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Is James Harden open to leaving Nets in offseason? 76ers may wait for answer.

Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 12: James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets walks backcourt during a game against the Chicago Bulls at United Center on January 12, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. 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. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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“I don’t plan on leaving this organization and the situation that we have. So my focus, honestly, is just focus on the season and then winning the championship... I feel at home. It’s nothing to worry about.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve never been a free agent before. I’ve always just been loyal, just signing a contract extension and being there. So I just want to take my time with it.”

Those are both James Harden quotes from earlier this season. He appears to be of two minds when it comes to his ability to opt out of his current contract and become a free agent this summer. Harden has never been recruited as a pro and, like many players, wants that experience. He wants to be wanted. On the flip side, the Nets can offer the most money, and where is he going to find a better situation to win a ring than next to Kevin Durant?

Yet there is buzz around the league that Harden would be open to moving on from Brooklyn, and going to Philadelphia as part of a Ben Simmons trade is Daryl Morey’s dream scenario. From Marc Stein in his must-subscribe substack:

Perhaps [Joel Embiid] has also been sold on a concept that executives with a growing number of rival teams say they see as Morey’s new preferred scenario: Keeping Simmons beyond the trade deadline to exhaust every last possibility for executing a complicated sign-and-trade in the offseason that finally brings James Harden to Philadelphia and routes Simmons to Brooklyn.

Complicated is a polite description for such a deal, since the Sixers would be hard-capped by taking Harden in via sign-and-trade and would thus have to shed more salary than just Simmons’ contract according to the league’s luxury-tax rules to make it work financially. Yet it must be noted that there is enough noise circulating leaguewide about Harden’s reported openness to relocation this summer — after he turned down a lucrative extension from the Nets in October — to give Morey the encouragement he needs to wait.

Harden was never going to sign that extension, no matter his intention to leave or not, so read nothing into that.

The Nets did put a three-year, $161 million max contract extension on the table this offseason. However, after this season Harden can opt into his $47.4 million contract for next season, then sign a four-year extension off that worth an estimated $223 million — in the final year of his contract, Harden would become the first player in NBA history to make more than $60 million in salary a season.

A sign that Morey is thinking about reuniting with Harden? The 76er are trying to include Tobias Harris in any Simmons deal now, which is about clearing out cap space — as Stein noted, a Simmons for Harden swap leaves Philly way above the hard cap that would be forced upon them with a sign-and-trade. It would be difficult for Morey to pull off a Harden trade, but in this league never say never.

Harden also would take a pay cut to jump to Philadelphia in a pure sign-and-trade, where he would get $200 million over four years, about $23 million less than staying in Brooklyn (numbers via our own Dan Feldman). However, when we’re talking that much money either way, a preferred working environment may well be worth more than $23 million to Harden. Also, Harden could opt-in, get traded to Philly (or anywhere), play out next season, then become a free agent in 2023 and re-sign with that team, and in that case he would make the money over six years, $335 million, but it comes with the risk of getting a five-year max contract at age 33 (teams may be hesitant to pay Harden more than $60 million in his age 37 and 38 seasons).

A sign-and-trade for Harden would be difficult for Philadelphia and rob that team of some depth, and it comes with risk as Harden enters his mid-30s, but Morey has always chased stars and a healthy Harden and Embiid would be a force in the East, with a pick-and-roll that would be nearly impossible to stop.