James Harden has developed a nasty habit of leaving teams in ruins. He pushed for the Houston Rockets to trade Chris Paul and a mountain of draft picks for Russell Westbrook only to ditch them around 18 months later. The Brooklyn Nets gave up seven years worth of draft control to the Rockets to land Harden, but in just 13 months, he'd managed to force his way to Philadelphia. Neither the Rockets nor the Nets have fully recovered yet.

Now the 76ers are seeing the dark side of landing Harden. After yet another humiliating playoff loss, rumors about Harden's possible return to the Rockets in free agency are beginning to mount. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey went so far as to report that the Rockets "expect" to land Harden this offseason. Unlike Harden's past teams, the 76ers wouldn't even get a trade package back for him. The Rockets are positioned to create more than $60 million in cap space, more than enough to sign Harden for his maximum salary without giving the 76ers a thing. If anything, Philadelphia might wind up having to send something to Houston just to convince the Rockets to structure the deal as a sign-and-trade. Doing so would cost the 76ers an asset, but give them a hefty trade exception they could use to replace Harden's salary slot with a similarly priced player.

Harden's fate isn't sealed yet. Longtime Harden ally Daryl Morey still runs the 76ers, and he'll have a chance to impress his star guard with a new coaching hire before free agency arrives. But at this point, there is too much smoke surrounding Harden's return to Houston to believe there isn't at least a little bit of fire. The 76ers still have a 29-year-old MVP and a roster designed to win right now. They have to start planning for the possibility that they lose Harden for nothing. While they could simply run it back with the rest of their roster and make upgrades on the margins, doing so would almost certainly knock Philadelphia out of immediate championship contention. They're going to have to be aggressive in a post-Harden world if they plan to avoid the treadmill of mediocrity.

So what does all of this mean for Philadelphia? How could the 76ers rebound from Harden's possible departure? To pivot successfully, the 76ers would have to settle on a new game plan quickly. There are four viable options on the board.

Path 1: Try to trade for another star

Morey is likely looking into this path as we speak. Philadelphia is a relatively desirable market. The northeast is generally a great source of marketing dollars. The fan base is rabid. Players will want to pair up with Embiid. Finding an interested co-star won't be the problem. Philadelphia's real issue here will be building a trade package.

The 76ers currently owe first-round picks to the Jazz, Thunder and Nets. That means that their only tradable pick this offseason is their 2030 first-round choice. Thanks to the new CBA, giving that pick up would mean hard-capping themselves at the second apron. That wouldn't be a major problem for the 76ers if Harden's salary is cleared off of their books immediately, but it's another major obstacle to consider. The overarching point is that Philadelphia has very little draft capital to trade with. They'd have to build a deal around Tyrese Maxey. They could either pair him with the expiring salary of Tobias Harris to match dollars, or they could try to create a trade exception through Harden's departure as we mentioned above to absorb a big incoming salary.

Once upon a time, Maxey might have been enough to net another star. We now live in a world in which the Nets just got Mikal Bridges and all of Phoenix's picks for Kevin Durant. That's the going rate for most top-tier stars right now, and the Sixers simply lack the draft capital to pay it. Philadelphia simply can't win a bidding war for a player like Damian Lillard unless he insists on playing for the 76ers specifically. Anyone better than Lillard is probably off of the table.

So let's go one level down. How about Bradley Beal? The Wizards are currently searching a new general manager, and it is unclear what direction that executive will want to take the team. If he wants to tank, a Beal trade is obvious. Even if ownership insists on remaining competitive, Maxey is probably preferable to a picks-based package. Beal still has four years and over $200 million left on his contract, so his trade value is relatively limited compared to his on-court value. Even if it wasn't, Beal's no-trade clause gives him control over his destination. If the Wizards want to move him and he wants to go to Philadelphia, he can get there.

