76ers face an uncertain future with Harden and Harris deals up in the air

Philadelphia 76ers' Tobias Harris plays during the first half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

FILE -Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) calls to teammates during the first half of Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Boston. James Harden might have side-eyed questions, much like he did in a playful reaction to a question in his Houston days, about his future with the Philadelphia 76ers. Will Harden return to the 76ers for a third season? (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

PHILADELPHIA — James Harden might have side-eyed questions this week — much like he did in a playful reaction in his Houston days — about his future with the Philadelphia 76ers.

But the issue is real in Philly: Will Harden return to the 76ers for a third season?


All signs point to Harden declining his $35.6 million option on Thursday and entering this summer as an unrestricted free agent. That leaves the 2018 NBA MVP and 10-time All-Star free to sign with any team.

A return to the Rockets? Perhaps, if he prioritizes cash over a championship chase. The 76ers? Depends. Does Harden really enjoy playing as the second option to NBA MVP Joel Embiid?

Plan C?

Harden might not have planned much beyond a potential Houston reunion or Sixers return. Philadelphia has the home-contract edge: The 76ers have the right to offer Harden a $210 million, four-year deal, $8 million more overall than any other team.

Houston, though, where Harden blossomed into a surefire Hall of Famer is a city that still tugs at his heart. Nick Nurse, hired earlier this month to replace Doc Rivers as coach of the 76ers, wants a shot at coaching Harden.

“James has a decision to make, and I’d be very happy if he came back,” Nurse said when he was hired.

Tobias Harris, himself in a bit of a contract quandary this summer, also stumped for a Harden return as he grabbed rebounds and posed for selfies with children Tuesday at a Fanatics promotion.

“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.”

Harden, who turns 34 in August, played the last few months with nagging left Achilles soreness and flashed only glimpses of his Houston prime. He scored 45 points in Game 1 and 42 in Game 4 victories of the Eastern Conference semifinal loss against Boston, and was 0 for 6 on 3s in Game 2 and Game 6 losses. He scored only nine points in Game 7, and that included going scoreless in the second half.

Stuck in the muck of salary cap restrictions, the 76ers have few real options to replace Harden should he sign elsewhere. Not only that, the Sixers are fielding trade offers for Harris, who enters the final season of a $180-million, five-year contract. Harris averaged 14.7 points last season, well behind NBA scoring champ Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey.

Torrel Harris, Tobias Harris’ father and agent, blasted the way the 76ers have used Harris since 2018 and said on the “Business of Sports” podcast his son was an “assassin scorer.”

“I mean, they can’t stop him,” Torrel Harris said on the podcast. “Nobody in the league can stop him. So he’s proven that over his career, even when he was with the Clippers.”

Harris has the all-important expiring contract that the 76ers can dangle as trade bait. While his dad believed Harris is still a prime scorer, the 76ers forward wants to put a freeze on public negotiations.

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