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Rumor: James Harden could decline player option to allow 76ers to open max cap space

James Harden and 76ers president Daryl Morey

CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY - FEBRUARY 15: James Harden #1 (L) and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey of the Philadelphia 76ers look on during a press conference at the Seventy Sixers Practice Facility on February 15, 2022 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) 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.

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James Harden, according to a report, was going to exercise his $47,366,760 player option for next season in conjunction with his trade from the Nets to the 76ers. He didn’t. He said still he would.

If you’re disinclined to take Harden at his word, especially considering the strange discrepancy with the option and 76ers president Daryl Morey’s history of salary-cap creativity…

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Here’s the conspiracy. This is the one going around the league – that James Harden, to be clear, just debunked – that he’s going to decline his option, re-sign for less money, so that Philadelphia can dump Tobias Harris into somebody’s cap space and open up – if they dump some other people – an almost, almost, almost max slot for a third star. That’s the one that’s going around the league. And the people who say that are like, “If that happens, some eyebrows at the league office might be raised.”

How Harden got to Philadelphia warrants scrutiny from the league office. Barring evidence of circumvention (which differs from tampering), Harden opting out and re-signing for less than his max would not. Stars sometimes take discounts to help their teams add other players. Once they acquired Harden, the 76ers are free to discuss their team-building plans with him.

Could Harden actually allow Philadelphia to acquire a third star with him and Joel Embiid?

Max salaries generally fit into three tiers by years of experience (with 2022 free agent examples):

  • 0-6 years (Miles Bridges)
  • 7-9 years (Zach LaVine)
  • 10+ (Bradley Beal)

It’s not a particularly strong free agent class. But there are clearly at least a few intriguing names.

Clearing cap space won’t be easy for the 76ers, though.

If Philadelphia unloads Tobias Harris, here’s approximately how much Harden would have to sacrifice in 2022-23 salary to accommodate a max player with:

  • 0-6 years experience: $25 million
  • 7-9 years experience: $31 million
  • 10+ years experience: $37 million

And that’s just next season. Raises in a multi-year contract are capped at 8% of the first-season salary. So, a pay reduction next season would have even larger effects over a long-term contract.

Harden could sign a 1+1 cheaper deal. The 76ers would retain his Bird Rights in 2023 free agency and could re-sign him to a five-year max deal then. But Philadelphia would risk him changing his mind and leaving. Harden, who’s already showing signs of decline, would risk no longer drawing such a large contract at age 33.

That plan would be perilous to the point its probably impractical.

The 76ers could unload more than just Harris this offseason, though.

If Philadelphia trims its roster to just Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle (the MVP candidate and two players whom Morey called keeping “critical”), here’s approximately how much Harden would have to sacrifice in 2022-23 salary to accommodate a max player with:

    • 0-6 years experience: $5 million
    • 7-9 years experience: $11 million
    • 10+ years experience: $17 million

That wouldn’t be a small teardown. The 76ers would have to unload Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang and Jaden Springer (guaranteed salaries), Charles Bassey (partially guaranteed), Danny Green, Isaiah Joe and Paul Reed (unguaranteed) and Shake Milton (team option). But that’s doable for an executive as ambitious as Morey.

The bigger question: Would Harden – who has signed three max extensions in his career – really take a discount?

People in Philadelphia believed Harden was willing to sacrifice $10 million-$20 million over a contract to sign with the 76ers outright this summer, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic. But that report emerged when Harden and Philadelphia were trying to convince Brooklyn to trade him. And Harden might have to sacrifice that much money next year alone, let alone the amount over a long-term contract, for the 76ers to open max cap space.

Mostly, this just sounds like paranoid people who just saw Harden force his way to Philadelphia and fear what Morey has up his sleeve next. There isn’t necessarily another rabbit.

The 76ers surrendered major assets (including Ben Simmons and two first-round picks) to get Harden. So, trading for another star would be extremely difficult.

That’s why speculation is emerging about the cap-space route.

But that includes Harden taking a discount for the first time. And likely a large discount, at that.

Though he’s at a different place in his career, Harden leaving money on the table? I don’t quite need to see it to believe it. I need to see more than this, though.