The 76ers have a huge James Harden problem, but what’s the solution?

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Sixers, PJ Tucker, James Harden
Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) advances the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

At the top of the list of difficult conversations for the Sixers to have this offseason is what to do with James Harden. The Sixers have once again failed to clear the second-round hurdle that has continually tripped them up. For the sixth consecutive season in the Joel Embiid Era, the team has made it to the playoffs only to be sent packing in the second round or earlier. There have been 19 different NBA franchises to make it to a Conference Finals during the Embiid era, but the Philadelphia 76ers have not been one of them.

The franchise now sits at a frustrating and concerning point where it is unclear what the next steps will be. After taking such a drastic path to avoid basketball purgatory, they sit staring it in the face again.

While the assets are thin and cap space is limited, it is clear the current roster has not been enough to reach the heights the team desires. Before the Sixers can take a definitive step forward, they now have to work out what the future holds for James Harden.

James Harden’s Sixers Tenure

James Harden played 102 total games in a Sixers uniform between the past two regular seasons and playoffs. There were moments where he looked like the ideal missing piece and co-star to Embiid, but also moments where he looked shockingly similar to the guy that was shipped off in order to bring Harden in following his Sixers flameout.

Even in the sorrows that Sixers fans currently find themselves in, the flashes from James Harden cannot be ignored. He put forth a 45-point performance in Game 1 of the most recent series and led the Sixers to a victory in Boston while Embiid recovered from his knee issue. Harden also followed this up with a game-winning three-pointer and 42-point performance in Game 4.

James harden
Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden reacts to a foul called on him during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Thursday, April 20, 2023, in New York. After review, he was given a flagrant foul two, and ejected from the game. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

While the lows also cannot be overlooked, this stretch of dominant play is the most production of any Sixers player in the postseason in decades. Even Jimmy Butler, who is quick to be the salt thrown in Sixers fans’ wounds at every opportunity, did not reach these postseason heights in Philadelphia.

However, Harden also managed to have five other games in which he played so poorly that those dominant performances are nearly forgettable. Shooting just 25.4% (16-63 FGA) from the field and 15.4% (4-26) from beyond the three-point arc while averaging just 13.4 points in the other five games is impossible to ignore.

James Harden is exactly who he is at this point in his NBA career. The 10-time All-Star has been recognized as one of the top 75 players to ever play the sport. He has played a key role in Joel Embiid’s ascension to his MVP form, played a massive role in Tyrese Maxey’s development, and been the point guard the Sixers needed to run the offense.

James harden
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, left, drives between Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden and Tyrese Maxey (0) during the first half of Game 2 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

However, he is not the guy a franchise should have much confidence in for getting them over the championship hurdle. Harden is 85-74 all-time in the postseason and, while his playoff shortcomings are sometimes overstated, has not been back to the Finals since 2012. The three-time scoring champ cited his desire for postseason success as the driving force of what brought him to Philadelphia, but a championship remains the biggest gap in his basketball resume.

At 33 years old, Harden is not getting any younger. The signs of regression in his burst are there and his best basketball is surely in his rearview mirror. Harden seems to have his sights set on a long-term deal and it is fair to be pessimistic about what he will look like at the end of this deal.

Sixers Other Options

The biggest holdup from allowing James Harden is that there is not a clear path to improving without him. Assuming he opts out of his $35.6 million player option, which has been the expectation since he agreed to the deal, Harden will be the most marquee free agent on the market. Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Khris Middleton, Jerami Grant, and Fred VanVleet make up the biggest list of available names outside of Harden.

Per Spotrac, the Sixers are already about $28 million over the salary cap. They have been calculated to have just under $12 million in maximum cap space and some new adjustments to the CBA that will come into effect limiting the Sixers in the future. Philadelphia already has $117.1 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season with the salary cap projected at $134 million. Giving Harden his desired max contract would already push the Sixers over the $162 million luxury-tax line and this is without making any other moves to improve a team that has proven not to be championship-caliber.

The bottom line is the Sixers lack the money to make a splash outside of James Harden and hand-tie themselves even further if they hand the aging all-star a significant deal. Add in the reports of Harden’s unwillingness to return if Doc Rivers and signs are pointing toward his return. Rivers has plenty of postseason demons of his own, but him being fired the day after this report should be noted.

Looking at the betting odds for Harden’s next team and there seems to be weight to the reports of other locations. Per the Sixers are the favorite at +150 to be the team who signs Harden, but the Rockets are not far behind at +300. Giving him some say in the next head coach could change Harden’s outlook, but the Sixers would also be fully committing to the Rockets rebrand which is often joked about.

James Harden
Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden, right, tries to get past Cleveland Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Could the Grass be Greener without Harden?

While the outlook of the Sixers may be more grim than it has ever been in The Process era, the Sixers goal is still to win a championship. With the reigning MVP on roster, a rising star in Tyrese Maxey, and limited draft capital in the future, the franchise has no choice but to retool and continue attempting to get over the hump.

There simply may not be a better option than hoping Harden has a few more 40+ point performances in the tank. Ensuring there is some flexibility in the future to get off of Harden’s deal is vital. But the conclusion that the devil we know may be better than the devil we don’t should be settling in for Sixers fans.

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez