Why James Harden’s friendly two-year deal is perfect for the 76ers and makes sense for him, too

Just minutes after the Philadelphia 76ers were defeated by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals, James Harden was asked a simple question by a reporter: Would Harden, a pending free agent, take a short-term pay cut to help the Sixers build the rest of the roster around Harden and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid?

Harden then responded diplomatically to the question by giving this response: “I’ll be here. [I’ll do] whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow and put us up there with the best of them. We’re trying to win a championship. This is the goal. Whatever that looks like.”

Harden’s comments sounded good at the time, but there were many who were skeptical that he would actually follow through on them. As we now know, however, Harden did make good on his word declining his $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season and instead agree to a new two-year contract which will pay him $32 million next season and includes a player option for the second season.

By shaving $15 million off the amount owed him next season, the 32-year-old Harden created financial flexibility for the Sixers this summer — flexibility the team used to bolster the roster with additions like PJ Tucker and Danuel House. Signings like this wouldn’t be possible without Harden leaving some bread on the table. Plus, the organization was able to keep Harden while avoiding making a long-term commitment to an aging player. For those reasons alone, Harden’s new deal should be considered a big win for Philadelphia.

Given his postseason performance — 18.6 points, 10.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game — the Sixers likely had some reservations about Harden’s long-term prospects as an impact player. These reservations are shared by numerous experts and many fans. The former league MVP is clearly still extremely effective as a playmaker and spacer. His mere presence on the floor commands the attention of defenders in a way none of Embiid’s previous teammates have. However, he hasn’t looked the same lethal scorer he was when he was a perennial MVP candidate as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Harden was never necessarily an athletic player, but he looked sluggish at times during his first season with the Sixers, and at times showed a noticeable lack of fire. He had a hard time getting past perimeter defenders and an equally difficult time finishing over defenders around the rim. Without the flash of an offensive power forward he displayed for a decade in Houston, Harden was forced to rely heavily on 3-pointers and free throws for his points.

If the Sixers had signed Harden to a massive four- or five-year extension, there’s a real chance such a deal would become a liability on the back end. Overcommitting to a player with a [potentially] reducing the skill set can be very costly as it can hinder the team’s ability to improve in the future. The team guarded against that by signing Harden to a 1+1 deal that will offer an extended opportunity to see how he looks physically after a full offseason. This should help the team get a better estimate of how much premium gas Harden has left in the proverbial tank. Remember, he was dealing with the hamstring injury he suffered as a member of the Brooklyn Nets this past offseason, so he didn’t get as much opportunity to practice at a high level as he would have liked, and that may have affected the performance his.

“I’ve been trying to get through the basketball season right for two years in a row,” Harden said in May. “And it’s like it’s not that. Do you understand what I mean? I was in rehab all last summer. It was a little disappointing because I’m not used to going through something like this, but it is what it is. I’m just happy to be healthy now. I have a full summer to get fit and do the things I need to do to come back even better next year.”

In addition to how Harden looks physically, the Sixers will now also get a [much] a larger sample size to gauge how well Harden fits alongside Embiid. The pair’s early gains were promising, especially in the pick and roll, but were limited. So instead of locking in Harden as Embiid’s sidekick for the foreseeable future, the Sixers will evaluate the duo over the course of next season and then go from there. If things go well, the Sixers could re-sign Harden next summer (or the next). If not, the two sides can split on the same timeline. In this situation, they are well positioned for any opportunity.

While the deal is solid for the Sixers, it also makes sense for Harden. Sure, he’s losing money in the short term, but he’s securing more total income over the life of the contract if he picks up his option for the ’23-24 campaign. Plus, the deal basically gives him a chance to increase his own stock. If he goes out and has a stellar season and shows his skills aren’t diminishing, he’ll put himself in position to secure another big payday next summer. If not, he’ll at least have the security of an extra season at a solid price to fall back on.

Of course, Harden probably could have squeezed more money out of the situation, but there are other reasons why the deal is good for him — namely, the fact that the Sixers give him an excellent chance to continue to challenge for his first title — — and Harden, who has already amassed more than $250 million in career earnings — made it clear that’s what’s most important to him at this point in his career. Also, putting the team first, as Harden seems to have done here, helps combat all the other “he’s selfish” narratives.

Time will tell how good Harden’s new deal really is, but for now it certainly seems reasonable for both parties.

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