Let's abandon reality for a second. Pretend for a moment that the Brooklyn Nets are smitten with Ben Simmons. Pretend for a moment that James Harden did not reportedly voice his preference to join those Nets over the Philadelphia 76ers, that he is not currently part of the most talented team in the NBA and playing in its biggest market, and that he truly views the 76ers as his ideal team from the summer of 2022 on.
This is the reality that the 76ers and their ambitious president of basketball operation, Daryl Morey, are reportedly trying to craft. It is unlikely for the reasons listed above and a myriad of others, but again, we're going to pretend for the time being that it isn't. We're going to make Morey's dreams come true and imagine a world in which Harden, a prospective 2022 free agent should he choose not to exercise the $47.4 million option on his current contract, declares his intent to join the 76ers. We're going to explore this reality so we can answer a critical question it poses: what comes next?
It's a deceptively simple question with enormously complicated answers. Getting Harden to Philadelphia would not be as simple as the Nets and 76ers agreeing to swap All-Stars. Such a deal would force the 76ers to deftly maneuver one of the salary cap's strictest rules, and in the process make compromises that would likely leave their roster less appealing as a destination to Harden than it appears at this moment. So, let's explore the mechanics of a possible Harden-for-Simmons deal if only to demonstrate just how complicated this theoretical best-case scenario would be for the 76ers.
The sign-and-trade route
There are three numbers that loom large in a possible trade of Harden to Philadelphia:
- $46.5 million. That is roughly Harden's maximum salary, and what we can assume he would ask for from the 76ers. Note that while that figure exceeds 35 percent of the projected $119 million salary cap, it is allowable for Harden because he is making $44.3 million this season and players are always eligible to earn up to 105 percent of their previous salary.
- $97.4 million. This is roughly the amount of guaranteed salary Philadelphia has on the books for next season, excluding Ben Simmons. It represents eight players and does not include the non-guaranteed salaries of Danny Green, Shake Milton, Isaiah Joe, Paul Reed or Charles Bassey. Those eight players are Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, Tyrese Maxey and Jaden Springer.
- $152 million. This is a rough estimation of next season's luxury tax apron. The apron is a figure that usually falls between $6-7 million above the luxury tax line. When a team acquires a player through a sign-and-trade, that team is not allowed to spend above the apron for any reason until the following league year. The projected tax line next season is $145 million.
Now, let's tie these figures together. For Philadelphia to acquire Harden through a sign-and-trade, it would have to agree to remain below a line set roughly at $152 million. Right now, aside from Simmons, it has $97.4 million on its books. Adding Harden to the mix boosts that number up to around $144 million, assuming the 76ers did not add one of those eight other players currently under contract to the deal and instead matched money on Harden by sending out only Simmons and a currently non-guaranteed filler salary (let's say Milton at $2 million).
At this point, the 76ers would have around $8 million left beneath the apron… to fill a minimum of six roster spots. The veteran's minimum salary for next season is projected to come in at around $1.8 million. Six of them would come in at almost $11 million, meaning Philadelphia would need to mix in a few undrafted rookies making their lower minimum salary of around $1 million just to squeeze under the line.
The mid-level exception would likely be unusable given those hard-cap constraints. Trading would also be extremely difficult, assuming the 76ers couldn't find a taker for Harris. Curry's $8.5 million salary could fetch an interesting return, but even if other teams were prepared to make strong offers for players like Thybulle ($4.4 million) and Maxey ($2.7 million), such offers would likely involve players too expensive for the 76ers to absorb. The combination of Harden ($46.5 million), Harris ($37.6 million) and Joel Embiid ($33.6 million) would combine to take up more than 75 percent of their room beneath the hard cap. Building an entire supporting cast on around $35 million isn't necessarily impossible, especially with Maxey, Thybulle and Curry on value contracts, but it would be an uphill battle to say the least.
This restriction lasts only a single year, but it's worth asking how much that should really matter to the 76ers given Harden's decline this season. Winning a championship with him at the age of 33 sounds daunting enough. They can't afford to wait until he turns 34 to get the supporting cast right.
There are some possible pivots here. Perhaps the 76ers could trade Harris for a number of cheaper role players. Maybe they could send some extra salary to Brooklyn or a third party, though it's not as though there would be any bad money left on their books aside from Harris. Maybe Harden would leave a few bucks on the table for the sake of building a winner. Regardless, the hard cap presents a very real obstacle to Philadelphia building a championship-caliber team around Harden and Embiid.
So… is there a way the 76ers can get Harden without hard-capping themselves?
There are two ways that Philadelphia could land Harden without creating the hard cap constraint. The first is hardly worth discussing. If the 76ers could trade for Harden now, during the season, they could simply re-sign him in the offseason using his Bird Rights without triggering a hard cap. Brooklyn does not appear remotely interested in such a move at the moment, so we'll move on to the second path.