The Bulls have two possible Philadelphia targets. Zach LaVine, like Beal, is on a potentially onerous long-term deal. DeMar DeRozan is 33 and on an expiring contract. Chicago just finished below .500 and might be looking for a pivot of their own. Maxey would immediately become the highest-upside player on their roster, and Chicago would still have enough veteran talent to remain moderately competitive, which tends to be ownership's goal. 

Would it be worth calling the Bucks and asking about Jrue Holiday? Milwaukee needs to get younger around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Maxey could be the half-court shot creator he'll need for the rest of his prime. This is a scenario that makes more sense if Harden stays put. Holiday is at his best in an off-ball role, and he has hinted at plans to retire at the end of his current contract in 2025. He's an all-in for right now player, and Holiday plus Embiid, with little else, isn't worth going all-in for.

Would an Embiid-Beal or an Embiid-LaVine/DeRozan pairing make Philadelphia a championship team? Probably not immediately. They'd effectively be swapping out at least two and possibly three starters for one player who might be worse than Harden. De'Anthony Melton could transition into a starting role easily enough, but Philadelphia has no obvious Harris replacement if he is in the deal and its bench would suffer significantly. Morey would have to work his magic to rebuild the supporting cast, and it probably wouldn't be possible for at least another year or two. But there are narrow paths to contention here if the 76ers find the right trade.

Path 2: Clear cap space for 2023 free agency

The lone benefit to losing Harden for nothing would be clearing his salary off of the books. With Harden, the 76ers would be well over the luxury tax. Without him? They're currently around $10 million below the projected 2023-24 salary cap. Of course, $10 million in cap space is chump change nowadays. To add real difference-makers, the Sixers would have to think bigger.

If they did sign-and-trade Harden into Houston's cap space to create a major trade exception, they could turn around and use that salary slot on a top free agent through another sign and trade. The risk of doing so is that acquiring a signed-and-traded player triggers a hard cap at the first apron. That likely isn't tenable if the Sixers are bringing in another prohibitively expensive player. Their other path would be finding a taker for the expiring $39 million contract of Tobias Harris.

Only two teams are currently positioned to absorb that contract outright, and one of them is Houston, who we can safely take off of the board. The other is Utah. Danny Ainge will do just about anything for a price, and he'd likely love to get his hands on Philadelphia's unprotected 2030 first-round pick. Otherwise? The Sixers would have to find a team that was actually interested in Harris, the player. 

Two possibilities here are San Antonio and Detroit, both of whom could absorb Harris while sending minimal salary back (let's say Alec Burks for Detroit and Doug McDermott for San Antonio). The Pistons tried to get into the play-in race a year ago and missed out due to injuries. If they don't like this year's free agents, a one-year flier on Harris could be a helpful-win now move. San Antonio is in the same boat if it wants to compete right away with Victor Wembanyama, though the Spurs are likelier to use their money on guards than forwards.

There is one especially forward-needy dark horse that makes some sense: Indiana. Harris makes around $20 million more than Buddy Hield. The Pacers are looking at around $27 million in cap space, but they have Tyrese Haliburton, Benedict Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard, T.J. McConnell and Chris Duarte filling up their guard minutes. Harris could immediately slot in as Indiana's starting power forward without clogging their cap sheet for the long haul. Philadelphia could get to around $30 million in cap space while also bringing in a starting-caliber guard. This is a possible win-win deal depending on Indiana's other offseason plans.

So who would the Sixers pursue in this scenario? That's where this gets grim. There are only three free agents aside from Harden that stand out as major possible difference-makers, and none are ideal for Philadelphia. Khris Middleton would be an upgrade on the Harris slot, but age and injuries are a concern. Fred VanVleet could work, but adding him would mean shifting a lot of Philadelphia's shot-creating burden onto Embiid and Maxey. Maxey might be ready for a bigger role, but Embiid really benefitted from playing with an elite passer. Neither Maxey or VanVleet checks that box. Draymond Green does, but not in the way that Philadelphia needs. He makes no sense for their offense whatsoever.

