James Harden Took a $15 Million Pay Cut, But What’s Next for the Philadelphia 76ers?

On Wednesday, June 29th, 2022, James Harden declined his player option with the Philadelphia 76ers. At a glance, many might think that is not a good sign for the Sixers and Sixers fans, however, it’s the biggest bode of confidence from Harden to Philly fans. Harden wants to take the Sixers to new heights, and this was the best way to start it. Harden’s player option would have counted for $47.4 million against the 76ers salary cap, one of the largest in NBA history. If Harden had picked this up, the Sixers would have been forced to trade Tobias Harris in a salary dump, and even without Harris, the Sixers wouldn’t have had the money to bring in another player that could propel them to being a true finals favorite.

The following Friday, July 8th, it was announced James Harden had agreed to a new contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. He took a $15 million pay cut for the 2022-23 season, from $47 million to $32 million. Harden’s deal also includes a player option for the 2023-24 season, but the financials for that year, as well as the exact salary cap hit for this upcoming season, are still unreleased. Harden seems to trust the process that has been ongoing in Philadelphia for nearly a decade, and it is easy to see why. According to NBA insider Shams Charania, part of Harden’s desire to stay in Philadelphia, as well as his willingness to accept less money, is because Harden genuinely trusts the Sixers front office. 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, was the General Manager in Houston for Harden’s entire tenure, until Morey stepped down as the GM of the Rockets on November 1st, 2020. Three months later Harden was traded from the Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets. Morey, Harden, and 76ers owner Josh Harris all trust each other to work in the best interests of the team, and Harden has lived up to his end of the bargain by creating $15 million for the Sixers front office.

Now that Harden is officially signed on for the 2022-23 season with Philadelphia, there are two questions that remain: Can James Harden win a championship with the 76ers? And can the 76ers build a talented enough roster to win a championship? Let’s begin by looking at Harden. James Harden has been undeniably great since he entered the NBA in 2009 as the third overall pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Harden has reached individual highs that have only been reached by a select few players, such as Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Wilt Chamberlain. In fact, in 2018 and 2019 (Harden’s MVP season) James Harden had the second longest streak ever of consecutive 30 point games, that ended after 32 games when Harden was only able to record 28 points in a win against the Hawks. Falling short of Chamberlain’s streak of 65 such games. That was also the season James Harden became the first player to average over 36 points per game in a season since Michael Jordan did it in the 1986-87 season. That season was the second of three consecutive times Harden would take the scoring title. Averaging 30.4 points per game in the 2017-18 season, 36.1 in 2018-19, and 34.3 in 2019-2020. When it comes to individual performers in the NBA, James Harden is among the best we have ever seen. However, he only has one Finals appearance, a loss coming in 2012, Harden’s final year with the Thunder where he was teammates with two other future MVPs: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Harden has failed to get back to the NBA Finals since, and has only reached the conference finals twice, in 2015 and 2018. At a glance it seems like Harden may be a great basketball player, but not necessarily a great winner. However, when the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals in 2015, the second highest scorer was a 29 year old Dwight Howard, who only played in 41 games that year and averaged 15.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. The third highest scorer on that team was Trevor Ariza, who was also 29 and played in all 82 games for the Rockets that season. While averaging 12.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. Looking at the sheer lack of talented starters and depth beyond Harden, it is amazing this Rockets team was in the playoffs, let alone a 56 win team that would not only finish with the second seed in the Western Conference, but reach the Western Conference Finals. In 2018, when Harden and the Rockets returned to the Western Conference Finals, it was a much different team. James Harden was averaging over 30 points per game, Harden had a legitimate All-Star teammate in Chris Paul, and the Rockets had a much better roster, with four players scoring over 13 points per game, featuring players like Eric Gordon, a more developed Clint Capela, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, and even still having Trevor Ariza, who was still a great defender at the time. This Rockets team was the pinnacle of James Harden’s career, and if it weren’t for Chris Paul suffering an injury keeping him from playing in game seven, coupled with one of the worst three point shooting performances by a team in league history, the Rockets may have shocked the world and upset one of the greatest rosters the NBA had ever seen in the Curry and Durant led Warriors. Harden’s time in Houston would eventually fade out, as the relationship better Chris Paul and the Rockets began to sour and Paul was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook. Harden and Westbrook were underwhelming in Houston, despite Harden actually being an MVP finalist that year, a covid shorten season ended with the Rockets beating the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs before being eliminated in just five games by the eventual champion Lakers. Westbrook and Harden became increasingly unhappy with the Rockets organization following this playoff loss and the Westbrook was traded to the Wizards before the 2020-21 season.

