If James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers are reunited next year, it might require the star point guard taking less than a max deal yet again.
“The 76ers have not shown an appetite to pay Harden the max; that’s why they asked him to take a pay cut last year,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported on Wednesday’s Pardon The Interruption. “… The Sixers are not really motivated to pay him that max salary if they don’t think anybody else is going to do it.”
Where things could get interesting for the Sixers is if all of the buzz linking Harden with a return to the Houston Rockets turns out to be legitimate.
The Athletic’s Kelly Iko reported on Tuesday that Harden is the “top target for Houston in free agency, according to league sources, representing the veteran leadership and elite point guard needed to establish structure and offensive cohesion.”
Going after Harden only really makes sense for either party if the Rockets are ready to abandon a rebuild around young players and instead want to add several veteran stars. So it’s hard to imagine Harden signing in Houston unless he can convince another star to join him, either via free agency or by forcing a trade.
Otherwise, the Rockets would be torn between the win-now aspirations of Harden and attempting to develop young players like Jalen Green.
But there is also the possibility that Harden is fanning the flames of the Houston rumors to create leverage for himself, forcing the Sixers to pay him the max—or close to it—to keep him away from the Rockets.
That’s what Windhorst believes is happening.
“I still suspect that all of that is one giant leverage play, that what Harden really wants is to elicit the biggest offer out of the Sixers, even if it isn’t a max,” he said on The Hoop Collective podcast on Tuesday (h/t Matt John of Heavy). “Whatever the number of money is, for as long as many years as he can get, and that this slow dance for months, and these rumors are all sort of tied to that.”
Harden took a pay cut last offseason to help facilitate the signings of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., signing a two-year, $68.6 million deal with a $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season. He’s widely expected to decline that option and hit free agency after averaging 21.0 points and an NBA-best 10.7 assists per game.
At this point, Harden isn’t the dominant scoring force who was an MVP in his prime. That might limit his market for a max deal in free agency, which the Sixers may be banking on heading into the summer.