When an NBA star reaches his 30s, Father Time becomes his most formidable opponent. This is especially true for players who are still looking for the validation that winning their first NBA championship would provide.
Such is the case with Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden, who turns 34 in August and can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, declining his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season. As rumors swirl about his potential interest in returning to the Houston Rockets as a free agent this summer, this upcoming playoff series with the Sixers could end up being his best remaining chance at a title.
Barring a draft lottery miracle, Harden would likely kiss his short-term championship chances goodbye if he signs with the Rockets in free agency. At 17-52, they currently have the NBA’s second-worst record, ahead of the Detroit Pistons at 16-55. The Rockets also have the league’s second-worst net rating (minus-8.1), ahead of the San Antonio Spurs at 18-51.
The Rockets, Pistons and Spurs will likely enter lottery night with a 14 percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft. Whichever team wins that pick is almost certain to select French sensation Victor Wembanyama, who boasts a combination of size (7’4″) and skill. Adding him to this Rockets core along with Harden could put Houston back in title contention relatively quickly.
However, if the Rockets slip up during the lottery, the addition of Harden alone isn’t likely to bring them back into the championship picture. He would help fix their 28th-ranked offense with a combination of scoring and passing, but could only exacerbate the problems with their 29th-ranked defense. The Rockets will likely have to spend most of the league-high $61.7 million in projected salary cap space to lure Harden back to Houston, so they won’t be able to afford much outside help to shore up their defense.
Even if the smoke surrounding a Harden-Rockets reunion clears and Harden decides to re-sign with the Sixers, this year’s team boasts the best supporting cast Philadelphia will ever have.
The Sixers have already committed $117.1 million to just seven players next year. The 2023-24 salary cap is currently projected at $134 million, while the luxury tax cap is projected at $162 million. If the Sixers re-sign Harden to a max deal ($46.9 million next season), they will already be over the projected tax threshold with only eight players under contract.
However, Harden isn’t the Sixers’ only free agent this summer. Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Jalen McDaniels will be unrestricted free agents, while Paul Reed will be an unrestricted free agent. Daniel House Jr. and Montrezl Harrell can also become unrestricted free agents by dropping their respective $4.3 and $2.8 million player options, though neither would be huge losses if they walked.
The Sixers have full Bird rights to Milton, McDaniels and Reed, meaning they can go over the salary cap to re-sign them to any contract up to a max. They have Early Bird rights to Niang, which allows them to offer him 175 percent of his salary from this season ($3.5 million) or 105 percent of the league average salary, whichever is greater. (It will be Niang’s last.)
In other words, the Sixers have the waivers they need to re-sign all of their prized free agents. However, it’s fair to wonder how far into the luxury tax they’re willing to go, as anything over $30-40 million over the tax threshold is prohibitively expensive under the current collective bargaining agreement.
The Sixers did push the clock on the rebounding tax by trading Matisse Thybulle for McDaniels at the trade deadline, which pushed them under the tax line this season. This should help make their tax bill more manageable next season, which should allow them to better retain some combination of McDaniels, Milton, Reed and Niang. A new CBA could also change the way the luxury tax system works, which could give the Sixers some much-needed financial breathing room.
However, the Sixers won’t be ready to add much outside help this summer if they re-sign Harden. They do not have either a first- or second-round pick in the 2023 NBA draft and will be limited to only the $7.0 million mid-level tax exemption and veteran minimum contracts in free agency.
There’s a chance the Sixers will continue with the same group next season, add a TMLE free agent, and be even better positioned than they were this year. However, they are much more likely to lose one or more of their non-Harden free agents, which could weaken the supporting cast and leave them even more top-heavy.
While the Sixers’ flexibility will be relatively limited this summer if they re-sign Harden, other teams will inevitably make some big moves in the draft, free agency and/or via trade. The Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers likely won’t be going anywhere in the Eastern Conference, but there’s no telling which other teams could join them as legitimate title contenders next season.
As long as Embiid and Harden are on the roster and healthy, the Sixers should be in the championship game as well. But if Harden leaves this summer, that will temporarily close the door on Philly’s title chances. Even if he re-signs with the Sixers, a weaker supporting cast could hinder their championship as well.
Heading into the season, it looked like it might be now or never for this Sixers core to win a title. Five months later, the same goes for Harden.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPSstats, Cleaning the glass the Basketball report. All salary information via Spotrac the RealGM. All odds through FanDuel Sportsbook.