The James Harden situation and Philadelphia’s path forward

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers are projected to generate up to $55 million in cap space next summer. That projection factors in renouncing all cap holds and waving all non-guaranteed salaries, with the exception of keeping Tyrese Maxeys $13 million cap hold. The Sixers would be able to spend that amount of cap space, then go over to re-sign Maxey up to the maximum.

They could be working with a smaller cap projection if they plan on retaining De’Anthony Melton. They could retain his Bird rights if they hold onto his $15.2 million cap hold, which would decrease their projection to $40 million. He is currently eligible to extend for up to four years, $75 million, which has a starting salary of $16.7 million. The Sixers could look to extend him now at around his maximum extension amount since it wouldn’t significantly impact their cap space.

As of now, the 2024 free agency class isn’t looking that much stronger than 2023’s. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can become free agents, but they seem likely to remain with the Clippers if they acquire Harden. Pascal Siakam, LeBron James (player option), and OG Anunoby (player option) are some of the other top unrestricted free agents.

The Sixers could gain more cap space if they’re able to find a trade for PJ Tucker, who has a $11.5 million player option for 2024-25 in his age 40 season. According to HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto, Tucker’s name has come up in trade talks with the Clippers involving Harden. The Clippers would need to send out $46.8 million to acquire both Harden with his $5.3 million trade bonus and Tucker.

A package featuring the expiring deals of Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, and a young player like Bones Hyland, Amir Coffey, or Kobe Brown could get them close enough with a portion of Harden’s trade bonus waived. Then the rest of the deal would come down to first-round pick compensation and protection. According to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Sixers are prioritizing first-round picks from the Clippers for Harden. The Clippers can trade a maximum of two first-round picks right now in 2028 and 2030.

If successfully traded to Los Angeles, the Clippers could be motivated to align all three of Harden, Leonard, and George on lucrative long-term deals. Leonard is currently extension-eligible while George becomes eligible starting on September 1. Harden will not be extension-eligible this year and would have to re-sign with the Clippers on a new contract in the 2024 offseason.

Such a return could help replenish some of Philadelphia’s draft picks. They are currently down two first-round picks over the next seven drafts in 2025 and 2027. However, such a framework certainly doesn’t improve the Sixers’ title chances this year and arguably makes them worse. The possibility of this season becoming a “gap year” could explain the recent reports of the vultures circling around Embiid.

According to Goodwill, teams like the Heat and Knicks are keeping an eye on the situation. But it’s hard to imagine Sixers proceeding like this if Embiid isn’t on board. Although they’re risking their title chances this season, it’s arguable that this exact iteration of the Sixers has reached its ceiling. Taking a step back to reshape the roster with cap space and draft picks may be the team’s best path forward to eventually win a championship around Embiid.