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With James Harden rumors swirling, enjoy these Sixers while you still can

Angst seems to be at an all-time high on Sixers Twitter as of late. Between recent losses to the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks and the steady stream of rumors suggesting James Harden might leave this summer to sign with the Houston Rockets in free agency, it’s hard to blame any fan for feeling frustrated.

This season is likely to end with another second-round playoff exit (at best), which would raise some existential questions about the long-term viability of this core. Harden’s future might not be the only painful decision that the Sixers have to confront this offseason.

That’s why, as aggravating as this year’s Sixers might be at times, you should try to enjoy these next few months. If anything, the gap between them and the other top title contenders is only likely to widen after this season, regardless of what Harden decides to do this summer.

The Sixers already have $117.1 million of salary on their books for next season with only seven players under contract. If Danuel House Jr. ($4.3 million) and Montrezl Harrell ($2.8 million) pick up their respective player options for next season, that would push the total payroll to roughly $124 million. Next year’s salary cap is currently projected to be $134 million.

Even if Harden walks, the Sixers would have only minimal cap space if they renounced the rest of their free agents (Shake Milton, Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Paul Reed), along with the $5.9 million room mid-level exception. Regardless of what Harden decides to do, it would thus behoove them to operate as an over-the-cap team using their remaining free agents’ cap holds.

If the Sixers do re-sign Harden, they’ll likely be bumping up against the projected $162 million luxury-tax threshold. (Ah, yes. The luxury tax. Everyone’s favorite topic.) They do have Bird rights on Milton, McDaniels and Reed and Early Bird rights on Niang, which means they can exceed the salary cap to re-sign any/all of them. But the cost of doing so could become prohibitively expensive depending on their respective asking prices.

That’s among the reasons why the Sixers were motivated to get under the tax line this season. (It wasn’t just to have the NBA cut an eight-figure check to Josh Harris.) By pushing back the clock on the repeater tax by a year, they maximized their ability to re-sign their free agents this offseason without going into unprecedented tax territory.

This is typically where someone rebuts with “I don’t care, it’s not my money. The Sixers owners should just pay up.” Which, sure. In a perfect world, the billionaires who own NBA teams would have an unlimited reservoir of money that they’re willing to devote to luxury-tax payments. However, that is not the world in which we operate.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers opted not to re-sign Alex Caruso, a key reserve on their 2019-20 championship team, for luxury-tax reasons. (They have since been routinely excoriated for that decision.) Last year, fresh off their fourth championship in eight years, the Golden State Warriors did the exact same thing with Gary Payton II. They proceeded to trade James Wiseman, whom they selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, to reacquire Payton ahead of this year’s trade deadline.

“There are limits,” Warriors majority governor Joe Lacob told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic last July. “I’m not going to say what they are, but there are limits to what you can do.”

In other words: Even if the Sixers re-sign Harden this offseason, they’re likely to lose some combination of Milton, Niang, McDaniels and Reed unless the free-agent market is unexpectedly harsh to all four of them. They’ll only have the $7.0 million taxpayer mid-level exception to add external help, too. They also don’t have a single pick in this year’s draft, as they traded their first-rounder away to acquire Harden in February 2022, and the NBA stripped their second-rounder for tampering with P.J. Tucker last offseason.

In all likelihood, the Sixers’ supporting cast will be worse next year. The Milwaukee Bucks are facing a similarly pivotal offseason—Brook Lopez will be an unrestricted free agent, and Khris Middleton can join him by declining his $40.4 million player option for the 2023-24 season—but Grant Williams is the Boston Celtics’ only rotation player set to become a free agent this summer. The Celtics might be even better next year than they are this season, which is the single most painful sentence I have ever typed on this website.

So, yes, it’s fair game to pull your hair out every time Doc Rivers trots out an all-bench lineup or Tobias Harris passes up a wide-open catch-and-shoot three-pointer. The Sixers still have real questions to answer about Tyrese Maxey’s optimal role and whether they can avoid getting blown off the floor whenever Joel Embiid needs a breather. All of those are legitimate concerns worth discussing over the next month-plus.

But before bemoaning this team for the umpteenth time this season, just remember—it’s likely to only get worse from here. As terrifying as it is to say, this might be the best it gets for the remainder of Embiid’s tenure in Philadelphia, however long that ends up being.

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