Of the three, VanVleet is the most promising. He has a strong playoff track record and a skill set that theoretically fits alongside the rest of the current roster. But he'll have plenty of suitors and won't come cheap. There's a more interesting possibility on the board, but it's a risky one. 

Path 3: Clear cap space for 2024 free agency

The 2024 free-agent class is far stronger than 2023's, at least for now. Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam and Domantas Sabonis all stand out as possible high-level additions. Any of them could extend with their current teams, but at the very least, Dejounte Murray is unlikely to do so. The new CBA was meant to make veteran extensions easier for players with low salaries, but even with his maximum possible 40% raise, Murray could only make around $24 million in the first year of a new deal. That's not close to fair market value, so he's almost certain to at least reach free agency next offseason even if his preference is to re-sign with the Hawks.

Building for 2024 cap space would be far easier than 2023 on Philadelphia's end. Harris is on an expiring deal, so there would be no need to dump him. In fact, the 76ers currently have only one player on a guaranteed contract for the 2024-25 season: Embiid. P.J. Tucker has a player-option he's almost certain to pick up, and Jaden Springer has a team-option the Sixers will probably decline. But otherwise? Clean books. The 76ers could pursue whoever they want. There are just two major catches.

The first is obvious. Does Embiid really want to waste a season of his prime waiting for cap space that may or may not improve his roster? That's going to be a hard sell. He still hasn't reached the conference finals. Getting there and beyond is going to be his top priority, so odds are, he won't be especially enthused about a plan that essentially revolves around punting the 2023-24 season.

The second is just as problematic, but for different reasons. Maxey just finished his third season. That means he's eligible for a rookie extension. He probably won't get the max, but he'd easily clear eight figures on the open market. The problem with extending him now, though, is that his new salary would become his 2023-24 cap figure. If the Sixers elected not to extend Maxey and let him become a restricted free agent in 2024, his cap figure would be based on where he was drafted. Maxey was picked No. 21 overall, so his qualifying would be a relatively meager $6.3 million, according to Spotrac. Philadelphia would still presumably sign him to an enormous contract in the 2024 offseason, but by waiting to do so, they could save tens of millions of dollars in cap space they'd need to rebuild the rest of their roster.

In the end, this approach probably wouldn't cost Maxey much in terms of actual dollars. It just deprives him of security. If Maxey were to suffer a serious injury or if his performance was to decline meaningfully, he wouldn't be guaranteed a long-term deal. Players rarely take kindly to these sorts of cap space shenanigans. One notable player forced to wait for this exact reason? Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs elected not to extend Leonard after he won Finals MVP in 2014. It helped them sign LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015. By 2018, Leonard was gone. Further complicating matters for the Sixers is that Maxey is represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Guess who else Paul represents? Dejounte Murray. Preserving cap space to pursue Murray might also mean straining their relationship with Murray's agent.

Could the Sixers sign Maxey while retaining close to max space? Sure, but it would make it far harder for them to build out the rest of the roster. Making Maxey wait would allow them to re-sign De'Anthony Melton and round out their front-court rotation in addition to adding a star. Disconnect this plan from the human realities of operating in the NBA and it's probably Philadelphia's best option. But the odds of keeping everyone on the team happy for a full year as this plan is executed are relatively slim. Frankly, the odds of keeping everyone happy in any post-Harden scenario are pretty slim, which brings us to the nuclear option.

Path 4: Process 2.0

Philadelphia probably isn't going to give up on the Embiid era. The success teams like Utah and Oklahoma City have had with proactive rebuilds notwithstanding, owners are usually too conservative to trade a superstar before he forces the issue. Embiid hasn't yet. We don't know when or if he ever will.

