Much like last offseason, the most pivotal roster decision facing the Philadelphia 76ers this summer is what to do with James Harden, who has a $35.6 million player option for next season that he reportedly intends to decline, per Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes. Haynes reports that Harden will be seeking a new, long-term deal, and further, that he "will only entertain suitors that present a competitive roster and the basketball freedom for the star to be himself."
Chances are, this means Harden will likely be staying with the Sixers, who don't have the cap space to replace him and obviously offer the competitive and situational elements Harden desires.
If the Sixers were to lose Harden for nothing, they would have to consider breaking up more of the roster, perhaps by trying to get off Tobias Harris' contract. Perhaps a Joel Embiid trade would then become an option. That's a road Daryl Morey -- who said on Wednesday that the Sixers have not yet had talks with Harden about a long-term deal but that the team would be interested in bringing him back -- is almost certainly not ready to go down.
Harden played well this season. He had an All-NBA case as the league's assist leader, averaging 21 points on nearly 39 percent 3-point shooting. He had some huge playoff games. He also had some duds, including Philly's Game 7 loss to Boston in which Harden finished 3 for 11, including 1 for 5 from deep for nine points.
When the Sixers needed Harden most, he pulled something of a Ben Simmons disappearing act. Over the final three fourth quarters of the series (Games 5, 6 and 7), Harden didn't score a single point in 32 minutes of action. Not one point.
Botton line, Harden isn't anything close to the MVP he once was. He doesn't have the same ability to get by his initial defender and into the lane at will, which limits his leverage to draw fouls, which we know was always his most dangerous asset. He has basically no vertical pop as a finisher; at times in the playoffs he wasn't even looking at the rim when he got deep penetration.
Harden has never been a big-time shooter from a percentage standpoint; even in his prime he played the volume card. Yeah, his 3-point stats looked good this season, but again, he is just not a guy you want to depend on to actually make shots when it counts the most. His defense is obviously detrimental.
And so, the Sixers have to decide how much money they can stomach committing to Harden over three or four years. He'll be 34 years old this summer. His decline has already started, and it could get steep toward the backend of a new deal.
Again, the Sixers don't have a lot of options here. Morey always wanted to get back on the Harden bus, and it's not going to be easy to get off. It sounds like the Sixers are going to have to pay what will probably be a very steep fare and just hope the bus doesn't break down entirely.