James Harden is a former MVP. He is something close to a present-day All-Star. His future, at the moment, can't be so easily condensed into a single sentence. Let's review the series of events that led us to " " to try to figure out where he's going.
- Feb. 2022: Harden forces a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for a package built around similarly disgruntled star Ben Simmons. It is the second trade he has forced in 13 months.
- May 2022: Philadelphia loses its second-round series to the Miami Heat. Harden scores 11 points in the series-ending loss, his lowest point total in a playoff game that did not involve a documented injury since 10-point debacle in Game 6 of a 2017 season-ending loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
- July 2022: Harden re-signs with the 76ers on a two-year, $68.6 million deal. Harden declined his $47.3 million player option to become a free agent and sign this contract, and in the process, allowed the 76ers the flexibility to sign P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. Harden claimed at the time that he "told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over." Notably, however, no NBA team went into free agency with enough cap space to match the $33.6 million salary the 76ers gave Harden for the 2022-23 season, and all five teams that operated below the cap during the 2022 offseason were coming off of lottery seasons. Therefore, it is impossible to know if any suggestion that Harden actually left money on the table beyond his one-year option is truly accurate, and even if he was willing to, he notably had no path to a market-value salary on a contender without Philadelphia's cooperation.
- Dec. 2022: ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Harden is "seriously considering a return to the Houston Rockets" as a free agent in the 2023 offseason. The 76ers are 19-12 at that moment and appear primed to compete in the Eastern Conference.
- May 2023: Philadelphia blows a 3-2 lead to the Boston Celtics in the second round. Harden shoots 7-of-27 from the floor in Games 6 and 7.
- June 2023: Harden, without an acceptable long-term contract offer from the 76ers and with the knowledge that Houston plans to pursue Raptors guard Fred VanVleet instead of him, picks up his $35.6 million option for the 2023-24 season expecting to be traded soon afterward, ideally to the Los Angeles Clippers.
- August 2023: Harden calls Morey a liar after no trade materializes.
There are two ways of looking at this sequence of events, and the truth probably lies somewhere between them.
Harden's perspective is likely that he did the 76ers a favor by bailing them out of the Simmons debacle, did them another one by leaving money on the table so they could sign Tucker and House, and now Morey has not only failed to give him the sort of long-term contract he expected for his sacrifice, but won't even send him to a new team that might be more open to paying him.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, has already watched Harden force his way off of two teams and sink their championship hopes in two separate collapses. They watched him flirt with the Rockets all season only to find in July that they weren't interested, and are now watching him strike out again with a Clippers team that would happily take him, but doesn't seem all that eager to give anything up to get him. From their perspective, Harden is neither worth the sort of long-term commitment he expects nor capable of netting the sort of trade package it would take to justify giving up a player who, at least in this moment, is still quite good.
And that's what makes all of this so complicated. Throughout all of his recent antics, Harden has gotten what he's wanted largely because he has been so good in the moment that teams acquiring him were willing to overlook both his present shortcomings and his likely long-term deterioration. A younger Harden likely would have secured a trade to the Clippers by now because the Clippers would be so desperate to land a player of his caliber that they would offer the sort of draft capital Morey likely needs to make a deal.
But for perhaps the first time since he was traded to Houston in 2012, Harden is being judged not by what he is today but by what he will likely be tomorrow. If Harden was capable of securing a lucrative, long-term contract in free agency, he would have done so. There were even some mildly intriguing theoretical options. The Lakers, who play in the same city as the Clippers and are run by Harden's former agent, Rob Pelinka, had the ability to create more than $30 million in cap space. No reporting suggested any interest. The Miami Heat are currently embroiled in a months-long staring contest with the Portland Trail Blazers over Damian Lillard. They could pivot to Harden at any time and potentially make a deal. So far as we know, they haven't tried.
Harden wants to get paid, but there is seemingly no team willing to pay to get him. That's a critical detail for both sides. Harden clearly isn't a part of Philadelphia's long-term plans. If he was, they would have paid him, but for the time being, Philadelphia seems to have pivoted to. That means getting Harden off of their books next summer. Letting his contract expire naturally does that.
A trade would only have that effect if it meant absorbing no long-term salaries. Of course, even if Philadelphia was able to trade Harden without taking back long-term money, their cap space wouldn't do much good if a frustrating season led to Joel Embiid asking for his own trade before they could use it. That's where Harden's short-term value really matters here. Even if Harden is gone after next season, Philadelphia needs him to be an All-Star-caliber player next season just to keep Embiid engaged until the real roster overhaul comes in 2024.
