Report: James Harden to decline option and enter free agency

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Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden looks to pass the ball during the first half of Game 3 of the team’s NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, April 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

One day after the Philadelphia 76ers dismissed head coach Doc Rivers, another major report has been announced, this time regarding James Harden.

According to Chris Haynes of TNT and Bleacher Report, sources have indicated that James Harden will decline his $35.6 million player option, becoming an unrestricted free agent. The 33-year-old guard will do so in hopes of securing a long-term deal.

Harden’s inconsistent season

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden grabs his head after a collision against the Boston Celtics during the second half of Game 2 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It was a season of highs and lows for Harden, as he averaged 21.0 points and 6.1 rebounds while leading the league in assists (10.7) and averaging a near-career-high in three-point percentage (38.5%). Despite those impressive numbers, the future Hall of Famer was not named an All-Star and was not named to an All-NBA team.

The peaks and valleys of Harden’s season continued in the postseason, where he averaged 20.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 8.3 assists. While his performances in Games 1 and 4 of the second round, where he scored a combined 87 points, certainly stood out, it was a matter of inconsistency as he averaged just 13.4 points over the other five games of the series.

What is he searching for?

Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden, center front, reacts after scoring past Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown (7) during overtime of Game 4 in an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Now with the 2022-23 season behind him, Harden is looking forward, specifically to landing a major payday this offseason.

According to Haynes, the contract he is seeking is four years in length, the maximum any team can give him — including the Sixers.

Harden notably took a sizeable pay cut last season in order to assist the team round out the roster with veterans P.J. Tucker and Danuel House. That does not appear to be on the table again.

The Houston Rockets have been at the forefront of the conversation in terms of teams who will attempt to lure Harden away from Philadelphia. Boasting a sense of familiarity and the open cap space to sign him outright, it’s understandable to entertain the idea. According to Haynes’ sources, however, Harden has made it clear that he only intends on joining a team that is competitive.

One other requirement Harden is reported to have is that he wants “the basketball freedom for [Harden] to be himself.” What exactly that entails, no one can say for certain, but it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest a familiar coach, Mike D’Antoni, for instance, would give him the freedom he’s searching for.

Who can offer him what he’s looking for?

Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) greets fans after Game 4 in an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Sixers certainly remain at the top of potential teams to sign Harden, given the fact that the team owns his bird rights, boasts a competitive roster, and currently has a head coaching vacancy. In addition, the Phoenix Suns could potentially be a landing spot for Harden.

Having been connected to Phoenix earlier this week, per Brian Geltzeiler, certain aspects of the idea do add up. The Suns are looking to make major changes, including changes to the point guard position, they also have a head coaching vacancy, and Kevin Durant and Harden have patched up their difference, restoring their relationship.

The difficulty with Phoenix clearly lies in the lack of financial flexibility, a matter that could potentially be solved via sign-and-trade, but that is much easier said than done. This is especially true as Haynes, in the same report, stated that the Suns are expected to guarantee Chris Paul’s salary, and at least open the season with him running the offense at the start of next season.

The Houston Rockets should not be overlooked either, however, as, while they are not currently competitive, they have the assets to speed up the process, especially if they are able to sign Harden outright. With a bevy of picks and prospects, Harden, and another star (or two) could find themselves Houston-bound.