Why James Harden Getting a Two-Year Team-Friendly Deal Is Ideal for the 76ers and Makes Sense for Him

Just minutes after the Philadelphia 76ers were defeated by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals, James Harden was asked a simple question by a reporter: Would Harden, a pending free agent, take a short-term pay cut for help the Sixers build the rest of the roster around Harden and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid?

Harden answered the question diplomatically at the time, giving the following response: “I’ll be here. [I’ll do] whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them. We’re trying to win a championship. That’s the goal. Whatever it looks like”.

Harden’s comments sounded good at the time, but there were many who were skeptical that he would follow through on them. However, as we now know, Harden really did keep his word declining his $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season and instead agreeing to a new two-year deal that will pay him $32 million next season and includes a player option for a second season. Agreement not yet finalized as negotiations are “still in progress,” according to Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, but talks are in a “good place” and will likely be concluded in the near future.

By shedding $15 million from what he was owed next season, Harden, 32, created financial flexibility for the Sixers this summer — flexibility the team used to bolster the roster with additions like PJ Tucker and Danuel House. Such a signing would not be possible without Harden leaving some bread on the table. Plus, the organization was able to keep Harden while at the same time avoiding making a long-term commitment to an aging player. For those reasons alone, the reported new deal for Harden should be considered a huge win for Philadelphia.

Given his performance during the postseason — 18.6 points, 10.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game — the Sixers likely have some reservations about Harden’s long-term prospects as an impact player. These reserves are shared by a plethora of experts and many fans. The former league MVP is obviously still extremely effective as a playmaker and spaceman. His sheer presence out on the floor commands the attention of defenses in a way none of Embiid’s previous teammates have. However, he didn’t seem to be the same lethal scorer he once was when he was a perennial MVP candidate as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Harden wasn’t necessarily super athletic, but he looked sluggish at times during his first season with the Sixers, and at times showed a distinct lack of explosiveness. He had a tough time getting past defenders on the perimeter, and a similarly tough time finishing over defenders around the rim. Without the burst as an offensive rebounder he displayed for a decade in Houston, Harden was forced to rely heavily on 3-pointers and free throws for his scoring production.

If the Sixers had signed Harden to a massive four- or five-year extension, there’s a real chance such a deal would become a liability after all. Overcommitment to a single player [potentially] downskilling can be very costly, as it can hinder the team’s ability to improve in the future. The team reportedly hedged against that by signing Harden to a 1+1 deal, which will provide an extended opportunity to see what he looks like physically after a full training season. He should help the team get a better gauge of how much premium gas Harden has left in the proverbial tank. Remember, he was dealing with the hamstring injury he suffered as a member of the Brooklyn Nets last offseason, so he arguably didn’t get as much opportunity to train at a high level as he would have liked and this may have affected his performance.

“I’ve been trying to get the flow of a basketball season right for two years in a row,” Harden said in May. “And it’s like, it’s not. You know what I mean? All last summer I was rehabbing. It was a little frustrating because I’m not used to going through something like this, but it is what it is. I’m I’m happy that I’m healthy now. I have a full summer to be right and do the things necessary to come back even better next year.”

In addition to seeing how Harden looks physically, the Sixers will now get one more [much] larger sample size to judge how well Harden fits alongside Embiid. The pair’s early returns were promising, especially in the pick-and-roll, but they were limited. So instead of locking Harden in as Embiid’s sidekick for the foreseeable future, the Sixers can evaluate the duo over the next season and then go from there. If things work out, the Sixers could re-sign Harden next summer (or the year after). If not, the two sides may split along the same timeline. In this situation, the Sixers are well positioned for any eventuality.

While the reported deal is solid for the Sixers, it also makes sense for Harden. Sure, he loses money in the short term, but he’s guaranteed more overall income over the life of the contract if he picks up his ’23-24 option. Plus, the deal essentially gives him a chance to raise his stock. If he goes out and has a stellar season and shows his skills aren’t waning, he’ll put himself in a position to secure another big payday next summer. If not, he’ll at least have the security of an extra season at a high price to fall back on.

Sure, Harden probably could have squeezed more money out of the situation, but there are other reasons why the deal is beneficial for him — namely the fact that the Sixers give him a great chance to continue to fight for his first title — and Harden, who has already earned over $250 million in career earnings — has made it clear that’s what’s most important to him at this point in his career. Also, putting the team first, as Harden seems to have done here, helps combat any lingering “he’s selfish” narrative.

Time will tell how good Harden’s new deal really is, but for now it certainly appears to be prudent for both parties.

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