If the 76ers can create the cap space to sign Harden as a free agent outright, they won't need to trigger a hard cap through a sign-and-trade. Of course, creating the necessary cap space would be almost impossible. The projected cap for next season is $119 million. Philadelphia would be starting well above $130 million in guaranteed salary, and would therefore need to lop off more than $60 million to get in range for Harden. Doing so is probably unrealistic, but there's one narrow path that is theoretically available if this is an approach they are at all interested in exploring.
The Thunder have the capacity to create almost $34 million in cap space right now. That's enough to absorb Tobias Harris with only a token expiring salary sent back to Philadelphia. This is obviously a service the Thunder are not going to be interested in providing cheaply, and the 76ers ironically already owe them a first-round pick. A starting point for negotiations here might be Philadelphia's 2022 pick, plus something else of value in the future. Perhaps the 76ers could remove the protections on the 2025 pick they owe the Thunder so that they could send them another selection in 2027 or 2028. No matter the possible value, taking the two years and roughly $75 million left on the Harris deal beyond this season would be steep even for the Thunder.
But if Philadelphia could pull it off, it would be within striking distance. The next and most important step would be trading Simmons to a team with enough cap space to absorb him during the offseason in exchange for draft picks. Doing so will be more difficult than it might seem. Only three teams are currently slated to have significant cap space this summer: the Spurs, Pistons and Magic. The first two have reportedly expressed interest in Simmons, though, so a deal centered around several choices would likely be feasible assuming those teams could make the money work (perhaps with the help of a third party).
Such cap maneuvering would be almost unheard of in a practical sense. Philadelphia wouldn't give up the draft capital necessary to get off of the Harris contract in the middle of a season Simmons is not participating in, and they almost certainly wouldn't compromise on a Simmons deal purely for the sake of creating cap space either. Even if Philadelphia was eager to try this route, the Thunder might not be willing to take on Harris. They did a good job rehabilitating veterans like Chris Paul and Al Horford so that they could be traded for value, but adding the Harris deal would push them dangerously close to the tax next season with a mountain of dead money for Kemba Walker still on their books and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander starting a max contract extension.
However, in this fantasy scenario in which the 76ers have managed to trade Harris and Simmons without taking on any long-term money, they would create enough space to sign Harden outright.
Incomplete roster charges (x5)
Projected cap space
This plan, which is, again, preposterously unlikely, would leave the 76ers not only enough room to sign Harden outright, but enough leftover to potentially make another move as well. Perhaps they'd keep Danny Green, or package his salary with Curry's and some of the picks netted in a Simmons deal for another major piece. If the 76ers could pull this series of moves off, it would probably be preferable. It would allow them to get Harden without giving the rival-Nets another All-Star, and in the process, it would net them their preferred star duo without plunging themselves deep into the tax.
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Do the 76ers really have a chance to get James Harden?
Let's throw out the cap space scenario here and now. It's not happening. If the 76ers are going to get James Harden, it is going to come through a sign-and-trade, and if the Nets are open to cooperating on that sign-and-trade? Then Philadelphia can do this. It would require some gymnastics through the hard cap, but it's doable.
But now we have to leave Morey's fantasy world and address the reality that is probably going to prevent this deal from happening. Even if Harden wants to go to Philadelphia, which he likely does not, he can't force the Nets to send him there. Typically, teams participate in sign-and-trades involving their star players because they know the alternative is losing those players for nothing. That's not happening with Harden.
There isn't a single NBA team slated to have enough cap space this offseason to sign Harden outright for anywhere near his max. Look at those expected cap space teams we mentioned above. Is Harden going to take a discount to join the Pistons, Magic or Spurs? Of course not. If he wants to earn a market-value contract, he needs to use the Bird Rights Brooklyn currently holds on him. If the Nets don't want to trade him to Philadelphia, he's essentially forced to re-sign in Brooklyn or get dealt to another team more agreeable to them if he wants a max contract. Perhaps he could take a short-term deal and try to re-enter the market in 2023, but at that point, he would be entering his age-34 season and perhaps be unable to garner a max contract. He'd be taking a significant financial risk just to get off of Kevin Durant's team.
Does he seem particularly likely to do that? Probably not. The Nets might like Simmons enough to consider a trade, or they might think they can squeeze enough other stuff out of the 76ers to make it worth their while, but the fact remains that Harden almost certainly can't get to Philadelphia without Brooklyn's help. That's the roadblock that makes this a near impossibility. The odds of both Harden and the Nets deciding that they're ready for a breakup in June seem quite low, and the odds of Brooklyn willingly sending him to a division rival feel lower. Never say never in the modern NBA, but until the Nets have a real reason to participate in this sort of trade, it should be considered extremely unlikely.