Following the departure of Westbrook, it seemed as if Harden’s days of competing with the Rockets were over. The superstar player wanted a team around him that the Rockets simply would not and could not give him, so Harden wanted out, and was eventually traded to the Brooklyn Nets on January 14th, 2021. Harden started off strong, recording a 32 point triple double in his first game with the Nets. It seemed as the Nets had one of the best rosters the league had ever seen, featuring a big three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant. Injuries kept the Nets from making it past the second round in the 2021 NBA playoffs, despite Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo having one of the greatest playoff duels in NBA history, however, nobody knew of the chaos that was about to begin within the Nets. The relationship between the Nets organization and each of the players of their big three seemed to deteriorate overnight, and just before the trade deadline on February 10th, 2022 James Harden was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. So can James Harden win? Three Conference finals appearances with a record of 1-2, with a finals record of 0-1 certainly isn’t ideal, but was it ever really possible for Harden to compete without a consistent bona fide All-Star in Houston in an era dominated by the Warriors superteam and Lebron James? Harden’s ability to score speaks for itself, as at time defenders would do anything, even stand behind Harden, as a way to try and stop Harden from finding a way to make bucket after bucket. Harden also has a career win percentage of 65.0%, (via career win-loss records on Statmuse.com). For reference, some other notable winning percentages of players with over 500 career games include, Lebron James (65.4%), Stephen Curry (66.0%), Kevin Durant (62.5%), Russell Westbrook (58.6%), Giannis (54.9%), and Michael Jordan (65.9%). All of these players have won at least one MVP, and all except Westbrook and Harden have a ring, with Giannis being the only other one without multiple championships. So is Harden not a winner and not clutch or has he just been unlucky and missing a superstar player who can bring out the best of him, with a solid team around them who can compete for a title? That is the question the entire NBA is waiting for an answer for, and it seems as if the Sixers cannot make a finals push in 2022-23, James Harden will never be remembered for the scoring or the MVP. Only his inability to capture an NBA Championship. Fortunately for Harden, he will be with Joel Embiid in Philadelphia.

While Harden was and is the Sixers key to a title, the 76ers will always be Joel Embiid’s team, and prior to acquiring Harden, the Sixers have had perhaps the strangest decade of any professional sports team ever. From back to back number one overall picks being busts, to inventing tanking in the NBA, to general managers having burner accounts, to only drafting Centers. Embiid has seen it all in his career with the Sixers. And that isn’t even on the court. Embiid and the Sixers have been trapped in groundhog day in the NBA playoffs, finding new ways to lose in the second round every year. From Kawhi’s buzzer-beater, to Joel Embiid getting his face broken twice (2018 and 2022), to losing to Trae Young and the Hawks due to the strategy of intentionally fouling Ben Simmons every possession. The Sixers have had an long and interesting road to acquiring James Harden, and the fans in Philadelphia have been more than patient and are growing impatient with second round exits, MVP runner-ups, and coaches and players consistently not getting the job done when it matters most. As it sits, Harden’s deal leaves the Sixers with flexibility in terms of salary cap space. The question now is what do the Sixers do with that salary cap? The 76ers have already brought in De’Anthony Melton, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House this offseason, at the cost of Danny Green. The Sixers got defense and consistent shooting with their moves and may not be big splashes, but gaining quality defense, depth, and consistency from the frontcourt is something the Sixers have been missing for a very long time. Weather or not they make a splash for Kevin Durant, or any other star that may become available, or even stick with the roster they have now, one thing is for certain. James Harden, Joel Embiid, Doc Rivers, Daryl Morey, and the rest of the 76ers legacies may very well all be riding on this season in Philadelphia.

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