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Speculation that 76ers gave “wink-wink guarantee” to Harden for big payday next summer

Kurt Helin runs through his thoughts on the NBA's hierarchy for the 2022-23 season, with the Warriors atop the list and the Clippers regaining their spot among the league's elite.

When the 76ers traded for James Harden at the February deadline, there was an expectation he would sign a massive contract extension this offseason.

Then Harden took the court. The way he played the final month of the season and in the playoffs — saving his worst for last, a low-effort performance where he took and missed just two shots after halftime the game that ended the 76ers’ season — there was no way GM Daryl Morey and Philadelphia could max Harden out. It would have been malpractice.

Instead, Harden opted out of the $47 million he was owed and says he told Morey to go sign whoever the 76ers needed to so they could contend, and he would take the rest. The 76ers went out and got P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and traded for De’Anthony Melton — three defensive and role-player upgrades that put the 76ers much closer to the Bucks and Celtics at the top of the East. Then Harden re-signed with the 76ers for $33 million on a 1+1 deal — Harden can be a free agent next season.

That has led to whispers and speculation around the league that Morey and Harden — who have been close since both were in Houston — agreed that if Harden took a haircut this season on his salary, Morey would make it up to him next summer. From Marc Stein on Substack:

...there is a suspicion in some corners of the league that Harden had to have consented to this arrangement because he also secured a wink-wink guarantee about the future — meaning a promise from Morey that would allow Harden to recoup what he left on the table this offseason by declining the player option for next season in his new Sixers deal and then signing a whopper of a five-year deal in the summer of 2023 at almost 34. Such speculation is inevitable given how close Morey and Harden clearly are, but I’ve also heard plenty around the league question whether the Sixers, beyond the fact that these types of arrangements are against league rules, could actually bring themselves to give Harden any assurances.

You can bet that if Harden signs a massive extension after next season, the NBA league office will take a look at it.

The final sentence from Stein is the key — Harden is going to have to earn that next payday. If he plays like he did after the trade to Philly (except for Game 4 against the Heat) then Morey can’t give Harden a massive payday even if he wanted to (at that point, Harden would be better off opting into the $35 million for the second season of his 1+1).

However, if his hamstring is healthy and he plays like he did when he first got to Brooklyn — as an elite playmaker setting up teammates and still scoring when needed — then the 76ers are a legitimate threat to come out the East. And if that happens, Harden may get his payday.

Harden’s playoff legacy is on the line in Philadelphia. Harden is an unquestioned Hall of Famer — MVP, 7-time All-NBA, three-time scoring champ, 10-time All-Star — but while he has thrived in the regular season he has wilted in the playoffs. Right now, that’s part of his legacy. Playing next to Joel Embiid with a strong supporting cast including Tyrese Maxey, the 76ers don’t need MVP Harden, they just need an All-NBA level guard and ball distributor. Do that, and Harden takes a big step toward improving that playoff legacy.

And he could get himself a big payday next summer, too.