Evaluating Sixers’ options if James Harden leaves for Rockets in free agency

Riding a seven-game winning streak heading into their Christmas Day matchup against the New York Knicks, all seemed to be going well for the Sixers. Joel Embiid had shaken off his slow start to the season to vault back into the MVP conversation, while James Harden was fresh off a game in which he tied a franchise record with a career-high 21 assists.

So, naturally, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski took a sledgehammer to those good vibes roughly an hour before the Sixers tipped off against the Knicks.

According to Woj, Harden is “seriously considering a return to the Houston Rockets in free agency this July” if he decides not to stay with the Sixers. “Harden and his inner circle have been openly weighing Houston in recent months,” Woj added.

That wasn’t the first smoke about a Harden-Houston reunion this week, though. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Team MacMahon said there had already been a lot of “gossip and dot-connecting” about Harden’s possible return to the Space City if “things don’t work out in Philly.”

Neither Wojnarowski nor MacMahon suggested Harden was a lock to leave the Sixers this summer. Woj said the state of his partnership with Joel Embiid “and the Sixers’ postseason success could well be telltale factors in how Harden proceeds past this season.”

If Harden does decide to leave, though—whether for the Rockets or another free-agent suitor—the Sixers might have to consider an even bigger roster shakeup to remain in title contention.

The Sixers currently have $117.1 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season, which isn’t counting the player options for Harden ($35.6 million), Danuel House Jr. ($4.3 million) or Montrezl Harrell ($2.8 million). Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Paul Reed are all set to become free agents this offseason, too.

Next year’s salary cap is currently projected to land at $134 million. Even if House and Harrell opted out and the Sixers allowed all of their free agents to walk, they wouldn’t have much cap space if Harden left. After factoring in five incomplete roster charges, they’d have roughly $11.4 million to spend, along with the $5.9 million room mid-level exception.

The 2023 free-agent class isn’t teeming with a ton of top-end star power, but the Sixers wouldn’t be able to afford those types of players regardless. Khris Middleton, Fred VanVleet and Jerami Grant would be far outside their price range if any of them do become free agents. The best-case scenario might be someone like Harrison Barnes or Bogdan Bogdanovic, and even that would probably be a stretch. Besides, the non-taxpayer mid-level exception is projected to be $11.4 million, so it’s not like the Sixers would be able to wildly outspend other contenders for the best mid-range targets.

And again, that scenario requires them to allow every single one of their free agents to walk. Losing Harrell, House and/or Thybulle might not affect their short-term outlook drastically, but allowing Niang, Milton and Reed to walk would be a tougher pill to swallow. They’d then have to round out their rotation with nothing but veteran-minimum contracts after spending their minimum cap space and the room MLE.

If the Sixers re-signed any combination of their impending free agents, they might not have any cap space even if Harden walks. In that scenario, they’d only have the $11.4 million non-taxpayer MLE and veteran-minimum contracts to hand out to external free agents. Again, good luck replacing Harden’s value with that.

If Harden does walk, the Sixers’ best path forward might be shopping Tobias Harris as well. He’s found his niche as a quick-trigger catch-and-shoot threat this year, but the Sixers could better allocate his $39.3 million cap hit for next season. Breaking him up into a few smaller contracts could help them round out their rotation without spending their minimal resources on free agents.

According to SNY’s Ian Begley, the Knicks had “at least talked internally” about acquiring Harris prior to their recent eight-game win streak. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported in mid-November that the Sixers had “begun their usual check-ins with teams” ahead of the Dec. 15 date when most players become eligible to be traded, and Harris had “come up” in those conversations, although no trade appears imminent.

It’s unclear how much—if any—trade value Harris has. He’ll be on an expiring contract heading into next season, which should make him a more appealing target for teams looking to free up some long-term money. However, it may be difficult for other teams to cobble together enough money to send out for salary-matching purposes. The Sixers’ best bet might be sending him to a team with cap space, who could absorb him without sending a roughly equivalent amount of money back.

The Sixers might as well give this season their best shot rather than making a preemptive panic trade. Even if Harden returns next year, they’re likely to lose some rotation players in free agency. If Harden walks, they can explore Harris deals and pivot from there.

While it’s fair to worry about Harden’s long-term outlook—particularly if the Sixers give him a big-money, multiyear deal—the alternative of him walking as a free agent and leaving them empty-handed isn’t much better. It’s not like they’ll gain nearly $36 million in cap space to replace him. Instead, they’d be left trying to replace him without any easy way to do so.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBP Stats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.

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