With the draft day now behind us, fans of the Philadelphia 76ers currently don’t have anything exciting to look forward to, making the James Harden “will he/won’t he” re-sign story the only game in town. Since March the narrative has been that Harden was debating a return to his beloved city of Houston to reunite with the Rockets. As of now, it seems to be more and more likely that Harden’s management team leaked that in order to put some heat on the Sixers. The Rockets are rebuilding with a youth movement and a coach who has been known to bench star players who don’t play defense, so they appear to have no interest in bringing him back.
So what exactly is Harden’s leverage with the 76ers?
For starters, if Harden wants to take a smaller deal to chase a ring with a contender, I would understand. He has made a ton of money in his career and was named one of the top 75 greatest players in NBA history. The ring is the only thing missing from his resume. On the other hand, if he just wants to accept a big bag of cash to play for a non-playoff team and be “the man”, then he is not the sort of player that we want next to Joel Embiid. Harden has spent his career in the crosshairs of the question, “Does he care more about his stats or about seriously winning?” If he doesn’t want to do whatever it takes to get a championship, then the question is answered once and for all and we don’t need guys like that here.
The real question here is of Harden’s worth. He wants to be paid a SuperMax contract in the neighborhood of 4 years, 210 million dollars and is trying to leverage the threat of leaving in order to get that in Philadelphia. But is there really any threat here? If you asked the Sixers organization they would probably tell you that they would prefer to pay Harden more like 2 years, at 35 million per, but that is just my personal speculation. What is a fact is that there isn’t a reason to overpay Harden because no other teams are knocking on his door.
Harden will be 34 in August, has lost two steps, has had injury issues the last three years, is ball dominant, and has recently hinted that he wants to have the ball more and have more control over the offense. On the contrary, Nick Nurse has publicly stated that he wants more team ball and less one on one play, so that should be interesting to watch. Harden is still a very good player, but he is certainly not a SuperMax-level guy anymore.
There is no reason for the Sixers to overpay Harden for past excellence.
Where else would Harden go? There are no teams that are in serious championship contention, or even in the next tier down like Philly, who would be willing to hand Harden a SuperMax and the reins to their offense. Zero. Celtics, Nuggets, Bucks, Suns? Nope. Go down the list, and the only team even remotely close is LeBron’s Lakers and even they would have to drop most of the bench depth that made them so dangerous in the playoffs in order to add Harden’s salary. So he has no option better than the Sixers if he is serious about winning but still wants the big bucks.
What if he just wants to get the money, be the man, and play basketball, regardless of losing? It’s hard to find suitors for him there either. All of the lottery teams are trying to develop their young talent and have no interest in having a fading star soaking up a quarter of their cap space. Why would the Rockets, Pistons, Hornets, Blazers, Magic, etc. want to bring a questionable ego with an overinflated paycheck into their locker rooms at the expense of growing their young talent?
Are there any teams that were B-level last year who could grow into a contender by adding Harden? His style of play and defensive disinterest make him a poor fit for places that want players to buy into their system, like the Clippers, Knicks, Heat, and Warriors. It’s hard to imagine Memphis wanting to pair Harden’s nightclub habits with Ja Morant’s nightclub habits. So then where exactly is the market for James Harden?
The simple answer is that it flat out does not exist under the terms that he wants. There are absolutely no other teams out there who will give him $30+ million for four years and complete control over the offense, so there is no reason for the 76ers to do so either. A four-year SuperMax deal would be stupid and detrimental to the team, and Daryl Morey, while loyal to Harden, is not stupid.
If team Harden is playing poker, it is high time to call their bluff. Unless he is willing to take a pay cut far more substantial than the one he accepted this year, he has no other takers. If he wants to swallow his pride and accept something in the neighborhood of a two-year, seventy-million-dollar deal, this is the only place where he will get that. There is no need for the Philadelphia 76ers to offer James Harden any more than that. There is no market out there for Harden, and he really has nowhere else to go.