James Harden sounds more mature this offseason than he did a decade ago when he wanted to be paid like the top option instead of as the league’s highest-paid sixth man. This version of Harden plays like a sixth man and sounds more concerned with getting the Sixers bench unit properly compensated too. Reportedly, he and the Sixers are putting the finishing touches on a two-year contract, with a player option next summer. The particulars of the contract are still being negotiated, but it would clip Harden’s earning potential by $15 million.
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports’ NBA insider Chris Haynes, Harden confirmed that he was taking a team-friendly deal in the name of a championship.
“I had conversations with Daryl, and it was explained how we could get better and what the market value was for certain players. I told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “This is how bad I want to win. I want to compete for a championship. That’s all that matters to me at this stage. I’m willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that.”
Since Harden opted out, the Sixers have signed P.J. Tucker, Harden’s long-time teammate in Houston to a three-year $33 million contract. Danuel House, another former Rocket, accepted a two-year, $8.5 million contract and Morey traded for De’Anthony Melton. The 76ers gave up most of their supporting cast for Harden, so it’s got to be a relief to see them plugging in their roster holes.
Harden hasn’t been back to a Finals since the Thunder’s 2012 loss to Miami. There’s no excuse not to give Boston a run for its money in the East. However, this wasn’t a selfless act to establish a winning culture. Harden has to rehabilitate his game and his reputation. Harden spun his “too little too late” act of selflessness into an impressive PR campaign through Haynes’ bullhorn, but let’s be real. After he spent his first season in Philly resembling Black Santa on the court — he also got schooled by Jimmy Butler in the postseason — a five-year, $270 million max contract was never an option.
That five-year deal would have paid him $60 million in his age-37 season. How would that look in three years when he was deteriorating like an avocado on the sidewalk last season. The risk/reward was too high. In the postseason, Harden moved like a sloth and logged 18.2 points, 7.0 assists, and 6.3 boards on 38 percent shooting from the field during Philly’s second-round loss to the Miami Heat. Harden blamed his lousy play on his inability to adapt quickly to the 76ers.
“If anybody else had those numbers, we’d be talking about them getting the max. People were used to seeing me averaging 40, 30 points, and so they viewed it as a down year. I was in Philadelphia for a couple of months and I had to learn on the fly,” Harden explained to Haynes. “That’s just what it was. I’m in a good space physically and mentally right now, and I’m just looking forward to next season.”
Next offseason though, title or not, Harden is going to want to collect on his final big contract. If Harden learned anything from Chris Paul during their frustratingly brief partnership in Houston, it’s how to play the money game. After a tough spell in Houston, Paul’s prospects for a final big payday were diminished by the NBA’s”over 36 rule,” which prevented teams without Bird Rights from offering a four-year contract to players who will turn 36 years old during the course of their contract. As NBPA president, Paul negotiated for that rule to be adjusted to the “over-38” rule, which allowed Paul to sign a four-year extension in the 2018 offseason.
Harden is looking for a similar financial parachute from somebody when he’s 34, but that deal couldn’t be justified this offseason. However, the motives for Harden’s generosity are moot. If Harden was motivated to chase Benjamins in the summer of 2019, then hopefully it will motivate him to arrive at training camp in mid-season form rather than him working the weight off. In contract years, it’s standard protocol to put your best foot forward. An unmotivated Harden is one of the laziest sights in sports. Anything that will spark an impassive Harden in the postseason would prevent a reboot around Embiid sans Harden and take Philly fans off the ledge.