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If Paul George is bolting Clippers, what does that mean for free agent James Harden?

2024 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 23: James Harden #1 of the LA Clippers stands for the National Anthem before the game against the Dallas Mavericks during Round 1 Game 2 of the 2024 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2024 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

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Paul George wants a four-year contract extension with the Clippers at his $221 million max, but Los Angeles is only offering three years (and maybe at a discount), like the one Kawhi Leonard agreed to during last season. The sides are at an impasse, and there is a growing buzz around the league that George will opt into the $48.8 million for next season and demand a trade out of Los Angeles.

Where does that leave James Harden?

He is also a free agent who has been widely expected to re-sign with the Clippers. But if George is traded, does Harden still want to return? ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk discussed it on the network’s “NBA Today.”

“With the domino of Paul George, one guy who’s waiting to see what happens is James Harden. He wants to see if Paul George remains, how many years Paul George gets, because he wants to align himself along with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.”

Harden is an unrestricted free agent (the Clippers could not extend his contract at a fair number under the terms of the CBA). There are two parts to the Harden equation:

1) Does Harden want to stay if George forces a trade and the Clippers aren’t a contender? Harden has been clear he wants a ring at this point in his career. It’s why he went to Philadelphia — where things blew up on an epic scale with GM Daryl Morey — and then he was traded to a Clippers team with Leonard and George. That Clippers team, for a stretch of 30+ games in the middle of last season, may have been the best team in the NBA, but they couldn’t sustain it (or stay healthy) heading toward the playoffs. The Clippers may not be contenders in a deep West even with George, but they certainly are not without him.

2) Is any other team willing to pay Harden near what he wants? When Harden tried to force his way out of Philadelphia, he found a very limited market. A return to Houston had been his leverage in talks with Philly — he had been talking to owner Tilman Fertitta — but when Ime Udoka was hired as head coach in Houston, the Harden talk quickly died. That left him with the Clippers and... not much else? Harden has played for four teams in the last four years (don’t forget about Brooklyn), is age 35, and he comes at a price tag that likely starts at $30 million a season. He’s also still an outstanding player who averaged 16.6 points, 8.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds a game.

Harden’s options are limited, and any offers that come in may be a couple of years at most, as teams see his age and how much he has bounced around and are hesitant to get into the Harden business.

Outside of the Clippers, where could Harden sign? He is not returning to Morey and Philadelphia, which leaves teams with cap space like Orlando (which does need a point guard and could come in with a big two-year deal, but is Harden a fit with this young, defensive roster?), Detroit and San Antonio (two teams that are not contenders and likely don’t want him). There’s not much else. Harden may not have a choice outside the Clippers.

It’s all part of the drama. The smart bet is Harden returns to the Clippers on a contract that lines up with Leonard in terms of years, maybe something like three years and $100 million.

However, it appears Harden is going to let the Paul George drama play out and then make his call.