Why James Harden deal with Sixers matters for Celtics contending chances in the present and future

The Celtics have firmly put themselves in the top-tier of the Eastern Conference with their offseason moves. However, the number of contenders around them for next year just grew a little bit thanks to the surprising sacrifice of James Harden.

The free agent guard officially agreed to a two-year contract worth $68.6 million to re-sign with Philadelphia on Thursday night according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com. The second year of the deal is a player option.

Harden’s salary for 2022-23 will be just $33 million per terms of the deal, which is a $14 million paycut from the $47 million player option he declined back in June.

From a Celtics perspective, this is far from an ideal scenario since Philadelphia looked like a team that would have no avenues to make major additions to the roster in free agency this summer due to Harden’s contract and their overall payroll being in the luxury tax. However, the recent trade addition gave Daryl Morey a lifeline by taking a massive voluntary paycut after an underwhelming postseason run.

Morey took advantage of Harden’s sacrifice in a number of ways during free agency. Harden’s new smaller deal opened the door for Philadelphia to use the full mid-level exception, which landed them PJ Tucker, a Morey favorite in Houston, on a three-year, $30 million deal despite Tucker being 38 years old. The 76ers were also given access to the bi-annual exception thanks to Harden’s paycut, allowing the Rockets to sign another wing in Daniel House for $4 million per year. Philadelphia would have been easily outbid for him otherwise.

Those additions combined with acquiring D’Anthony Melton via trade ahead of the NBA Draft for Danny Green and the No. 23 overall pick suddenly makes Philadelphia’s roster a little more imposing. A lot will obviously be dependent on Harden’s ability to bounce back from an ugly 2021-22 season on the floor. However, the supporting cast around him and Joel Embiid could fit better than we’ve seen in years.

Guards: Harden, Maxey, Melton, Milton, Thybulle

wings: Harris, Tucker, House, Korkmaz, Niang

Bigs: Embiid, Reed

If Maxey and Melton keep developing, that’s not going to be an easy team to defend or score against most nights. The other upside for the 76ers here is that the way they structured the Harden deal gives them the ability to pivot in the future. He has the security of a player option in year two, but the team is set up to have a clean cap sheet in the summer of 2024 with the massive deals of Harden and Harris coming off the books if they thing. That will allow them the flexibility to restructure their team with top talent around Embiid if things go haywire or Harden flames out from a production standpoint. This ability is noteworthy for a Celtics team whose young core is around the same age as Embiid and will need to contend with him for the forseeable future.

When the Sixers opted to trade for Harden last February, the assumption was the team was going to have to lock themselves into a lengthy extension with the aging All-Star guard. However, a lack of contending teams with salary cap space clearly limited Harden’s options in free agency this summer. There were no other teams willing to give him another massive long-term deal so that impacted his leverage with Philadelphia in negotiations. He could have just opted in for one more year at bigger money with his player option but Morey wisely convinced him that taking less now may lead to a bigger payday in the future if the 76ers bounce back with a deep playoff run next season

The Celtics still look like they are the deeper team overall and the questions about the postseason play of Harden aren’t going away anytime soon. Still, in a conference that already looks stacked at the top behind Boston with Milwaukee, Miami and Brooklyn (if they run it back), Philadelphia may have the horses to make some noise in that group. Boston will be coming back better next year but Harden’s team-friendly deal ensures the Sixers will as well.

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