James Harden picked up his $35.6 million contract option for next season with the Philadelphia 76ers, with the franchise exploring trades to move the veteran scorer, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press.
Harden informed the 76ers of his choice Thursday ahead of the 5 p.m. deadline to pick up the option, according to the person who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the decision was not made public.
The 33-year-old Harden could have declined the option and decided to try for free agency. The Sixers had the right to offer him a $210 million, four-year deal, $8 million more overall than any other team.
But the person who talked to the AP on anonymity Thursday said it while it wasn’t definite Harden would be traded, the player nicknamed The Beard expressed a desire to win a championship — which he has yet to do in his career that dates to his 2009 rookie season — in Philadelphia or with another contender.
The 76ers, per league rules, could not talk contract with Harden’s representatives before Friday and they were set to abide by the terms after they were found guilty of tampering last offseason and ultimately stripped of second-round draft picks.
The stage, though, seems set for yet another blockbuster Harden trade after he forced his way out of Houston and Brooklyn.
Nick Nurse, hired last month as Philadelphia’s coach, has stumped for Harden’s return.
“James has a decision to make, and I’d be very happy if he came back,” Nurse said this month.
Sixers forward Tobias Harris, himself in a bit of a contract quandary this summer and a perfect package fit in a Harden trade, said this week he wanted Harden back on the team.
“There’s not many guys that can go out and drop 40 in a playoff game. I think that goes under the radar a little bit too much,” Harris said. “I think James is a phenomenal player, somebody who works his tail off, and somebody’s who’s an overall great leader. Of course I want him back.”
But it appears playing as the second option behind NBA MVP Joel Embiid and chasing a championship in Philly is no longer seriously on the table.
Harden led the NBA in assists last season with 10.7 per game but it was his wildly fluctuating offense that frustrated Sixers fans and helped doom them in the Eastern Conference second-round loss to Boston.
Harden, acquired at the 2022 trade deadline from Brooklyn for Ben Simmons, scored 45 points in Game 1 and 42 in Game 4 victories against the Celtics. Harden, who turns 34 in August, and was 0 for 6 on 3s in Game 2 and Game 6 losses. He scored only nine points in Game 7, and he went scoreless in the second half.
Harden blossomed into an insolation superstar in Houston but has largely deferred to Embiid with the Sixers.
Team president Daryl Morey, who traded to bring Harden to Houston a decade ago, needs to get a big return in any deal with the Sixers in win-now mode. The Sixers have limited salary cap space, making it all but impossible to sign a quality free agent, especially one with Harden’s pedigree.
So now they’ll look to get assets in a deal — a common factor in Harden’s career. If Harden is traded, per NBA rules, he would have to play under his 2023-24 contract and would not be eligible for free agency until next season.
Harden is a 10-time All-Star but essentially forced his way with trades out of Houston and Brooklyn.
The Rockets traded Harden to the Nets in January 2021 where he was expected to form a championship trio with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. When the Big 3 fizzled, Harden was sent a year later to the Sixers for the disgruntled Simmons.
Harden declined his $47.4 million player option with the 76ers for last season and instead agreed to a two-year deal that will paid him $32 million in 2022-23. It included a player option for this coming season. He opted out of an old deal ahead of last season to stay with the 76ers and made about $14.5 million less last season than he could have earned under his previous contract.
The seven-time All-NBA player is a member of the league’s 75th anniversary team.
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