Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden has decided to pick up his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season and work with the team on a trade, according to reports from The Athletic and ESPN The news comes one day before the start of NBA free agency.

Harden, who turns 34 in August, averaged 21 points, 6.1 rebounds and 10.7 assists for the Sixers in 2022-23. The Los Angeles Clippers are among the teams interested in trading for him, according to SNY. The New York Knicks are another, per ESPN.

Until Thursday afternoon, Harden had been heavily rumored to re-sign with Philadelphia -- Marc Stein reported hours earlier that, while it was difficult to figure out what kind of contract would get a deal done, the two sides were widely expected to work something out. The Athletic, however, cited sources saying that the Sixers made it clear that they didn't want a long-term partnership with Harden.

Assuming Harden is traded, he will start the 2023-24 season on his fourth team since requesting a trade from the Houston Rockets three offseasons ago. Philadelphia acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets at the 2022 deadline, less than 13 months after Brooklyn acquired him from Houston. 

Harden is entering his 15th season. He made 10 consecutive All-Star Game appearances until missing the cut in 2022-23, but still played at an All-Star level for most of the regular season. In the playoffs, he had incredible highs (a 45-point masterpiece on the road to open the Sixers' second-round series against the Boston Celtics without Joel Embiid, a 42-point, nine-assist performance in Game 4 of that series, another win) and strange, familiar lows (duds in Game 6 and 7 against Boston, terrible shooting at the rim in the first round against the Nets). 

While his production is no longer on par with his long run making All-NBA teams with the Rockets, Harden remains one of the game's best passers and a threat to make a stepback 3 on any given offensive possession. His two-man game with Joel Embiid was extremely efficient, but it sounds like we've seen the last of it.

The tricky part of any potential Harden trade is that, with Embiid in the fold, the Sixers want to compete for the championship. Typically, it is simpler to trade star players when the goal is to acquire young players, expiring contracts and draft picks in order to bottom out and rebuild.

Having the reigning MVP on the roster does not preclude Philadelphia from accepting a deal built around young players, expiring contracts and draft picks, but, in order to accept such a package, its front office would have to be confident that it could flip that stuff into a player or group of players who could help the team win now. It is reasonable to assume that any team interested in Harden, with the possible exception of the Rockets, would also be trying to make a title run.