James Harden has asked for a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has set a high asking-price for his All-Star guard. As of this writing in late-August, no trade has materialized.
The lack of a trade, plus maybe some other stuff, has seen Harden publicly call Morey a “liar”. Harden also said that he’ll “never be a part of an organization that Morey is a part of” again.
How did we get here? Where did it all go south? What are the ramifications of what’s happened? Where do Harden and the 76ers go from here? There are a lot of questions, and we hope we can provide some answers and insight.
Ahead of the 2020-21 season, James Harden asked for a trade from the Houston Rockets. Harden correctly read the tea leaves and saw that Rockets were probably heading towards a reset, if not a full rebuild. He didn’t want to be a part of that and asked for a trade.
Harden initially showed up and played great for Houston. His first three games of that season saw him average 37 points and 11 assists per game. But that fell off quickly and in a major way. He played five more uninspiring games for the Rockets, expending precious little effort while doing so. In mid-January (the NBA was still working on an adjusted calendar due to COVID), he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
Harden’s happiness in Brooklyn lasted approximately a year. Whether driven by his desire to reunite with Daryl Morey in Philadelphia, or his own frustrations with injuries, or by the circus the Nets had become, Harden wanted out.
After sitting out a couple of games, Harden played twice more for Brooklyn. Harden’s Nets finale in Sacramento was maybe the most checked-out an NBA player has ever been while playing 37 minutes in a game. Harden barely went through the motions and never played for Brooklyn again before being traded ahead of the 2022 trade deadline.
Harden’s first half-season in Philadelphia went fairly well, even if he was clearly still hampered by a hamstring injury. In the 2022-23 season, Harden returned back to his All-Star form, even if he wasn’t named a 2023 All-Star. But it’s what happened in-between those seasons that seemingly caused this latest fracture between player and club.
In the 2022 offseason, Harden opted out of his $47.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season. As a free agent, Harden agreed to a two-year, $68.6 million deal. That two-year agreement included a player option for the 2023-24 season.
Part of the reason Harden willingly took a pay cut of over $14 million for 2022-23 was that it gave the 76ers the ability to sign P.J. Tucker, Danuel House Jr. and others, while staying under the tax line. In fact, the NBA found that this was lined up far enough in advance that they docked the Sixers two second-round picks for tampering with P.J. Tucker.
As far as Harden went, the assumption was that he’d play out last season for $33 million, opt out again and sign a max deal with Philadelphia in the summer of 2023. Not so fast, my friend.
As early as Christmas Day of 2022, reports came out that Harden wanted to return to the Rockets. Houston was lined up to have maximum cap space, and an unlikely reunion seemed to be on the table. Again, not so fast, my friend.
Harden didn’t opt out and re-sign with the Sixers. He didn’t opt out and sign with the Rockets either. We don’t know for certain, but it seems Harden got two pieces of information between the end of 2022 and free agency opening in July of 2023.
The first piece of info was that Philadelphia wasn’t going to give him a max deal. The second piece of info seems like it was that Houston was going in a different direction with their cap space.
At that point, Harden again read the tea leaves and realized that to land in a destination of his liking, it would be easier to pull off via trade than free agency. So, Harden opted in and immediately requested a trade. And here we are.
James Harden’s Contract
James Harden is in the final year of the two-year deal he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 2021. His deal is fully guaranteed for $35,640,000. There are no incentives or trade bonuses in Harden’s deal.
Because the 76ers are currently sitting just over the tax apron, the most they could take back in trade is 110% of Harden’s salary in a deal, plus $250,000. For simplicity’s sake, that’s $39,454,000.
It’s also important to note that any team that trades Harden will not be able to extend his contract. Because he signed a two-year deal, Harden is not extension-eligible. If traded, he’ll play out this season and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
The Overall Situation
Now that we understand the history and what James Harden’s contract is, where are we at exactly?
Harden is still a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers have publicly said that they expect him to report for training camp in October. Harden has made it known that he has no intention of doing that, and that he still expects a trade.
The NBA hit Harden with a $100,000 fine (the maximum allowable for a single transgression) for “indicating that he would not perform the services called for under his player contract unless traded to another team”. The league could have hit Harden with a $150,000 fine, but that would have been for publicly asking for a trade. This lesser fine seemingly falls under the “conduct or statements prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball, the NBA, or a team” category, as opposed to the public trade demand one.