This scenario leaves Harden out to dry. With Philadelphia's cap space seemingly occupied by external free agents, Harden would not only be unable to re-sign with the team that has his Bird Rights, but that team would likely have to renounce his rights before it could feasibly sign-and-trade him. In other words, Philadelphia's current plan of keeping Harden and then letting him walk in 2024 would force him to sign with a team with cap space or take a massive pay cut.
Cap space nowadays is a rare commodity, especially among winning teams. Spotrac's Keith Smith currently projects six teams to have at least $20 million in cap space in the summer of 2024, excluding Philadelphia: San Antonio, Oralndo, Utah, Charlotte, Detroit and Washington. Some of those teams could use guards. None of them are ready to win right away. They'd all likely prefer to use their cap space on younger free agents. Even if any of them were interested in Harden, it would likely be on a short-term deal. This makes it pretty clear why Harden is going to such lengths to force a trade now. If he doesn't get traded, he probably isn't getting paid next summer.
The Clippers make a lot more sense through that prism. Yes, Los Angeles is his home town, and yes, the Clippers could win a championship by pairing him up with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. That likely matters. What matters more is that the Clippers, on paper, probably likelier to extend Harden for major money next offseason than any other team in the NBA for three reasons:
- They'd have no way of replacing him if he walked next summer. Unlike Philadelphia, the Clippers have no feasible path to max cap space unless George and Leonard walk. That's possible, especially since the Clippers haven't extended either this offseason, but it's unlikely because...
- They are opening a new arena for the 2024-25 season, and they'll likely want to be competitive when they do so. Even if the Harden-Leonard-George trio doesn't produce a championship, it has the sort of star power teams want when they open a new building and need to sell season tickets.
- They have the richest owner in the NBA. Steve Ballmer has made a few cost-cutting moves in recent years, with this offseason's waiving of Eric Gordon standing out. But he is one of the few owners that can afford to not only pay the Leonard-Harden-George trio, but the luxury taxes that would accompany them.
Getting traded anywhere would be financially beneficial for Harden. If nothing else, he wants his Bird Rights to belong to a team that might actually want to pay him next summer. But the Clippers check more boxes than just about everyone else for the reasons we covered, and if he doesn't get his trade, his financial future, at least by superstar standards, is relatively bleak.
His best-case scenario would likely be something similar to what happened to DeMar DeRozan in 2021. He had no easy fits among the cap space teams. Rumors swirled that he might have to take a mid-level exception. The Bulls finally bailed him out with a sign-and-trade. The problem here is that in order for a team to sign-and-trade one of their own players, they need to either retain his Bird Rights or have the cap space to re-sign him before trading him.
Perhaps Morey could finagle the latter through some order of operations shenanigans, but that would mean constructing a trade in which he takes back no salary, which, in turn, means draft compensation to a third team. Philadelphia has little reason to cooperate on that front. More likely, the Sixers just renounce Harden when they find free agents they want to sign outright. Once they've done so, a sign-and-trade is off the table.
The next layer down is a mid-level exception. This offseason, the non-taxpayer mid-level exception starts at $12.4 million. That would be a massive bargain for the player Harden is today. If he declines with age, it might be closer to fair a year from now. Of course, Harden sees himself as a superstar. Dropping from max money to mid-level money would be a bitter pill for him to swallow. The alternative is even worse. He need only look at one of his former teammates to see it.
Russell Westbrook just went from a maximum salary to, functionally, the minimum when he re-signed with the Clippers. This is a startlingly common decline for former stars. Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond have all gone from either max or near-max contracts immediately down to the minimum upon either the expiration or buyouts of their previous contracts. This isn't Harden's immediate future, but his decline could come at any time, and teams often prefer to avoid fading stars. Remember when Anthony had to go on First Take to ask teams for a job? Harden comes with many of the same flaws.
Serious or not, Harden has expressed public interest in playing in China someday. If a long-term NBA deal doesn't present itself next offseason, that could come sooner than he thinks. Eventually, it could be his most lucrative option. Though salaries in the Chinese Basketball Association are minimal compared to the NBA, no foreign star of Harden's caliber has ever made the leap to China. The endorsement opportunities, therefore, would be enormous. That is especially true for Harden, specifically, as he spent his prime playing for the Houston Rockets. Prior to Morey's comments on Hong Kong, the Rockets were China's favorite NBA team because they previously employed Chinese star Yao Ming. Though a new NBA deal is obviously the likelier outcome, if this thing spirals quickly enough, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Harden to make the jump as soon as the summer of 2024.
There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these outcomes, especially for a player that has earned as much as Harden already has. He could create his cleanest path to a championship yet by taking a pay cut, or he could set himself up for post-career riches in China. But if these were Harden's goals, he wouldn't so desperately be pushing for a trade to the Clippers here and now. His goal appears to be one last NBA payday, and with each day that passes without a Clippers trade, that goal becomes less and less realistic.