Few teams have as much riding on the next few weeks as the Philadelphia 76ers. Though the team has played inspired basketball over the last few weeks, the team has yet to make the Conference Finals in the Joel Embiid era.
The Sixers may need a deep postseason run to keep the team happy. That includes James Harden, who will likely opt out of next season’s player option in order to land a max contract.
And according to Grant Hughes of Bleacher Report, paying Harden that max contract is one of the “riskiest” decisions heading into free agency this summer.
“The Philadelphia 76ers should be losing sleep over the potential of paying him the max, even if it’s only on a two-year deal with a third-year option,” Hughes wrote. “A one-plus-one construction would mitigate the most risk, but there’s probably no such thing as getting Harden ‘cheaply’.”
As it stands, the Sixers can re-sign Harden for a four-year deal at $210 million, per Yossi Gozlan of Hoops Wire. While the specific year-by-year figures would need to be hammered out, Hughes elaborated on why paying Harden roughly $52.5 million for the next four years could be a dangerous gamble for Philadelphia.
“At 33 and playing for his third team in three years, Harden has a career trend line that is angling down. He wasn’t an All-Star this season for the first time since 2011-12, and his athleticism has nearly disappeared. Still a terrific passer and crafty enough to manufacture 20 points per game with ease, it’s not like Harden is without his uses. But even if he takes a small pay cut from this year’s reduced salary, he may not be worth the money,” Hughes finished.
Oh, and then there are the lingering connections to the Houston Rockets, another factor Hughes touched on.
Sixers Warned of Endless James Harden-Rockets Link
On Christmas Day, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden is interested in returning to Houston, a city that saw The Beard reach his apex on the floor.
But does a return make sense for the Rockets?
“The rumors of a Houston Rockets return won’t go away, strange as they are, and we should probably discuss the risks specific to that organization first,” Hughes wrote. “Because while the Rockets haven’t exactly inspired confidence that they’ve got something special brewing during a third straight season in the high lottery, reintroducing Harden to the team from which he forced his exit in 2021 would cause major disruption.”
Nonetheless, there’s a case to be made that Harden is also exactly what the Rockets need right now. Houston ranks dead last in assists per game, while Harden leads the league in helps per night.
Further, the Rockets project to have $60 million in cap space this summer and could ostensibly offer Harden a large contract.
There’s also the possibility that all of these Rockets links are a smokescreen. The next contract is likely Harden’s last big one in professional basketball. He may be using Houston as leverage to ensure the Sixers offer him the most money they can.
James Harden’s Injury Complicates Sixers’ Run
If that wasn’t enough excitement, there’s also the fact that Harden missed Wednesday night’s game with Achilles soreness, a knock he suffered against the Bulls Monday.
As Kyle Neubeck of the Philly Voice noted, that injury could cause some problems as the Sixers look to close out the season on a high note.
“A knock for Harden puts the Sixers in an interesting predicament down the stretch,” Neubeck wrote. “His play has been absolutely essential to Philadelphia’s push toward the top of the league, giving them a chance to capture the No. 2 seed in the East or perhaps climb as high as No. 1 with some good fortune (and good performances) between now and the end of the season. Securing at least the No. 2 seed could have an outsized impact on their ability to make it out of the second round — with the Celtics tailing off late in the year, homecourt against Boston could be the difference between beating the Celtics and falling in the same spot as in years past.”
Questions of Harden’s fitness are now likely to follow the player throughout the playoffs, much like last season.