The NBPA intends to file a grievance on Harden’s behalf. Their argument is that Harden is being unfairly punished for calling Daryl Morey a “liar”, as opposed to saying he’ll withhold services. This was to be expected, as the NBPA has to protect their player and to make sure that the rest of their constituency isn’t punished for simply making comments the NBA finds objectionable.
As for Harden, he said his calling Morey a liar was related to Morey saying that he’d trade him “quickly” after Harden opted in. He has not referenced any kind of wink-wink agreement in reference to his free agency in 2022.
James Harden’s Situation
James Harden wants a trade and doesn’t want to play for the Philadelphia 76ers any longer. Or, at the very least, he doesn’t want to play for the Sixers while Daryl Morey is still running the front office.
To his credit, Harden has never openly called out where he wants to be traded to. Reporting is that Harden prefers a trade to the LA Clippers. That’s likely accurate, but Harden hasn’t agitated anything towards “Clippers or else!”, at least not publicly.
Beyond that, Harden kind of made his own bed, to at least some degree. He could have let his prior contract play out. He could have opted out of his current contract. Either way, he would have had full control over what was next. As it stands now, Harden can want to be elsewhere, but he’s beholden to the whims of Morey and 29 other teams and what they can negotiate in trade.
As far as Harden saying he won’t report to the Sixers goes, he’s playing a dangerous game. Under the CBA, any player who withholds services for 30 total days while in the final season of his contract, will be deemed to have not completed that contract.
In Harden’s case, if he stays away from the Sixers for at least 30 days, his contract will expire as scheduled on July 1, 2024. But Harden will not be able to sign with any professional basketball team without the permission of the 76ers. (Note: That’s any professional team. FIBA is generally fairly good about upholding contract rules of the various leagues they are partnered with. That makes it unlikely Harden would be approved to sign outside of the NBA.)
That makes the most likely situation, assuming Harden is still with Philadelphia at the start of training camp, also the most uncomfortable one. He’ll have to show up and do the bare minimum. We’ve seen what that looks like, and it benefits no one.
Finally, for those who say “Harden is in a contract year. He has to show up and play well, or no one will want him!” That’s complete nonsense. Teams know who Harden is at this point in his career. They also understand the situation. They’ve seen Harden play uninspiring basketball with both the Rockets and Nets in pre-trade situations. If he does it again, it’s not going to deter a team that wants him from making a trade.
The Philadelphia 76ers' Situation
Daryl Morey laid out some guidelines for making a James Harden trade. Morey said he needs to get a player or players that will keep his team a contender. Or the team needs to get enough draft picks that they can be turned into a player or players that will keep the Sixers a contender.
In addition to the above, Morey is prioritizing the Sixers keeping the cap flexibility that they are looking at for the 2024 offseason. Philadelphia is one of seven teams that project to have cap space in the summer of 2024.
To sum it up: Morey wants good players, or draft picks that he can flip for good players, and he doesn’t want to take on any salary into 2024-25.
Either of those ambitions are fine. The 76ers are a contender and should be trying to stay at that level. It’s also fine to want to have cap space next summer. Money to spend with Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey in place? Every team in the league would sign up for that.
But, it’s not really that simple.
It’s hard to find players at Harden’s level that are also on expiring contracts, especially at this point in the offseason. Moving Harden in a package built around draft picks is also a difficult thing to swing. Again, it’s late-August. Most teams are fleshing out their rosters with training camp invites, not trying to pull off blockbuster trades.
Also, let’s spend a little time talking about preserving cap space for 2024. It’s been massively overstated how much cap space the 76ers can get to.
As it stands today, the NBA projects the salary cap to land at $142 million for the 2024-25 season. That’s a very modest 4.4% increase from this season. Even if the league is being very conservative, let’s run with that $142 million projection for now.
This is what Philadelphia has on the books for the 2024-25 season:
- Joel Embiid - $51,415,938
- Filip Petrusev - $1,891,857 (non-guaranteed)
- Paul Reed - $7,723,000 (non-guaranteed unless team makes second round of 2024 playoffs)
- Jaden Springer - $4,018,363 (4th year rookie scale team option)
- P.J. Tucker - $11,539,000 (player option)
- 2024 First Round Pick (projected at #25): $2,739,360
The 76ers can also have a host of cap holds for free agents, but in order to have cap space, they’ll need to renounce most of those players. These are the two free agent cap holds that Philadelphia is most likely to carry into the 2024 offseason:
- Tyrese Maxey - $13,031,760 (restricted free agent coming off rookie scale deal)
- De’Anthony Melton - $15,200,000 (unrestricted free agent coming off less than average salary)
Our projection for the 76ers cap space for 2024 is $32,961,798. We don’t project trades, so here’s what is included in that projection:
- 2024 First Round Pick
- Maxey cap hold
- Melton cap hold
For reference, $32.9 million in cap space is less than the 0-6 Years of Service maximum salary, which projects to be $35.5 million (25% of the cap).
