A refresher on Harden's contract situation, where Sixers stand with salary cap

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After the Sixers’ Round 2, Game 6 loss to the Heat last month, head coach Doc Rivers deflected a question about James Harden attempting only two second-half field goals.

“Listen, I’m not going to make this a referendum on James,” Rivers said. “We just could’ve played better. The ball could’ve moved more. Did we have enough time to get our stuff in? I don’t know that. I thought we did, honestly. I really did. But clearly, we didn’t.”

Rivers’ instinct to not focus on Harden was fair and sensible. The idea of back-to-back seasons with intensely magnified post-elimination comments on his point guard wouldn’t have sounded attractive. 

But, with the NBA’s offseason set to accelerate soon, a “referendum” on Harden is inevitable. With the dust somewhat settled from that Game 6 disappointment, here’s a refresher on Harden’s contract situation:

Will Harden pick up his player option? 

Harden’s response at his introductory Sixers press conference in February was unequivocal. 

“Yes,” he said. “Everything happened so fast, I just wanted to get here and take my time, and most importantly focus on the end game, and that’s winning a championship.”

Following the defeat to Miami, Harden again addressed the matter of his approximately $47.4 million option for the 2022-23 season.

“I’ll be here, yeah,” he said. “Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better — and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”

Ultimately, Harden’s entitled to make whatever choice he feels is best. It’s been nearly a decade since Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey first traded for him and both sides know there’s a bigger picture to consider than just next season. 

If Harden opts in, he'll need to do so by June 29. The NBA draft is June 23 and free agency will officially open July 1.

What would Harden opting in mean? 

Of course, Harden’s contract isn’t the Sixers’ only source of uncertainty. 

Danny Green, who’s rehabbing from a serious knee injury, would be guaranteed $10 million next year unless he’s waived before July 1. Shake Milton’s contract has a $2 million club option for next season. Charles Bassey, Paul Reed and Isaiah Joe’s contracts are all non-guaranteed for 2022-23. 

In a world where the Sixers kept all the players above and Harden exercised his option, the team would have 13 players under contract making a total of $153.4 million, per Spotrac. That doesn’t include the 23rd pick in this draft, who’d be slotted in for about $2.6 million his rookie season. 

The luxury tax threshold is projected to be $149 million and the luxury tax apron approximately $155 million. The salary cap itself is projected to be $122 million. 

How does the tax apron matter? 

Teams that use the bi-annual exception, use more than the taxpayer mid-level exception, or acquire a player through a sign-and-trade can’t exceed the luxury tax apron.

So, the bottom line is this: Harden declining his option, becoming an unrestricted free agent, and then signing a new deal with well less than a $47.4 million salary next season would give the Sixers greater flexibility this summer.

For instance, the maximum Year 1 salary for a player signed with the taxpayer mid-level exception will be $6.4 million, per Hoops Rumors, while the “standard” mid-level exception is $10.3 million. That sort of difference to a quality free agent’s reasonable question of “What’s the most you can offer me?” obviously might be significant.

The bi-annual exception will be a shade over $4 million. Smart veteran-minimum deals tend to be key for contending teams with handsomely paid stars. Morey signed Dwight Howard to a minimum contract in his first offseason with the Sixers, Andre Drummond in his second. 

What could a Harden extension look like? 

As Derek Bodner detailed in his Daily Six newsletter back in February, Harden would be eligible to make almost $275 million over the next five years by opting in and then signing a four-year extension. The earliest Harden could ink the extension is Aug. 10. 

If he opted out, the maximum value of a five-year extension would be $270 million. 

Even accounting for the possibility that a long, healthy summer is wonderful for Harden, $270 million or so seems very unlikely to match his play over the next five seasons. 

The Sixers signed Joel Embiid to a supermax extension last offseason. That was a case in which the attitude of “Pay whatever it takes to keep a brilliant player for the long term” was easy to embrace. With all due respect to the 32-year-old Harden, who earned his place on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, it’s much harder to argue he should be in the same category. 

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