James Harden will open the 2023-2024 season on an expiring contract that pays him $35,640,000 for a year of work. Harden, on the brink of his 34th birthday, will be the 28th highest paid player in the NBA at that number. He will earn less money next season than C.J. McCollum, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Fred VanVleet, just to name a few.
Harden’s dissatisfaction with the Philadelphia 76ers and subsequent trade request all come back to that contract. Harden believed the Sixers would reward him with a long-term deal after he took a $15 million pay cut last season to allow Philly to sign role players P.J. Tucker and Danuel House in free agency. Any sort of agreement that would have Harden take less now for more in the future is strictly prohibited by league rules, but it isn’t hard to connect the dots as Harden went viral again this week for repeatedly calling Sixers president Daryl Morey a liar during a trip to China.
Harden didn’t just leave $15 million on the table in an attempt to help his team, though. Harden had every opportunity to lock in at a number that would have made him the NBA’s highest paid player. He chose to turn it down.
The Brooklyn Nets reportedly offered Harden a three-year, $161 million extension ahead of the 2021-2022 season. Harden turned it down in part because he would be eligible to sign a four-year, $227 million offer the next summer.
Everyone knows what happened next:
- Harden grew frustrated in Brooklyn the next season, in part because Kyrie Irving was mostly held out of the lineup for refusing to get the Covid vaccine.
- Harden started to distance himself from the Nets, taking multiple personal trips to party during the season, according to Bleacher Report.
- Harden essentially pushed his way to Philadelphia, where he was traded for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and a future draft pick.
The Sixers were eliminated in the second round by the Miami Heat in Harden’s first season. After the year, Harden opted out of his $47.3 million player option. He ultimately signed a two-year deal that paid him $33 million in the first season with a player option on year No. 2.
Harden said he took less money to help the Sixers win, but he never seemed happy about it. From the start of last season, there were rumors that Harden was seeking to get his max contract from the Houston Rockets, the team where he became a perennial MVP candidate earlier in his career. The Rockets might have gone for it … until they signed Ime Udoka as head coach. Udoka reportedly did not want Harden on the team, and instead Houston gave out big money contracts to VanVleet and Dillon Brooks.
After another second round playoff loss this past season to the Boston Celtics, the Sixers came to the conclusion that Harden wasn’t a good enough co-star for Joel Embiid long-term. Harden opted into his player option for this year and demanded a trade, only because he knew there wasn’t a max deal out there for him once Houston went in a different direction.
Harden turning down the Nets’ initial max extension makes him a rarity in today’s NBA. Usually, the player takes the money, and then asks for a trade to a new home. Maybe Harden already knew he didn’t want to be in Brooklyn. Maybe it really was all about getting up to the $227 million max number a year later. Either way, between the time Harden declined the extension and now, the entire NBA agreed that he’s no longer a max player.
Bradley Beal took the money from the Wizards, got traded to Phoenix (in part because he negotiated a no-trade clause and got to pick his destination), and will be under contract through 2026-2027 when he has a $57.1 million player option. Damian Lillard took the money from Portland, and is under contract through 2027 with a $63.2 million option in the final year. Karl-Anthony Towns, who feels like he’s been in trade rumors most of his career, also took the money from the Minnesota Timberwolves, and will be under contract through 2028, where he’ll earn $61 million on a player option.
It’s easy to see why Harden’s so upset right now: He played himself thinking teams would always consider him a max player even as he got older. As he slipped from superstar to All-Star, every team out there decided he wasn’t worth that type of contract.
Morey somehow got exactly what he wanted out of Harden: a star guard who would take less money to play with Joel Embiid and allow the team to add more pieces. When Harden’s deal expires next summer, the Sixers will be equipped with two near-max salary slots where they will hope to lure a top veteran free agent to play with Embiid.
Of course, Harden is trying to sabotage the whole thing right now and take Embiid down with him. Harden and Morey’s personal relationship, once so great, seems like it’s finished. Harden only has himself to blame.