Now, let’s play a bit…
Let’s say Morey can get off everything but Embiid’s salary and Maxey’s cap hold. And, to be honest, that isn’t all that far-fetched of a scenario. That would give the 76ers $65,237,062 in cap space against a cap of $142 million.
For reference, a 7-9 Years of Service maximum salary for 2024-25 projects to be $42.6 million (30% of the cap). A 10-plus Years of Service maximum salary projects to be $49.7 million (35% of the cap).
So, we’re definitely in range of a maximum signing at 25%, 30% or 35% of the cap. And there would even be enough left over to sign another player or two, plus the $8 million room exception. But that’s still well shy of the double max salary space that has been touted in the basketball-sphere in recent weeks.
Let’s play a bit more…
Let’s say the Sixers wipe everything off the books except for Embiid and Maxey AND the cap goes up the maximum of 10%. That’s kind of the dream scenario for Morey and Philadelphia. In that situation, the cap would be $149.6 million for 2024-25.
If that happens, then the Sixers would be looking at about $70-72 million or so in cap space. Better than $65 million, and certainly better than $33 million. But that also involves a lot of “if this and this and this and this” happening to get there.
In an attempt to simplify this a bit: The Philadelphia 76ers have good cap flexibility, but they aren’t landing two max free agents in the summer of 2024. That would take some salary cap gymnastics that are simply too unrealistic to really consider. A single max free agent to add to Embiid and Maxey, as well as some leftover spending power, that’s a far more realistic scenario. And it’s not really a bad one!
This is a mess. It has been for a while, and will continue to be one, especially as the ugliness seems to be amping up. James Harden seems unlikely to back down, and has reportedly threatened to make things “uncomfortable” if he’s not traded.
Daryl Morey is going to find it hard to achieve all of his stated goals in making a Harden deal. It’s just not realistic to expect to find contention-level players, who are also on expiring contracts.
The NBA itself is in an increasingly tricky spot. If Harden continues to push that he was promised things that haven’t come to fruition, the league is going to have to investigate just how far things went in the summer of 2022. If there is proof that there were wink-wink and under-the-table agreements, the league will hammer Philadelphia with massive penalties.
When the Minnesota Timberwolves and Joe Smith had shady dealings, the NBA came down hard. The Wolves lost five first-round picks (two of them were later returned), were hit with a $3.5 million fine and then owner Glen Taylor was suspended for a year. It’s fair to expect Adam Silver and the league office would hit the 76ers with similar consequences.
To be fair, there’s no indication that’s going to happen. So far, Harden has held firm that his “liar” comments were about Morey not trading him quickly after opting in. But the longer this situation drags on, the uglier it could get.
As with all trade negotiations, the parties involved often set unrealistic terms early on. No one wants to give up everything in the first conservation. As time goes along, one side comes up down from their ask, while the other comes up with their offer, and the deal gets done.
In this situation, we have a pretty clear deadline about a month or so from now, with training camp on the horizon. Harden doesn’t want to be in Philadelphia, and says he won’t be. The 76ers aren’t going to want an awkward media day and opening to the new season. NFL executive-turned-analyst Andrew Brandt is fond of saying “Deadlines spur action” and that applies here.
Morey will come down in his asking price, perhaps because the idea of maximizing cap space is a somewhat futile one. He’ll come away with a collection of good players, along with retaining a good amount of cap flexibility. Harden will land elsewhere (probably with the Clippers, because players generally get their way), and we’ll move on.
If that’s not the way this plays out, it’s going to become an ugly staring contest for no good reason. And that’s going to have spillover to the rest of the roster. The rumor mill is already churning regarding Joel Embiid. If this gets to a point where Embiid is agitated enough to want a change of scenery, it’ll be a failure of epic proportions.
We aren’t there yet, and probably won’t get there. But avoiding that has to be part of the equation. That’s why it behooves Philadelphia to get a deal done and to move onto whatever is next.