix with the Suns. Paul opted out to take a lower salary ahead of the 2021-22 season on a more lucrative four-year, $120 million contract (with $75 million guaranteed).
Or maybe it’s the 76ers who are hedging their bets. Joel Embiid is in his prime, while Harden may not be anymore.
“I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore,” was Embiid’s take after the Miami Heat eliminated the Sixers in the conference semifinals last season.
Whether it’s new rule interpretations or just slippage, Harden’s ability to attack the basket and parade to the free-throw line has dipped. His defense was never a strength.
While Embiid, 28, has eclipsed Harden as an MVP candidate, he clearly needs help. Like so many of the great big men in the history of the NBA, he’s relying on guards to get him the ball. Philadelphia should be strong with Harden, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton and now Tucker and House.
This may be one of the best supporting casts Embiid has had since he played with Jimmy Butler in 2018-19, but that’s supposing Harden resurges.
Maybe those worrying about circumvention are just paranoid. Perhaps Morey is protecting the Sixers from overinvesting in Harden. The guard took a discount, and the 76ers could hold the line on a similarly priced contract next season should he opt out.
Still, locking him down longer on a better number could prevent overpaying Harden should he spike this season. That may be why the cynics are convinced Philadelphia is working the system to gain flexibility and then pay Harden.
Embiid needs that star running mate, and while Harden is a high-volume shooter, he is also a willing playmaker. It could still work, but it’s dangerous tying up so much in two stars if one is fading.
Morey, Harden and the Sixers may have come together creatively to forge a champion. But If the two can’t fully mesh this year, is Morey strong enough to pivot should Harden opt out?
Or will the relationship, forged through years of working together in Houston, take priority over the product on the court?
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.