But even if ownership is against another trip into the tank, Morey is the sort of general manager who would consider it. Sam Hinkie was originally his underling in Houston, after all, and Morey supported the first Process as it was happening. "The reality is, when he took over Philly, he took the approach that was best for the franchise at that time in his judgment, which was that the best way for them to get to be a title contender, given the roster where they were at, was to take a pretty strong dip into the top five of the draft," Morey said of his old disciple in 2018. "That has more of a history of success in terms of building a championship contender."

Despite owing several future picks to other teams, none of them are unprotected. Philadelphia owns its 2024 pick outright, and while its 2025 pick is earmarked for Oklahoma City, it is protected 1-6 before dropping to 1-4 in 2026 and 2027. In other words, if the 76ers are bad enough, they could tank without interruption. Even if they lost one pick, they'd have at least three of their next four before their obligation to Brooklyn comes into play.

Of course, none of this matters without finding an Embiid trade. The entire league would be interested, but a few possible suitors stand out. Embiid has been playing footsie with Jimmy Butler ever since the two split up in 2019, but Miami doesn't have quite enough to offer. Would the Sixers really want to rebuild around Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and three unprotected Heat picks? Portland is a bit of a stretch for the same reason. Philadelphia would surely be excited about possibly adding the No. 3 pick, but are Brandon Miller or Scoot Miller enticing enough centerpieces for an MVP in his prime? Could Shaedon Sharpe and/or Anfernee Simons tip the scales? Unlikely, but we can't rule it out.

New York has been Embiid's long-rumored endgame because the Knicks are run by his former agent, Leon Rose. The Knicks have all of their own picks to offer after 2023 as well as four other first-rounders from other teams, but all of them are protected and their own picks don't look especially valuable at the moment. The Knicks have no premium players to offer either if we assume that Jalen Brunson is untouchable. Maybe the Knicks could overwhelm the Sixers with sheer quantity, but odds are, they could find better quality elsewhere.

This is where Embiid's preferences come into play. Is he willing to go to a less desirable city? Because if he is, Oklahoma City is a perfect trade partner for Philadelphia. The Thunder have three premium young players to dangle in Jalen Williams, Chet Holmgren and Josh Giddey without even including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They have more first-round picks to offer than any other team, and they played all of last season without a center. They are an absolutely perfect fit... if Embiid is willing to live in Oklahoma. He might be. Embiid is a well-known homebody. But plenty of other stars that have landed in big cities have been. If market doesn't matter, fellow asset hoarders like Utah and New Orleans might enter the picture as well.

Don't count on the Sixers pursuing this line of thinking. Only three reigning MVPs have ever changed teams immediately after winning the award: Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, Moses Malone in 1982 and LeBron James in 2010. Yes, two of those transactions involved the Sixers, but a third remains historically unlikely.

Even if Harden walks, Philadelphia will almost certainly try to reload around Embiid. The entire point of The Process was to land a player like him in the first place. Kicking off a rebuild with Embiid already in the building would be unprecedented. As difficult as Harden might make things for the Sixers, Embiid has already endured the departure of one co-star in Ben Simmons. So long as he is willing to stay, the Sixers will try to work around the loss of a second.

So what's the likeliest outcome?

As aggressive as Morey tends to be, the simplest solution is usually the one teams default to. If Harden walks, the 76ers probably won't do anything too drastic in the immediate aftermath. They'll have a mid-level exception at their disposal to potentially add a starting-caliber player. They'll likely sign Maxey to a large extension knowing that it would make any 2024 cap space plans more complicated. They'll see if he is capable of developing into a sidekick for Embiid next year, and then adjust accordingly.

But in the long-term? It almost certainly has to be either a combination of paths 1 and 3, or path 4 will be forced upon them. Embiid has given no indication of frustration yet. NBA history tells us he won't be thrilled losing in the second round forever. Philadelphia can trade for another star. They can sign one. They can hope that Maxey grows into one. But if they don't eventually improve their post-Harden roster, it's going to be hard to convince Embiid to spend the rest of his prime in Philadelphia.