October 3, 2022

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: Will Harden, a free agent in expectation, would take a short-term pay cut in order to help the Sixers build the rest of the roster around Harden and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid?

Harden diplomatically answered the question at the time, giving the following response: “I’ll be there. [I’ll do] everything it takes to help this team continue to grow and place us among the best of them. We are trying to win a championship. That’s the point. Whatever it looks like.”

Harden’s comments sounded good at the time, but many doubted he was following them. As we now know, however, Harden actually kept his word in turning down his $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season and instead agree to a new two-year contract which will earn him $32 million next season and includes a player option for the second season.

By cutting $15 million from the amount owed to him next season, Harden, 32, created financial flexibility for the Sixers this summer – flexibility the team has used to bolster the roster with additions like PJ Tucker and Daniel House. Signings like this wouldn’t have been possible without Harden leaving bread on the table. Additionally, the organization was able to retain Harden while simultaneously avoiding a long-term commitment to an aging player. For those reasons alone, Harden’s new contract should be considered a major victory for Philadelphia.

Given his postseason performance — 18.6 points, 10.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game — the Sixers likely had reservations about Harden’s long-term prospects as a hard-hitting player. These reservations are shared by a plethora of experts and many fans. The former league MVP is clearly still extremely effective as a point guard and floor spacer. His mere presence on the floor draws the attention of defenses like none of Embiid’s previous teammates. However, he didn’t seem like the same lethal scorer he once was when he was a perennial MVP candidate as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Harden was never necessarily an athletic high-flyer, but he did look sluggish at times in his first season with the Sixers, and at times he displayed a noticeable lack of sparkle. He struggled to get past defenders on the perimeter, and an equally tough time finishing on defenders around the edge. Without that brilliance as an offensive forward he displayed for a decade in Houston, Harden was forced to rely heavily on 3-pointers and free throws for his point production.

Had the Sixers signed Harden to a massive four- or five-year extension, chances are such a deal would become a liability in the end. Overcommitment to a player with a [potentially] declining skills could prove very costly, as it could hamper the team’s ability to improve in the future. The team hedged against that by signing Harden to a 1+1 deal, which will provide an extended opportunity to see what he looks like physically after a whole offseason of training. This should help the team better gauge how much premium gas Harden has left in the proverbial tank. Don’t forget he was dealing with the hamstring injury he suffered as a member of the Brooklyn Nets all through last offseason, so he admittedly didn’t have as many chances to training at a higher level than he would have liked and this may have impacted his performance.

“I’ve been trying to finish a basketball season for two years in a row,” Harden said in May. “And it’s like it’s not that. You know what I mean? All last summer I was in rehab. It was kind of frustrating because I don’t have the l I used to go through something like this, but that’s how it is. I’m just happy to be healthy now. I’ve got a full summer to be straight and do the things necessary to come back even better next year. .

Along with seeing what Harden looks like physically, the Sixers will now also get a [much] larger sample size to judge how well Harden fits alongside Embiid. Early feedback on the pair was promising, especially in the pick-and-roll, but it was limited. So instead of locking Harden in as Embiid’s sidekick for the foreseeable future, the Sixers will evaluate the duo next season and then go from there. If things go well, the Sixers can re-sign Harden next summer (or the next). Otherwise, the two parts can separate along the same timeline. In this situation, they are well positioned for any eventuality.

While the deal is solid for the Sixers, it also makes sense for Harden. Of course, he loses money in the short term, but he got a higher overall income during the contract period if he chooses his option for the ’23-24 campaign. Plus, the deal essentially gives him a chance to increase his own stock. If he comes out and has a stellar season and shows his skills don’t wane, he’ll be in a position to get another big payday next summer. If not, he will at least have the security of one more season at a hefty price tag to fall back on.

Sure, Harden probably could have made more money out of the situation, but there are other reasons the deal benefits him – namely the fact that the Sixers are giving him a great chance to keep fighting. for his first title — and Harden, who has already racked up more than $250 million in career earnings, has made it clear that’s what’s most important to him at this point in his career. Plus, putting the team first, as Harden seems to have done here, helps combat lingering “he’s being selfish” narratives.

Time will tell just how good Harden’s new deal really is, but for now, he certainly appears to be safe for both parties.