James Harden picked up his $35.6 million contract option for next season with the Philadelphia 76ers, with the franchise exploring trades to move the veteran scorer, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press.
Harden informed the 76ers of his choice Thursday ahead of the midnight deadline to pick up the option, according to the person who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the decision was not made public.
The 33-year-old Harden could have declined the option and decided to try for free agency. The Sixers had the right to offer him a $210 million, four-year deal, $8 million more overall than any other team.
But the person who talked to the AP on anonymity Thursday said it was not definite Harden would be traded but that the player nicknamed The Beard expressed a desire to win a championship — which he has yet to do in his career — in Philadelphia or with another contender.
The Clippers also have Kawhi Leonard, who won the NBA Finals with new Sixers coach Nick Nurse in 2019 when the two were with the Toronto Raptors. Leonard, along with George, have had trouble staying healthy over the past few seasons, but they’re both talented the wings Philadelphia should be interested in acquiring.
Harden heading west to play for the Clippers would be a homecoming for the Los Angeles native. He played college hoops at Arizona State before being drafted with the third overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009 NBA draft.
The Heat are looking to build around Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo after making another run to the NBA Finals as the No. 8 seed. Harden is entering his 15th season. He made 10 consecutive All-Star Game appearances until missing the cut in 2022-23, but still played at an All-Star level for most of the regular season. In the playoffs, he had incredible highs (a 45-point masterpiece on the road to open the Sixers’ second-round series against the Boston Celtics without Joel Embiid, a 42-point, nine-assist performance in Game 4 of that series, another win) and strange, familiar lows (duds in Game 6 and 7 against Boston, terrible shooting at the rim in the first round against the Nets).
While his production is no longer on par with his long run making All-NBA teams with the Rockets, Harden remains one of the game’s best passers and a threat to make a stepback 3 on any given offensive possession. His two-man game with Joel Embiid was extremely efficient, but it sounds like we’ve seen the last of it.
The tricky part of any potential Harden trade is that, with Embiid in the fold, the Sixers want to compete for the championship. Typically, it is simpler to trade star players when the goal is to acquire young players, expiring contracts and draft picks in order to bottom out and rebuild.
Having the reigning MVP on the roster does not preclude Philadelphia from accepting a deal built around young players, expiring contracts and draft picks, but, in order to accept such a package, its front office would have to be confident that it could flip that stuff into a player or group of players who could help the team win now. It is reasonable to assume that any team interested in Harden, with the possible exception of the Rockets, would also be trying to make a title run.
Sixers forward Tobias Harris, himself in a bit of a contract quandary this summer and a perfect package fit in a Harden trade, said this week he wanted Harden back on the team.
“There’s not many guys that can go out and drop 40 in a playoff game. I think that goes under the radar a little bit too much,” Harris said. “I think James is a phenomenal player, somebody who works his tail off, and somebody’s who’s an overall great leader. Of course I want him back.”
But it appears playing as the second option behind NBA MVP Joel Embiid and chasing a championship in Philly is no longer seriously on the table.
Harden led the NBA in assists last season with 10.7 per game but it was his wildly fluctuating offense that frustrated Sixers fans and helped doom them in the Eastern Conference second-round loss to Boston.
Harden, acquired at the 2022 trade deadline from Brooklyn for Ben Simmons, scored 45 points in Game 1 and 42 in Game 4 victories against the Celtics. Harden, who turns 34 in August, and was 0 for 6 on 3s in Game 2 and Game 6 losses. He scored only nine points in Game 7, and he went scoreless in the second half.
But after advancing past the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, the Sixers’ season ended in disappointing fashion once again in seven games vs. the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Harden had great performances in Game 1 without Embiid and Game 4, but his no shows in Games 6 and 7 contributed to another painful second-round exit.
With free agency starting Friday, the Sixers have some other tough decisions to make.
Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton are set to become unrestricted free agents and an extension for Tyrese Maxey is looming ahead. Harden, acquired at the 2022 trade deadline from Brooklyn for Ben Simmons, scored 45 points in Game 1 and 42 in Game 4 victories against the Celtics. Harden, who turns 34 in August, and was 0 for 6 on 3s in Game 2 and Game 6 losses. He scored only nine points in Game 7, and he went scoreless in the second half.
Harden blossomed into an insolation superstar in Houston but has largely deferred to reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid with the Sixers. The Sixers and team president could run into a jam if they don’t re-sign Harden. The Sixers have limited salary cap space, making it all but impossible to sign a quality free agent, especially one with Harden’s pedigree.
So now they’ll look to get assets in a deal — a common factor in Harden’s career. If Harden is traded, per NBA rules, he would have to play under his 2023-24 contract and would be eligible for free agency until next season.
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