Sixers are between a rock and a hard place with James Harden’s future

How the Philadelphia 76ers handle James Harden’s impending free agency could determine the franchise’s path for the next half-decade. 

Ask members of the Philadelphia 76ers fanbase how they feel about James Harden right now and the answers will range from absolute disgust to, well, absolute disgust. Harden dropped an all-time nothingburger in the Sixers’ Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, scoring nine points on 11 shots and committing five turnovers to complement his seven assists.

Harden has quite the mounting track record of elimination game flameouts, but one could argue Sunday was his worst yet. He was passive and completely uninspired, allowing Boston’s defense to lock him out of the paint and completely disrupt his two-man actions with Joel Embiid.

Sad but true is the fact that Harden probably wasn’t the worst MVP winner on the floor for Philly in Game 7. But with Embiid cemented as the Sixers’ centerpiece for better or worse, the onus of Philadelphia’s offseason lies on James Harden.

Should the Philadelphia 76ers re-sign James Harden… and can they?

The Sixers have several impending free agents but Harden is the true free agent of consequence. He is widely expected to opt out of his current deal in search of one final long-term contract before he ages out of stardom. Currently 33 years old, Harden has already declined significantly since his prime days in Houston.

Philadelphia has the ability to offer Harden roughly $210 million over four or five years due to the CBA’s Over-38 rule. That would be a significant investment in an aging star who will almost certainly not produce at the necessary level by the end of that contract. In fact, it’s getting harder to argue that the Beard can produce at the necessary level in the present.

It is important to maintain perspective on these matters, and the Sixers’ front office can’t afford to let emotion drive them in one direction or another. Harden dropped two 40-point games against Boston, and the Sixers were up after three quarters of Game 6 at home with a 3-2 series lead. A few bounces go the other way, and Philadelphia probably wins the series. To say the Sixers just weren’t on Boston’s level is objectively wrong. The Sixers were on Boston’s level, which makes their Game 7 collapse all the more bitter.

That collapse, of course, comes in context of Philadelphia’s annual second-round parades during the Embiid era. Multiple seasons have finished with Embiid, often in a compromised state of health, producing subpar lines while his teammates flounder in a winnable elimination game. It happened against the Hawks, it happened against the Heat, it has happened multiple times against the Celtics. The Sixers have lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals five of the last six years. The Bubble year is the lone exception; Boston swept them out of the first round that year.

What does that mean for Harden? That will ultimately depend on how seriously the Sixers take themselves as contenders. It will also depend on how Harden views Philadelphia’s chances of competing. The smoke around a potential Harden-Rockets reunion has been billowing all season, and Philly’s early exit will only stoke the flames.

The Sixers can afford to spend $210 million on Harden, but that will make it borderline impossible to make meaningful improvement along the margins of the roster. The Sixers lack both draft and trade capital at the moment and the new CBA will make it difficult for high-spending teams to flesh out the roster. Is tying themselves to what feels like a rapidly sinking anchor the best path moving forward?

On the flip side, Harden was still an All-NBA caliber player for large portions of the regular season. He led the NBA in assists and he was invaluable to arguably the best offense in the league. He made sacrifices to elevate Embiid and he even bought in defensively more than fans were accustomed to.

Letting Harden walk would leave the Sixers with a significant hole and no way to fill it. The Sixers can only clear out less than $12 million in cap space if they relinquish all of their cap holds; that would mean letting not only Harden walk, but also Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels, Shake Milton, and Paul Reed. There’s no viable way to replace the lost depth (not to mention Harden) with under $12 million.

The Sixers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Let Harden walk and their hopes of contending in the short term vanish. Keep him around on the long-term max, and there’s still plenty of reason to doubt their ability to contend — plus, they’d be due to pay $50 million to 38-year-old James Harden.

Philadelphia should try to find middle ground with Harden. He took less than the max last season to help Daryl Morey improve the supporting cast. If Harden was willing to take another pay cut, that would solve some (if not all) of the financial concerns.

But the thing about middle ground is, both sides have to find it. The Sixers can make as many overtures to Harden as they want, but if the Rockets offer Harden the full four-year max worth $201 million — complete with no state taxes in Texas — while Philadelphia plays hardball, the Sixers’ odds of keeping the former MVP deteriorate rapidly. And that’s without considering the Rockets’ ability to spend elsewhere to potentially locate another co-star for Harden, nor does it consider the simple fact that Harden might just prefer being in Houston to being in Philadelphia altogether.

Harden is currently Enemy No. 1 in the state of Pennsylvania, but he’s also completely central to the makeup of this Sixers team. Philadelphia has no chance of winning without him. Problem is, it’s starting to feel like they can’t win with him either. No matter how good he is in the regular season, there will be doubts about Harden’s ability to show up in the games that matter most until he actually shows up in the games that matter most. And, again, the clock is ticking on his prime — or whatever stage of his career we’re currently in. He won’t get too many more bites at the proverbial apple.

So, if the Sixers can’t win with Harden, they can’t win without Harden, and there’s no way to replace Harden, what exactly can the front office do? In the end, it will likely require extreme faith in the improvement of Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. No matter where Harden decides to spend his next four years, Philadelphia’s only path to meaningful improvement is internal.

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